Here and Now: Engagement

​When we are  present to life here and now, we become engaged with life itself.  Communion, celebration, and compassion connect us to life in the present moment in ways that are life-giving to us and to others.  We see this in the life and ministry of Jesus.

Communion.  Out of his ongoing communion with God (Luke 5:16),  Jesus made the astounding claim that his every word and deed was in response to what the Father told him to say and do.  There is no closer connection between heaven and earth than this.

Jesus also communed with nature, “the first Bible.”  I believe this is why he could so easily connect us with life through his parables, many of which were drawn from nature.  He taught against the backdrop of a firmament that showed God’s handiwork (Psalm 19:1), and his insights help us to see it too.

Celebration.  Jesus lived with the note of joy as his keynote.  Sometimes it was the joy of  pleasurable moments and people.  He seems to have been a regular party goer. But he also found joy in the challenging moments of life through offering others hope and healing.  And in his own experience, he could see joy in his endurance of suffering on the cross (Hebrews 13:2).

Compassion.  The first two elements illustrate compassion, but we speak of it in order to remind ourselves that there is no authentic spirituality apart from compassion.  Jesus “went about doung good.”. This was the disposition of his heart and the expression of his will. Several times we read that his first response to others was to have compassion on them.

In these ways and more, he exemplified engagement and told us to “go and do likewise.”  As the Father sent him, he sends us.

This kind of spirituality is not a separate entity, a compartment, or a day of the week. It is the essence of life as God intends for us to live it–to live it engaged, which means to live it in love.  Mirabai Starr describes it this way, “love—active, engaged, fearless love—is the only way to save ourselves and each other from the firestorm of war that rages around us. There is a renewed urgency to this task now. We are asked not only to tolerate the other, but also to actively engage the love that transmutes the lead of ignorance and hatred into the gold of authentic connection. This is the “narrow gate” Christ speaks of in the Gospels.” [1]  This kind of here-and-now engagement is the sign of genuine spirituality.


[1] Mirabai Starr, ‘God of Love’ (Monkfish, 2012), loc 153.

Posted in Here and Now

Holy Love: Passages #2

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

Honestly, I was not prepared for the complexity regarding these two passages.  Far from being cut-and-dried as a one-sentence, straightforward condemnation of male homosexual activity, the passages are in relation to a cultural and religious context far different from ours today.  An exploration of this context reveals a number of significant things.

First of all, the family system of ancient Israel was radically different.  Marriage was different, often with a polygamous configuration.  The status and role of women bears little resemblance to today.  The level of male dominance and authority was even greater than is typical now.  All three of these differences were not considered sinful then, even though some would be considered to be so today, and some aspects would even be illegal. [1]  

A second complicating factor has to do with the section of Leviticus in which the two verses appear, chapters 17-26 (or sometimes including chapter 27), called The Holiness Code.  It is the section which applies holy living to all the people, not just the priests.  It was a section specifically to instruct the Israelites as to how their behavior was to be different from that of the Egyptians (from whose land they had come) and the Canaanites (into whose land they were entering), see Leviticus 18:1-3.  What makes The Holiness Code complicated is that portions of it are no longer practiced today, even by many Jews (e.g. 18:19, 19:19).  For scholars this raises these questions: (1) Is The Holiness Code timeless or meant only to apply to its original historical setting?  (2) If it has a timeless dimension, but not all of it, which passages do we follow today?  There is no scholarly consensus on either question.

These two complicating factors have led some scholars to dismiss the Levitical verses as not applicable today (in much the same way nearly all scholars no longer include Genesis 19 in the discussion of homosexuality).  In ‘Holy Love’ I took a different approach on two levels.  First, I did not write about the historical factors because the book is a primer-level study.  But second, I did not dismiss the verses because they remain active and influential in the current conversation, and I felt that omitting them would be viewed as sidestepping a key portion of Scripture. 

My choice to include them is based on my general sense of biblical revelation—that even time-bound passages contain a message that can help us live faithfully and well in the present.  If we omit time-bound passages from our study, we reduce the influence of the Bible in our lives. Truth be told, every verse in the Bible is time bound from our vantage point.  The most recent passages are over 1900 years in the past, and the earliest may be nearly 4,000 years away from us.  To dismiss any passage because of its historical distance and difference is a decision that casts a shadow over the entire Bible one way or another.  We see this today in those who view the Bible as irrelevant precisely because it is an “old and outdated book”

In ‘Holy Love’ I have walked another path with respect to Scripture.  I have avoided a straight-line approach that generates a literalist mindset which says, “It’s in the Bible, so I have to practice it now as people did then.”  As I have already shown above, almost no Christians (even very conservative ones) read Scripture that literally.  There are historically-contextualized passages, and we must acknowledge them.  But that does not mean dismissing them.

I believe the two Levitical verses are significantly historically contextualized, so I do not simply  lift out the words and put them on today’s table saying, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”  The Levitical passages (and others in Scripture) are not that “then and now” cut-and-dried.  But neither are they irrelevant or devoid of a message for us with respect to human sexuality.  I take them seriously, and in doing so, two things stand out.

First, the context.  As I noted above, the Holiness Code is a statement about how the Israelites were to behave when they entered Canaan.  In short, the Code was about how they were to prevent Judaism from being amalgamated into Canaanite religion.  The two Levitical texts are culturally/religiously about not connecting Judaism to fertility religion,  a religion that included same-sex acts with temple prostitutes as a way to invoke agricultural prosperity.

In the cultural/religious context, the two verses are violations of the first commandment, “You must have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).  In that context, the two verses have nothing to do with the person’s sexual orientation.  They are about not being idolatrous.  God was saying, “Do not depend on the Canaanite deities for your agricultural prosperity, depend on me.”

The second thing to take seriously is the text itself, and the phrase “lie with” or “have sexual intercourse with.”  These are English renditions of the Hebrew word shakab. Rather than being a universal prohibition of male homosexuality it is a prohibition against promiscuity.  The word shakab means “roaming”—what we refer to today as “sleeping around.”

The Bible is against promiscuous sex because (as I pointed out in the last post) it violates all four aspects of the Covenant ethic: sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy.  That is the timeless message.  The verses have nothing directly to say about  male homosexuality itself (as an orientation); in fact, the practice prohibited by Leviticus (as we know from biblical history) was one that males in general were subject to practicing.  The verses prohibit promiscuity, have nothing directly to do with homosexual people, and are silent about whether or not two males (females are not mentioned) could have a lifelong relationship that keeps the Covenant.

There is one more point that we can make early on through the Leviticus texts, a point continued in the Bible; namely that there is no biblical teaching that LGBTQ+ people must be celibate.  That is a view 100% concocted by conservative Christians as a way to build their case for being “welcoming but not affirming”—a view I am personally familiar with because I held it for so long.  It is a conservative way of accepting LGBTQ+ people while denying them the right to marry.  It is a human constraint that puts LGBTQ+ people in a category the Bible itself does not create.  There is no biblical passage to support mandatory celibacy for LGBTQ+ people.  In fact, it is a prohibition that artificially precludes them from the opportunity to live in a Covenant relationship that honors sacred, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy.

Simply put, the Levitical passages send us a message, but it is not the one that many Christians say it is.  The Levitical message is this: promiscuous sexuality is not the will of God.  It is a message for us all, not just LGBTQ+ people. 

So…

(1) Are you willing to look at these passages in a new way?

(2) If not, why?  If so, what have you learned as a result? 


[1] The CEB Study Bible has a good summary of sexuality in relation to the Israelite family system, p. 184 OT.  A much more detailed and scholarly study has been written by David Baile, ‘Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America’ (Basic Books, 1992). 

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The Soul of Impeachment

​As the public phase of the impeachment process begins, nothing is more certain than this: it will occur in a whirlwind of confusion, fueled to a great degree by political partisanship that will seek to frame the matter along party lines.  But the fact is, as some are willing to admit, the impeachment process itself is not defined or directed by partisanship—or at least was not originally designed to be so.  Impeachment is an indication of something much larger—a sign not only that laws may have been violated, but that our national character may have been compromised.

It is in this dimension where we see that at its core, impeachment is about the soul of our nation, not merely its laws.  It is about the morality of a President not just his methodology.  Of course, the process moves on the assessment of law and order.  But it is an evaluation of law and order based on a deeper sense of what is good for our country, and whether or not we have the will to hold the President accountable for personifying that goodness. The Presidential oath of office can be subject to legality with respect to a particular President’s fidelity to it, but the oath itself is a statement of character and a President’s promise to uphold it.

Jon Meacham writes about this in the current issue of Time magazine. [1]  But he is not the first to do so.  President Harry Truman, for example, saw the need for the nation to periodically correct itself.  Impeachment operates in that context with respect to the President. It is a process, as Meacham notes, of honoring something in our national life and expecting the President to do so as well.

So, as we watch the impeachment process unfold, let’s keep in mind that while the immediate context is whether the President has committed an impeachable offense, the long-term consideration is, “What kind of nation would we become if we allowed our President to behave this way?”  The impeachment process is ultimately about the trajectory that a President’s behavior sets and the message it sends.  Impeachment is ultimately about what becomes of our national soul. 


[1] John Meacham, “A National Test,” Time magazine, Novembrr 14, 2019, pp. 34-38.

Posted in Editorials

Here and Now: Community

Being reconciled to one another in Christ here and now, we can move to establish community.  It is community based on grace, nothing else.  We do not have to be alike.  We do not have agree.  Our community is not contingent upon any secondary descriptor or pre-requisite.

All the pressure is off!  We can be together because we are together.  All the ways the world (and sadly, the church too) labels us (and then uses the labels to divide us from each other) cease to be factors.  They are stripped of their power to separate us.  We are one in Christ.

In this kind of community we also live beyond ourselves.  Mission thrives because we no longer vote for or against them based on our preferences.  When everything belongs, the only missional question is, “Will this give us the opportunity to draw closer to others and do them good?”  If it does, we are for it!

The overarching term for this “the beloved community”–the community in which the love of God poured into our hearts through the Spirit enables us to manifest the fruit of the Spirit.  When this life together is real, the Kingdom of God is present and active. 

The past five years or so, I have discovered it is much easier to be accepting than judging.  All you have to do to be accepting is to accept.  But to be judging, you have to expend a lot of energy developing your case and defending it.  It is wonderful to be able to enter any situation and all you have to do is say, “My name is Steve.  What’s yours?” This kind of here-and-now simplicity creates community in ways that pre-judging never can.  And in that simplicity, it is amazing who you meet!

Posted in Here and Now

Holy Love: The Passages #1

Introduction

 I have not counted the total number of passages in the Bible that refer to human sexuality in general or sexual behavior in particular.  There are many, hundreds I would assume.  What I do know is that only a few are said to refer to homosexuality.  I use the words “said to refer” because I have come to believe the verses are used to substantiate a view which the Bible itself does not teach.  I write about these passages in chapter three of ‘Holy Love.’  In this post, and the upcoming round of them I will expand upon what I wrote in the book.  This post is an overview/summary.  Upcoming ones  will be about specific passages.

To begin with, it is a complex and tricky thing to read the selected passages using contemporary definitions of sexuality, sexual identity, sexual orientation, etc.  In fact, it is possible that the so-called “clobber passages” have nothing to do with homosexuality as we typically think of it today.  I realize this is a radical statement, but I also believe it is plausible. [1] The history of homosexuality makes a direct link between the present and the past difficult. [2]. No matter where anyone comes down regarding the passages, this complexity must be acknowledged.  Failure to do so is theological obscurantism.

But at the same time, it is true that the oft-cited passages are all negative and prohibitive.  The question is, “What are they negative about?  What kind of sexuality does the Bible prohibit?  Here is a brief summary that I will expand upon in upcoming posts…

     –Leviticus 18;:22, 20:13—sexuality that is promiscuous.

     –1 Corinthians 6:9-10—sexuality that is lustful (malakoi)

     –1Timothy 1:10—sexua!ity that  is abusive (arsenokoitai)

     –Romans 1:18-32—sexuality that is idolatrous

From these passages, we see that sexual sinfulness is about aberrant behavior, not a person’s gender, sexual identity or orientation.  There is not a straight sexuality and a gay sexuality, there is only human sexuality. People of all sexualities can honor it.  Holy sexuality is not limited to heterosexuals.

So, what id the means for establishing sexual morality in Scripture?  It is the Covenant.  As Walter Brueggemann rightly notes, the Covenant is the way God intends for people to relate to God and each other, summed up (as I have already described it) in the word love as expressed in the two great commandments.  With respect to sexuality, the Covenant enjoins behavior that reflects sacredness, fidelity, permanence, and (with the coming of the New Covenant) monogamous.

This is precisely why promiscuous, idolatrous, lustful, and abusive sexuality is forbidden.  These behaviors are contrary to God’s will for sexuality, not because of the identities/orientations of the people, but because they violate Covenant standards.  Conversely, holy sexuality reverences and reflects sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy—and all people can honor the Covenant in their sexuality, and they do.  The sign of their intent to do so (in both the Old and New Testaments) is marriage.  And that is why all people must be allowed to enter into “the covenant of holy wedlock.”

There is more to be said about the specific passages, and I turn to this in upcoming posts, even while recognizing the limitations of such in both the book and these blogs.  Nevertheless, what we see in this introduction is a Scriptural basis for an inclusive sexuality.  Some Christians will not agree, but the plausibility exists regardless.  [3]

So….

(1) Are you willing to explore biblical passages about sexuality in ways that invite you to consider more than one point of view?

(2) Are you willing to include in your study of Scripture the contributions of tradition, reason, and experience?


[1] The word ‘plausible’ is crucial.  I recognize that serious scholarship has been done on the conservative side of the theological spectrum.  My aim is only to show that a more progressive interpretation is serious and scholarly as well.  So, I use the word ‘plausible’ to state my case and make my claim as a “Bible-believing Christian” just as conservatives do.  It is wrong for conservatives to allege their interpretation is correct and everyone else’s is less so.  I reject that view, and instead advocate a view that has a comparable scholarly foundation underneath it. The diversity of views is not due to differences in belief regarding the inspiration and authority of Scripture, but rather a difference in hermeneutics (interpretation) with respect to the cited passages.

[2] Francis Mondimore’s book, ‘A Natural History of Homosexuality’ shows the complexity of the subject from a historical point of view.  Jerold Greenberg’s book, ‘Exploring Dimensions of Human Sexuality’ reveals the same thing from a scientific perspective.

[3]  Christians have held varying views of human sexuality and sexual ethics across the centuries, and will likely continue to do so.  What is essential, however, is to unmask the false allegation that the conservative view is the only one that can legitimately be drawn from the Bible.  That is simply not true.  Equally devout Christians and credible scholars see things differently.

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Here and Now: Reconciliation

​When our life in the present moment brings us to the point of seeing that everything belongs, it also reveals that God has given us a ministry–the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).  From that moment on, we know why we are on the earth.

We are called to the ministry of reconciliation because even though there is a pervasive inclusion inherent in creation, not everything fits together as it should or as it is meant to be.  There is work to be done.

Living here-and-now cleans the lens, enabling us to see the purpose of God. [1]. That purpose, in the words of St. Paul, is to remove “the dividing wall” between us and to bring together “one new humanity” (Ephesians 2:14-16).

Present-moment living puts us on the lookout for places where reconciliation is needed, and when we see these places, we should consider that God has given us the insight as an invitation to become involved somehow as a minister of reconciliation. This does not mean trying to be all over the map and involved in every good effort [2]  That futile attempt will only wear us out, overwhelm us, and sow seeds of despair.

But it does mean cultivating a general disposition toward reconciliation (through an incorporation of things like the fruit of the Spirit and the prayer of St. Francis), and then finding selective and focused ways to practice it.

Tending our little plot of ground connects with everyone else who is doing the same thing all over the earth.  And in this way, the whole world is under the influence of reconciliation.  We have been singing about this since we were children,

“Clean up, clean up,
Everybody, everywhere.
Clean up, clean up,
Everybody do their share.”

[1] Richard Rohr, ‘Everything Belongs’ (Crossroad, 1999).

[2]  In practicing discernment about this, we include the fact that God is not calling us to be involved everywhere we see the need for reconciliation.  Thomas R. Kelly wrote helpfully about this in his book, ‘A Testament of Devotion’ (Harper & Row, 1941), in the section entitled ” The Eternal Now and Social Concern. “

Posted in Here and Now

Holy Love: Consummation

​When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we say “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The previous facets  of the hermeneutic of love have helped us see love “on earth.” When we turn to consummation, we see love “as it is in heaven.”  Theologically, we call this eschatology.  But we simply mean, “Where things are headed.”

Unfortunately, we have lived most of our lives under an eschatology that says we are headed for Armageddon.  I was a teenager when Hal Lindsey wrote ‘The Late Great Planet Earth,’ and was joined by a host of radio and television preachers who spoke more about the “lake of fire” (i.e. damnation) than about the Kingdom of Heaven (i.e. deliverance).  The tone was one of fear and anxiety.  A bit later, the ‘Left Behind’ series took the trepidation trajectory to a new level of intensity.  Not going to hell became the prism through which many folks defined (and many still do) the ultimate purpose of the Gospel.  For many, this “turn or burn” narrative was the biblical message. Jesus was seen as the one offering spiritual “fire insurance” more than abundant living. [1]

To the extent this was the focus, the love of God was eclipsed by a view of God who is essentially mad at us and  is looking for ways to punish us—unless we can convince God to do otherwise.  With love in eclipse, grace soon left the (church) building, replaced by a performance-orientation (i.e. works righteousness) by which we hoped to end up in heaven because the plusses of our lives outnumbered the minuses.  This kind of consummation told us we are saved by the skin of our teeth rather than by grace.  It put the emphasis on us more than God.  God was “up there” passively waiting to see if we could do more good things than bad before we die, not actively at work to “forgive us our trespasses and deliver us from evil.” 

 This self-focus fed the ego, creating a self-righteousness that frequently espoused certainty regarding who would end up in heaven and who would not.  And for the purposes of this series suffice it to say that the left-behind list included LGBTQ+ people.

So…how do we get out of this faux gospel and into the Gospel itself?  How do we make consummation a love-defined reality?  We do so in two key ways, both related to Christ, who is the Alpha and Omega—the one who reveals where things came from and where they are heading. [2]

First, through the person of the universal Christ.  The second person of the Holy Trinity is the eternal and pervasive presence of the Godhead. [3]  As the means of creation (e.g. John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16), everyone and everything is a product and reflection of Christ (Colossians 3:11).  This is an ontological oneness that links us in love in ways that nothing can separate (Romans 8:38).  The eternal Christ is the Path on whom we all walk toward the consummation.

Second, through the work of the universal Christ.  Christ establishes the trajectory toward which the consummation moves.  Paul described it generally when he wrote that the eternal plan of God is “to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10)—a  plan through which  God “accomplishes everything according to his design” (Ephesians 1:11).  Jesus’ whole ministry (preaching, teaching, and healing) and his entire countenance (inclusive love) were means toward this, and we must see his entire incarnation as advancing the trajectory.  But Paul also notes that the climax/apex of this was Jesus’ atonement in which God  “reconciled all things to himself through him, whether things on earth or in the heavens” (Colossians 1:20).

Taken together, the person and work of the universal Christ enable us to live with confidence and with hope.  We live with confidence that we are participating (in our lives and by our witness) in the cosmic purpose of God.  We are heirs of the promise and co-creators in helping to bring it to pass.  We are confident that we are God’s beloved.

From this confidence, we live with hope.  It is the kind of hope the writer of Hebrews described as “not seen” (2:8-9; 11:1).  This is not a hope rooted in circumstance, but in outcome.  That’s why we call it consummation.  Even though we often see the lack of love in the world, we believe that love will prevail.  We have this hope, and we give ourselves to being instruments of love in the meantime.  Love will be the final word spoken for eternity, for all.  All means all.

So….

(1) How does this cosmic perspective affect your view of things here and now?

(2) How can you be an instrument of this perspective in your life and work?


[1] While many assume this is what the Bible teaches, it is actually what a person named John Nelson Darby taught, and was fashioned by others into what is today called Dispensationalism—a theology that interprets where things are going through the lens of double predestination (hyper Calvinism) that enjoins a strict and unchangeable who’s “in” and who’s “out” view with respect to heaven.

[2] I have been greatly helped in my understanding of consummation by Richard Rohr in his book, ‘The Universal Christ’ (Convergent Books, 2019), particularly in chapter seven, “Going Somewhere Good.”

[3] Language fails to describe this.  It is Mystery, but that does not mean we cannot write ir speak about it, it only means we will never fathom it.

Posted in Holy Love