Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Valuing the Word

June 28, 2018

The second day of our regional convention for my denominational polity.  This morning there was a vote on who can or can’t vote at these sorts of meetings.

Our polity places a strong value on the priesthood of all believers.  This is a theological concept that although all are called to different vocations, professional Church work is by no means an elevated or superior form of work than any other.  As such, we have striven to maintain a political balance between the laity (typical parishioners who have no theological training or education for a Church position) and clergy.  Each congregation in our regional polity is entitled to two votes at these conventions – their pastor can cast one and they can send a lay delegate to cast a vote as well.  Under this model, neither clergy nor laity has undue influence over the decisions of the denomination as a whole.

The fly in the ointment is that we have created a third type of person – someone with theological training or education, but who isn’t serving as a pastor.  We call these people Commissioned.  They’re not lay people, but they aren’t clergy either.  They hold positions like Director of Christian Education, or school principal or teacher.  Moreover, from the lay perspective they may sometimes appear more like pastors than not, and from the pastor perspective they may seem more like lay people than not.  In order to avoid throwing off the balance one way or another, this group of people (between 9000-10000 nationally) has not been granted the right to vote in conventions.  By everyone’s agreement, Commissioned folks in our denomination are neither fish nor fowl, to use the old saw, and they aren’t happy about this.

Over and over again efforts have been made to change this.  Usually they are shot down.  Today it  wasn’t, but it won’t really matter because although our regional polity voted to allow Commissioned folks to vote, it will get shot down at the national level.  It was surprising that it passed today as it normally gets voted down.

To me, the interesting thing about this wrestling match isn’t the issue of whether there’s a problem or  not.  It’s not that Commissioned folks are unhappy with how things are going or have gone, necessarily, they just want to vote.  There was no discussion of how this would or wouldn’t address wrongs of the past, or prevent problems in the future.  It was just the idea that everyone ought to have a voice, and if they don’t, then there’s a problem.

Is there?

As with any vocation I’m sure there are situations where these Commissioned workers are not listened to by their pastors or lay people, and feel unrepresented in the voting process.  But I’d wager that far more of them do feel like they’re listened to.  But in our culture, if you don’t get to vote, you don’t get a say, and if you don’t have a say, you aren’t valued.

This sort of rationale makes me itchy.  As a 21st century American I’m conditioned to dislike disenfranchisement.  But is that alone a reason for making this sort of change?  I’m unconvinced.  Once again there’s this emphasis on making our own decisions about what  we want or don’t want, who we like or don’t like.  This sounds a lot different than trusting the Holy Spirit.  It’s not that the Holy Spirit can’t work through democratic processes.  But I’ve heard a lot more about rights and entitlements so far the past day and a half than I have about how the Holy Spirit protects and guides the Church.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising.

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Legal or Right?

May 31, 2018

A correspondence friend directed me to this article.  He presumed that I would draw the same conclusions as him  – that fighting to ban abortion is really a moot point because there are numerous ways for women to effect abortions without a clinic.

Actually, I draw a different conclusion, which is that it really does matter if we ban abortion because in banning abortion we can quit talking about abortion as though it’s equivalent to clipping fingernails, trimming hair, or other equally inaccurate metaphors.  We must ban abortion in recognition that what grows in a woman’s body as a result of sexual intercourse is, in fact, a human being and entitled therefore to the full protection of the law just as a baby or toddler or adult is.  When this happens, we can begin teaching this truth to people – men and women, boys and girls – so that they will think differently about their actions and the results of those actions and their moral options for dealing with those results.

I’m sure this isn’t the desired takeaway from the author’s perspective.  However her article omits some very important details that might lead one to her conclusion rather than mine.  First of all, she cites estimates in Brazil that between 500,000 and 1 million abortions are estimated to take place every year despite abortion being illegal.  How is this estimate arrived at?  I’m assuming it’s based to some degree on prescriptions for certain drugs, but how do they distinguish between the legitimate uses of those drugs or the illegitimate uses?  That’s a rather large spread for  an estimate as well!  And finally, there’s no mention of what the abortion rates were prior to abortion being made illegal.

If we want to stop the killing of unborn children, we must both ban abortion as well as re-educate people.  This is exactly the technique that the pro-abortion camp used in reverse.  It seems dangerously naive to think that abortion rates won’t be affected by making it illegal and actually teaching people that when they seek abortion they are in fact seeking to kill a human being.  While it might still be possible to achieve the desired effect through alternate means, I believe there would also be a large drop in the number of people who would consider availing themselves of these means.

This would also necessitate a reconsideration of the Sexual Revolution in whole, but I don’t think that’s such a bad idea either.  Education can’t fix everything, but it can certainly make headway in quite a few areas!

Stop Rewriting Our Past

May 17, 2018

The problem with rewriting the moral undergirding of a culture is the transition period.  More specifically, it is the transitional period of which the rewriters are part of that is most problematic.  How to explain adequately that there has been a massive change, and that people were a part of things before the change as well as after the change?  That they were more or less happy with things in the past but now are compelled to say that those things were bad and wrong.  How to reconcile how things – and we – used to be, with how things and ourselves are now perceived to be?  There is a strong temptation to defensiveness, an attempt to filter history in such a way as to show that the ideas and themes that are championed today were actually there all along if we just had eyes to see them, or people to tell us that this is what was really happening.  What results is a type of historical revision, and the awkward part is that there are people around who know that this is a load of mule muffins.

Case in point, Lando Calrissian.  For those of you who didn’t grow up with Star Wars as part of your cultural fabric, Lando is the dashing rogue turned hero who appears in The Empire Strikes Back, portrayed by Billy Dee Williams.  I never understood why he didn’t get more of a prominent place in the franchise, but I guess if you wait long enough and sell off the rights to the franchise, eventually someone will come around to exploring those overlooked characters more.  And so it is that Calrissian will have a role in the new Han Solo spin-off movie, although played by a different and younger actor.

Fair enough.

Except that the original Calrissian is, at least in the eyes of some, being rewritten into something he never was – a hero/icon/whatever for the LGBT community.  And the guy trying to do the rewriting is a venerated veteran of the Star Wars community – Lawrence Kasdan.  In a recent interview Kasdan claims that Lando is a pan-sexual, someone who is not limited to sexual preferences and practices regarding “biological sex, gender, or gender identity”.  Kasdan claims that not only the new portrayal of Lando but also Williams’ original portrayal lead us towards this conclusion.  Kasdan is not speaking authoritatively – he doesn’t get to arbitrarily dictate the canon of Star Wars, but he carries a lot of weight.

The problem is, regardless of how the new movie portrays Lando, there’s nothing in the original character’s portrayal in 1980 that would lead us to this conclusion at all.  By revisiting a character and redefining him now according to popular ideas, there is the assumption that we can cast these ideas back to the original character.

Except you can’t.

I remember Lando.  I remember thinking he was dashing and handsome and charming – all characteristics that came into full play only with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher).  Lando and Han (Harrison Ford) were friends, and friends with a long and complicated past to be sure, but there was nothing flirty in their interactions.  The closest you could get to anything like this would be the fact that they hug shortly after reuniting in Bespin.

But that scene clearly is not romantic or erotic in any way.  It’s clear that both of them are somewhat wary of the other, and Han more so of Lando than visa versa.  If you want to get theological, Lando’s hug is a form of Judas kiss, attempting to put Solo at ease while perhaps identifying him to the guards watching who may eventually have to ensure that he does not escape.  There are many nuances which can only be appreciated after the film is over.  But there’s no mistaking this for any sort of sexualized behavior.

But that’s what it has to be in order to be appreciated properly by today’s standards.  So Lando will be rewritten to be sexually ambiguous, which in the process will throw Han’s sexuality into question as well.  What gets undermined is two strong, masculine, heterosexual characters.  What gets undermined is the concept of manly friendship, friendship that can be close and intimate without being sexualized (PLEASE read C.S. Lewis’ marvelous book The Four Loves for a wondrous exposition on the necessity and beauty of such masculine friendship!).  What gets undermined are the role models of previous generations, because now there is guilt associated with cheering them on in their heterosexual appreciation and tug of war over a beautiful woman, a woman also strong enough in her own right to hold her own and seek to maintain a certain element of aloofness and control in the midst of a situation she realizes at a gut level is suspicious.

All of that can be pitched because what we really want to sell today is sexuality and sexuality as unrestricted and self-defined as we feel like it.  In the long run, that sales pitch will become more and more effective as those who lived through the transition – and can thus speak out against the historical revision through first-person experience – die off (or, as has already happened, get cowed into silence by a militant and vocal vanguard for the new order).

I’m not dead yet.  And I haven’t forgotten.  And whatever Kasdan’s personal issues are, and regardless of how the new movie may attempt to redefine the character, Lando will remain for me that original charming and clearly heterosexual man he appeared to be – and which nearly everyone who saw those original movies both wanted him and assumed him to be.  There wasn’t anything wrong with that.  There still isn’t.  Quit trying to rewrite my history – our history – into something else.

 

Cultural Appropriation

May 16, 2018

Much fuss has been made in the past few weeks, both pro and con, over a young woman’s prom dress choice.  A girl in Utah chose a traditional Chinese dress as her prom dress, and after posting pictures online was accused of cultural appropriation, igniting a storm (well, a brief storm) of controversy over whether a non-Chinese person can wear a Chinese dress, which is really just a small scale discussion over whether anyone can utilize anything that is not from their own culture.  It sounds insane, I know.  But people apparently have a lot of time on their hands and they peruse it on their smart phones while they walk and buy groceries, looking for things to be outraged by.  Major news outlets picked up the story, so it must be important, right?

There are, admittedly, some terrible prom dresses out there.  Don’t just take my word for it.  But realize that you can’t unsee some of these things.

It got me thinking about the issue of cultural appropriation, something that has clunked around the back of my brain for decades now, courtesy of one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury.

I’ve written before of his ability to foresee issues that evolved well after the time of his writing.  Brighter readers than myself agree.  But the story that came to the forefront of my mind in regards to this prom dress debacle is one of his more obscure short fiction stories written in 1953 called Sun and Shadow.  I’m not sure if this is a legal online reprint or not, but you can read the story here.

I prefer Bradbury’s treatment of the topic to the Twitter storm associated with the prom dress.  There are related themes but he takes the time to flesh them out a bit, driving the point home solidly in the closing paragraphs.  How easy is it for us to turn locations and people and fashions into backdrops for our own enjoyment?  Very.  So easy, in fact, that I’m not sure it can be avoided.  History is one long cultural appropriation.  From one group to another.  One nation to another.  One continent to another.  And back again.  We are forever taking ideas from other people and other places.  Sometimes it can be done well and beautifully and sometimes it is merely exploitative and tawdry.  But it goes on constantly.

Is it possible in any given instance to give full appreciation to the sources, the founts from which we draw our spur-of-the-moment decisions in fashion or photography or even literature?  I strongly doubt it.  I can hope that it is done well rather than poorly, but beyond that there is no clear way to limit a dress or a photograph.  Movies are rebooting themselves at a dizzying rate.  Everything we do or say is impacted to some degree by everything and everyone we’ve seen or read.

We can get past the potential anger at such appropriation by remembering that the whims of fashion and culture are not purely our own devices, but rather are made possible by so many factors that all ultimately find their anchor in a common Creator.  A Creator who endowed us with great creativity of our own that matches – in an appropriate lesser degree – his own creativity.   I can appreciate a palm tree as well as a fruit tree, a hedgehog as well as a kangaroo.  When I see these as gifts of the Creator rather than some kind of cultural heritage for me to protect from everyone else in the world, it reduces my angst quite a bit.  Likewise, if we can appreciate fashion from China as well as from Mexico, it should be something that elevates and makes all of us better, drawing us closer together rather than providing a point for further dissension and disagreement.  Finally, if I can see even my cultural heritage as a gift rather than as a commodity, this should free me from seeing it as something in need of protection.

As a Christian, should we find it wrong to sing an African spiritual hymn if we’re predominantly a congregation of Western Europeans?  Is it likewise wrong to teach a traditional German hymn to a group of recently baptized Syrian refugees?  Or should we be able to celebrate the creativity of God expressed through a still-very-much-at-work Holy Spirit?  Should we not join hands in repentance as we continue to learn to see God from one another’s perspectives as guided by the Biblical witness?  If this is our goal and methodology, is it possible for us to still see other cultures, other histories, other fashions, other architecture as simply something to exploit for our own benefit or enjoyment or profit?

I think not.

 

Leading Change

May 10, 2018

I’m not a big proponent of change.  I’ll be the first to admit it these days, something that is hard after considering myself an outsider and out-of-the-box-thinker earlier in my life.  Part of working in an institution of any kind is that you become part of it, and to one extent or another it becomes a part  of you, so that change becomes increasingly difficult to envision or push for the longer you’re part of the institution.  Probably why successful change-makers tend to be folks (at least in my conception of them) who come in quickly, make changes quickly, and probably leave again just as quickly.  There’s no chance for attachment to processes or people, because attachment makes change harder.

But I also like to consider myself a realist, which means that there are times when change is inevitable, and it’s only a matter of how you approach it.  Are you proactive and engaged and involved when change is something you have the ability to influence or direct?  Or are you bitter and angry when change is beyond your control and you’re merely forced to react to the realities you never thought were going to become real?  To me there’s a world of difference in those two positions, and part of the difference lies in whether or not you’ll be able to weather the change and continue on in a different form, or whether the change kills you, the institution, or both.

My institution is a historic denominational congregation that is part of a historic denominational polity that sees itself very much in the same stream of Christian worshipers and churches going all the way back to the Apostles.  Which means change is hard.  In part because the attachment is pretty darn huge, and in part because change has to be weighed and measured against a very long history of Christian belief and practice.  Change is not done in a vacuum (ideally), but rather is contextualized and shaped by everything that has come before whether static or dynamic.

It also means that my congregation (as well as myself to a lesser extent) are used to congregational life looking a certain way.  Worship on Sunday mornings.  Maybe even Bible study or Sunday School on Sunday mornings.  Maybe an additional service the same day or through the week.  Programs for the various demographics of the congregation.  A great deal of activity focused and centered not only on the life of the church but at the physical church itself.  So for over a century, my congregation has conceived of itself as a people of a place.  Four different places over the last century, but places all the same.  The only reason one place was let go of was to expand to a larger place that would better accommodate the needs of the congregation.  By American standards, that’s a good change.  Bigger and better is always good – often physically but other times just in terms of capacity.  But there was always a place because you needed a place for all those people to do all the things that they wanted to do or the church wanted them to do.

As Americans we equate places – ownership of places – with a lot of things.  Respectability.  Legitimacy.  Permanency.  In a country where people can come from a lot of different places and say and claim a lot of different things, traditionally the ownership of a building has distinguished (perhaps psychologically if not overtly) the real McCoys from charlatans; community members from passers-through.  And also as Americans, the bigger the place, the better or more legitimate.  You weren’t just hanging on, you had arrived.  You were established.  You only left your place for something bigger and better.  Choosing to leave for another reason was suspect, rare, and by-and-large unnecessary.

Is that still the case?  In the business world it isn’t.  Brick and mortar shops are closing all over the place.  Venerable chains like Sears or Montgomery Ward struggle to stay alive or don’t exist at all any more.  Shopping malls that were the social and commercial hub for communities and teen-agers now sit derelict and empty.  People found a new way to get what they wanted.  Or their needs have changed.  The commercial landscape is littered with the derelict remains of the behemoths of a bygone age.

In Europe we see the same thing with the cathedrals.  A few dozen people at most gather for worship in this monumental artistic accomplishments.  The congregations can’t care for them any more because there are too few members and therefore not enough money being tithed.  The Catholic Church struggles to maintain them as well.  Alternate uses are being sought for some of these properties.  More than just a new delivery system has brought about this change.  More and more people are saying they don’t need God, or they don’t need the Church.  Some find new religions or philosophies.  Many drift into apathy.

We’re seeing the same thing here in the US.  Despite a majority of Americans claiming to believe in God, fewer and fewer of them are showing up at church on Sunday morning.  The beatniks and hippies of the 50’s and 60’s have given rise to multiple generations that are even less churched and less familiar with the Bible even as a cultural phenomenon.  Congregations worry about how to let people know they’re there.  They build new signs or new buildings to attract people.  But it isn’t a matter of not knowing where churches are – Google can provide that information in a heartbeat.  The problem is that fewer and fewer people care.  The idea of Sunday worship seems anachronistic to many folks in a digital age.  Efforts to become more attractive by changing how we worship have by and large failed to result in any resurgence of interest in all but a few places.

How do you respond in this kind of a ‘market shift’?  You  find a way to adapt or you go out of business.  Just like Sears or JC Penny’s.  If people are shopping in an entirely new way you can’t simply hope that better advertising will win them back over to driving to your store.  You can talk about how it used to be, once upon a time.  You can hope to draw them back in with lower prices or sales or other events, but after some period of time you have to realize this isn’t working.  You have to find a better or different way to connect with your customers in ways and places that are relevant to them.  Or you declare bankruptcy and auction off your assets.

There are good ways to adapt and bad.  There are half-hearted changes and real changes.  There are faithful changes and unfaithful changes.  There’s a danger in change that you lose who you are, that you sacrifice or erase or muddle your uniqueness, the quintessential aspects of yourself.  But there are ways to bring who you are out in new ways, in new contexts.  To introduce yourself or what you represent to people in a different setting where they’re better able to receive it and appreciate it.

But those changes are hard, as the business world will attest to.  Just because you have a good product doesn’t mean that your model for  delivering it will be sustainable.  Brand loyalty is hard to measure when there are myriads of brands from all over the world instantly accessible through Amazon or Google.  And like many businesses, it seems many congregations can’t make that fundamental shift from what was and is to something different.  It’s not a fault, per se.  We aren’t naturally equipped for these sorts of decisions.  And many – perhaps most – congregations don’t.  They slip gradually in membership until there are too few left to keep things going.  Bitter and angry or perhaps relieved, they hand the keys over to someone else, or sell the assets off and distribute legacy gifts to others who are still operational.  These are good ways of blessing others, but most people in my experience would rather figure out a way not to have to give away these kinds of blessings.

Sometimes change is inevitable.  In which case you better really give some serious thought to what that might mean or deal with the likely results of insisting on keeping things the same.  There’s a world of difference between those two end-points.  God the Holy Spirit is alive and at work in both of them, to be sure.  But it’s a lot more exciting when a congregation is able to make a big change proactively rather than gradually react to a changing environment.  We sing the praises of those folks even as we acknowledge and marvel at what hard work or great faithfulness enabled such a switch.  Nobody wants to be in the other category.  We pray with them and for them and take solace in the comfort of our Lord and pray and resolve not to be in their shoes someday.

As long as it doesn’t require us to change.

Important Words

February 26, 2018

This is an excellent essay reminding us of the important function of community, both towards families as well as the state.  In the ultimate discussions of solutions to the hopelessness engulfing our youth, we need to remember that it isn’t laws or tools that should be the focus, but neighbors and community.

How Your Kids and Grandkids are Dating

January 25, 2018

Coming of age in the 80’s, the possibilities of who to date were limited by who I knew and what they knew about me.  Possibilities were limited to the social circles I moved in – school, work, and church.  In high school I thought it was exotic that some people would date people who went to a different school.  I went to a big high school (my graduating class had over 900 people in it), so while I might not know the girl who caught my eye, I could network socially (with actual real people, in person) to dig up information that would help me determine whether or not I they were someone I might be interested in asking out, and whether I stood a chance in asking them out.  Life was further simplified by the fact that regardless of the first answer, the second answer was nearly always a resounding no.

But I digress.

Things didn’t change a lot in the workplace.  You’d meet the new co-worker, chat a little bit around the copier, and between those interactions and the input of co-workers, figure out the answer to those same two questions.  Church was the same.

There were places you could go, of course, to meet different people that you might want to date but weren’t likely to meet at work or school or church.  But there were also stigmas to certain degrees about such encounters as well.   Bars, nightclubs, the local mall, video arcades.  I personally didn’t find those options terribly appealing or effective, but I know that some people did, and still do.

But people today of dating age evidently consider those options claustrophobic and very limiting.  Why limit yourself to potentially dating just people that you know casually at school or work, or have seen in those environments?  Aren’t more options always better than fewer?  How about eliminating the human factor in social networking and just rely solely on what a person looks like and how clever they can be in 2-3 sentences?  What could possibly go wrong?

So early on in the Internet, people were working out ways to meet people for romantic possibilities, and now in the age of mobile phones we have not only dating web sites where people can take the time and effort to input meaningful answers to help others determine if they might be compatible (or to make up completely false stuff they hope sounds good to others), but there are myriad dating apps that provide a face and a very short bio as the sole criteria for determining possible interest.

With little more than a face and a concise, curated online persona, they determine whether to swipe left (pass over) or swipe right (express interest in) to begin chatting and determining if they want to meet up in person.  But just because they meet in person doesn’t mean that they really know each other after texting each other or maybe talking on the phone.  In fact, odds are that they don’t even know the other person’s last name until well into the relationship, according to this Wall Street Journal essay.

Young folks now find it creepy that someone would want their last name, presumably to look up more information about them online.  So they’re not divulging last names in favor of nicknames until they determine the relationship is important enough to risk revealing their fuller online personality.  The story opens with a vignette of a young woman at dinner with a man she’s been dating for three months, and it’s at this point that he asks her for her last name, cluing her in that he was elevating the relationship level.  I’ll assume she didn’t know his last name either, and this wasn’t a problem for either of them.

Considering that in our culture having sex by the third date is considered normal (if not a bit on the late side), this means couples are doing a heck of a lot more than just having dinner together without knowing anything more about the other person than what that person chooses to tell them or show them on the date or via online texts and phone conversations.

Is it just me or is that really weird – regardless of the sex aspect of things?  It seems to highlight all sorts of things about how dating is approached these days.

  1.  People find it unsafe to share with a suitor the details they routinely share with the hundreds or thousands of acquaintances, friends and family they are connected with online.
  2. The assumption is that everyone is dating (or just hooking up with for casual sex) multiple people at any given time, therefore the need for more personal information is unnecessary unless the relationship is moving beyond the casual hang-out or hook-up to something more serious (and I presume exclusive).
  3. Actually having other people who can provide information helpful to us about someone who has caught our eye is a thing of the past.  Perhaps because of the 2nd item above, people prefer anonymity in dating, hiding their friends and family from who they’re seeing, and visa versa.
  4. Wanting to be able to validate that what someone claims is true about themselves is actually true is now seen as creepy and in itself a reason to potentially quit seeing the other person.

It’s not that people haven’t always been able to lie in relationships.  If you met a cute girl at the mall or a bar you had no idea whether what she told you about herself was true or not.  That was the understanding, at one level or another.  And perhaps part of the appeal.  And perhaps that’s why I never really found those dating options appealing.  It made much more sense to me to have a better idea of what I might be getting myself into rather than seeking out a series of essentially blind dates with people I knew nothing about.

But if this is now the norm for things, which I can’t help but think is problematic.  According to this Pew Research study from two years ago, while the stigma of online dating has declined, and while more people claim to be using online dating services and apps, only 5% of married couples at the time reported they met online.  I’d be curious what those rates are now.  If that rate remains low, it could indicate that people are using dating apps more for hook-ups and casual sex than with any real intention of a serious relationship.  Which would make the information they provide about themselves potentially even more suspect, which would justify not sharing any more about themselves than they absolutely have to – including last names.

Which means that people need to be honest about what they’re hoping for from online dating sites or apps, and regardless of their intentions personally, recognize what the intentions likely are of the people they’re hoping to meet.  Hoping to meet and date a stranger you meet by chance isn’t any less dangerous or unreliable than it ever has been.  But it likely is a lot more so.

 

 

 

True Worship II

December 20, 2017

Thinking further about this, it came to me that it isn’t just a matter of people deciding not to go to church any more on Christmas that is at issue.  Once again, it’s a complicated subject.  One that is complicated to great extent by our mobile culture and our oft-cited idea that one can (or even should) work and live wherever they want.

I’ve ended up doing this more by hook than by crook.  I understand the appeal of living in different places and seeing different parts of the world and learning about culture and food and all sorts of ancillary aspects of God’s amazing creation (and sometimes our sinful twisting of it).  We recently bid farewell to a young woman headed for multiple parts of the world over the next six months, after living four years away from her family so she could attend university and then another two years after that as she waited to figure out what her next moves (heh) in life would be.

But this mobility is a somewhat new phenomenon, historically speaking.  It used to be that in general, you stayed where you were raised.  In great part because work and family were more closely intertwined, and so the odds of going away from home and finding work were much smaller for most people than the odds of already having work at home.  Most people didn’t go off to work, but lived and worked all in the same or closely related setting.

Family members were more apt to stay put, which meant you had larger networks of extended families all in the same location.  Which meant that Christmas worship wasn’t something that was separate from all your other Christmas traditions – it was a part of them because practically all of your extended family was going to be at church as well.  Church was a more natural part of the larger family celebration of Christmas (or Easter, or just an average Sunday).

Now that’s not as often the case.  Most of the members in my congregation have to travel somewhere else to be with their kids and grandkids for the holidays.  Or their family has to travel to them, often from multiple locations around the country, which of course is hard to coordinate and often doesn’t happen.  Our Sunday Happy Hour Crew is mostly still of the age (early 20’s) that they go home to be with their parents for Christmas.

This sounds at one level as though not much has changed.  Family is still together on Christmas, so they should naturally be at church, right?  Sure, I can agree with that.  Except that mom and dad’s church may not be son and daughter’s church.  Or it may be the same church with a new pastor.  Or the pastor may be the same, but son and daughter were whisked away to children’s church every Sunday and never formed relationships with the pastor or the other adults in the congregation, so effectively their parent’s church really is a different church from the one they went to, even if the location and the preaching pastor is the same.

All of which continues to contribute to a sense that church really isn’t part of the family’s Christmas observance, even if technically they were all at church together before.

I’m not advocating throwing our hands in the air and saying well that’s that, we might as well cancel our Christmas worship.   There are plenty of people who still incorporate church as part of their Christmas day celebration.  There are still a few who will wander out on Christmas by some indefinable prompting even if they don’t go to church the rest of the year.

And while people may relocate away from family more often these days, this highlights the important aspect that church can play as a new family to transplants.  Few of my parishioners were born and grew up here.  Most came from elsewhere, generally in their 20’s with spouses and children in tow.  But they found a home away from home, a family away from family in their congregation.  I visited a woman in the hospital who is 91-years old.  She was sitting and talking with a woman she has been best friends with for 60 years.  Many of the people in my congregation have known each other for more than half a decade.  They are family to one another, which is an incentive for them to come to worship regularly.  They’re getting to see their family that they didn’t get to see most of the rest of the week.

Just like people did centuries ago.

The rise of the Church and particular celebratory observances was facilitated in great part by the fact that families – extended families – would all go together.  It was part of their tradition (and if they were Roman Catholic, also an obligation on their part!) together.  While we can lament that this is no longer the case, we should at least acknowledge that this will have an impact on church attendance patterns on holy days.  And we should, as the church and parents and grandparents, be encouraging our kids and grandkids to plug into congregations where they live, so that they can begin building the relationships that will serve as surrogate family to them all the rest of the year when they don’t travel home to be with Mom and Dad and the rest of the clan.

Sin and Sexuality

November 30, 2017

It’s on most everyone’s minds, whether they say it or not.  The recent spate of high-profile offenders only makes the topic both less accessible and more salacious.  We don’t talk about us, but we talk about it, and we talk about others.  I would argue this is the nature of most sexual thought and conversation that goes on in people’s heads and hearts as well as in rare exchanges with people they can be honest with.  We are forever removing ourselves directly from the conversation to project outwards.  This essay does some good work in talking about this from a male perspective.

Of course it’s a misleading essay as well, and certainly a misleading title.  As though only men are brutal or capable of brutality – sexually or otherwise!  It lacks the raw honesty of the Biblical take on the topic of human sexuality as well as sin, a take that understands that both men and women have issues in their sexuality and otherwise.  It might easily be argued that these issues are some of the deepest and most pertinent to who we are as people day in and day out.  I can’t imagine it’s for nothing that the first things we’re told about Adam and Eve after falling into sin by eating the forbidden fruit is they recognize their nakedness and cover it.  It isn’t just woman who recognizes the dangerous vulnerability in her sexuality, but man as well.  Both know they aren’t safe any longer.  It isn’t safe because of the opposite sex (or homosexual variations), and it isn’t safe because of ourselves.

A few comments on the essay.  The first paragraph is misleading and inaccurate.  Marche asserts that what a man says and believes have no bearing on their behavior.  I think this is patently untrue and a straw-man whitewashing of the issue for simplicity’s sake.  The reality is far more complicated.  What a man (or woman) believes, and therefore what he (or she) says, has a great deal of relationship and correlation to how he (or she) acts.  But it isn’t air-tight.  It isn’t bulletproof.  It isn’t perfect.  It’s marred by sin.  By a fundamental disjunction in the individual that makes the perfect  alignment of belief and practice at all times and in all circumstances impossible.  I believe that some of these men believe very strongly and practice very faithfully acceptable ideas about the relationship of men to women.  But I also know that in any particular moment, or even potentially multiple particular moments, their beliefs have not been enough to alter their actions, their words, and their needs or desires.  Sin crouches at each one of our doors, and its desire to have control over us, to eat us alive now and eternally is insatiable.  The life of faith is keeping that sin at bay as best as possible.  But such efforts are inevitably imperfect and flawed.  We all fail in one way or another, at one time or another.  Sexual sin may be the  bête noir of the moment (but hasn’t it always been?) but it is not fundamentally different from any sin in this respect.

Granted – I believe some of the accused are serial perpetrators, actual predators who may say things that people expect them to say but don’t really believe them and had no intention of living them out.  These are the folks who duly deserve to be held accountable in the fullest sense.   I believe others are guilty of actual sin that is not serial in nature.  Their failures are lapses in otherwise good belief and behavior.  They have fallen prey to sin in their hearts and minds, but this is Biblically a different situation than assenting to, endorsing, or validating their sin.  Some of these folks may have sinned in spite of themselves.  And as sin almost always does, this causes harm not just to themselves but to others, and ultimately and always is first and foremost an offense against God.  Should they be censured for these failures?  Certainly.  Should they be destroyed for them?  That’s a question that isn’t going to get much traction in the witch-hunt atmosphere currently gripping our culture.  If we’re going to talk about power imbalances, we should certainly note the huge one right now, where any allegation or accusation can instantly cause irreparable damage, even before it’s substantiated.  In the public court of Twitter, there is no legal principle of innocent before proven guilty.

But to simply say that men (and by implication only men) are incapable of ever being trusted in what they say or profess, and are always and only actively looking for ways to act contrary to their professions is dishonest and inaccurate to any sense of observable reality internally or externally.  Would the author characterize himself this way?  Then why should I bother even reading what he has to say?

The second place I disagree with Marche is in his  second paragraph, where he asserts that the men in question have nothing in common except their sexual misdeeds.  This is not true.  The men in question all share power.  They are all men in position of influence and control of one sort or another.  In other words, they are all men who in addition to the temptation to sexual sin have perhaps a greater opportunity to indulge it.  Impropriety can happen in a great variety of situations but it more naturally lends itself to power imbalance, as Marche rightly understands.  Unfortunately, Marche later in his essay makes the assertion that the nature of sex itself is power or a struggle for power, something inherently unBiblical.  Sexuality is intended not as a power struggle but as the very opposite, the most intimate act of vulnerability.  But of course such vulnerability is only appropriate in a mutually vulnerable situation, which is what Scripture describes in marriage.  Sin changes the dynamic, of course, so that Adam and Eve sense the danger right away, and we continue to live with it today.  But to make our sexuality into something inherently evil, as some feminists including the one Marche quotes do is to overstep the Biblical description.  Sexuality was created good!.  But it must be guarded now because there are sinful instincts to indulge it outside of the proper relationship.  Outside of marriage it is destructive to the individual, the other person involved, and society at nearly every level.  In the midst of sin we have to be careful with the good gifts of God.  We need to cover ourselves.

This is what we’re seeing.  For over 50 years elements in our culture advocated with increasing persuasiveness and influence that sexuality should be unburdened from the Biblical restraints placed upon it.  They have argued that sexuality should be freely enjoyed by practically anyone (including those who argue for decriminalizing sex with children and the ongoing sexualization of young adolescents in advertising), with practically anyone (including people of any gender and regardless of marital status), practically anytime (thanks to tax-payer funded contraception).  Sex is to be freed of any inhibitions and everyone should enjoy themselves without the worry of complications (the celebration of divorce as an option along with the government-enforced option of killing any unplanned on and unwanted children that might result).  Discarding Biblical notions of sexual propriety and protection (only between a man and a woman who have publicly committed themselves to each other for life in marriage), we’ve been told and shown that sex is easy and fun and simple and everyone should be doing it.

Is it any wonder that we have people who abuse that philosophy – or more accurately, take it to logical conclusions?  And instead of being celebrated as ideological idols they are crucified.  Careers are disparaged and destroyed.  Art and other creative works are immediately jettisoned and rejected.  As though everything a person was and did was bound up specifically with their sexual behavior.

Marche asks the critical question near the end of his essay – How can healthy sexuality ever occur in conditions where men and women are not equal?    The Bible has already provided an answer – put sexuality back where it belongs between two people who are equalized in the relationship of marriage.  Admit that the hyper-sexualized culture we’ve created – where everyone  and anyone is a sexual possibility – is unhealthy and dangerous to everyone, and teach people once again about respect and self-control rather than damage control and spin.  Preventing the abuses that are coming to light, whether predatory and ideological in nature or slips of otherwise good people requires an entire culture grounded in terms of the power, the danger, and the beauty of sexuality.  Such steps will not eliminate all abuse, but they will move towards minimizing it.

Towards this end it isn’t just men who need to examine their masculinity, but women who need to examine their femininity.  And more accurately, both need to examine the reality that there is always a break, a gap, sometimes a chasm between who they claim to be and truly to want to be, and who their thoughts and words and occasional actions show them to be.  There is always a difference between the ideal and the reality.

Modern society has no answer to that gap other than to deny it and excoriate anyone it catches publicly in that gap as some sort of misfit.  But the reality is that every one of us has that gap.  Denying it only exacerbates the problem, and modern philosophy and culture has no answer either for why it is there or what to do about it.  Both are convinced that it can be eradicated through proper breeding and education and controls, which explains the massive shock and indignation in discovering that decades of abortions, contraceptives, educational indoctrination, government dictates and other controls have not eradicated the gap at all.  Thus the shock to find out that people – even people we think are good – fail.  There is no mercy in this system of philosophy and culture.  No forgiveness.  So ultimately everyone dies because everyone fails – some are just better at covering it up than others, or some sin in ways that are more socially permissible than others.

Only the Bible gives an actual explanation for the gap, and offers a solution to the gap both here and now and in the long-term, eternal sense.  Only Christianity acknowledges that we cannot fix the gap on our own no matter how badly we want to.  It has to be closed for us, fixed for us  While that isn’t going to happen this side of eternity, we do have real reason and hope in fighting against our sinfulness, in little by little closing that gap a bit.  Not simply by our own force of will or through fear of societal punishments, but by the very power of God who created us and saved us, living within us and working with us and for us, leading us in the life-long process of battling against sin towards a day when we no longer have to because it will no longer be there within us.

Names will continue to be revealed and heads will continue to roll.  But until we acknowledge the abject failure of the sexual philosophy of the past 50 years, we aren’t going to make any progress towards positive change.  It’s only going to get worse.

 

Exhausted

October 30, 2017

I am.

The last of our guests left five minutes ago.  As my wife prepares for bed I have to take a second to try and process, but there’s too much.  A wonderful mixture of familiar faces and one new one tonight.  And then a multi-hour discussion that spanned the authority of Scripture, the roles of men and women here and now in a fallen world in Christ, and the pain of feeling marginalized as a woman in a male dominated world.

We covered immense theological and emotional terrain.  Tempers flared.  Tears flowed.  Many stood and listened without actively engaging.  By and large people hung into the discussion, but not everyone could or would.  My prayer at the end of the night, as I articulated to one of our recent regulars, is that Satan not be allowed to drive wedges and discord through theological wrestling.  That the relationships that have been built and the community that has formed over the last year and a half would not simply endure, but strengthen and deepen and thrive.  If we can’t struggle with the Word of God as it applies to our lives here and now, what hope is there for any reality of Christian community?  And if this can’t be a place where people can bare their hearts and know that even when they don’t hear what they want to hear they are still loved, then it doesn’t really have a purpose at all.

I think things will be OK.  For most of us at the very least.  For all of us I pray.  And in the meantime, sleep.