The Log in Our Eye (Divorce and Gay Marriage, Part 2)

Photo by Tangopaso and Musaromana, Creative Commons

Photo by Tangopaso and Musaromana, Creative Commons

Depending on which study you look at, divorce rates among Evangelicals or Born-Again Christians are either equal to the national average or well below it. But they’re never under 25%. So one marriage out of four, at least, ends in divorce.

Whether this is better than the national average or not, it’s still very high. Much higher than you’d think, given Jesus’s strong words against divorce.

Why is this so? I don’t know, but I have a few observations.  I’ll work through them in more detail in subsequent posts, but today I’ll simply give an overview.

Idolatry of Family – we Evangelicals see the family as paramount. We ignore the Apostle Paul’s words about celibacy (1 Cor 7:8-9), and we push everyone to get married early.

The pressure is so subtle, we don’t even realize it’s there, but we’re soaking in it every day of our lives. We get married before we’re ready, and it sets too many of us on the path to divorce.

Purity Culture – alongside the pressure to marry young is the overwhelming pressure (at least on girls) to stay “pure” for marriage.

The ugly flip side of this is that girls who have sex before they are married (and something like 80% do), are often shamed, treated like damaged goods. Elizabeth Smart’s story is a chilling example of this. The emotional scars this shaming leaves can affect marriage for years down the line.

Purity Culture’s Empty Promises – If the stick wasn’t enough, purity culture has an equally damaging carrot. It’s implied, and sometimes even stated outright, that if you wait until your wedding night, everything will be awesome.

The truth is, virginity is no magic key to a perfect marriage. This should be obvious, and it’s a sign of how messed up things are that it isn’t.

Having mystically high expectations set up that reality can’t realistically meet? Not a good foundation for a marriage.

Game Face Churchianity – you’d think that at church, among your fellow believers, would be the place to share your struggles, to show vulnerability, to be true and authentic, even when it isn’t pretty.

Well, you’d think that unless you’d ever actually been to church.

Pray Away the Gay – I went to a Baptist college as an undergraduate. Several men I knew there got married right out of college, just like they were supposed to (see #1, above). Some even had kids, just like they were supposed to.

Then, down the line, they realized they were gay. Or they admitted to themselves that they were gay. Or they just couldn’t repress the fact that they were gay anymore.

Reparative therapy doesn’t work. That’s been proven to the point that the APA and AMA are both resolutely against it. Marrying a woman and hoping it will all work out certainly doesn’t work.

Dragging a woman (and even children) through that unnecessary hell is just plain inexcusable, but the greater guilt is on those who pressured the gay man to do it.

So What’s Left?

Maybe the answer isn’t found in Jesus’ words about divorce, but in his words about self-examination and self-righteousness in Matthew 7:3-5.

3 Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye?

5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

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Us and Them (Divorce and Gay Marriage)

Photo by Giulia Ciappa, Creative Commons

Photo by Giulia Ciappa, Creative Commons

Why do we, as Christians, get so worked up about gay marriage, to the point of spending tens of millions of dollars to fight it in the courts and in ballot initiatives? Better yet, why don’t we get that worked up about divorce?

Before I answer that, let me list all the times Jesus talked about divorce:

Matthew 5:31-32 It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (NIV)

This passage was during Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, during the “you have heard it said … but I say…” section, wherein Jesus ups the ante on the law-keepers, showing that a right heart was as important as outward righteousness.

In this same section, Jesus said that those who hate and curse others are guilty, just as those who kill are, and that those who look lustfully are guilty, just as adulterers are.

In Matthew 19:3-12, as in Mark 10: 2-12, Jesus is teaching and some pharisees and teachers come to talk to him. They ask him about the legality of divorce “for any reason,” a major controversy at that time.

Jesus’ response is similarly clear. Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of heart of the people, not because it was God’s will.

Luke 16:18 Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (NIV)

The passage in Luke is short and to the point. It’s right after Jesus says that no one can serve both God and wealth, and right before the story of Lazarus and the rich man.

NOW, let me list all the times Jesus mentioned homosexuality…

Well, that didn’t take long.

Don’t get me wrong, I know the Old Testament and the epistles mention various forms of same-sex contact. I don’t want to misrepresent what’s in the Bible. But neither do I want to ignore the gospels’ silence on this issue, and our silence on an issue that Jesus spoke up loudly about.

I know, I know, circumstances have changed. Women have jobs now, and don’t rely on men for their livelihood. Inability to divorce actually hurts women now, trapping them in abusive or miserable marriages.

Times have changed. Marriage is different now. The husband doesn’t own the wife. It’s two legally equal citizens entering voluntarily into a mutual relationship. Denying divorce hurts people.

But if “times have changed” is our only reason, we wouldn’t be spending tens of millions of dollars fighting gay marriage at the polls. After all, same-sex contact in the first century was master-slave, man-boy, or man-temple prostitute. There was always a profound power difference.

Times have changed. Same sex relationships are different now. The ‘master’ doesn’t own the boy/prostitute/slave. It’s two legally equal citizens entering voluntarily into a mutual relationship. Denying marriage hurts people.

No, that can’t be our only reason, or we wouldn’t be fighting so fiercely against the one and utterly ignoring the other. There’s another, uglier reason. One we don’t even realize, not consciously. One that sears our conscience in the name of our conformist culture. One that makes cowards of us all:

We fight tirelessly against legalizing gay marriage but ignore divorce because we aren’t gay, but we do get divorces. Fighting gay marriage gives us an other to feel superior to. Fighting divorce would tear our congregations apart.

Gay marriage is “us versus them.” Divorce is “us versus us.”

Five Great Things About Microfinance

1) It builds wealth in the poorest countries. Some problems are problems of wealth distribution. But in many developing nations, the problem is a lack of wealth, period.Looking around Kiva’s website, I see many nations where the average yearly salary is less than my monthly take-home pay … and I work in education, not medicine or law.

Microfinance can help both situations, because it helps people create and expand small businesses and farms. This means more genuine goods and services delivered where they are needed most.

And nations with strong middle classes are much more resistant to manipulation and exploitation by large corporations and corrupt government officials. These loans don’t help Exxon or Goldman-Sachs. They help families.

2) It helps women especially. In many male-dominated societies, microfinance is one of, if not the, only way for women to get the capital to start businesses. And having their own businesses, and their own money, helps put women on an even footing with men. This can have a powerful equalizing effect on society.

3) It helps children, too. Families with small businesses can often afford to send their kids to school, rather than keeping them out to work. Many of the loan requests I’ve read on Kiva mention that very thing. The more kids stay in school, the fewer end up as child brides, child soldiers, child prostitutes, or, more commonly, unskilled laborers living lives of poverty.

4) It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Because you’re making a tiny loan, and not giving a donation, the entrepreneur will repay it in time. Then you’ll be able to take that same money and lend it out to someone else. You can keep the same money in circulation or you can add more each month, creating a snowball effect.

5) It’s cheap. The cost of entry is only $25 on Kiva, the world’s leading microfinance operation. And once it’s repaid, you have the option of taking your money back. So you’ve got very little to lose. Why not head over to Kiva (or to WorldVision’s microfinance department) and check it out?

Toxic Worship (The Imposters of God, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry, Part 2)

Sculpture of a Family

Photo by J. Lord, Creative Commons

This is part three of my series on William Stringfellow’s The Imposters of God. You can read my first post on Chapter One and my introduction to the series.

As you recall, Stringfellow pointed out that an idol is anything we use to define ourselves, to give significance to our lives, other than God (of course). All such things – money, family, church, reputation, country – are doomed to fail us, of course.

But did you know that so long as we put them in the place of worship, that we are doomed to fail them?

As Stringfellow put it, “Where idolatrous patriotism is practiced, the vocation of the nation so idolized is destroyed.”

How far from the lofty ideals of civil rights and democracy have the super-patriots (with their super PATRIOT Acts) taken us?

I’m old enough to remember when torture and indefinite detention were things the bad guys did, not things two successive openly Christian Presidents would undertake, to the applause of their mostly openly Christian supporters.

“When the family is idolized, the members of the family are enslaved.” (Stringfellow). How many times have we seen parents living vicariously through their children? Whether Tiger Moms pushing their kids into depression  or washed-up high school quarterbacks and homecoming queens reliving their youth, it never ends well.

I’m reminded of the controlling mother from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, who’d rather have her son with her in hell than leave him in heaven.

Even within our churches, the extreme focus on the family has left the unmarried feeling unwanted. It’s made us political animals, white-flighting our way into the “best” schools.

It’s led us to forget that the Apostles who spread the Gospel to the known world were themselves single, and that they focused not on their families, but on the Gospel.

“Every idol, therefore, represents a thing or being existing in a state of profound disorientation” (Stringfellow).

Idolatry ultimately brings death.

Sometimes literally, as in our persistent worship of war.

Sometimes figuratively, in the dehumanization of a culture that views everything and everyone as a commodity.

And sometimes both, as in the dysfunctional relationships and vicious social structures that drive the young to depression and sometimes suicide.

Perhaps Idolatry is at the heart of the decline of America’s churches. We’ve grown so entangled with the idols of respectability, growth, and politics that we find ourselves reduced to merely a social function. A social function that offers precious little to the constantly-connected Facebook generation.

What is the answer? I’m not certain. But I know this. We fail, again and again, to keep the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3).

And to even detect our idols means turning the rusty knife of self-examination on the things we hold dearest. The pain may be akin to amputating a gangrenous limb without anesthetic, but it must be done if we are serious about serving Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

An Epidemic of Obesity, a Pandemic of Self-Hate

Obetrol, with amphetamines, a favorite of Andy Warhol

Obetrol, with amphetamines, a favorite of Andy Warhol

America suffers from an epidemic of obesity. Ask anyone.

But America also suffers from a pandemic of body-hate, shame, and self-loathing.

Ask anyone who’s tried to lose weight, or worse, lost it only to regain it.

Why the obesity epidemic? There are so many possible explanations:

  • the wider availability of high-quality food,
  • the end of hunger (though not necessarily malnutrition) in the industrialized world,
  • more sedentary lives,
  • high-fructose corn syrup,
  • video games,
  • a downward cycle of yo-yo dieting, etc.

Why the self-loathing pandemic? There are just as many possible explanations:

  • the sheer fact of our increasing weight
  • media idols held up as impossible ideals
  • relentless messages from media, friends, family

All these play a part, I’m sure. But this is America, and I think we all know the #1 reason we hate our bodies so much. There is a lot of money in selling hate. $60 billion a year, according to Marketdata Enterprises.

As Christians, we realize that all people are the image-bearers of God. That all people are loved by God, loved to the point that he emptied Himself of His glory and power, walked on earth, and even died for us.

You and I are part of “all people.” You and I are loved that much, by that awesome of a God.

So why do we hate ourselves so much?  That hatred does not come from above.

I am hesitant to call things Satanic, but self-loathing is, and those who spread or profit from it for any reason should be ashamed of themselves. Its fires burn in every skeletal anorexic, every compulsive eater, every cutter, every suicide.

What does that mean for our bodies? I think we owe it to ourselves, and maybe even to God, to try to keep ourselves in good health. And that includes not only illness but physical fitness. I have reached a point in my life when I have fallen far short of this goal. I must struggle to strengthen my body, and resist the things that weaken me. Fortunately, it isn’t always hardship.

But the driving force that leads us to care for our bodies should be love. It should not be Hollywood, magazines, or the advertising machine of the diet and weight-loss industry. And our goals should not be to look like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. Vanity is no virtue, and envy is a poor motivator.

And most of all, we should learn to see ourselves as God sees us, to love our own bodies as they are, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) … not as they will be “after I lose 20 (or 50, or 100) pounds.”

Research shows that those of us who are really heavy will probably never be thin, not for the long term. But most of us can be a lot healthier than we are now.

And all of us can learn to close our ears to the malevolent, avaricious cacophony of advertisers, to gracefully throw off our body-shame, our self-loathing, and to let God’s love flow through our bodies … even if they weigh 350 pounds.

America: New Jerusalem or Nova Roma?

624px-Flag-of-USA

Which one is America? The shining city on the hill, or the iron-fisted empire?

From a secular perspective, it’s clear that America is an exceptional nation. In technology, medicine, and research of all kinds, we’re world-class. In military might, we are the clear world leader.

We’re wealthy, strong, dominant. Our culture and language penetrates far beyond our borders, and people want to live here so strongly they’re willing to sneak in and live as fugitives.

But what does that mean to those of us who are both Americans and Christians?

What does it mean for the genuine desire among so many American Christians to get back to when America was a Christian nation, a godly nation? What does it mean for the equally genuine belief that America was never a godly nation?

What does it mean for us as citizens of a democracy? What path do we choose? Where do our allegiances lie?

If you see America as a city on a hill, even one that is somewhat fallen, then you see it as a special nation. A nation favored by God and destined to bring the world closer to Christ. In this mindset, it is vital to fight to preserve traditional American values (because they are closer to that original city on the hill) and to fight to enshrine Christian values in the laws of America.

On the other hand, if you see America as more like Rome, a powerful empire that is both good and bad, prosperous and brutal, you feel a separation. It’s not that America isn’t a great nation. It’s that great nations serve the powerful, and sometimes leave destruction in their wake. Jesus didn’t call us to dominate, but to serve.

America was built on African slavery and the destruction and conquest of the Native Americans. But without America, Hitler may have conquered the world. Without America, democracy may never have spread to Europe and beyond.

Evil is wrapped around good, like wheat and chaff. It’s like this in every nation, but the powerful ones especially.

Those of us who are skeptical of the culture wars, the attempts to force America’s laws to conform to our ideas of Christianity, aren’t just lukewarm or wishy-washy. We aren’t all sellouts to popular culture.

We have serious problems hitching our wagons to an Empire as bloody as Rome ever was. We have serious problems fighting to restore America’s morality, because American morality isn’t Christian morality.

We know that people get hurt, our witness gets clouded, and our hearts grow harder when we speak in language of disgust, of enmity, of power.

And we know that power brokers and politicians lap it up. Dollar-sign men who never feared God will speak with the tongues of angels, praying down brimstone, to get our votes.

Worse, perhaps, are the politicians who believe it – uncritically, unquestioningly – that we are right, that God is on our side, that we are justified.  And that those who doubt, or defer, or question are weak and contemptible. And anyone who stands against us deserves whatever they get.

So, America, who are you?

The great empire?

The beast?

The city on the hill?

 

It Felt Like a Feast (Wrestling with Joy, Pleasure, and the Distractions of Modern Life)

people doing kettlebells exercises

I tried my first kettlebell swing workout tonight. My body gently aches from the back of my neck, across my shoulders and arms, down to my thighs and calves. Not two hours after I did the set, I found myself standing straighter, taller.

Maybe I really am 6’7”, and I’ve just been slouching.

But how did it feel? When I think back on my first, unimpressively weak (20 pound weight), slightly awkward experience with the kettlebell, what washes over me?

It felt like a feast.

Not just a buffet, or a coincidentally large meal. A feast, full of foods I really wanted, foods I only taste a few times a year. It felt like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

Exercise has hardly ever felt like this before. Usually it’s drudgery in progress and pain and soreness following. But this felt like a feast. I’m beginning to understand people who love exercise.

Even putting aside sex totally, our bodies are meant to feel pleasure. Our bodies are meant to desire it.

But it seems like in my sedentary postmodern life, that sense is somewhat lost. Too much is buried in the screens: the gray of the office computer, the distracting static of the television, the infinite insignificance of the web, all exacerbated by long commutes and short nights.

The very technology and modernity that allows so many of us to live so comfortably, when in the past we might have died in the cradle, stands between us and the experience of joy.

We develop a disconnect with our bodies. We no longer stop and feel the rain, as we did in our youth. We no longer run for the joy of running, as we did as children. We no longer stop to let the wind rush over us.

Our pleasures are limited to our sex lives, the manufactured adrenaline of our media, and our food. And too often, that gets us into trouble. Because just as the media we consume is manipulated and processed to provide the fastest bang, the most addictive return on investment, so is our food.

And sometimes, this artificial intensity even spills over into our sex lives, in various forms of objectification. But that’s a topic for a different post.

Our bodies are meant to desire pleasure. Not manufactured, processed, white-sugar-buzz pleasure, with its dizzy intensity, inevitable crash, and empty hunger for more.

We are meant for spontaneous, genuine delight, like a child chasing leaves in an autumn wind. Like a young man running to meet the train that brings his beloved back to him. Like the sheer joy of feeling your body push its limits just far enough that it doesn’t verge into pain and damage.

It’s strange that a simple kettlebell swing reminded me of this. And stranger still that I went to a computer screen to share it. But such is the age we live in.

Time doesn’t run backward. Turning back the clock just breaks your hands. But who we are hasn’t changed, and the genuine joy we need is still available. Just look beyond the static.