Holy Love: Covenant

The third vantage point for seeing the hermeneutic of holy love is the Covenant.  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we say “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  This is the creator/creation congruence we have looked at in the past two posts.  But that congruence raises the question, “How can we tell when the will of God is being done on earth?”  The answer is found in one word: Covenant. [1]

In the book I explore Covenant in various ways.  In this post I want to expand the exploration by using Walter Brueggemann’s phrase “journey to the common good.” [2]  In using this phrase he understands that Covenant manifests itself throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament.  

The metaphor of journey is the context for Covenant.  For one thing the covenant was given during the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Among other things, this means it was given in the midst of day-to-day living.  The covenant is God’s way of saying, “This is what loving me and loving others looks like here and now.”  The historical context for Covenant is important to know, but we must not limit the Message to its original milieu.  To do so locks it in the past and limits it to a life none of us live today.  The Covenant speaks to us today because it speaks a timeless word.

Furthermore, by giving the covenant during Israel’s journey, God is showing how we receive the Message but live into it little-by-little.  For example, the Ten Commandments do not look the same and they are not lived the same every day.  On the day God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, they had only a rudimentary understanding of them—an understanding that would necessarily grow as they applied them day after day.

We too receive and practice them as we journey.  Dawn and high noon are not the same, but the sun’s light provides both.  With respect to human sexuality, Covenant tells us that our belief will begin small and develop over time as we establish relations with LGBTQ+ people.  Nothing appears in full at first. [3]  This is how relationships work—they unfold.  As they do, we nourish them with patience, tenderness, and expectation.  We live into the covenant as we journey.

And then, we discover that Covenant is for the common good.  This is the content of Covenant—life together.  I note in the book that all three iterations of the covenant (Noah, Abraham, and Moses) show it was universal, intended for all people everywhere.  But what exactly was intended?  Two things stand out.

First, the avoidance of exploitation, in whatever form it occurred.  This is one reason why there ended up being 613 commandments.  It was not so that the covenant would micromanage every detail of our lives (which is what a legalistic use of Covenant did…and does), but because holiness applies to every aspect of life.  The covenant called out exploitation because it is the mark that the relational oneness in the Godhead is being ignored and the intended onenes in creation is being violated.  One way to read every commandment is to ask two questions, “What exploitation does this commandment expose?”….and….(2) “What expression of holiness does it invite?”

The second question leads to the second major feature of Covenant, the emancipation of people.  The literal slavery in Egypt was an example, but it was also a sign of God’s pervasive message, “ Let my people go!”  This is why Paul summed it up the purpose of the covenant in his letter to the Galatians, “Christ has set us free for freedom” (5:1)   Charles Wesley described in by writing, “My chains fell off. My heart was free. I rose, went forth, and followed thee.” [4]

The avoidance of exploitation and the experience of emancipation are the simultaneous results of one thing: love—the hesed and agapé we have previoysly noted.  Again this is why Paul describes the new creation by writing, “All these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18)

We enter that passage in the phrase, “gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”  We are intended to be a covenant people, offering love to all in ways that protect them from exploitation and in ways that emancipate them.  Legalism does not do this, but Covenant does.  As Paul put it, “what is written kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). We are God’s covenant people called to share covenant love—to everyone.  All means all.


So…..

(1) Do you accept the two love commandments as the summation of the Covenant?

(2) How are you expressing them, and are you expressing them to everyone?


[1] Notice I did not say Law.  Covenant is a larger concept than Law.  When we look at Leviticus in a future post, I will say more about the Law.

[2] Brueggemann develops this phrase in his book of the same title, ‘Journey to the Common Good’ (Westminster John Knox, 2010).

[3] I have discovered that this happens also when LGBTQ+ people begin to relate to Christians.  They have been so harmed by the Christian community that they don’t accept the overture of love and acceptance quickly or easily.  Every LGBTQ+ person I know has been told by a Christian, “You are loved,” only to later discover it was not so.  The entire Christian/LGBTQ+ relationship develops slowly and in stages.  Affirming Christians must gain the trust of LGBTQ+ people because they have been given waxed fruit rather than the fruit of the Spirit by Christians whose allegation, “We love the gays” turned out to be quite conditional, and in some cases, bogus.

[4] From Wesley’s hymn, “And Can It Be?”

Posted in Holy Love

Here and Now: Gratitude

​David Steindl-Rast introduced me to gratitude as a sign that we are living in the present moment. He wrote, “Our eyes are opened to the surprise character of the world around us the moment we wake up from taking things for granted.” [1]

We have already noted that living here and now is an awakening.  Through Brother David’s writing, I have learned it is the awakening of gratitude–what he names above as not taking things for granted.  When we do not live in the present moment we miss a lot that is going on, and consequently we take those things for granted.  When that becomes a pattern, we lose (or at least diminish) our capacity for gratitude.

The Bible exhorts us to give thanks.  It is a way of pointing out things that are happening, and it is a sign that those things are being received by us.  Gratitude is an outward witness flowing from an inward experience. [2]

Gratitude is an important way of remembering that we live in a grace-saturated world.  Life is coming to us all the time.  Gratitude is our response.  Richard Rohr reminds us that our response to grace is not to earn God’s love, but rather to return it. [3] 

Thich Nhat Hanh has added to my understanding of gratitude through his little books about walking, sitting, eating, etc.  He says it simply, every act is “gratitude to all of life.” [4]  And as we will gratefully, we also live joyfully.

Anne Lamott is bold to say that “thanks” is one of the three best prayers we ever pray.  Prayers of gratefulness shape a pattern in us; they create a disposition of our hearts toward wonder, aliveness, surprise, hope, and love.  Gratitude is an infilling with things that enliven us. [5]

[1] David Steindl-Rast, ‘Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer’ (Paulist Press, 1984), 9.

[2] Diana Butler-Bass has written an excellent book, ‘Grateful: The Transforming Power of Giving Thanks’ (Harper One, 2018).  Susan Muto’s book, ‘Gratefulness: The Habit of a Grace-filled Life’ (Ave Maria Press, 2018) is another one to note.

[3] Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger, eds., ‘Richard Rohr: Essential Teachings on Love’ (Orbis Books: 2018), 61.

[4] Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘Living Budda, Living Christ’ 10th Anniversary Edition (Riverhead Books, 2007), 26.

[5] Anne Lamott, ‘Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers’ (Riverhead Books, 2012).

Posted in Here and Now

Holy Love: Creation

Creation is the second vantage point for seeing the hermeneutic of holy love. We live in a God-made world (Genesis 1:1).  It is reasonable to assume that there would be congruence between who God is and what God has made.  Indeed there is, “Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).  And what is that glory, that handiwork?  Among other things, it is diversity.

In the Godhead there is diversity.  We call it the Holy Trinity, a nonbinary relational reality, which ontologically establishes “the law of three”—the law of diversity. [1]  Furthermore,  within the Godhead there is a diversity of names (e.g. Elohim, El Shaddai, El Roi) further communicating diversity.  God is nonbinary in both nature and activity.

So too is the creation.  I point out in the book that the pairings (e.g. heavens/earth) in the first creation story are not doublets.  They are spectrum words.  The same is true for the male/female pairing.  It is unfortunate that we see and affirm the nonbinary nature of creation in the other pairings but do not do the same with humanity.  The Bible is not a science book, but it is a reality book, and one of the first realities in Scripture is the nonbinary nature of the creation.

I have come to see that one of the major failures of a conservative theology of human sexuality is its unwillingness to recognize the nonbinary nature of humanity. That unwillingness , however, is a linchpin in their nonaffirming theology of LGBTQ+ people, so I understand their reluctance to give up a notion of binary creation.  If male/female is a “two” then sexuality diversity is a sin (departure) from the original creation—either as a deliberate choice (rebellion) against human nature, or some deformation (aberation) of human nature—both options arising from the fall in Genesis 3. [2]

But this is not the revelation of Scripture, which portrays a nonbinary cosmos—a portrayal confirmed today by the natural and behavioral sciences.  Here is a second failure of a conservative theology of human sexuality—namely, an unwillingness to incorporate the findings of science into their theology.  In the Wesleyan tradition we would call this a failure to interface Scripture and reason. [3] This failure is skewing the view of many Christians about LGBTQ+ people, and providing an ideological justification for their exclusion and/or limitation in the Church–a  form of doing harm specifically forbidden in the General Rules of the Wesleyan tradition.

I include in the book some resources from the behavioral and natural sciences to show the nonbinary nature of human sexuality, a finding that ascribes sacred worth to people of all gender identities and sexual orientations.  But since I wrote the book, I continue to find ongoing scientific affirmation.  I mention two in this post.

The first is an article in Science magazine, a professional publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general science membership society.  The article, “Giant Study  Links DNA Variants to Same-Sex Behavior,” by Michael Price (October 20, 2018) chronicles four genetic variations which are the focus of interest among geneticists as they continue refining a more than thirty-year scientific exploration of human sexuality.  The most recent findings, while still in the early stages, are encouraging because they fit into the trajectory of evidence that confirms the nonbinary nature of humanity and the resulting diversity in human sexuality.

The second affirmation is a massive synthesis report (akin to the one above) entitled, “Diversity in Human Sexuality: Implications for Policy in Africa.”  It was conducted by The Academy of Science in South Africa at the request of the government as a means for providing a basis for just legislation concerning LGBTQ+ people. The 93-page report (subsequently endorsed by the Uganda National Academy of Science) was published in May 2015. [4]. Drawing on studies from the fields of genetics, epigenetics, brain morphology, and endocrinology the scientists conclude, “ There is no longer any doubt about the existence of a substantial biological basis to sexual orientation… just as there are many ways to be heterosexual, there are many homosexualities.” [5]

These relatively early findings have opened the door to the realization of diversity in human sexuality.  There is no “gay gene”—the formation of sexual diversity is not that simple.  But it is the result of complex DNA variation.  Another indication of what the Bible tells us elsewhere, that we are sacredly and variously made (Psalm 139:14).

What we see is that the Bible and science tell the same story about human sexuality, and it is the story of diversity. God-made, not sin-produced.  Nonbinary, not binary. Part of  the grand revelation of divine order, not intrinsic disorder.  A sign of original goodness, not original sin. 

 Without hesitation, I exhort theologians not to put forward a theology of human sexuality that fails to incorporate (by accident or intent) the findings of contemporary science. This requires a commitment to lifelong learning and attentiveness to truth outside of the Bible. When we do this, we will find creation as another manifestation of the hermeneutic of God’s holy love for all.  All means all.

So…..

(1) Are you willing to study the biblical revelation of a nonbinary creation?

(2) Are you willing to incorporate the findings of science into your beliefs about human sexuality?


[1] For more on this, read Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, ‘The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three ‘ (Shambala, 2013).

[2] As I point out in the book, the choice/aberration allegations compromise a core conservative resistance to diversity in human sexuality, both based on a binary view of creation.  The deliberate-choice (rebellion) allegation runs throughout conservative theology, ancient and modern.  The aberration (intrinsic disordering) allegation is a more-recent one, but one adopted by conservative evangelicals who recognize genetic variation but interpret it as a sign of the fall.  One of the most pronounced expressions of the binary view is the Nashville Statement, made public by the Coalition for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood on August 29, 2017.  Most of the Articles in the Statement enforce binary (male/female) heteronormativity as intrinsic to the creation, thus requiring a rejection of nonbinary diversity through some view of  deformation by the fall.  This is an unfortunate imposition on Scripture, not one that arises from the text itself.  I will say more about this when I write a future post about the Romans 1 passage.

[3] I believe much of this is due to the fact that many simply do not know what the sciences are discovering.  But there are some who do know, yet choose to ignore the findings, falsely calling them “junk science” and thus perpetuating a bogus and obscurantist theology of binary humanity that erroneously normalizes male/female heterosexuality.

[4] You can easily  download a pdf copy of this report by googling the title.  I urge you to do so.

[5] From the study, p. 32.

Posted in Holy Love

In-Sight: Surprised into Transformatiom

​A writing project I am engaged in has taken me back into the books of E. Stanley Jones.  I have spent large amounts of time re-reading them. I have been reminded why he is the overall major influence in my faith formation.  

Decades ago, when I read E. Stanley Jones’ book, ‘The Christ of the Indian Road,’ for the first time, I was surprised by what I found before I completed the Introduction.[1]  Jones had barely arrived in India to begin his missionary ministry before he faced his most formidable challenge: the Westernization of Christianity, offered to the Indian people in ways that reflected British colonialism more than Christ.

Jones saw that Western values (e.g.  domination, conflict, and racism) were defining Christianity and the Church more than the Gospel. He wrote that very quickly, “It became clear that we were not there to implant Western civilization.” [2]  In fact, Jones had to drop the word ‘Christianity’ from announcements about his public speaking because the word had become so acculturated by British views and values that Indian people either boycotted his meetings or attended with preconceptions that made them indifferent and cold.  

Jones saw that their skepticism did not lie in their resistance to God.  On the contrary, most were warmly religious in their respective faith traditions.  Their resistance was rooted in their sense that Christianity was mostly a religious means of subjugating them to Great Britain as a country and to an Aryanism racial superiority. He observed that “hitherto it has been exceedingly difficult to get non-Christians to come to a Christian address of any kind.” [3]

When Jones shared his discovery with fellow missionaries, he received less than agreement. Other Christians too were perplexed and did what is often done to those who see things differently—they caricatured him, and labeled his as having become a Modernist. [4]  In some cases, he was met with resistance by them.  Some were so wedded to “the system” that any critique of it was suspect. Jones saw that too much of Christianity was under the influence of an institutionalized Jesus rather than the universal Christ—not just in India, but elsewhere in the world. He set out to change that. [5]

All this happened a hundred years ago, but the need to liberate Christ from Christianity and the Church is as great now as it was then.  The public face of North American Christianity (largely a neo-fundamentalism) is once again too Western—or to say it more generally, too acculturated. But to many even mainstream Christianity looks more like a corporation than the Body of Christ.  It’s a rough time for institutionalized Christianity.

Moreover, the person of Jesus looks too much like a citizen and too little like the Christ.  The values of our acculturated Jesus express the values of a capitalist/corporate  America more than they express the ethos of simplicity, equity, compassion,  and generosity.  The Church is too much captured by a “prosperity gospel” (which is not the Gospel) and a mission to try and convince us that “the kingdoms of this world” are the Kingdom of God, when they are not and never have been. We are living in a neo-Constantinian era when religion, economics, politics, and the military-industrial complex are leading us away from God more than toward God.

And just like the people in India saw through the acculturated gospel (“British greatness” imperialized), people today are seeing through an acculturated gospel once again (“American greatness” globalized).  Just as there were nones/dones in Jones’ day, there are nones/dones in ours—in growing numbers.  It is a sad irony that non-Christians often have a keener sense of who Jesus is, what Christianity should be, and what the Church ought to be than those of us who have lived inside institutionalized Christianity for so long that we cannot see any difference between an ecclesial Jesus and the universal Christ.

But God is never without a witness.  E. Stanley Jones is an example of one in the past.  Others today are rising up to do what Jones did—i.e. to unwrap Christ from the burial clothes of acculturated Christianity and offer him to a world in fresh ways that make him be the Lord and giver of Life…..to ALL.  The prophetic task—to call out falsehood by calling forth a new vision of shalom—is incumbent upon us today.  God is always looking for people who will separate the chaff of an acculturated Jesus from the wheat of a universal Christ.  He found such a person in E. Stanley Jones.  Will he find such persons among us?

[1] E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road’ (Abingdon Press, 1925).

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] E. Stanley Jones, ‘A Song of Ascents: A Spiritual Autobiography’ (Abingdon Press, 1968), 92.  In that day, to be called a Modernist was the harshest judgment that fundamentalist Christians could make against someone, even more judgmental than calling someone liberal.  To be called Modernist was tantamount to being called un-Christian.

[5] I believe this is why his strategy was to begin his message at the widest possible place (the excarnate Christ, the Word) and then move to lift up the incarnate Christ (the Word made flesh) as a universal Savior and Lord.  We see this approach in his books, The Christ of Every Road (1930), Victorious Living (1936), Abundant Living (1942), The Way (1946), and The word Became Flesh (1963).

[6] There is no way to list all those who are rising as prophets in our day.  As always, there are many who have not bowed to Baal.  I list these few only as illustrations of that larger number: Christena Cleveland, Nadia Bolz-Webber, Rachel Held Evans (r.i.p.), Wilda Gaffney, Barbara Brown Taylor, Mirabai Starr, Jen Hatmaker, Joan Chittister, Cynthia Bourgesult, Richard Rohr, William Barber, Liz Theoharis, John Dear, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Parker Palmer, and John Pavlovich—to name a few.

Posted in In-Sight

Here and Now: Freedom

​In last week’s post, I wrote about the importance of simplicity in present-moment living.  Such simplicity is the means for another quality of here-and-now living: freedom.

It is the freedom that arises when we are available to life here and now.  Simplicity frees us from being attached to the past and the future, and that leaves us free to experience life in the present moment.  Thich Nhat Hanh writes about freedom in these words, “You make yourself available to life and life becomes available to you.” [1]

We have all had the experience of talking with someone, and in the midst of the conversation we realized we were not paying attention to what the other person was saying.  We were distracted.  And the distraction prevented us to be free in the present moment to concentrate on the person.  In a very real sense, we were “somewhere else.”

Freedom is being here not somewhere else.  Freedom is the fruit of simplification, because we are not distracted by what has happened in the past, or by what might happen in the future.  Jesus spoke of this in two sayings: “don’t put your hand to the plow and look back” (Luke 9:62) and “don’t worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34).  As we do this, all that’s left is living today, living in the present moment.  Living here and now is living with a lightness of being, and that is freedom.

Posted in Here and Now

Holy Love: Creator

​The first vantage point for developing a hermeneutic of holy love is the Creator.  In the previous post we began our look at God through the core attribute of love.  There are multiple words for love in Hebrew and Greek, but in relation to God the words hesed and agapé are central.

Hesed is the Hebrew word.  It is the word used to describe the loving relationship between God and human beings, and between humans.  It tells us that the phrase “God is love” is more than a concept, it is a communion.  It is a relationship which reveals that God is loyal, kind, and merciful.  Hesed is the love between God and the people of God, spelled out in the Covenant, which we will look at in a future post. It is the revelation that God’s love is steadfast, unfailing, and never-ending.

Beyond these indications of God’s nature and relationship, hesed describes the rule of God—one that is loving in its essence, not legal.  Restorative, not retributive.  It is gracious love; that is, God will continue to love us even when we do not love God.  Hesed is love that redeems and renews—the love that inspires wonder in us that leads to worship. [1]

Agapé is the Greek word.  It includes everything just noted about hesed.  It is the word used to describe the core of God’s nature in the Septuagint and in the New Testament.  It is also the love God has shed abroad in our hearts enabling us to love God and others. 

Some of you will know that agapé is one of four Greek words for love. It seems to have been the word chosen to best describe the love of God because agapé is not love for one’s own sake, but rather for the sake of the other.  The other loves (eros, philéo, and storgé) ebb and flow depending on the loveability of the other and the love response we receive from the other.  Agapé does not fluctuate because it is not determined conditionally.  God loves because God is love. God is love itself, and God’s being determines God’s behavior, described in relation to Christ as the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 12:8).  Unchanging.  What the hymnwriter meant by, “O Love, that will not let me go.”

 Agapé is rooted in the will of the lover, which in God’s case is the will to love the world (John 3:16)—which means everyone.  It is universal, sacrificial, gracious, merciful, forgiving, strengthening, outgoing, and redeeming.  It is the atmosphere in which we live, move, and have our being.  And as with hesed,  it is the love which defines our worshipful response and our loving service. [2]

Our theology of human sexuality begins, continues, and end in the words, “God is love”—love as revealed in hesed  and agapé.  God loves everyone.  God loves everyone the same.  There is no “other” (lesser) love because there are no “others” (less thans) to be loved differently.  God loves all. All means all.


So….

(1) How do the words “God is love” enter into you?

(2) How do the words ”God is love” pass out of you to others?


[1] This description of hesed is adapted from William Mounce’s ‘Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words’ (Zondervan, 2006),  426-427.

[2] This description of agapé is adapted from Mounce’s dictionary and from William Barclay’s ‘New Testament Words’ (SCM Press, 1964), 17-30.

Posted in Holy Love

Here and Now: Simplicity

​Nearly forty years ago, Richard Foster introduced me to simplicity as an essential discipline in the spiritual life. [1]  His own witness about simplicity has been exemplary, but he has also pointed me (and so many others) to additional witnesses to the simpke life like Francis and Clare, Teresa of Avila, Francois Fenelon, Brother Lawrence, and A.W. Tozer to name a few.

Coming alongside these influencers, I have been guided by Thomas Moore, best known as the author of ‘The Care of the Soul.’ [2]. In the book he speaks about simplicity, but it was his later coining of a word that made an impact on me.  It is the word ‘complexification’–essentially moving away from simplicity.  Moore called it one of the major contemporary soul damagers.

With Moore’s word, along with what I had already learned about simplicity, I was given eyes to see and ears to hear it, and honestly, substantially in contrast to my own lack of it.  I knew more about complexification than I did about simplicity, and in some ways that is still true.

But I have learned enough to know that simplicity is a means for learning to live in the present moment.  Simplicity creates and sustains an inward disposition that de-quantifies a definition of life where “more is better” is alleged to be the truth, when it is not true.  Simplicity enables us to recognize and celebrate what the saints call ordinary holiness.

Theologically, simplicity is the preference for regular moments, learning to be content with them rather than being obsessed with thinking about only “big things” and “spectacular moments” matter.  Simplicity enables us to see that life is largely made up of little things and routine activities.  It conditions us to find purpose and joy in them.

Practically speaking, simplicity means we do fewer things in a given period of time.  But that very reduction opens the space to go deeper into our lives, paying attention to what we are actually thinking or doing rather than being preoccupied with the past or the future.

Simplification in the present moment is really about relaxing in the moment, putting the past and the future in their places so that what’s going on here and now has a better chance of getting through.

[1] Richard Foster, ‘Celebration of Discipline’ (Harper & Row, 1978), chapter 6.  He followed this with an entire book devoted to the subject, ‘Freedom of Simplicity’ (Harper & Row, 1981).  Both books have been republished in revised editions.

[2] Thomas Moore, ‘The Care of the Soul’ (HarperCollins, 1992).

Posted in Uncategorized