Saturday, December 20, 2008

A more common way

And now I show you the most common way.

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, at least I am in good company.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I still will be impressive and people will respect me for my authority on distracting irrelevancies.

If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I still will have something to brag about to make others ashamed in comparison to me.

Love is impatient, love can be unspeakably cruel. It is jealous without provocation, it boasts of all the sacrifices it makes, it is proud.

It is rude, it is self-serving, it is easily driven to exasperation, it holds grudges and remembers wrongs committed years ago.

Love tries not to delight too much in the misfortune of others when they get what's coming to them, or at least not to show how much it's enjoying it.

It usually protects, often trusts, occasionally hopes, and perseveres about half the time.

Love fails much more often than we would like to admit.

Where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; and where there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.

Now we see through a glass, darkly; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall fully know, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. Some day we will understand what love really is.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What we can learn from a sacred cow

I heard a story once about a Christian missionary whose neighbor was a devout Hindu who greatly venerated a cow that the Hindu family owned.

I think most Westerners, particularly monotheists, would agree that venerating a cow is at least foolish, and probably counts as some form of idolatry in the eyes of God. Still, when the cow died, its owner was devastated, so the missionary went and mourned with him. He knew what its death meant to the Hindu man and his family, even though the missionary himself regarded that veneration as at least a foolish superstition that kept the man from Jesus.

In the same way, I think we are called to identify with other groups, when they experience discrimination or prejudice, even when we consider their defining traits to be sinful. We don't need to identify with practices that we consider sinful, but we certainly can relate to the relationships that they have, and their desire to be connected to another person, and even to have children. I don't see how we can afford not to.

The morality or im- of homosexuality (or its sinfulness, if you prefer, though I won't abide a gunpowder word like "evil," even for the sake of argument) is irrelevant to how society as a whole and how Christians specifically treat gays and lesbians. We have the example of Jesus, who held up pagans as examples of faith, children as examples of understanding, and reviled Samaritans as examples of compassion. We have a larger biblical mandate to weep with those who weep, to mourn with those who mourn, and to rejoice with those who rejoice.

Right now some goons are getting headlines because of their unconscionable reactions to the passage of Proposition 8 in California, but by and large in American society today you're not likely to encounter meaningful repercussions to disapproving morally of same-sex relationships.

You may disappoint or anger a few people, but you're not likely to be marginalized or beaten and left for dead, disowned, ridiculed and mocked, or experience the laundry list of other forms of discrimination that gays still encounter in most of this country (or the far worse punishments that await gays in other nations).

But there again, the issue isn't "Who has it worse?" any more than "Is this activity moral?"; the real issue is how Jesus would treat people.

How would Jesus treat people? Well, however you think he might view the morality of a loving couple in same-sex relationship, it's pretty clear from the record of the gospels that Jesus would commend their commitment to one another, respect the emotional and spiritual support they give to one another, and defend them against any who would discriminate against or punish them.

Shame on us if we would do any less.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Not the gospel: Finding the cause of the conflict between church and world

What's striking about the uproar in Acts 22 is what it's not about.

A quick bit of background. In Acts 21, the Apostle Paul had shown up in Jerusalem with some Gentile Christians and had gone to the Temple. A group from a rival sect of Christianity that was decidedly less liberal than Paul on matters of Torah, told people that Paul had defiled the Temple by taking Gentiles there and that he had been preaching anti-Semitism wherever he went. The ensuing riot was bad that the Roman commander had to bring his army into the city and arrest Paul to save his life.

So, in Acts 22 Paul addresses the crowd from the relative safety of the soldiers' barracks. He starts speaking in Aramaic, the popular language of Judea at this time, and the crowd calms down immediately. "Didn't someone say this guy has been spreading hatred against the Holy City?" someone says. "That can't be true, listen to him talk. He speaks our language with a native accent. He's one of us."

Paul begins talking about his credentials, and they're impressive. He was taught by Gamaliel, a well-known and respected member of the Sanhedrin. Probably by this point people are starting to feel a little uncomfortable about how  they've been acting. Paul shares his story. He mentions that he persecuted followers of the Way, even going all the way to Damascus to have them thrown into prison.

Back when The Point was first launching its North Brunswick congregation, I remember Tim the pastor guy asking why we thought non-Christians were so hostile toward Christianity and the gospel. There were the expected answers about pushy Christians engaging in drive-by evangelism, like the annoying fellow who tries to strike up a conversation so he can give you a tract.

There were all sorts of other reasons too. Somebody mentioned some of the scandals that rocked Christianity in the 1980s, like the Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggart, or the more recent scandal of child molestation in the Catholic church. Someone else mentioned the sometimes pugnacious behavior of prominent evangelical leaders like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell.

And of course someone probably mentioned that the gospel runs counter to all the values of the world.

If that's the case, if people are supposed to greet the gospel with hostility, I'd expect the crowd to lose it somewhere between verses 6 and 16. That's where Paul talks about his surprising conversion to the Way, his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, his miraculous healing, and his decision to be baptized. These are all things that mark Paul's conversion experience.

It's not like people are going to miss that. The Way began in their city some 20 or 30 years earlier. The book of Acts notes that when Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost about 3,000 people became believers. The Jews who were not followers of the Way still knew them. They were related to them, bought and sold with them, and worshiped with them at the Temple or (in the suburbs) at the synagogue. If anyone in the world at this point in history knows the story of Christianity, it's the people of Jerusalem.

Truth is, no one seems to care. If Paul had stopped here, it seems like they would have said, "Eh, it's OK. Sorry about the misunderstanding."

But of course, Paul never did know when to stop. Look at what gets everyone's outrage. It's in verse 21, when he says that God told him to go and preach to the Gentiles. And that's when people start clamoring for his blood. It's not the gospel that drove them to a fury: It was racism, plain and simple.

Even the Sanhedrin, in Acts 23 didn't really care that Paul was a follower of Christ. The Pharisees, who got short shrift in the gospels, are completely willing in verse 9 to let Paul go, since — as far as they're concerned — their only difference with him pertains to his interpretation of the doctrine of the Resurrection. (That Jewish-Christian relations are not as close today as they once were owes a lot to the last 1,700 years.)

So I think about that question that Tim asked, maybe three years ago. The answer I gave is "the chip on our shoulder." I've talked with many people, including Jews, about Jesus and what I've found in him. Over the years I've noticed that people don't mind an honest discussion about religion and spirituality. Many even find it interesting.

What they don't like, of course, is being lectured, and pressured, and being beaten with the hell stick. And of course no one likes getting into a discussion with someone who expects there to be a fight and so is ready with the biggest stick, best stock answers, and nicest boxing gloves so they can be guaranteed a win.

Paul's audience reacted badly to his message because of their issues. Christians' audiences today react badly because of ours.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Let's Pretend. Actually let's not any more

My experience with evangelicals is that there is a game of Let's Pretend afoot that the faith has been largely consistent from the time of Abraham down to the present.

Clearly there is some truth to this, but let's not kid ourselves. Our interpretation of Scripture, our concepts of morality and justice, and many of our doctrines have changed, sometimes drastically over the past two millennia. Not only do we like to believe that extrabiblical concepts like capitalism and democracy were important to ancient Jews and ancient Christians, but we also have changed our understanding the Bible itself.

Honest faith must also admit honest doubt, and honest doubts need to be acknowledged and explored. God is big enough to handle tough questions, and it's not as though he's surprised when we ask them. Refusing to voice them leaves us with unresolved questions and a lingering, festering suspicion that we've been sold a bill of goods.

Satan's one example. Popular Christian culture has a lot to say about the rebellion in heaven, the way the highest of all the angels led a rebellion that ended with a third of the angels cast into hell and becoming demons. This is a great story, and I love it as much as the nice guy, but it's not exactly in the Bible. It's older than John Milton and "Paradise Lost," but as far as I can tell, the story first gained traction a few centuries after the canon was complete.

The gospel presentation has changed too. These days we share the gospel by describing how all have sinned against God, putting us under sentence of death because God is holy and cannot abide the presence of sin or sinful people. The good news is that Christ stepped in and took that punishment in our place, satisfying God's need for justice, so that we can be spared the pains of hell as long as we accept Jesus as our personal savior.

That's quite a bit different from the older doctrine of Christus Victor. It also differs quite significantly from the first recorded creed "If you confess with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved. For it is with the heart that you believe and are justified, and with the mouth that you confess and are saved" (1 Corinthians 10:9-10).

Unlike our modern gospel presentation, which requires personal confession of sin, there's nothing in that creed about confessing sin. It's all about confessing Jesus' sovereignty and resurrection. See the difference?

There's also the matter of sexual mores and morality. For centuries, the Christian concept of marriage looked radically different from our Western norm of getting married in church before having sex. In older times, couples would cohabitate and have children before getting their union blessed by the a priest, sometimes years later. The church in some parts of Christian Europe even recognized trial marriages that aren't that different from today's practice of premarital cohabitation.

Nowadays it's heterosexual married families ├╗ber alles. The insistence on marriage-vows-first very well may be closer to what God desires, but I don't think we're kidding anyone but ourselves when we claim that the way we do things now in the West is how they've always been done or properly should be done always.

And so it is with hell. When Jesus talks about hell, he's describing the city dump outside Jerusalem. When we talk about hell with its picturesque and exquisitely grotesque torments for the dammed that go on day and night without stop, we're influenced by the Dante's hauntingly beautiful poetry in "The Divine Comedy."

We owe it to ourselves to do better than supporting a folk version of Christianity. It's essential to chase down the original meaning and intent of the Scriptures. Scrape away the barnacles and see what the hull of the ship is like underneath.

What does the Bible really say about hell, about heaven, about demons, about Jesus, and about even itself?

One quick example of how hell has been developed, away from the biblical teaching. Matthew 25 shows the exalted Son of Man judging the nations, and separating them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. To the goats, the wicked, he says, "Depart from me into everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels."

The funny thing is, the audience to that particular speech was a group of people who clearly believed in him. They recognized the Lord when they saw him, and asked in bewilderment, "But did we not heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons in your name?" If the term Christian has any meaning in the context of that parable, this group was in like Flynn.

Or there's the servant -- not an enemy, but a servant -- whose talent of gold is taken away and given to another; the servant whose debt was forgiven and then was beaten and thrown into prison. I've never heard these understood as anything but metaphors for hell, and yet the people being thrown there are all servants of the king/master/lord, thereby marking them as people whom today we would identity as Christians. So who is hell for?

Quite often, the Bible does not say what we have been taught to think it does, and though the investigation often leaves me with more questions than answers, I find that I prefer the uncertainty of faith to the cold hard certainty of what I was once taught to settle for.

We've been playing this game of Let's Pretend for far too long. Isn't it time to rediscover for ourselves what the Bible really says, and let that shape our faith?

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mike and me

Several years ago, my friend Mike told me that he was transgendered.

At the time, I recall, it made little impression on me. He's a good friend of mine, and I knew he was a good person, and that was what mattered. I didn't know much about gender dysphoria, only the old cliche erroneously attached to homosexuals, about "being a woman in a man's body." We had some lengthy discussions pertaining about gender and identity, and life moved on. He was determined to remain a man for the sake of their three children, and that appeared to be that.

Of course, where identity is concerned, that is never that. When a person is required to be something other than what they are, the strain of the pretense builds over time and takes its toll in one area or another. Depression and withdrawal ensued, demanding their pound of flesh from his marriage and every other relationship he had.

And so, some months ago, Mike decided it was time to begin transitioning. He started taking antiandrogens, a prescription drug that suppresses male hormones, and something broke that had survived fifteen years of a sometimes tumultuous marriage. Earlier this year, Mike and his wife, Lynn, formally separated. He moved into an apartment of his own, started taking female hormones, and began going out increasingly as Shelly.

It's been rough. While she has found several transgendered friends in the city where she lives, Shelly has had to face the bigotry of people who see her as a predator or a pervert. Her own parents recently cut her out of the will without even having the courage or the decency to tell him in person that they were doing so. Her father had the indecency to heap abuse on her when she decloseted herself to them about four months ago, calling her a despicable parent who was abandoning her kids, when the truth is that she's probably more involved now -- still as a father -- than when she lived in the house with them. The sickening irony here is that her father has been emotionally distant, verbally abusive, adulterous and a drunk most of Shelly's life -- and yet he has the audacity to lecture Shelly on how she's a bad parent.

And, despicably, a minister told Shelly's mom that they were right to disown her, that it was what God would want them to do. I don't get that. I really don't. Where does Jesus advocate or model any such moralistic stance with anyone? The gospels present Jesus as someone who stands by people, no matter what. Prostitutes, adulterers, thieves and lepers with hideous open sores all felt comfortable and welcome in his presence.

And so, even as people ask me how I can do it, I'm standing by Shelly, because she's been my friend for years. I can't imagine not sticking by her. I've been genuinely upset by some of the stuff that other people have done in reaction to this decision to transition, but all the same ... I feel rather left adrift at sea by this whole thing.

It's odd in some ways that it's rattled me this much. I've had other friends, both men and women, tell me that they're gay, and it didn't even make me blink. In some cases, we've become better friends afterward. I've known Mike [Shelly] is transgendered for years, and yet this turn of events has left me unsteady, uncertain and, in a sense, staggering. I intend to stand by her, because we've known each other for so long and have always been close, but it's a challenge all the same. As much as I'm supportive of her, I just don't "get" it, probably because I've never felt that I was anything but a guy. It's a mystery to me how she can feel that she's actually a woman in a man's body and that these exterior changes are changing anything.

Yet there's no denying that she's happier, and more alive than I've seen her for years. I'm glad she's got friends, and I'm glad she's found a support network, and I'm glad that I can continue to be a friend for her. I'm glad she's willing to take the risk on me that I won't be a royal bastard and dump her too, to escape having to deal with my own confusion over her gender identity.

In the end, after all, my confusion is my problem and not hers, and given that she's paying such a heavy price for her own situation, it would be unfair and unreasonable to demand that she pay mine as well.

I just wish there were a chart for these waters I find myself sailing with her. I wish the sun were out, and that these uncertain clouds weren't darkening the sky. I wish I knew where we were going, and I hope the ship is seaworthy enough to get us there.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Drawing the line that separates canonical from not

I have a question for friends and readers who have been to seminary or otherwise have studied such things: How exactly is the line drawn between canon and noncanon?

At the time the Christian Scriptures were being written in the first century, there was a host of other communication, discussion and even writing going on that formed the context in which the church understood the epistles and other books we now regard as canon. Take the book of Enoch for example.

Ostensibly written by Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, the book of Enoch dates to about 300 B.C.E. It tells the story of the watchers, a group of angels who fathered the Nephilim in Chapter 8 of the book of Genesis. Other parts of the book include a series of eschatological parables that include references to a righteous messianic figure called the "Son of Man," a detailed work of astronomy that lays forth a 364-day solar calendar, and finally a series of visions meant to foretell the history of Israel down to the Maccabees.

Protestants and Catholics alike take their lead from the Council of Nicea, which in 325 C.E., rejected the Book of Enoch from the canon. But at the time the New Testament was being written, Jude didn't know that. He cited the Book of Enoch twice.

The first time Jude cites the Book of Enoch, he refers to a dispute between Satan and Michael over the body of Moses. Jude uses this as a caution against judging one another. Later in the book, he refers to God binding angels in chains of adamant for their rebellion, as an assurance that God will judge those who teach unsound doctrine.

We can get the essentials of Jude's message without knowing the particulars of the Book of Enoch, but surely familiarity with the book helps.

This isn't like reading a commentary by Charles Spurgeon or John Wesley to understand a parable or a difficult passage of the Bible. In this case, one of the authors of the Bible was familiar with a book that we reject and saw so much value in it that he drew on it to make his point. How much wisdom are we meant to draw from the Book of Enoch when we read it to illuminate Jude's writing?

This isn't confined to Jude. There are a lot of ahas we either miss or misunderstand because we lack the background noise that the writers took for granted. Noah flips out because Ham saw him passed out naked. Zipporah stops God from killing Moses by circumcising her firstborn son and throwing the foreskin at his feet, How much do you want to bet these passages would make sense if we had more extrabiblical material from that era?

I'd really like to know how that line was drawn, and what implications it has for understanding the Bible the way we do today.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Christians and profanity

From "Toward an Evangelical Theology of Cussing":
Conservative evangelical Christians have long been known for shunning all sorts of behavior considered by others to be morally neutral or enjoyable. Whether it’s drinking alcoholic beverages, smoking tobacco products, playing cards, going to movie theatres, dancing, or even drinking coffee, “fundamentalist” Christians are often viewed by outsiders as having a God who is not only a white-clad, frowning prude, but also a “Cosmic Killjoy.”

However, the study of cussing, kakalogology, has a less refined history among Christians in general and evangelicals in particular. This lack of definition has caused many outright offenses and some extremely awkward social situations. These range from blurting out words that sound mischievously like curse words but are, in fact, not, to a teacher or preacher’s hesitancy to utter the word “hell” in reference the place of eternal torment.

What does the Bible teach concerning cussing? Can there be a Christian consensus on kakalogology? How are we to determine, in an age of words that did not exist in biblical times, what is appropriate and what is foul? If the Christian is to avoid uttering certain terms, we need to know what those are so we can at least keep an eye on them. And if there is a world of vocabulary available for communicating God’s message, shouldn’t we also be free to use it?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The kind of Bible study I'd like to lead

I'm hosting a weekly Bible study on the book of Judges starting this Wednesday, but it's anyone's guess whether anyone besides me actually will attend.

I'm trying to do mine a little differently from how I've usually found Bible studies to be done in the American church. Specifically, I want to set aside many of the preconceptions we bring to the Bible when we read it.

Some of them are Golden Book assumptions; for example: "Why did God save Daniel from the lions? Because Daniel was faithful."

Others have to do with our assumptions about the morality of the Bible heroes. We assume that Joseph was a virtuous man whom God honored because he was faithful to him the whole time, or that Samson killed all the Philistines as an act of devotion to God.

Neither of those is a particularly deep reading. The Genesis account is clear that Joseph wanted nothing more than to make his brothers suffer for all that they had done to him once he had them at his mercy. As for Samson, he killed the Philistines he did mostly because his pride had been hurt and he wanted to get even. Neither of them is much of a role model in those stories.

Beyond that, I can see plenty of exploration of the character of God himself. If we question and explore the motivations of the characters in the Bible, at some point we have to remember that God himself is a character in the Bible, with motivations stated and unstated, goals and conflicts that he must face and overcome.

And if we're giving the Bible an honest reading, we have to admit that there are some shocking things in there: the genocide of the Canaanites, the near total destruction of the human race in a global flood, and even young men getting mauled by bears for making fun of a prophet's baldness. We need to recognize problem passages when they come up, and face their problems honestly.

Even without getting into the odd passages like "Zipporah at the Inn," where God plans to kill Moses until Zipporah circumcises their son, there are times we have to stop and ask "Is this really God we're talking about, the same God we sing those nice songs to on Sunday morning?"

These are questions that make us stop and reassess what we mean when we say that Scripture is divinely inspired, infallible and inerrant. They even make us stop and ask whether God really is good, or if he just has good publicity agents.

I've found over the years that raising those questions is an important part of growth and of faith. Proverbs cautions us, "Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him." Doubts drive us into deeper faith because questions make us seek meaningful answers.

That sort of exploration is something I've seen to be largely absent in Bible studies I've attended, not just at the church I now attend, but elsewhere as well. What I have seen instead is a lot of contentment to repeat things we've heard before and to pass them off as deep insights, or to get sidetracked into discussions that have nothing to do with the passage at hand.

The truth is, the Bible is one of the most widely misunderstood books in Western literature, probably because it's actually a piece of Eastern literature. It's misunderstood by non-Christians who react to it based on unpleasant experiences with Christians, and it's misunderstood by Christians themselves.

That's a shame, because it really is a phenomenal piece of literature, and like all phenomenal pieces of literature, there are some deep currents that flow through its pages. If we're willing to pull up our oars, stop rowing our way, and just let those currents carry us where they go, we'll all find it to be a much more fascinating and spiritually insightful book than we've ever realized before.

This sort of honest search is something that I think will engage people who consider themselves to be spiritual but not Christians, and it should engage Christians as well. One attitude I consistently have encountered is contempt for Christians who swear unswerving allegiance to the Bible yet have no idea what it actually says or make no attempt to deal with issues like Paul's apparent sexism, the appallingly strict penal code in the Mosaic law, and so on.

I'd like to lead a study that does those things. Naturally, I can't get the church to promote it along with the other Bible studies.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

weeds among the strawberries

I looked at my strawberry patch last Sunday and realized that most of the plants growing there aren't strawberries.

I've put a lot of time into that patch of ground. I dug up the flat and tepid grass that used to wasted that space, pulled rock after useless rock from the dirt, and added one load of compost after another until the soil was rich and loamy more than a foot down. I've tended that space for the past eight years, trying one crop after another on it, until we finally settled on the strawberries.

The girls love the strawberries we grow there each spring. For two seasons now, it's saved us a tidy handful of dollars at the supermarket for fresh produce, and it's even convinced me, who never met a strawberry that he liked, that those little fruits are something to savor.

Still, a strawberry patch is like a marriage. If you want to keep it healthy, you have to work at it. Keep the plants covered during the chill of winter, make sure they get enough water when those dry periods come, and feed the soil where they live, and you'll be fine. But above all, you've got to watch the weeds.

Weeds are nasty little things. You don't plant them, you don't cultivate them, but they appear all the same and take for themselves all the resources you want the strawberries to have. They suck up the water, they spread their roots into the soil, and their main ambition is to take the sunlight the real plants need to survive. The longer you wait to pull them out, the bigger a problem they become.

It was last year when I really started to fall behind on the weeding. I had other things on my mind, other problems that required my attention, other issues that needed tending. I had stories and essays to write, a free-lance job to work on, questions and doubts I needed to explore, and one thing and another that occupied my attention. I had no shortage of reasons not to concern myself with the ho-hum affairs of weeding.

The worst offender in my strawberry was a weed that almost looks almost like a strawberry plant. It has similarly shaped leaves, grows tiny fruits on stalks, and spreads along the ground like its more reputable cousin. It looks too much like a strawberry plant to be told apart at first glance, while offering none of the rewards.

It's hard to say why I let it go so long. Did I think its fruits would be just as satisfying to us as real strawberries? Was I fearful of pulling up a few good plants by accident? Was I worried that, deeply entangled as they were, that I might damage the strawberry plants if I pulled up the imposters? Or was I just too lazy to be bothered? It's not as though the strawberries weren't still producing a good amount of fruit last year. We were eating fresh berries from our patch the entire season last year.

It doesn't matter. I looked at the patch two weeks ago, and realized I had neglected it for too long.
While I slept, English ivy from my neighbor's yard had crept past the hedge and wound its tendrils into the heart of the strawberry patch I'd planted. Another, inoffensive but aggressive weed had burst into the empty spaces between strawberry plants, and clover had sprawled lazily across the ground. And of course, the unraked leaves from last fall had let maple seedlings sprout by the dozens in the once-hallowed ground.

Once you've let weeds get established, they're difficult to get out, especially those strawberry pretenders. I've found from experience that if you pull the plant from the top, you're only treating the symptom and not the underlying problem. You won't see the weed anymore, now that its stem has been broken off, but as long as the taproot remains, the weed can grow back, and chances are good that when it does, it will come back in more places.

The only solution is to reach down into the soil, get your hand around the knot where stem grows from root, and yank it out. It's a time-consuming process, and when you're done, there's no guarantee you'll be proud of a job well done. A strawberry patch, like many other things, suffers when it goes untended for so long a time. Other people may not know the damage your unfaithfulness and neglect have caused, but you will -- every time you see the spaces and the emptiness where your strawberries are not growing, you'll remember.

God is gracious. Our failings can be forgiven and wiped away, and every time we make the effort to set things right, we can find a new beginning in the garden.

Happy weeding.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Clobber passage

There's a place or two in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul takes it upon himself to compile a list of human behaviors in an attempt to show that no one reasonably can expect to get into heaven by virtue of good behavior.

These passages, particularly in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, are known in the gay community as "clobber passages." It's not hard to understand why. If you've been around evangelicals enough, you've probably seen them wielded more than once like a club in the hands of a caveman.

It's something about the human condition; we like to believe that we're more moral than another group, whether it's gays, Republicans, evangelicals, or Muslims. So we find a passage of Scripture, pop culture, or philosophy, and we lift it up in the air and bellow, and we start swinging it.

The bellow is what gets everyone's attention. It's a bestial sort of sound, coming from the throat of someone who's not quite evolved enough to handle human speech.

It's a cry of loathing, meant to alert everyone that a monster has entered our midst and needs to be put down immediately. Before long, that club comes crashing down on the skull of its victim not once, not twice, but as many times as it takes to bring the brute down.

It's a hideous thing to see, and no matter what group you belong to, you've seen the horror visited upon your own group. The loss is that Christians recognize when pop culture is clobbering them, but not when they themselves are clobbering someone else; and vice versa. I've seen a number of people slam Christians down with rather crude and unwarranted caricatures. Lost in this quest for monsters to destroy is the irony that the monster lies in all of us and how we treat those who differ from us.

Today I had the ironic task of reading one of these clobber passages in church.

Apparently people in church like it when I read Scripture. I do try to avoid the dry matter-of-fact readings we usually hear, where the reader could be reading "War and Peace" by candlelight or zipping through the shopping list at the Kroger's.

I read passages with intonation, add gestures when appropriate, and even change my voice to reflect a change in speakers. Maybe I make God's words sound more plausible than usual, I don't know, but last week I was asked if I would mind doing this on a regular basis.

Today, when I was asked to read the famous clobber passage from 1 Corinthians 6:9-20, I choked. A good friend of mine is a lesbian, and I know how badly people have beaten her with this passage from a misguided sense of what love is. Former co-workers of mine who were gay kept their distance from me for the longest time because they knew that I was a Christian, and they'd long had their fill of Christians who "hated the sin but loved the sinner."

How can you read something like this in church without feeling like you're contributing to the pain your gay brothers and sisters suffer every time the subject comes up of how their chosen lifestyle is in direct rebellion against God?

I read it, and then stewed in my seat for the first half of the sermon as the preacher answered this week's "Tough Question" about the reaction Christians should have to homosexuality and homosexuals.

No, Sodom was not destroyed because there was gay sex going on. Ezekiel 16 is pretty clear that cruelty and inhospitality were the main offenses. Certainly raping visitors to the city isn't exactly the most welcoming act the city aldermen could have come up with -- but it has as much in common with homosexuality as men in prison raping newcomers to humiliate and degrade them. It's about power and dominance, not about the sex.

A lot of my attention at this point was consumed with thoughts of how I would explain my decision not to leave the church if I ever ran for president, but there was a ray of light. The preacher challenged everyone present: "No one in the gay community has any doubt what Christians think about homosexuality. What we're missing is showing them God's love."

He even got specific that he wasn't talking about a general sort of "Gosh, we love you" sentiment, but actual tangible actions: attending a Gay Pride parade, for example, to give cold water to people. Or being friends with people and not letting it affect you one way or the other what their sexual orientation is.

Damn straight. Jesus -- and I know this will come as a shock to some -- Jesus wasn't a moralist. He wasn't about telling people how to behave, and he didn't give us a list of rules to follow if we wanted to please God. What he said was pretty simple: "I'm the Lord. Follow me."
Wish I'd hear more of that and less of people being clobbered.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.