In-Formation: The Vision Dynamic

Spiritual formation is the lifelong process of living increasingly into the new creation, responding to grace in ways that cause the old to pass away and the new to come (2 Corinthians 5:17).  Paul’s use of the word ‘creation’ (along with other uses of it elsewhere) is the signpost that directs us to see the vision of new creation in the first creation.

Our predecessors in the faith understood this, and they called creation “the first Bible.”  And the fact is, it was a revelation that existed for billions of years before “the second Bible” (Holy Scripture) came into being!  Our predecessors in the faith recognized that revelation given in the natural order was a sign of what life is meant to look like in the spiritual order. 

St. Paul described it this way, “Though invisible to the eye, God’s eternal power and divinity have been seen since the creation of the universe, understood and clearly visible in all of nature” (Romans 1:20).  Thomas Aquinas later wrote of this and said, “Sacred writings are bound in two volumes—that of creation and that of Holy Scripture.” [1]

And so, we find the major dimensions of the spiritual life in the first creation story (Genesis 1:1–2:4)–light, life, and love.  Today, we look at them together, and then in upcoming posts we will explore them individually.  But at the outset it is necessary to recognize that they “dance” together in a dynamic union, never separated or acting independently.

By the time this series ends, we will have described the spiritual life in many many ways. But they can each and all be placed under one (or more) of the three words: light, life, and love.  These are the igniting and sustaining words of the spiritual life.  The genuineness of our spirituality is discerned in relation to them.

So….what is their message when held together? Thankfully, the writer of the first creation story answers the question.  We are not left to wonder, guess, or try to figure it out on our own.  The revelation is defined by further revelation.  The message of the “dance” of light, life, and love is found in the word ‘good’–repeated seven times in the first creation story.  When the spiritual life is what God means for it to be, it is good. [ 2]

First and foremost the spiritual life is good because it is of God.  We recognize this when we think of humankind being made in the image of God, but our predecessors in faith (e.g. Sts Francis and Clare) saw it in every aspect of the creation.  We live in the midst of cosmic holiness, from the smallest particle to the fartherest star.  We are experiencing sacredness in stardust and soul.  This is why our ecological crisis is essentially a spiritual crisis; we have separated what Godbmeant to be jouned together–that is, all things.

Second, the spiritual life is good because it is righteous in character and conduct.  The union created by God inwardly and outwardly is what we call integrity.  The private and public aspects of our lives tell one story because they are of obe Story.  That’s why Jesus called out hypocrites–“two-story people” whose profession of faith and expression of faith were not congruent.  It’s why James would later say of such folks, “They are double-minded, unstable inball their ways” (James 1:8 CEB) [3]

Third, the spiritual life is good because it is constructive.  When God said, “It is good,” it was God’s way of saying, “This suits the purpose I have in mind for it.  This fits together with everything else I am making.”  We would say that the spiritual life puts us in sync with everyone and everything.  This is why the spiritual life is described in Scripture as a life that edifies, builds up, and improves status-quo current realities.

Before we delve into the details of light, life, and love, we must recognize the goodness they produced in the first creation, and the goodness they produce in the new creation.  Theologically, we call it original righteousness.  It is where natural life began, and where spiritual life begins. Our vision of new creation comes to us through the first creation.  Formation is not a new story; it is the fulfillment (made possible by Christ) of the story God has had in mind for us all from the beginning.

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Sermons on the Two Precepts of Charity and the Ten Precepts of the Law (1273).

[2] The Hebrew word is ‘tōb.’  It used 697 times in the Old Testament whenever some aspect of the God-shaped life is described.  It is a rich word with personal and communal meanings.

[3] The Inclusive Bible unpacks the idea of double-mindedness as, “they are devious and erratic in all they do,” showing that being two-story people not only affects us, but others as well.

Posted in In-Formation

For the Bride: Holy Sexuality

I begin new posts for this occasional series with “Holy Sexuality” because it is a broad topic in our society, and it is a particular topic under consideration at The General Conference of The United Methodist Church that begins today in St. Louis.

___________________________

The Bible does not use gender to define things, but only to describe them.  The Bible uses covenant to define things because the covenant is the way God chose to operationalize the divine will.  Covenant is the means which makes real our prayer, “thy kingdom come thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Given that gender is not the defining factor for holiness, it is unfortunate that some Christians use gender to define marriage as a “one man, one woman” relationship.  The Bible does not say that marriage is between one man and one woman; it describes it that way because it was the norm. It still is today, given that 90% or so of humanity is heterosexual.

But there is a difference between what is normative and what is definitive. To say something is normative is to say how something is most of the time, not how it must be all the time.  We have combined normative and definitive in our thinking and theologizing, and created a view of sexuality that is not covenental.

I grew up in west Texas.  Our high school was large enough to play eleven-man football.  But ten miles away the school was small, and had to play six-man football.  On Friday nights, the stadium lights were on in both towns, and both schools played football.  Football was not defined by the number playing, but by overarching rules that applied to any school wanting to field a team.  Eleven-man football was normative in most places (and it still is), but it was not definitive.

In a similar way, holy sexuality is not defined by gender, but by covenant.  And in the covenant, there are four qualities that reflect God’s will for sexuality: sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and (with the coming of the New Covenant) monogamy.  These words define holy sexuality, and every biblical passage that affirms godly love incarnates them, and every passage that describes sexual sin violates them.  It is covenant in Scripture, not gender, that defines what holy sexuality is, and is not.

If we recognize where the Bible defines sexuality, we will not define it exclusively through gender or orientation.  We will define it through covenant, using covenant as the one standard for any and all sexuality: sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy. [1]

With the covenant definition as our reference point, we find that people of all genders and orientations can establish sexual relations that honor sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy.  And with the covenant definition as our reference point, we also find that peoole of all genders and orientations can commit sexual sin. Covenant creates affirmative accountability for all people–which is to say there is one standard for sexuality…holiness, and we are all created so that we can make and keep vows that honor and express holy sexuality.  And… we are all called to do so.

This is precisely why non-heterosexual marriage must be allowed.  There is one covenant standard for sexuality, and there is one covenental means for expressing it for a lifetime: marriage.  If we expect all people to keep the covenant, we must provide all people with the means for doing so. [2]  Covenant expectations without covenant means produces a caricatured holiness, turning a covenant standard into something (from the get-go) that not everyone can keep.

Holy sexuality, like everything else, is not defined by gender, but by covenant.  If we are followers of Christ, our aim is to express our sexuality in ways that honor and keep the covenant, and our ministry is meant to offer that same opportunity to everyone. Affirmative accountability for all. All means all.

[1] I recognize that I am writing mostly about covenant sexuality in the context of marriage, and I am doing so intentionally to make the point that marriage is not gender defined. Sexuality for single people is a topic all its own, but the covenant applies there too.  And in that light, all sexuality (in singleness or marriage) can be summarized in one word:  non-promiscuous. I must leave it to single persons to discern what that means, since I have been married for nearly forty nine years.  But the point for us all is that we define and express our sexuality in relation to covenant.

[2] This is why lifelong celibacy for non-heterosexual persons is wrong.  The Bible nowhere commands LGBTQ+ persons to be celibate for a lifetime.  Sexual celibacy was an artificial necessity imposed by the Church once it denied marriage to non-heterosexual persons.  It was never a biblical requirement–for anyone.  It can be a voluntary choice (Matthew 19:12), but it is not a biblical command.

Posted in For the Bride

In-Formation: The Vision Doorway

Our exploration of spiritual formation is not haphazard, nor is our experience of it.  I am grateful to Richard Foster for creating the threefold paradigm that we will follow in this series: vision, intention, and means. [1]

We begin with Vision.  Today and next week we will look at the vision as-a-whole, and then in coming weeks, we will explore each main ingredient of the vision in detail. [2]

Long ago, Solomon wrote, “Where there is no vision, the people are wild” (Proverbs 29:18).  He understood that it is our vision which shapes and sustains the spiritual life.  We become like that which we see. 

The Hebrew in the verse is rich and insightful.  The word ‘vision’ is translated as ‘prophecy’ in the NRSV.  It is a vision which is not only seen, but also shared.  The Message is mediated by messengers.  It is not a private/individualized vision; rather, it is a proclaimed/communal one.

The phrase ‘the people are wild’ is equally powerful.  The NRSV translates it ‘the people cast off restraint.’  The CEB renders it, ‘the people get out of control.’  The idea is that without a center, we have no option but to make things up on our own, which in terms of the spiritual life means we take a part of that life and try to make it central, creating a partial, distorted, and deformative vision. 

The old story of the blind men and the elephant makes the point.  Each person interpreted their experience (i.e. an ear, the trunk, a leg, the tail) and mistook it for the whole elephant.  We do the same thing with the spiritual life if there is no vision inspiring and informing us.  Without a vision we settle for less than what God has in store for us, thinking all the while that “have it all.” 

The history of spirituality is rife with examples of deformative spiritual lives, almost always when an individual’s or group’s experience is touted as the whole picture and totally correct.  This “one stop shopping for all things spiritual” easily leads to partisanship and sectarianism in religion, just as it does in every other area of life when one view is alleged to be the entire one.

Our spirituality must be large if it is to be be genuine.  Vision is the doorway to discovery. Vision invites us into the world of God–a world that is deep and wide.

[1] The ‘Life With God Bible’ (HarperOne, 2005) uses this paradigm, and Richard wrote further about it in the book he authored with Kathryn Helmers, ‘Life With God’ (HarperOne, 2008).

[2] I remind you of something I said in the introduction: I am not in a hurry in this series.  We are intentionally taking a slow, piece-by-piece look at the spiritual life.  This more contemplative, little-by-little is as important as the content.  It will all fit together in the end; in the meantime, I am writing in a way that fits a blog-length style and a lectio divina spirit.  This is a long-haul series, not a quick-fix one.

Posted in In-Formation

For the Bride: My Journey

Here is a synopsis of my journey since 2014 of to being an ally with the LGBTQ+ community…

I met some of you last evening at First UMC Orlando for the first time, and you asked about my journey to becoming an ally with the LGBTQ+ community.  Here are some ways you can find out, as you like….

(1) My book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride’ (Abingdon Press, 2014) tells how my experience in Lent of that year opened the door to my becoming an ally…and…how the principles of love, non-judgment, and holy conferencing are given to us by God to enable us to create and sustain inclusive community.

(2) I followed the book with a yearlong series of blog posts entitled “For the Bride” (9/5/14–7/13/15), in which I expanded what I only began in the book.  These are archived on my Oboedire blog (www.oboedire.wordpress.com).

(3) About a year later (March 2015), I was invited to speak at a Reconciling Ministries Network conference on the subject, “How I Changed My Mind.”  Here is the link to the archived YouTube video:

(4) The ensuing years have continued to expand Jeannie’s and my involvement as allies, mainly at the local level and through conversations with LGBTQ+ friends and even strangers.  

(5) Last night’s presentation was one of only a few public engagements, but it was an opportunity I am grateful to have been given.

(6) In retirement, my ministry is focused in my Oboedire blog, where I write mainly (and have since 2010) about spiritual formation from a variety of vantage points.  Ongoing thoughts about human sexuality are part of that writing. Check it out as you like, and subscribe if you wish.

(7) Finally, I have been asked along the way to show the books which have developed my thinking the past five years.  Here are the ones I have compiled intona basic bibliography for inquirees…

A Basic Affirming Bibliography On Human Sexuality

Below are books which have shaped my theology of human sexuality.  The list began as an attempt to gather biblical references, but in the course of doing so, I realized that a full orbed Wesleyan theology must include resources pertaining to tradition, reason, and experience.

So, I have organized this list in relation to the Wesleyan quadrilateral.  Most books fit into more than one aspect of the quadrilateral.  I have placed each in the category it most helped me understand human sexuality…

**= suggested first book to read in category

(1) Scripture

       Mark Achtemeier, ‘The Bible’s Yes to

            Same-Sex Marriage’

       James Brownson, ‘Bible, Gender, and

            Sexuality’

       Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna 

            Dolansky, ‘The Bible Now’

       Luke Timothy Johnson, ‘The Living

            Gospel’ (Chapter 8)

       Austin Hartke, “Nonbinary Gender and the

            Diverse Besuty of Creation,” The

            Christian Century, 4 /16/18

       Jennifer Knust, ‘Unprotected Texts’

       William Loader, ‘Sexuality and the

           Jesus Tradition’ 

       William Loader, ‘Sexuality and the

            New Testament’

       Linda J. Patterson, ‘Hate Thy Neighbor:

            How the Bible is Misused to Condemn

            Homosexuality’

       **Dan Via’s section in ‘The Bible and

            Homosexuality’

       Walter Wink, ‘Homosexuality and the Bible’

(2) Tradition (General and Church History)

        (A) General History

                  Francis Mark Mondimore, ‘A

                       Natural History of Homosexuality’

       (B) Church History

                 **”Cheryl Anderson, ‘Ancient Laws

                       and Contemporary Controversies’ 

                John Boswell, ‘Christianity, Social 

                       Tolerance and Homosexuality’ 

 (3) Reason (Theology & Science)

         (A) Theology

                    **Megan Shanon DeFranza, 

                          ‘Sex Differences in Christian

                          Theology’  

                    Karen Keen, ‘Scripture, Ethics, and

                           the Possibility of Same-Sex

                           Relationships’

                     Jack David  Rogers, ‘Jesus, the

                           Bible & Homosexuality

                           (Revised Edition)
         (B) Sciences

                    Jaques Balthazart, ‘The Biology of

                           of Homosexuality’

                    Jerold Greenberg, ‘Exploring

                           Dimensions of Human

                           Sexuality

                     Justin Lehmiller, ‘The Psychology

                           of Human Sexuality’

                    Simon LeVay, ‘Gay, Straight and 

                           the Reason Why: The Science

                           of Sexual Orientation’

                           (Second Edition)

                    Dawne Moon, “Culture and the

                           Sociology of Sexuality,” 

                           Annals of the American

                           Academy of Political and

                           Social Sciences

                    **Michael Regele, ‘Science,

                           Scripture, and Same-Sex Love

(4) Experience (Pastoral Tone)

         **David Gushee, ‘Changing Our Mind’

               (3rd edition)

         Steve Harper, ‘For the Sake of the Bride’

         James Martin, ‘Building a Bridge’

         Tim Otto, ‘Oriented to Love’

         Matthew Vines, ‘God and the Gay Christian’

         Mel White, ‘Stranger at the Gate’

(5) United Methodist Focused…

         Phillip Cramer & William Harbison,

               ‘The Fight for Marriage’

         Reuben Job & Neil Alexander, 

               ‘Finding Our Way,’

         Kenneth Carter, ‘Embracing the Wideness’

         Karen Oliveto, ‘Our Strangely Warmed

               Hearts’

But more than these things are the friendships of LGBTQ+ people, who have loved, encouraged, and supported Jeannie and me (when others have not), showing us over and over their love of God and their lives of faithful discipleship–proving and demonstrating the power of grace to sustain them even when they were/are rejected by the Body of Christ. Along with other Christian friends, the gay Christian community has been Church to Jeannie and me in ways we have never known before.

Thank you!

Posted in For the Bride

For the Bride: Video & Outline

Here is the link to my presentation last evening at First UMC in Orlando, Florida on.the subject, “All Means All: The Bible’s Affirmation of LGBTQ+ Persons”…

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=CyHF3CCRvPs
Here is the handout/outline given to those who were present…

“All Means All: The Bible’s Affirmation of LGBTQ+ People” Dr. Steve Harper

Introduction

 –context before texts

 –a “panoramic view”

I. Creator

 –God is love (1 John 4:8)

 –love for the sake of others (hesed/agape)

 –love for all (Jeremiah 32:24; John 3:16)

II. Creation

 –nonbinary (parings are not “twos”)

 –variety (“kind” and plural words)

 –goodness (Hebrew: tob)

 –godliness (imago dei)

III. Covenant

 –inclusiveness (Genesis 9:10; Genesis 12:3)

 –goodness (how the goodness of creation is expressed in everyday living)

 –life (Deuteronomy 4:1; Deuteronomy 30:19)

IV. Christ

 –says nothing explicitly about homosexuality

 –models key elements of inclusion: 

 –invitation to all (Matthew 11:28)

 –valuing of eunuchs (Matthew 19:12)

 –prayer in John 17

V. Church

 –witness to universaity (Colossians 3:11)

 –inclusion of all (Galatians 3:28)

 –eunuch was first convert after the church scattered (Acts 8:27)

VI. Consummation

 –trajectory of God’s eternal plan (Ephesians 1:9-10)

 –vision of God’s accomplished plan (Revelation 7:9)
Conclusion

 –taking all six vantage points into consideration:  all means ALL (Psalm 150:6)

 –everything boils down to this: you are God’s beloved child!

For Further Reading

 David Gushee, Changing Our Minds (3rd edition)

 Steve Harper, For the Sake of the Bride

 Jennifer Knust, Unprotected Texts

Posted in For the Bride

For the Bride: Resuming Posts

Following last night’s event at First United Methodist Church in Orlando, I am resuming posts in this “For the Bride” category. Previous posts were essentially expansions on things I wrote about in my book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride’ (Abingdon Press, 2014).  You can go back to them as you like.

The revived posts in this series continue the journey, enabling me to add new thoughts to the series. I am beginning with reposting a few things I put on Facebook earlier today, so they can be archived in a better way.  If you have already seen them, skip them and wait for upcoming new posts.  Here is the reflection I posted earlier on Facebook about last evening…

Last evening Jeannie and I had the opportunity to spend time with LGBTQ+ folks, allies, and others who came to hear my presentation, “All Means All: The Bible’s Affirmation of LGBTQ+ Persons.”

It was a moving evening for me, because a planned segment of the evening included some Q&A, and I visited personally with some others as well.

In the span of two hours, I met people who had been kicked out of their homes by Christian parents when they came out.  I heard of someone who died by suicide within the past month because Christians had drained him of his sense of humanity.

And in addition to this, I heard again stories from LGBTQ+ Christians who were worship leaders, choir members, youth ministers, lay leaders, and serving Christ in other ways in churches……until…..until.  All they had to do was say, “I’m gay” and they were gone–told by pastors and fellow Christians (in a variety of ways) that they were “less than” people, no longer permitted to minister in the congregation.  Some were paid staff members, who were told to clean out their desks and leave the building.

And yet, here they all were last evening in First UMC Orlando–still coming to church believing that there is a difference between how they have been treated by the church and how God feels about them.  Still believing that the Inner Voice who says, “You are my beloved” is the true voice, not the voices they have heard from Christian parents, pastors, and friends who say, “You’re an abomination.”
The imago dei is in everyone, and nothing can snuff it out–not even the voices of those who claim to speak for God…but do not. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”  And our LGBTQ+ friends know this at a deeper level than many of us “hetero-privileged”, “church-approved” people do.

Last evening, Jeannie and I were blessed to be with our siblings in Christ.  And oh my yes, there is a difference between our ragamuffin fellowship and the sanitized “pure church mentality” that does all it can to preserve itself.  Last evening, we were among God’s beloved children, who welcomed us with open arms, and who offered us Christ from a depth of experience that is always a thin place between heaven and earth when love prevails.  We “had church”–oh my, did we ever!

Posted in For the Bride

Here and Now: Sabbath

Sabbath-keeping is a sign we are living a here-and-now life.  But to see this, we must not view the Sabbath as one day in seven separated and isolated from the other six.

Jesus pointed to the right view of sabbath when he said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  He was talking about the flow–the sabbath into us, not us into a particular day.  Sabbath is a rhythm, not a day–a pattern, not a 24-hour period. So, how does sabbath influence living in the present moment?

More than anything else, it is a reminder that every moment is a gift, and it is lived by grace. Kimberly Richter notes that when we lose the sabbath, “we become enslaved to our economy and efforts. We come to believe everything depends on what we can provide for ourselves. To keep a rhythm of Sabbath rest is to remember that God is the maker and giver of all good things.” [1]

Out of this realization we live humbly in every moment, giving thanks to God who is the Source of the here-and-now, and offering ourselves in each moment as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) to be instruments of God’s peace.  We take on the disposition of Paul, realizing we are the servants of others for Christ’s sake (2 Corinthians 4:5).

This is precisely why the idea of rest is associated with sabbath.  In a literal sense, it is the renewal which occurs as we adopt the work/rest pattern in each day.  And in the figurative sense, it is the relaxation which comes (as Richter noted above) as we realize we are not the creators of moments, but only the beneficiaries of and servants within them. To be fully present in a moment is to live the sabbath, receiving from and giving to what that moment is.

[1] ‘The Life With God Bible’ (HarperOne, 2005), 69 nt.

Posted in Here and Now