Thursday, March 27, 2014

World Vision, Gay Marriage, and Trinitarian Theology

In the name of the Father, Son, and Marriage Between a Man and a Woman, Amen?

While I have been known to swim within the gray waters when it comes to the same-sex marriage debate, one thing I can say with confidence: neither gay nor straight marriage are central to Trinitarian theology.

That said, when World Vision decided to welcome and employ those who were in same-sex marriages, I was impressed by a large Christian NGO's willingness to move beyond the debate and work to rally around Jesus' invitation for peacemaking and advocacy on behalf of our poorest and hungriest neighbors. There were brilliant and beautiful articles written in efforts to underscore how it was possible for an Evangelical Christian organization to move past partisan divides and differences in theological opinions as we together labor on behalf of our most vulnerable and malnourished brothers and sisters, many who are children.

"It's been heartbreaking to watch this issue rip through the church," he said. "It's tearing churches apart, tearing denominations apart, tearing Christian colleges apart, and even tearing families apart. Our board felt we cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue. We've got to focus on our mission. We are determined to find unity in our diversity."

Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, U.S.A (cited in interview by Christianity Today)

World Vision was taking an ethical, financial, and pragmatic risk. That is, until they decided they would not.

One of the most well-known Christian relief organizations recanted after being confronted by numerous individual and denominational donors who expressed distain for their supposed open and affirming stance. As a number of bloggers, journalists, and grassroots advocates rightly expressed, the poor and hungry became pawns within yet another spite-filled and slanderous debate. Conservatives and progressives are both at fault.

I cannot say I am surprised by World Vision's flip-flopping, but I am grieved by how quickly they caved in response to financial backers and child sponsors who cannot handle the employment of those whose sexual orientation they disapprove.

Let's be clear, World Vision is doing incredible things all around the globe and I remain grateful for their witness to the good news of Jesus.

Nonetheless, World Vision's rationale for their 180° belly flop is sadly flawed and simply wrong.

"What we are affirming today is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs...We cannot defer to a small minority of churches and denominations that have taken a different position."

Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, USA (48 hours later in another Christianty Today interview)

Definition of marriage as core to orthodox, Trinitarian confessions is an unfortunate and illogical theological union by those who should know far better. Trinitarian theology is about God and how God relates to the world: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Yes, same-sex marriage is an important, relevant, even a theological conversation for both church and state, individuals and denominations. No, gay or straight marriages are not core matters of what makes for uniquely Trinitarian theology.

Despite belief to the contrary, Scripture does not paint a black and white portrait of marriage. One does not need to read far into the pages of ancient narratives to discover the plural nature of marriages by our biblical heroes, the leniency related to how far up the family tree it was permitted to marry, or even what happened when your spouse passed away.

Answer: marry your husband's closest male relative. Yikes.

This is not to suggest the aforementioned as appropriate biblical models, it's simply to note marriage as a contextual witness of covenant fidelity that God has allowed to evolve over time. Moreover, when Jesus was confronted about marriage, a mind-boggling trap by antagonistic Sadducees opposed to a theology of resurrection, the Messiah's retort down-graded the institution as superfluous compared to the redefinition of relationships within God's kingdom.

"For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Matthew 22:30)

It's as though Jesus was saying, everything's about to change so quit your bickering. Your marriage debate is causing you to miss the point of the economy of God and God's coming kingdom.

When we lump the definition of marriage into our core Trinitarian confessions, we are guilty of just the same. We may need to be reminded of what the triune nature of God is really about:

"Trinitarian doctrine describes God in terms of shared life and love rather than in terms of domineering power. God loves in freedom, lives in communion, and wills creatures to live in a new community of mutual love and service. God is self-sharing, other-regarding, community-forming love."

Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding 73*

Again, Trinitarian theology is about God and how God relates to the world: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When this becomes our core, versus any stance on marriage, then and only then can we set aside both conservative and progressive positions on marriage and draw back to the forefront of our witness a unified concern and incarnated love for God's children who live on less than $2 a day.

This kind of love is to be our primary orientation.**

This kind of love is deeply Trinitarian.

This is the love of which we need to be known by the world.



*See God as Unified and Missional Theology: Trinitarian Theology as Missional Theology

**A great read: Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community by Andrew Marin

Great Pieces by Thoughtful Bloggers:

Let's Talk About What Happened Yesterday at World Vision by Tony Jones

Rachel Held Evans on World Vision

Kristen Howerton on World Vision

Jen Hatmaker, "Where I Stand"

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What Are You Giving Up for Lent? Beware of Missing the Point

Sports Talk Radio.

Sure, Jesus may have fasted from bread for 40 days, but I have chosen to surrender the lunacy of incessant airwave banter. My wife is much appreciative, no longer startled whenever she turns the ignition and greeted by overly-opinionated male voices shouting about the viability of this trade, that off-the-field antic, or whether the Sixers will actually lose all of their remaining games. As for me, at roughly the mid-way point of this Lenten experiment, I admit a change in attitude and posture as I drive to work every morning without my cynical talk radio companions.

The Lenten decision to replace jaded jargon about over-paid athletes with silence, prayer, and carefully-crafted playlists has transformed my morning and afternoon commutes into sacred spaces for intellectual rest.

I also have become less relevant in water-cooler conversations about the upcoming baseball season. #firstworldproblems

This time of year the liturgical calendar is trendy and fashionable. We wear our attempts to fast from chocolate, television, radio, desserts, or meat on Fridays as though they are badges of honor God will remember when we approach the pearly gates. Even more, we not-so-subtly hope others take notice when we decline a piece of cake or medium-well steak at a gathering among friends. We may take advantage of the 40-day pilgrimage, much like New Year's resolutions, to drop a few pounds or cultivate new habits to improve our health.

While there is nothing wrong with the surrender of sweets or 97.5 The Fanatic during this journey to the cross, beware of missing this pertinent point. Lent is a solemn and confessional movement to Jerusalem whereby we die to ourselves and the ways in which we have missed the mark of God's dreams for us and the whole world. We acknowledge our brokenness and the fragility of the whole world that longs to be set free from suffering, sin, and death lurking around every corner.

Lent is a season to ponder the ways we and others have robbed our fellow brothers and sisters, even the created world, of God's divine intentions.

We cry out to God for forgiveness and healing, assured that just behind the crucifixion is an empty tomb.

Lent is a prolonged beckoning for deliverance from the God who has a history of liberation.

As we draw closer and closer to Good Friday and Holy Saturday, may whatever we give up for Lent be done with all this and more in mind. May we tune into the darkness of the human experience and the fractured nature of the world we call home, confident light is just over the horizon and newness of life will surely come.

May our fasting from __________ and our repentance of _________ never assume an ability to earn favor with our peers or the God who made us. Instead, our surrendering transforms us personally so we are more faithful witnesses externally to the good news of Jesus who sends us beyond these 40 days of Lent.

"In its non-concrete and non-historical aspect, sin is robbery, in the sense that it is the falling of [humanity] out of direct relationship with God, the rending asunder of the spiritual band which unites God with the world and with [humanity], the Creator with His creation. It is an assumption of independence in which God is forgotten...If, however, we begin with this aspect of sin, we have to take care lest, passing by the Cross, we suppose ourselves capable of undertaking the restoration of our proper position either by some forceful and tumultuous action or by some delicate refinement of thought."
---Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans 168

**This week's Modern Psalm for Lent: "I Shall Not Want" by Audrey Assad

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Absurdity of Forgiveness: Immaculèe Ilibagiza, Rwandan Genocide, and Not Knowing What I'm Doing

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)

I have heard these words more times than I can count. They especially pop up and echo from pulpits during the 40-day Lenten journey. Yet, as someone who has grown up and still lives a fairly privileged and protected life, one of Jesus' most subversive and seemingly offensive declarations has often been tangled up with how-to methods for handling petty arguments and conflicts.

The reality is, I have more friends than enemies. Even those I may consider "enemies" are merely those with whom I have had difficult disagreements and harmless feuds that have never once affected my health, safety, freedom. These enemies have never once threatened my family or personal property. Still I find forgiveness difficult and choose instead to harbor at least a little resentment. A personal grudge tends to be more my trend versus grace.

Which makes the grace of Jesus in his final hours seem potentially irresponsible and impossible. In the midst of such brutality, to extend generosity and compassion to his offenders wreaks of suspicion? Then we take a look at the brackets around these words in the Gospel of Luke and maybe find some comfort. Maybe Jesus never really said this? The footnotes expose some of the earliest manuscripts lacked this statement. Is it possible that these words were merely penned by a redactor trying to drive home a message about our need to forgive?

Some of us may like to think so. If Jesus actually said this I am in deep trouble because forgiveness is way too hard and inconvenient in this me-centered, self-preservation world.

We would much rather our Messiah, as he is nailed to the beams, to revamp the persona that cleared the temple, overturned tables, cracked a whip, and pronounced judgment against unjust and unethical abusers of the God's house of worship. We want a strong and powerful Jesus we can rally behind with pitch-forks and torches, bent on cleansing the world of all those who have done us harm.

Then we hear again, "Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing."

No, Jesus, you don't know what you are saying.

It's as if Jesus was actually putting into to practice the prayer he taught his disciples to pray, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Aware that only through forgiveness could true transformation and healing take place. Jesus knew forgiveness was the way even in the midst, actually especially in the face of the most horrific demonstrations of injustice and suffering. If forgiveness was not able to be extended here, than forgiveness was merely another popularized religious sentiment versus transforming ethical power.

Last week, I was blessed to hear the first-hand story of Immaculèe Ilibagiza. She is a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, whereby over one-million people were massacred in less than 100 days. While Immaculèe survived the brutal Hutu-lead attacks on her tribal people, the Tutsis, the rest of her family members were not so fortunate. Immaculèe was left alone and faced more questions and reasons to grieve or seek vengeance than any of us could possibly imagine.

Yet somehow, someway, she mustered the strength and courage to forgive.

Here is a snippet of her story (excuse the cheesy intro and awkward show host):

I remember my reaction to hearing Immaculee's story in the Asplundh Auditorium. I wanted, like others in the room, to well up with tears. Instead, I sat in awe and shock. When Immaculèe began her talk with "three things I learned," the first being the power of forgiveness,* I started to question how this could be possible. I cannot easily forgive my intellectual opponents or the occasional family member who drops an offensive line here and there, and this woman has extended forgiveness to those who killed her mother, father, siblings, grandparents, and burned to the ground all she knew to be home.

Did Immaculèe know what she was really doing?

What about justice? What about settling the score? What about making things right?

Then she reminded all of us: to fail to forgive is to become just like your oppressors. To choose hatred and anger as your life-long posture is to give your enemies victory over your spirit. Animosity, retaliation, and harboring bitterness never makes anything right or whole again.

This was a hard epiphany and realization for Immaculèe, as many days she would skip the lines about forgiveness in her hourly recitation of the Lord's prayer.

Then Immaculèe was awakened, "they do not know what they are doing." Her enemies fail to understand. They fail to comprehend and if she refused to show compassion, grace, or offer forgiveness many consider irresponsible and absurd, nothing would ever change.

So Immaculèe ventured to the prison of the one who murdered her mother and brother and offered forgiveness. She chose to send away her hostile resentment. It was not easy. It was not refined, polished, or sentimental. Immaculèe's grace was not offered without personal resistance. Forgiveness did not erase the pain, the lament, the tragedy, or even excuse the wrong-doing. Forgiveness certainly did not mean forgetting.

Forgiveness meant following Jesus and choosing not to return evil with more evil and violence with more violence. Immaculèe refused to allow resentment to define her very existence.

Forgiveness ultimately allowed Immaculèe to seek justice out of love versus hate, evident now through her various non-for-profit work and advocacy for orphaned children in Rwanda.

I left the gathering at West Chester University with a heavy heart.

How many times have I harbored bitterness for extended periods of time?

How often have I responded to conflict with deep-seeded anger and hostility?

How often does the church fail to forgive one another we call brothers and sisters in the faith, frequently over petty differences of opinion, interpretations of the Bible, or church praxis and policy?

How common is it for us to justify violence, aggression, and war with personal, political, and national enemies?

No wonder not much has changed over the course of human history.

Forgiveness does not make sense.

Forgiveness may seem somewhat absurd, even naïve.

But forgiveness is the only way towards real change and liberation.

Forgiveness is the unconventional way of Jesus. The way Jesus pursued even unto his final breath.

Jesus knew what he was doing. Immaculèe knew what she was doing.

Do we?

That's something to ponder this Lent.


* Imaculèe's two other points: find meaning in everything and the power of neighborly love.

**See a sermon on forgiveness as jubilee and reflections on this difficult line in the Lord's Prayer:

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Modern Psalms for Lenten Journey: 2014 Playlist for Pilgrims

This year I am giving up snow for Lent. That's right, I have decided to fast from the frozen flakes and repent of shoveling, scraping windshields, and canceling events and activities due to hazardous road conditions.

Lent 2014 has also prompted yet another rendition of "Modern Psalms for the Lenten Journey." This playlist for pilgrims has become an annual ritual for the forty-day movement from cross to resurrection, a musical score for the ancient Christian discipline of confession, repentance, lament, and contemplating how we long to be made right by the God who created us in the beginning. A few of these songs will warrant a blogpost of their own, juxtaposing the contemporary lyric with a portion of ancient Scripture.

As a bonus this week, check out the Lenten reflection (below) by Diana Butler-Bass as featured on the rich on-line resource:

Also check out a post from last year:

Why Lent? DJesus Uncrossed, Tarantino & Peter Rollins as Liturgical Reminders

Modern Psalms for Lenten Journey: 2014 Playlist

1. "Wayward and Torn" by Gungör (I Am Mountain)

2. "Desert Soul" by Rend Collective (Homemade Worship by Handmade People)

3. "Hopeless Wanderer" by Mumford & Sons (Babel)

4. "Wandering" by Gungör (I Am Mountain)

5. "Thy Will Be Done" by Derek Webb (I'm Sorry, I Was Wrong, & I Love You)

6. "I Shall Not Want" by Audrey Assad (Fortunate Fall)

7. "Heart Runs" by John Mark McMillan (Borderland)

8. "Called Home" by Over the Rhine (Meet Me at the Edge of the World)

9. "The World You Want" by Switchfoot (Fading West)

10. "Everything Will Change" by Derek Webb (I'm Sorry, I Was Wrong, & I Love You)

11. "Spirit of the Living God" by Audrey Assad (Fortunate Fall)

12. "O How I Need You" by All Sons & Daughters (The Longing EP)

13. "Hold Us Together" by Matt Maher (Alive Again)


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Remember That Time Our Son Locked Me Out of the House? (Ten Commandments of Parenting Toddlers)

I was outside a mere two minutes, ten feet from our front door, and attempting to flag down our washing machine repairman when I heard the door close behind me.  As the gentleman stepped out of the truck, he witnessed me desperately pleading with my almost-three-year-old son who had managed to lock his disheveled father outside.  

"Buddy, I need you to unlock the door," I said on the opposite side of our glass storm door.  

"Daddy, you need a key." 

After several sighs and a brief and not-so-sacred prayer, I talked my son through multiple attempts to turn the latch and unlock the door.  He turned it a few times, declared the lock "too heavy," sat down on the mat for a second, mimicked my frustration, and even made several attempts to jump for keys, as if they would help if he did actually grasp them. 

About 10 minutes later, I heard the desired "click" and we were in business.

"I did it, Daddy. I did it."

"Yes, you did, buddy. Yes, you did."

I am convinced my son has been plotting this for some time. It's probably a grand conspiracy he and his twin sister developed for the next time dad walked out when mom was not home.  They called it, "Operation Twinado Freedom."

I am also convinced this event has made it into the top tier of the grandfatherly repairman's 60+ years of on-the-job stories. 

My wife and I have learned a lot over the years as we try to keep our two kids safe and alive, manage our sanity, and even create a fair share of memories to last a lifetime. Two things we know for certain: everyday is an adventure and parenting is not something you ever figure out or learn from a book.  Parenting is all about doing the best you can, taking one day at a time, and improvising a whole hell of a lot. Every now and again you will have a stroke of genius, pat yourself on the back, and get a decent night's sleep.

Then reality hits you upside the head and you are locked out of your own own home or find your daughter standing by the laundry room door with her dirty pull up around her ankles.

"They fell down, Daddy. Uh oh."

Yea, that also happened yesterday. 

Which lead me to develop the following:

Ten Commandments of Parenting Toddlers  (A Dad's Perspective)

10. Don't Leave House without Keys: See story above. But really, your kids are smarter than you realize and will make their brightest discoveries when you are not paying attention.  Be ready. I also have had to learn to affirm these discoveries, even when they are mildly inconvenient. 

9. Don't Be Afraid to Get a Little Poo on Your Hands: Parenting is messy and you will get dirty.  Learn to laugh a little and use a lot of soap and water. And always remember, somebody once did this for you. So give thanks. 

8. Don't Let Kids Watch Caillou: This is just a personal preference. But trust me, this whining kid from Canada has a sense of entitlement that really causes one to go insane. Caillou's vocals and theme song will haunt you forever. You've been warned.

5. Don't Be Easily Embarrassed: Life is not supposed to be so serious.  Toddlers will teach you this truth quickly, like when they shout new vocabulary words, especially those referring to human anatomy, whenever they feel like it and wherever these words pop into their little imaginations. Again, laugh a little. 

4. Don't Take Pictures of Everything: Leave Room for the minds-eye, so in trying to capture the moment perfectly you don't miss the moment completely. 

3. Don't Fret: Your Kids Think You're Awesome (for now).  There is nothing like walking in the front door after a difficult day and hearing, "Daddy, your back! Daddy, I love you." Soak it in and maybe record a few of these moments. No, don't. See #4.

2. Don't Wish Time Away.  Parenting is hard. You will inevitably take some of the days and weeks for granted. You will question your ability to raise kids and manage your personal life, profession, and relationships all at the same time.  People will tell you, "it's only a season." But embrace each one for what it is. You won't get it back and before you know it, you will be reminiscing about the good ole days. These are the good ole days. Love as many of them as you can. 

1. Don't Forget to Pray: These prayers may come in between diaper changes, while washing dishes, or as you clean up and step on a few Legos (which evoke their own genre of prayer). But, by all means, pray.  Prayer will keep you sane and point you towards gratitude and grace. You will need a whole lot of both. While you're at it, teach your kids to pray. These will become some of your earliest and most sacred moments as you form their young faith. Consider writing your own bedtime prayer, too.

*See Related Post: Comparison as Joy's Thief and Parenting as My Christian Vocation  You could probably add an eleventh commandment, "Don't Compare Your Parenting to Another's." This will only lead to dissatisfaction and envy.