through the wardrobe

Monday, April 04, 2016

your body and the Body

I just read an article about a recent, anonymous blog post written by an ordained United Methodist clergywoman arguing for universal access to birth control. That's not why people are reacting to the blog post, though - there are countless UM pastors who would like to see universal access to birth control. What's drawn attention to her post is her personal story:

I chose to go on birth control because I didn't want to get pregnant and I wanted to have sex. Because I am a clergy woman in The United Methodist Church, and I'm single, that information could get me brought up on charges, and I could lose my ordination.  

When one is ordained in the UMC, he or she take a vow that includes, among other things, a commitment to either fidelity in marriage or celibacy in singleness, whichever is relevant. Breaking one's clergy covenant is serious business. Hence the anonymous post.

The post is followed up be a long series of comments, most of which are supportive of the author.

"She was very brave to write this." (I don't doubt it.)

"It's ridiculous that she has to hide behind anonymity."

"My fiancée and I are doing the same thing!"

"The people passing judgment on you are hypocrites."

"No one makes a fuss when men are having premarital sex."*

"What you do with your body is no one's business but your own."

This last sentiment was tossed around a few times, and it's something you hear every time any question of Christian sexual ethics comes up: what goes on in your bedroom is only between you and the other individual there with you; it's nobody else's concern. As the anonymous blogger puts it, "I'm very grateful... that I don't have to justify my [birth control] prescriptions to my bishop. I don't think it is any of his business."

The problem is, for a Christian, that's simply not true. That's because Christians all are united in one Body (1 Cor 12:12ff); we are members of one another (Eph 4:25). And if you're a Christian that has implications for your sexuality.

In 1 Corinthians chapter 6, Paul is addressing a rather awkward problem in the church at Corinth: apparently some of the members have been caught spending time with prostitutes. And not like Jesus did. So Paul writes explaining why this is beyond the pale for followers of Jesus:

15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’ 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

Your body is a "member" of Christ, and so what you do with your body, you do with Jesus' body. Jesus, who refrained for sexual pleasures in life, whose body was torn apart for us, he is entangled in your sexual activities. Because your body isn't first and foremost yours; it's his.
And, by extension, as members of one another, as members together in the Body of Christ, the other members of the Church are also entangled in our sexual activities.

In the US today - elsewhere too, I'm sure, but certainly in the US - we love to assert our freedom, our personal liberties, our privacy, but (however desirable those things may be) these are fundamentally American assertions, not Christian ones. "For the body does not consist of one member but of many" (1 Cor 12:14), and Jesus is the head (Col 1:18). When we say, what I do in the bedroom is my business, we're saying "I am my own." But Paul says "you are not your own." Jesus bought you at a price. You belong to him; you are a part of his Body.

And so Christians - ministers! - can't sit there and complain that other believers are paying attention to how they live. Christianity is not a religion of autonomous individuals! It's a Body-faith that affects what we may do with our bodies. If that seems repressive to you or like an infringement on your rights, you might want to look into other avenues of spiritual expression, besides Christianity. Or you may need to sit down with the New Testament and see if there aren't aspects of this faith that you hadn't seen and appropriated before.

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* If this is true, it needs to be rectified now - not only because it's unjust to the women, but also because the men need to be held accountable. But I personally can't speak to the claims of a double standard here. I just don't pay enough attention to cases where clergy are brought up on charges or suspended or lose their credentials for this or that. What I can say is that I wasn't having sex before I was married, and I expect the same from all of my male and female colleagues in ministry.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Superman, Easter, and Hope

Easter Sunday morning I preached on how the resurrection of Jesus redefines the word "hope" for Christians: hope means that even when the very worst has already happened - on Friday Jesus was dead! - God has the power to heal and restore and renew - on Sunday Jesus was alive. In other words, in Christ, we can have hope in any situation, no matter how broken, no matter how final. It's never too late for God to save the day. And Jesus is the living embodiment of that hope.
 
I compared Jesus that morning to Superman in Grant Morrison's classic story, All-Star Superman. In the story, Superman is the living embodiment of hope. He's saved the world so many times, defeated so many enemies, that when you see him you know that there's hope, that everything's going to be alright. As they've said in recent Superman films, the big 'S' on his chest is actually a symbol from the planet Krypton: it means hope
 
I wanted to share the scene from All-Star Superman I described in the sermon, because I think it's powerful (click to enlarge):


The writer is imagining a world where there's such a hope that even suicidal despair can look on it and take heart and hold on to life.
 
The difference between Jesus and Superman is that Metropolis and the events there are fictional; Galilee, Jerusalem, Golgotha, and those events are not. Jesus actually did all of these incredible things - actually rose again! - and he did them in the middle of the real world. And so we have this hope as an anchor for our souls (Heb 6:19) in the real world, with all of it's brokenness and suffering.
 
I've been trying to remind myself of this ever since I read about the suicide bombing in Pakistan on Easter. The resurrection of Jesus means that no matter how it looks, no matter how many grisly acts of terror murderous extremists perpetrate, we are actually living in that world where there's hope. It must have looked pretty grim, pretty bleak, pretty hopeless to Mary Magdalene, weeping over Rome's bloody handiwork in the garden that Sunday morning... but then she heard Hope call her name: "Mary."
 
"Reagan."
 
Because God raised Jesus from the dead, we always have hope that things will be alright. If not now... one day. In the meantime, all we can do is look on him, our risen Lord, the living embodiment of our hope, and hold on.

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Monday, February 29, 2016

the suffering of Christ



Yesterday in worship I preached on God's faithfulness in suffering. The faithfulness that Thomas Dorsey experienced when he wrote "Precious Lord, Take My Hand"; the faithfulness that the apostle Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 10:13: "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it." Many people have encountered God's presence and power for endurance right in the middle of their pain and suffering.

Then this morning I was reading in Consuming Fire, a 365-day devotional version of George MacDonald's classic Unspoken Sermons, and MacDonald turned to the topic of Jesus's suffering on the cross.

It is with the holiest fear that we should approach the terrible fact of the sufferings of our Lord. Let no one think that those were less because he was more... My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Never before had he been unable to see God beside him. Yet never was God nearer to him than now. He could not see, could not feel him near, and yet it is "My God" that he cries.

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

"little" sins

It often seems like we Christians like our sins big and in other people. Something you can point at. But, I think, more often than not, that's not how sin works. More often than not, sins are small, the kinds of things we can shrug off, that we can pretend we don't see anything wrong with. Oh, and most of the sins I see aren't someone else's - they're mine.

I've been thinking about some of the 'little sins' lately, the ones we do every day, ignoring the very real effect they have on our hearts.

1. Being obnoxious. People who follow Jesus are called to only speak what "is good for building up" and gives "grace to those who hear" (Eph 4:29). We're to be known for our gentleness (Phil 4:5), not our snark. We're called to love, and "love is not arrogant or rude" (1 Cor 13:4-5). Are our words building people up and giving grace, or are they accomplishing something very different? Words matter, even the little remarks.

2. Always having to get your way. 1 Corinthians 13, again, says it: love does not insist on its own way (13:5). Or, as Paul puts it elsewhere: consider others more important than yourself (Phil 2:3). That's the example of Jesus. Many of us don't think or care to give others consideration at all - much less to consider them more important than ourselves. And it might only be in little ways... but that doesn't mean we don't need to reorient our hearts.

3. Not listening. James said it pretty clearly: "Everyone [everyone!] must be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger" (1:19). I saw something of Facebook, that fount of all wisdom, recently that said one of the world's problems is people who listen to respond instead of listening to understand. We've probably all be on both ends of that. But what if Christians actually took time to hear people?

4. Always having to get the newest thing. This is a way of life in the United States. We're a nation of upgrades - upgrading our Kindles, our phones, our cars, our homes. Constantly. The biblical term for that hunger for the latest and the best and more is "coveting." One of the Ten Commandments is against coveting (Ex 20:17); according to Paul, covetousness is a form of idolatry (Col 3:5). Things can get a hold on our heats! (Isn't that what Jesus is saying in Matthew 6:21?)

Pastor Mike Slaughter recently asked, "instead of giving up chocolate this Lenten season, why not make a commitment to give up being a jerk?" Not a bad thought. If you want to give up something this season, why not pick one of those "little" things that is corrosive to our souls, that, if we did give it up for just 40 days, might bring some more joy into the lives of the people around us?

And at the end of 40 days, you may find you've developed some new, better, more faithful habits.

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Monday, February 01, 2016

Christians in the voting booth


If you are a dedicated church-goer and consider yourself a committed Christian, then your faith probably has a big impact on your politics. In fact, in the United States many of the hot-button political issues are the issues that are significant to Christians: you believe the Bible has something to say about abortion or marriage or refugees, and so you support candidates whose platforms, you feel, are in line with scripture. Following Jesus means I need to vote for [your candidate of choice here], and it's as simple as that.

Or is it?

Dr. Christena Cleveland (a recent addition to the faculty at my alma mater, Duke Div), in an article for Christianity Today, has some bad news for all of us Christian voters: it's really not that simple. Her piece, "All Christians Are Biased Voters," makes the point pretty clear: other factors, beyond your faith, influence your vote as well - factors like your personality, your race, and your life experiences. Studies show that people who otherwise you'd expect to have pretty similar views will diverge sharply along these lines. In other words, nobody, she argues, votes just what the Bibles says, just what Jesus teaches. There's more impacting our decisions than that.

As I was reading her story of teaching undergraduates about these factors that affect our politics (where students insisted, "come on, Dr. Cleveland, you have to admit that [my party’s] values best reflect the values of Jesus”), and as I read her description of our "bias blind spots," I found myself thinking, "sure, but I've thought through all this stuff, and my votes really do reflect Jesus' teachings!"

Keep telling yourself that, Nance.
The thing about a blind spot is, you can't see it. I can't see it.

We'd all like to think that, if people really read their Bibles, if people really prayed, if people really let the Spirit guide them, then they'd think like me, they'd vote like me. And during the long campaign season, it's easy to get frustrated with your fellow citizens and their positions ('how could anybody in their right mind support ____________??'). I think this is especially true on Facebook, where other perspectives can be pretty in-your-face: "Share if you think Donald Trump will make America great again!"; "Share if you think a woman's place is in the White House!"; and on, and on. We're all so sure that we're right, and they're wrong. We're voting the Christian way, and they're not.

Well I'm not going to tell you the 'Christian way' to vote. I'm starting to think I'm a little too biased for that.
But I can tell you one thing: during election season, especially on Facebook, we all have the choice between holier-than-thou and humility. And I think, in this case, there really is only one Christian response. 

For more on all of this, check out Dr. Cleveland's article (it's not long!): "All Christians Are Biased Voters."

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

learning the lingo: sanctification


"Sanctification" (also "sanctify") is one of those churchy words that you probably will never hear uttered more than 50 feet away from a steeple. It's supposed to be an especially important idea for Methodists, but what does it mean? If you're not fluent in churchese, you might not be clear on this. What's a preacher talking about when she talks about sanctification?

I happened on a nice definition earlier that I wanted to pass along. According to United Methodist bishop Scott Jones, in his book The Evangelistic Love of God and Neighbor, sanctification "is becoming the kind of person who fulfills the Great Commandments." Remember the Great Commandments? Jesus was asked what the single greatest commandment was in all the law, and he said, quoting the Old Testament:

'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

So sanctification, according to Jones, is becoming the kind of person who fulfills these two commandments, becoming the kind of person who loves God and loves your neighborsand loves yourself, since he says to 'love your neighbor as yourself'. The goal of sanctification, Bishop Jones says, is a life shaped by love: "One loves God, oneself, and others." (I personally believe you have to include the animals under 'others' or 'neighbors' here too.)

There are a lot of other ways you can talk about sanctification - usually people emphasize becoming holy, and "sanctify" does come from santcus, the Latin word for 'holy' - but to me, this is so simple and clear that it's hard to beat. Sanctification means becoming the kind of person who fulfills the Great Commandments, who loves God, himself, and others, whose life is shaped by love.

Now the bigger question, besides 'what does it mean?', is 'am I experiencing sanctification?' Am I growing into that person Jesus called me to be? Am I seeking opportunities to grow and to exercise my love for God, my love for others, and my love for myself?

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

David Bowie (1947-2016)

Sunday the news broke that musician, actor, and artist David Bowie passed away at age 69, after an 18 month battle with cancer. He had released a new album just last week, which now we know was a sort of parting gift from the music legend.

My wife, Emily, is a devoted Bowie fan and has been since before I met her. (She ordered his new album a few weeks back, and it should come in this week, though the listening experience will be very different now.) I had never really listened to his music until we were married. I'm still no connoisseur, but now I do get excited anytime I hear "Heroes" and "Modern Love," and I appreciate a good parody. I would say that, to me, his greatest work is the film The Prestige... if it weren't for "Under Pressure."

Bowie and Freddy Mercury wrote and recorded "Under Pressure" together in 1981. I know it's probably cliché, but this is my favorite Bowie song, and here is a chilling isolated vocal track of the song (apologies to the rest of Queen!) that I wanted to share in honor of, well, both of these men. What music.



"Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night, and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves. This is our last dance..."

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