Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Homosexuality-- A Plank/Speck Analysis

Today I read Mark Galli's article in the July 2009 edition of Christianity Today entitled, "Is the Gay Marriage Debate Over?"  Quick summary-- he concludes that, despite the church's hypocrisy in regards to marriage, we still need to fight for traditional marriage, even if it feels like we are losing.  

This is an issue that I've wrestled with in my mind and come to no satisfying conclusions.  A few months ago, a Christian friend of mine (who recognized my liberal leanings and was curious about them) asked me to explain where I stood on the issue of homosexuality in our culture and help her think through some of the issues.  Here's what I wrote:

Homosexuality is a difficult issue for the Christian who wants to honor God's standard of righteousness and at the same time love people with Christ-like love.  It is a balance none of us can master, let alone hope to get right the majority of the time.  Every point I can think of on either side of this debate can immediately be countered with an equally valid concern.  I can't make many statements in regard to how Christians should approach homosexuality without qualifying it with a, "Yes, but..."   Needless to say, I don't have this figured out at all.

With that in mind, here's some thoughts.

The Bible calls homosexuality a sin-- and by homosexuality, I would consider it to mean homosexual acts, not just the temptation.  We all are tempted by various sins, but it only becomes a sin when we give into it.  Some Christians try to err on the side of love so much that they no longer call homosexuality a sin.  I don't think that is the loving thing to do-- to ignore the Bible so as to not make someone feel bad.  However, it is high time the evangelical church undergo a "plank/speck analysis" in regards to our condemnation of homosexuality versus our condemnation of other sins.  1 Corinthians 6:8-10 says homosexual offenders will not inherit the kingdom of God, but neither will thieves, the greedy, slanderers or swindlers-- in which case, we're all in trouble.  Romans 1 speaks of God giving people over to their shameful lust, and we point to that as an example of how homosexuality is a more debauched, depraved sin.  Yet we forget to go on to chapter 2, which says, "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?"  

We often think Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction was due to the homosexual acts that were rampant in the city.  But Ezekiel 16:49-50 says, "'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen."  If the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was included to be an example of the consequences of errant sexual behavior, then Lot--who offered up his virgin daughters to the mob-- should have been turned into a pillar of salt or burned up with the rest.  But what does God say?  Arrogant, overfed, unconcerned with the poor and needy.  Yes, they did other "detestable things," but God's main indictment was against how they treated the poor while they stuffed themselves with excess.  That could very easily be God's indictment against the church in America, yet we seem to lack the fire and drive to go after these sins like we do homosexuality.  When have we circulated a petition to end our arrogance?  When have we rallied our fellow Christians to support legislation in favor of the poor and needy?  This is not to say that we have to ignore homosexuality, but we certainly need to put it in perspective.

Perhaps one of the reasons we argue so vehemently against homosexuality is because we perceive it to be a threat to the institution of marriage.  Again, a little plank/speck analysis.  Look at our abysmal divorce rates.  Was that caused by homosexuality?  No.  That was caused by heterosexuals giving up on their commitments and taking the easy road out, aided in part by no-fault divorce laws that let people get divorced on a whim ("irreconcilable differences").  It is easier to get out of a marriage than it is to get out of a business contract.  That is not the fault of homosexuals.  

Perhaps it's because we as Christians know that God ordained marriage between one man and one woman, and we see anything outside of that as a threat to what God ordained.  A husband and wife is a picture of Christ and His Church; a sacred union that is unlike any other human relationship.  What makes this union sacred?  Is it the state?  Is it the church?  Or is it God?  Marriage in the eyes of the state, for all practical purposes, is a purely legal matter.  It is official paperwork for the purposes of taxes, beneficiary designation, and other formalities.  There is no spiritual or sacred dimension in the eyes of the state.  God, through the avenue of his Church, is the one that makes the union sacred.  We may wish the state to enforce the church's designation of marriage, but we cannot force the state to do so on Biblical grounds.  In many (most?) European countries, couples that want to get married have a civil union at the court house where they are legally married in the eyes of the state, and those wanting to then have a separate ceremony at church to get married "for real" in the eyes of God.  Those are two separate steps.  People can be united in legal marriage without uniting before God.  Those that believe marriage is a declaration made before God and His Church are free to undergo such a ceremony-- the state doesn't care either way.

Many Christians, recognizing that we can't get very far arguing our position from Biblical grounds in a secular society, try to argue that homosexual relationships will somehow erode our basic social structure.  For centuries upon centuries, the basic social unit of Western society has been centered around the marriage relationship of one man and one woman.  For us to change that now would to be launch out on some grand social experiment that could have disastrous consequences.  I would argue that no-fault divorce was our first great social experiment, and we are still learning the effects of that as a generations of children grow up as children of divorce.  This is not to say, "Well, we've already screwed up so badly, we might as well chuck it all and stop trying."  But if we are truly concerned about the social structure of our society, should we focus on stopping homosexuals from getting married or focus on strengthening the bonds of heterosexual marriage?  Here is where our prejudices and stereotypes come into play.  We hear that studies show homosexuals tend to have many more sexual partners than heterosexuals.  We hear they are less likely to stay in a committed relationship.  "See?" we say, "they aren't capable of staying in a stable relationship, so we shouldn't let them get married."  Our hypocrisy notwithstanding, does it make sense to say that two people of the same sex that are choosing to stay committed to each other for life undermines the stability of society?

The stickler of the argument for many Christians is children.  Should we let homosexual couples adopt?  Won't that harm children somehow?  Again, we hear studies of how homosexuals are more likely to be abusive.  (I haven't actually looked up any of these studies, but I've heard Christians quote them.  I'm of the mind that you can find any study to support your point of view, regardless of what it is, so I don't put much stock in them.)  Allowing homosexual couples to have children is like saying that a child doesn't need a father or mother.  Again, what of the children of divorce?  Or a spouse that is widowed?  Single parents have been able to raise normal, well-adjusted children, while many married heterosexual couples have abused and thoroughly warped their children.  No child gets to choose the family in which they are raised, but society does have a responsibility to try and protect vulnerable children.  That goes for children in any family situation-- living with heterosexual parents, living with homosexual parents, living with grandparents or extended family, living with foster parents, etc.  To say that homosexual people are incapable of loving and caring for a child and raising them to be a healthy, productive member of society is an allegation that has no proof or basis.  Children are raised in homes where the sin of alcoholism runs rampant.  Children are raised in homes where the sin of greed and pride runs rampant.  Whose to say which child will turn out better?  Is either one too far gone for the grace of God to reach?

Christian's well-meaning attempts to protect marriage as we understand it have resulted in us being labeled as hateful, narrow-minded bigots.  We deserve much of the rebuke.  We say that we love everyone, regardless of their sin, but when we speak out against homosexuality without acknowledging our own sin and complicity, our hypocrisy is so obvious that our secular culture has reason to ignore us.  As homosexuals have gained more support and acceptance from the general population, they have gotten more vocal in their cause for rights.  Often times, they are not asking for "special" rights-- they are asking for basic rights, such as the right to visit their loved one in the hospital even though they aren't immediate family, etc.  As Christians, we should defend everyone's basic rights as human beings and protect them from abuse.  Sadly, we have often been the ones heaping abuse rather than the ones protecting them from it.  An example-- I remember the Christian outrage at a homosexual being allowed to play the leading role in the Christian movie "The End of the Spear."  Did we make God happy by taking a "righteous stand" against homosexuality?  Or, like Sodom and Gomorrah, did our haughty, arrogant spirit anger Him?  We think we are being righteous and holy in this whole debate without realizing the kind of peril we are putting ourselves in. 

So what is a Christian to do?  First, on the personal level, the first step is obvious-- love, love, love.  Treat homosexuals with love and respect.  Don't see them as the enemy or some odd abnormality.  Is there some link to genetics that causes some to be more predisposed to homosexuality?  Perhaps; perhaps not.  It doesn't change how we ought to treat them.  We lovingly correct when necessary, but we let the Holy Spirit do the convicting.  If we do address the issue, we do so with all humility, freely confessing our own sins and faults and recognizing we do not have the moral high ground.

On the legislative level, we have two options.  We continue to "fight" for traditional marriage as we have been.  Maybe we will ultimately be successful, but I doubt it.  We have already moved too far in the direction of changing laws.  So we continue to "fight" but lose this legal battle and be further stigmatized as bigots and haters.  Or we could concede and let the state change the way it defines marriage-- any civil union between two consenting adults.  Let civil marriage become a mere legal partnership in which two people decide to live their life together for purposes of housing, taxes, benefits, etc.  We keep religious marriage a separate ceremony with a deeper meaning, and we focus on strengthening those bonds forged in the eyes of God.  Of course, once homosexuality gains legal legitimacy, how will Christians be able to call it a sin?  Will non-profit groups have to hire homosexuals even if it goes against their beliefs?  Will churches have to let homosexuals get married in their sanctuaries?  Will it lead to further errant arrangements, such as polygamy?  And how do we teach our children homosexuality is a sin when at school they are learning that it is normal and natural?  Therein lies the challenge of living Biblically in a secular society. 

We seem surprised by this challenge, because we have always assumed the United States was a "Christian" nation.  Now we are starting to see that the U.S.'s version of Christianity is just a folk religion of "In God We Trust" that doesn't really mean anything.  Congress is not the Holy Spirit-- we can try and enact laws to get other people to live like us and look like us, but would that change their standing before God?  We may not be comfortable living around certain kinds of sin, but we have become inoculated to so many other sins that we don't even recognize them.  We want the state to legislate morality for us, thinking that makes our job as Christians easier.  I think it is time we shift our energies and focus from preaching morality on the national stage to sharing Christ's love in our relationships and being the church to our communities.  (And if we're so concerned about what the state will make us do, then give up our tax-exempt status.  Problem solved.)  Not to say that we shouldn't get involved in politics; just realize that politics will not save us, and no law of man makes a person right before God.  We need to learn to speak the truth in love.  And we need to remember that Jesus' harshest words were not toward homosexuals but toward religious leaders who enacted laws that demanded outward righteousness.  They were the true stumbling blocks on the road to salvation.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Redefining "Christian" Music and Music Ministry, Part 2

I am disappointed with a great deal of the "Christian music" that is being produced today.  We are inundated with "Jesus is my boyfriend" type songs, as well as Christianized knock-offs of secular artists.  (Ever notice how often the next big thing in secular music finds its Christian equivalent in about six months?  The Christian look-alike/soundalike artist is just a cleaned-up, Jesus version of its secular counterpart and is often marketed as such.  I find this laughable at best and really pathetic at worst.)  We who walk in new life and commune with the Creator of the universe should be free to create and innovate in new, different, and better ways.  We don't need to copy someone else's formula.

Much of this happens, of course, because Christian music is an industry.  It is run like a business, not a ministry.  There are many, many Christian musicians out there who are being new and different and innovative, but generally they aren't the ones getting signed to labels. Christian labels (often run by secular music labels) want to make money and be successful--that is their primary goal.  We shouldn't be surprised or shocked by that.  I do think ministry does happen through this avenue, by God's grace.  But part of me wonders how much more beauty and worship we could be creating if we weren't squeezing ourselves into the secular music model for recording, distribution, and consumption.

To top it all off, much of the "good" Christian music, or at least popular Christian music, is full of bad theology.  (To be fair, there are a good many hymns with bad theology as well, so this isn't necessarily a new phenomenon.)

N.T. Wright has some great insight into the role of beauty and creativity in the mission of the church: 

"I believe that taking creation and new creation seriously is the way to understand and revitalize aesthetic awareness and perhaps even creativity among Christians today.  Beauty matters, dare I say, almost as much as spirituality and justice" (Surprised by Hope, p. 222).  

"But we don't live in the Garden of Eden, and art that attempts to do so quickly becomes flaccid and trivial. (The church doesn't have a monopoly on kitsch or sentimentalism, but if you want to find it the church may well be the easiest place to start.)" (Surprised by Hope, p. 223)

"When art comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of resurrection and learns how to express and respond to both at once, we will be on the way to a fresh vision, a fresh mission.... This will take serious imagination, imagination fueled by reflection and prayer at the foot of the cross and before the empty tomb, imagination that will discern the mysteries of God's judgment on evil and God's reaffirmation, through resurrection, of his beautiful creation" (Surprised by Hope, p. 224).

That's a pretty high charge we have been given.  As a songwriter, I feel completely inadequate to do such a task.  I don't want to write songs for the Lord and for the church that stink.  On the other hand, I don't want to be lured into the trap of capitalizing and profiting on ministry (yet another reason I am reluctant to be a "Christian artist").  There are a lot of sticky issues that a Christian artist today needs to consider, not the least being maintaining one's integrity in an industry driven by money and fame.  Many Christian artists have navigated this field brilliantly and have been a blessing to the church.  Many more... well, not so much.  

I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all guide for musicians and songwriters who want to glorify God with their music.  God uses all types, styles, and presentations for His glory.  But rather than having "hit-making" as our goal, or radio airplay, or big royalty checks, our goal should be solid theology, creative melodies, and top-notch musicianship.  I have kept my praise and worship songs "to myself" for the most part, because I'm afraid that I'm not ready to navigate this balance with integrity and honesty.  I know my own selfish heart, and I've tasted the cut-throat world of Christian music firsthand.  But I also know that keeping my gifts and creativity to myself and withholding that which could benefit the church is also selfish.  Still thinking and praying through this one...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Watching Tornadoes Form and Fizzle

We had some rather exciting weather this evening, as the pictures from out our front window indicate.  Thankfully, none of these funnel clouds touched down near here, but they kept forming and dissipating!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Redefining "Christian" Music and Music Ministry, Part 1

As I've mentioned in past posts, I'm a singer-songwriter, so music is a huge, integral part of my life.  I'm also, of course, a committed Christian.  But I don't sing "Christian music," at least not by CCM or Christian radio's definition.  (There are many reasons for that, which I may address in another post.)  I've been doing a lot of thinking/praying/struggling about how God wants me to use my music for His glory.  It's a question I've continually wrestled with, and I'm constantly reevaluating my conclusions over time. At this point, I'm still convinced that I'm where I'm supposed to be, singing in bars and coffee shops and not (necessarily) churches.

I'm of the mind that any music that points people towards God, even unknowingly, could be considered "Christian" music.  It doesn't have to be filled with Biblical imagery or Christian clichés or use the name of Jesus 15 times in a 3 minute song.   Case in point-- I covered the Metallica song "The Day That Never Comes" on my YouTube channel.  Metallica is generally not the first band that comes to mind when you think of Christian music, I realize that.  But because of that song, I was able to share the gospel with a guy on the other side of the world via e-mail.  He's a Muslim, but he was very open to what I had to say (er... write, in this case).  Now I wonder, if I was singing strictly "Christian" music and posting "Christian" songs on YouTube, would I have had this opportunity?  Is this not "becom[ing] all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Cor. 9:22)?

And besides that, I like Metallica's music.  They are great musicians and songwriters, and their songs say things that many, many people can relate to.  I know that as a Christian, I have to be aware of what I'm putting into my mind, and Metallica's music can get rather dark.  But it is real and genuine, which is more than I can say for a lot of "Christian" music.  Life isn't all sunshine and roses and blue skies, but 20 minutes of Christian radio might make you think it's supposed to be.  I'm not sure that's doing justice to the message "Christian" music is supposed to be proclaiming.

More thoughts to come...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Thoughts on Anne Rice's "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt"

A few months back I picked up Anne Rice's novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, at a used bookstore.  Not being a big fan of vampire stories, I had never read any of her previous books.  But I remembered hearing about this book when it first came out, and I was intrigued.  I finally got the chance to read it this week.

I'll admit, I was a bit skeptical when I started the book, just as I'm sure most of its readers are at first.  I mean, writing about Jesus' childhood in the first person?  Isn't that a bit... audacious?

Kudos to Ms. Rice-- she handles it masterfully.  

I really enjoyed this book.  She makes first century Egypt, Judea, and Galilee come alive.  The characterization is so believable.  And her return to Christianity in her personal life is evident in the fact that she portrays Jesus with such care.  She does a wonderful job of not only making Him fully God and fully human, but she also fleshes out what it might have been like for Him as a child.  I have often wondered about Jesus' childhood-- did He know He was God?  What age did He know?  Did He have miraculous power even then?  Anne Rice's imagination about how it might have been is both challenging and intriguing.  

Another part of the book I really enjoyed is the author's note at the end.  Ms. Rice describes a bit of her journey of faith and what led her to write this book.  She also describes her extensive research leading up to it.  (I was also delighted to find that she lists N.T. Wright as one of her biggest influences.)

Sometimes I forget that when Hebrews 4:15 says, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin," it is referring not only to Jesus' temptation and suffering towards the end of His ministry, but also all the years of His earthly life.  To be teased by other children.  To feel childlike fear in a dangerous world.  To have adults brush aside your questions.  To be looked at with suspicion due to your questionable parentage.  To figure out just who it is God wants you to be.

I highly recommend this book, and I'm looking forward to reading the second one in the series, The Road to Cana.  It has being a blessing to my faith and will continue to be so as it prompts me to ponder the Incarnation more fully.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Glory and the Fall - Leesha Harvey

I got a request for some music, so here you go.  (This is for you, Dan!)  This is one of my more "overtly spiritual" songs, although I would say all of my songs have an element of faith in them.  I'll include the lyrics below.

The Glory and the Fall

Label me the skeptic
Are you so surprised?
All these years of sight unseen
have left me with some aching eyes

My hands are stained and shaky
From wars within and without
When You came to claim my soul
why did You leave behind the doubt?

Will I ever change at all
as I live this life between the glory and the fall

I could keep on asking
or I could bide my time
live with the uncertainty
and take all of these mysteries blind

Forgive my indiscretion
Please don't turn away
As I give voice to my darkest thoughts
and say the things the others will not say

But do You even hear at all
as I live this life between the glory and the fall

Can you hear the crashing sound
of all the arguments falling to the ground
Is the space just too far for me to ever know 
just what I am and who You are?

Ever broken, ever small
As I live this life between the glory and the fall

Ever broken, ever small
Trying to live this life between the glory and the fall

(c) 2009 Leesha Harvey

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Thoughts on "The Furious Longing of God" by Brennan Manning, Part 2

At the end of each chapter of "The Furious Longing of God," Brennan Manning lists a couple questions to consider for further application.  The first question of the book is "When you read that phrase--the furious longing of God--what emotions or images does it evoke?"  Here is what I wrote on some notebook paper in response to that question:

Fury is a lightening storm, tearing across the night sky.  Fury is an earthquake, knocking down buildings and swallowing the earth.  Fury is a tornado, ripping trees from the ground and hurtling them through windows.  Fury is a hurricane, overtaking land and life with wind and wave.  What has fury to do with love?  Fury is a mother bear protecting her cubs from danger.  Fury is a father when he learns his child has been kidnapped.  Fury is a lover who has learned his lover has been greatly wronged.

Fury is vengeance, wrath, power unleashed.  But furious longing?  Does longing have the propensity to be furious?  Furious longing would be desperation, unquenched desire, unfulfilled need.  Longing implies lacking-- to long means one is not complete.  Yet God is complete and whole, lacking in nothing.  He has perfect union and fellowship within the Trinity.  What need has He of me?  And to call it furious-- I rather envision more a passive, "Oh, sure, it would be nice if she would join us, but no big loss either way."

The thought of God longing for me like a lover, a Father, a hurricane-- I cannot picture it.  And surely His longing is for His Church and not for me as an individual?  How rather arrogant to suppose I'm singled out.  One lost sheep versus the ninety-nine-- I've detached myself from Biblical exegesis so much, being careful to not apply which was not meant to be applied to me, that I  no longer can truly envision a passage such as this as having anything to do with me.  Furious wrath, yes, but furious longing?

Surely this is just the impassioned cry of a lover and not applicable to the place I hold in God's heart.  Then again, would God not love more deeply, more passionately, more fully-- more furiously-- than any human lover?

Love requires an other.  If God is love, His love must have an object.  He would be fully justified, in His perfection, to make that object Himself alone.  Yet He chooses to direct His love towards people and invite them into a union with Him.  Not just invite but relentlessly pursue, like a tireless lover.  I cannot grasp that imagery in relation to me.

Thoughts on "The Furious Longing of God" by Brennan Manning, Part 1

I read "The Furious Longing of God" by Brennan Manning today.  It's the first book of his that I have read, and I plan on reading "The Ragamuffin Gospel" now.  Overall, I liked it.  It wasn't as earth-shattering as I had hoped, but I don't fault Mr. Manning for that.  Just my own state of mind.

I appreciate his many descriptions of the love of God and just how wide and deep and completely immeasurable it is.  Conveniently he left out any mention of hell, which is frustrating since that's the one kink in my pursuit to understanding and accepting the love of God.  (God is love.  Yep, got that.  God is all-powerful.  Sure, I'm with you.  Those who don't believe in Jesus suffer in hell for all eternity.  Screeeech... this bus comes to a halt.)  I'm still struggling and thinking through the issue of hell.  Mr. Manning ignores it all together.  I'm sure he's thought about it lots, but I wish he would have shared his conclusions amidst all the love talk.  For now, it's a hurdle I can't get over.

My other frustration is that the first part of the book did a wonderful job of easing the guilt of trying to live a perfect Christian life.  Best line of the book-- "... I've decided that if I had my life to live over again I would not only climb more mountains, swim more rivers, and watch more sunsets; I wouldn't only jettison my hot water bottle, raincoat, umbrella, parachute, and raft; I would not only go barefoot earlier in the spring and stay out later in the fall; but I would devote not one more minute to monitoring my spiritual growth. No, not one" (p. 65).  Ah, that was reassuring.  But at the end he emphasizes how important it is for Christians to love other people.  Obviously this is true and right.  But I started the book feeling relief from guilt only to end with feelings of guilt for not loving enough.  Love obviously requires some work and action, and so I'm back to counting and making sure I'm doing "enough."  Again, not Mr. Manning's fault.  Just my own.

I think I have trouble with books like this because I've spent so much energy reacting against emotionalism and sentimentality in my own life.  My emotions can be a fickle roller coaster, and I used to use them as a measure for "where I was in my relationship with God."  I know better now, and so I tend to not trust my emotions, lest I mistake them for the voice of God.  Mr. Manning isn't calling us to emotionalism, but he does refer to mysticism and the experience of God.  This by its very nature seems to be a deeply emotional experience.  I start to doubt whether I've actually "experienced" God in this way.  Maybe I did once, at campfire sing-a-longs and church altar calls, back before anti-depressants and periods of agnosticism.  I don't know.  I suppose I could work myself up for such an experience, but it would inevitably let me down if it's not genuinely from God.  

More thoughts to come.