Monday, November 3, 2014

Vote Genuine Biblical Values

Tomorrow is Election Day. Many people have already voted, and many will vote tomorrow. Many more, it is safe to say, are so disgusted by the political system that there is little or no desire to vote. I am pretty disgusted myself—disgusted by the poor choices we have in some races, disgusted by the candidates that are more concerned about degrading their opponents than in giving me a reason to vote for them, and particularly disgusted in the belief that fidelity to God and Country must be defined in strict partisan loyalty.
I write today as a Christian, a pastor, a voter, and an American who is concerned for the future of our nation. I vote according to my prayerfully and faithful understanding of Biblical values and I encourage you to prayerfully vote according to yours as well.  More importantly, I encourage all of us to hold everyone who will be elected to office tomorrow to be accountable to Biblical values, even when many of them have chosen not to manifest those values in their campaign.
            In Micah 3:5-12, the prophet denounces corrupt leaders who base their moral, ethical, and religious decisions in terms of how those decisions will best support their own individualistic gains. These leaders, the prophet boldly warns, will become clouded in their misapprehension of God’s truth that their effectiveness to lead and capacity to further corrupt the people will be destroyed by God.  Their God-given gifts of leadership, vision, and power will be mired in the rubbish of their self-centered and power-hungry motivations.
            As a result of the failed leadership and reckless abandonment of God’s values in exchange for selfish gain, the whole community—not simply the leadership—will succumb to the destruction of its shared moral failure and religious apostasy.
            It does not require much imagination to understand how this ancient prophetic vision can vividly play itself out in the United States. In fact, in its own way, the vast majority of the political messages we have been hearing is intended to remind us that if we, as faithful Christians and loyal citizens, do not vote the right way, our whole way of life is threatened.
            Given a message of such stark warning, combined with the barrage of negative rhetoric that has permeated this election cycle, it is easy to pinpoint all the moral degradation, evil inclination, and outright demonic values that threaten to destroy our nation. As Christians, we generally have no problem railing against those forces that run contrary to our faith. There is, however, another side to Micah’s prophetic message that we may be a little more reluctant to address. It is the side that faces a mirror!
            That other political party may be all wrong, but ours is not necessarily all right! The fact that that church understands biblical values differently from your church does not mean that either has all the answers or that either is going to hell for their misguided beliefs. Micah’s stark prophetic warning calls all of us—you and me—to take a hard look in the mirror and allow ourselves to stand honestly before God and challenge our own motives, morals, and values.
            The church has not always been right—even when it fervently believed it was living in accordance to God’s holy word.  Wars, poverty, starvation, inequality, injustice, slavery, hatred, and murder are all a part of the Church’s presumed “righteous” history. In virtually every such failure, the Church stumbled when personal gain, power, or profit was placed ahead of God’s ministry of justice, equality, and righteousness.
            I recall Joshua in his farewell address to the Hebrew People in Joshua 24:15 when he challenged with the bold words, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I remember Moses in his farewell address in Deuteronomy 30:19-20 with the call to choose life by deliberately choosing to live out of God’s love. As Christians, when we go to the polls, ours is to make a choice of faith that will either reflect genuine Biblical values of God’s love, grace, and peace or secular idols that advance personal wealth, power, prestige, and control. What will you be choosing in the polls?
            What do you hope to gain by casting your vote this election? What do those seeking the loyalty of your vote hope to gain should they win this election? Who stands to truly benefit from any given outcome at the polls? What forces, institutions, and entities have the most to gain by investing their time, energy, and money into the election process? How will those values affect the common good of all?
            Yet our obligation to live a Biblical choice transcend voting. We then have a sacred responsibility to uphold that choice in the way we live in the world and in the way we uphold the political process from this point forward.
            In 1 Timothy the Bible calls on the faithful to hold true to the divine training and live according to the life they learned in Christ Jesus. It is faith lived out in “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.” We must question our own motives, as well as those of the men and women running for office, as well as those already serving and those who will be serving following tomorrow’s election.
            None of these are easy questions to ask and undoubtedly, many reading this post will vehemently disagree on how they should be answered. Yet the sacred responsibility remains for all Christians. Do we support God and all of God’s love, or do we support the preservation of our own distinctive institutional, religious, or partisan values?
            As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord by choosing life in ways that enhances all life, and hold fast to the sacred teachings rooted in God’s love.

(Author’s Note: A version of this originally appeared in the Carlsbad Current Argus, Saturday, November 1, 2014) 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Praying for the Peace of Israel

            “I stand behind Israel!”
            “America must bless Israel!”
            “Our Salvation is Israel!”
            “I will never turn my back on Israel.”
            “Those who bless Israel will be blessed and those who curse Israel will be cursed.”

            In light of the ongoing war in Gaza statements like these are again making their rounds in the political and religious discourse of America. Although well-intended and passionately believed, statements such as these are also frighteningly dangerous and Biblically inaccurate. As a Christian, I find the dangerously destructive Zionist mentality to be one of the most perverse distortions of God’s Word in our modern culture. Before we place a Christian label on the violence destroying Israel and Palestine, perhaps some prayerful perspective is order.

1.     The modern nation of Israel is largely supported by the United States because of political convenience and nationalistic fear. The religious incorporation of supposedly biblical priorities for blessing Israel were developed out of political ideologies largely rooted in Cold War Era fears and nationalistic pride. Lest we find ourselves worshipping at the idol of political correctness and sacrificing to the false god of partisan priorities, blindly supporting Israel out of presumed religious priority is a dangerously destructive path.

2.     Israel presumes to be a democracy, and thus an important ally to the United States in the Middle East, but it operates as a quasi-apartheid government with token democratic leanings. Additionally, Israel is a secular State with diverse religious factions and traditions. Nothing in the modern structure or constitution of Israel is defensible as genuine fulfilment of Biblical priority, prophecy, or Divine providence.  

3.     Blessing Israel is very Biblical, but turning a blind eye to Israel’s atrocities is not. By virtue of blessing, it must be noted that the blessing God gave to Israel was that it would be a light to the nations, not a brutal military regime and nuclear power that creates absolute enmity with much of the world. Throughout the Bible God demanded that Israel live up to its blessing by promoting justice, mercy, equality, and positioning itself as a light to the nations. Sadly, for all its greatness, Israel also fails tremendously in living into God’s definition of blessing.

4.     Israel has a right to exist as a free, sovereign, and protected nation. This does not mean that Israel has the right to hold entire populations in permanent refugee status, forced into perpetual concentration camps, and oppressed to the point of desperation. Such disregard for human dignity and equality is not to be blessed.  

5.     Israel has a right to self-defense and is perfectly justified in wishing to end the evil and indiscriminate rocket attacks and terrorist activities of Hamas.  Yet, before bombing Gaza and further destroying the lives of innocent Palestinians as if they were all less than human, Israel need look into the mirror and see the atrocities it has committed for over a half-century: illegal occupation, extreme racist and classist segregation, unwarranted settlements, military brutality, economic persecution, and over a half-century of indiscriminant violence against the Palestinian people. Such history is not to be blessed.

6.     Hamas is wrong. Just as Israel is wrong in their history of apartheid-like abuses of the Palestinian people, Hamas is equally wrong for their indiscriminate provoking of Israel and through the brutality of terrorist attacks. It is as the old saying goes, “Two wrongs do not make a right.” Yet, until one side takes a new approach at transcending the violence and hatred by true repentance and righting the wrongs of the past, both sides will be locked in mutual self-destructive sin and violence. Such a catastrophic failure of God’s peace is not to be blessed.

7.     Peace in Israel will never come by a sword (or rocket, or RPG, or terrorist attack, or military incursion, or through the destruction of tunnels). Peace in Israel can only come through the people of Israel and the people of Palestine laying down their arms, repenting of their long-held hatred, and seeking the true and genuine humanity of both sides. Calls for the United States and Christians to bless the violence of warfare in “blessing” and “standing with” Israel is as destructive to genuine peace as are the terrorist activities of Hamas. It was Jesus Christ who said that those who chose to live by the sword will die by the sword. Therefore, the idea of peace through military destruction is not to be blessed.

            I do seek to bless Israel, just as my God commands and the Bible I love so clearly records. Let my blessing of Israel never be called into question! Yet, rather than ascribe to a populist pseudo-blessing that only fuels the unholy violence, further distorts the authenticity of Scripture, and assaults the very people God loves, my blessing is in the form of prayers for peace—a genuine and Godly peace—for the Holy Land. Prayers that Israel stop conducting business as the regional bully and start living the blessing called for in scripture. I pray for the day when Israel may repent of its sins, truly live the sacred covenant of scripture, and finally become a light to the nations.

Quite frankly, this is a bitter and difficult path to take. A half-century of brutality is not erased overnight. Centuries of animosity, hatred, and mistrust do not evaporate quickly. Yet the peace of Israel is worth working for; worth praying for; worth sacrificing for. Now is the time to work and pray for the true Peace of Israel! 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reflections on Racism, Immigration, America, and Christian Faith

                Many years ago I was having a conversation with my supervisor. She was sharing with me her personal story of living in a very racist community that had absolutely no tolerance for anyone who was not white. Her employment brought her and her young son to live in that community but it proved to be a major mistake. She could not truly live. Every day she was assaulted with racial statements, denied service at restaurants or the grocery store, and her son, the only black child in entire school, was the victim of rampant bullying and hateful discrimination. After about a year, she requested an emergency transfer under hardship circumstances and was quickly moved to a new community and workplace. This is where I came to work for her.
                Upon hearing her story of being victimized by such blatant racism, I was shocked as I tried to conceptualize what that must have been like. It was—and still is—so far beyond anything that I have personally experienced, that could not really come to terms with how to empathize with her ordeal. So, in my ignorance, I told her that it must be a real blessing to live where we did so that she did not have to put up with racist people.
                She slammed her fist down on the counter and angrily challenged me, “Are you kidding me?” In shock, I just stood there wondering what I had said to offend her. She then went on to say that she was glad to be away from that other community, but nothing would change the fact that she was black and there were people who looked down on her for that reason. The only difference, she went on to say, was that those people in the other town knew they were racist and were at least honest about it. They hated her and everyone agreed on that fact. What angered her was that where she and I lived and worked, she found the racists were too ignorant to know that they were racist, too caught up in their own selfish worldview to see their own hatred, too shallow to realize how two-faced they really were. She went on to say how people would treat her with false respect, and then speak horribly about her behind her back. She shared with me what it was like to be followed relentlessly in a store because everyone just knew a black woman was there to steal, not buy. “It’s one thing to be racist and know it, even be proud of it, but I hate the most,” she said, “is those ignorant fools who are too blind to see their own hatred.” We continued to talk and I learned a lot about the clandestine aspect of racism and how much of society allowed institutional support of this sin in ways which made it easy for the rest of us to ignorantly believe we were doing nothing wrong. Essentially, we allowed our institutions do the sinning for us so it was easy to absolve ourselves of persona accountability.
                It was a lesson I learned over 20 years ago, and one that has never left me. Yet, in light of the present culture of incivility and outright hatred frequently expressed in the public sphere, as well as across much of Social Media, it is a lesson that needs to be taught. A South African Bishop and Pastor named Peter Storey once noted that the challenges he faced as a South African Pastor preaching against Apartheid was far greater than those challenges facing American Clergy facing the culture of American Nationalism. His point was that Christian and Biblical values had become so convoluted in the political and nationalistic fervor of patriotic priority that the task of preaching God’s justice and mercy was overshadowed by what he called the “red, white, and blue myth.”
                Those are strong words. In fact, they offend me. They cut to my heart the same way my supervisor’s condemnation cut me over 20 years ago. Then, I was forced to examine my own heart and see what racist beliefs, attitudes, and prejudices were secretly influencing my life. I found them and they offended me. Likewise, the myth of the red, white, and blue challenges me to look at the bigger picture of what is best for the world—God’s whole earthly creation—and step back from the arrogant and self-serving assumption that America deserves my absolute priority. Or, more to the point, my own political leanings deserve priority.
                The refugee crisis currently facing the nation more fully and completely brings this principle to mind. I have co-written a faith statement with several other brothers and sisters in the ministry that calls for a compassionate and just handling of the refugees from Central America that have been relocated to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico. Some of the reaction I have received has been positive and affirming. Yet, some is not. Various arguments have been raised that generally point to same basic ideas. They have no right to be here because they broke the law and have no intention of contributing to our great nation, only draining from it and becoming the gangster thugs that are ruining our country. Besides that, if we can’t care for our Veterans and homeless, they certainly don’t deserve support. In very basic terms, they are not wanted here, not now, not ever! Yet, I have to ask, “Is that what America truly stands for? Is that how Christ would truly have us respond to such a humanitarian crisis?”
                Somewhere between the blatant racism my supervisor experienced so many years ago and the ignorant racism she experience when we worked together lies the very challenge we face today. Somewhere between the horrific conditions of what was Apartheid and the myth of the red, white, and blue, lies a stark reality that many of us are not truly addressing. Somewhere between creating an impenetrable border with massive walls and protective machine guns and opening our borders for anyone to come and go as they please, there is a better way—an American way, a Godly way! It is a way that places fear not in the person whom we do not know or understand, but places our trust in God. It is a way that recognizes that we can be stronger by working for a common good rather than simply asserting what’s perceived as being best for our little world. It is a way that balances compassion with discipline, grace with legalism, and love with restrictions.
                I do not pretend to have all the answers, nor do I assume that I fully understand the very complicated immigration system. I do know this. As a nation, if we allow ourselves to be ruled by fear, hatred, anger, and division, we will reap greater proportions of all those things. In regions such as Iraq, Syria, Israel, Afghanistan, and Libya, where war or the pestilence of ungodly violence is destroying whole societies, the fuel is fear, hatred, anger, and division—each faction seeking absolutist means to assert its sovereign control over those other factions that understand the world differently. Is this the path that we wish to take? Truly, such violence is not the way of Jesus Christ.

                Truly, I believe most Americans are good-hearted, honest, and God-fearing people. We may be, to some degree, guilty of ignorantly allowing our institutions—our government, our churches, our corporations, our media—do our sinning for us as we blindly pat ourselves on the back for being good people. Yet, there is a better way, a holy way, a Christian way, even a truly American way. It is time that we set aside our petty political posturing and raucous religious rhetoric. Jesus Christ was not an American or a Christian. On earth he was a Palestinian Jew living under Roman occupation. He did not transform the world by taking control over those in opposition to him, he transformed the world through loving sacrifice. It is time that we take on the law of love, and forgo the laws of hatred that are permeating our culture. It is time for those who proclaim Christ to live his love! 

Peter Storey quoted from "Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals" Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, & Enuma Okoro, Published by Zondervan Press, (c) 2010, Reading for July 16, Page 361. 

Ecumenical Faith Statement on Immigrants in Artesia

The following is a reprint of a joint ecumenical statement of faith drafted by several clergy. 

                Southeast New Mexico is facing a crisis that cuts at the heart of Christian faith and practice. With the recent notification by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that upwards of 600 Central American refugees would be housed at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center campus in Artesia, it has served as a rallying call for many local citizens as well as local elected officials. Tragically, much of the most vehement response has been exceptionally negative, couched in fear, fueled in highly politicized rhetoric, and grounded in anything but solid Biblical, Christian, moral, and humanitarian concerns. As faith leaders and Christian pastors in Eddy and Lea Counties, this is our call to speak a word of Christian grace, morality, and common sense in regard to the looming crisis.
                Scripture repeatedly, and unapologetically, calls for God’s people to welcome the stranger, the alien, the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner. Leviticus 19:33-34 recalls the sacred memory of the time when the people of God were once the unwanted immigrant in Egypt. Central to the Biblical narrative is the call to remember the harsh treatment and slavery inflicted upon the Hebrew people and to live in such a way as to never return such inhumanity upon other aliens. Jesus Christ also emphasized this vital law of God’s grace, compassion, and welcome. Most notably, in Matthew 25 reminds us that our salvation hinges on caring for “the least of these.” Furthermore, James writes that for our religious faith to be genuine and authentic, it must make as priority our call to care for the orphans and widows in their distress. As these immigrant women and children from Central America are brought to our backyard in Eddy County, Christianity demands we respond with compassion.
                Extending hospitality to the stranger and welcoming the alien is not a practice that comes easily and also brings an understandable degree of fear. Naturally, we tend to fear that which we do not fully understand. Accordingly, many in our community have expressed outrage at the decision to house these people at FLETC. At issue for many is the presumed illegal presence. Romans 13 calls for reasonable submission to the sovereign laws of the land and its governing authorities. Therefore, having presumed the immigrant’s guilt for violating the law, Romans 13 is hastily referenced to legitimize swift and decisive punitive measures both in the name of Scriptural authority and legal obligation. This, in spite of the reality that our criminal code both presumes innocence and calls for just and humane treatment of arrestees who are imprisoned.
                Reading further in the same chapter of Romans, Scripture calls for love as the fulfillment of the law rather than legalistic and punitive adherence to the law. Jesus Christ modeled the priority of human compassion over legalistic adherence throughout his ministry. In speaking of loving God and loving neighbor, Jesus told the parable of three men. Two upheld the letter of the law and maintained their ritual holiness and purity by avoiding the stranger in need. Yet it was one who broke the law and crossed the cultural, religious, and moral codes of the day to meet a stranger in need. We remember that lawbreaker as the Good Samaritan. Therefore, even in the midst of the legitimately illegal status of their presence on US soil, the commands of God in Jesus Christ are for love, not fear or punishment.
                Much of the controversy and emotionally-charged outrage over these immigrants is endemic of our own nation’s broken immigration system and the political rancor over how to best address immigration on a comprehensive, defensible, and humanitarian basis. While the current situation raises the issues in very powerful ways, expressing hatred toward, fear of, or anger with the women and children housed at FLETC serves nothing to resolve the national debate. Rather, it only diverts precious energy and engenders a destructive spirit of mistrust that is contrary to Christian love and hospitality. As Jesus Christ calls us to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile, let us not look down on the immigrants for being here until we both understand their real reason for coming and work collaboratively and prayerfully to seek just, reasonable, and defensible immigration reform on a federal level.
                As a matter of faith and Biblical authenticity, it is vital that all Christians approach the immigrants staying at FLETC with utmost compassion. As the prophet Zechariah made clear in the 7th chapter, God does not honor proper religious ritual and sacrifice when the people of God also oppress the widow, orphan, and alien. It is a sentiment echoed in Amos 5:21-24, Micah 6:6-8, Isaiah 1:10-20, Hosea 6:6, Hosea 8:11-14, Jeremiah 7:22-23, and Matthew 25:31-46. God has made the command clear. This is no time for fear. In faith, our call is to be the Good News and stand in solidarity with Christ with confidence and love. Our call is perhaps best summarized in the words of Micah 6:8 which reads that we are to love kindness, seek justice, and walk humbly with God.

Rev. Harold Armstrong, First Presbyterian, Hobbs
Mr. Justin Remer-Thamert, New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice
Rev. Geri Cunningham, St. Peter Lutheran, Carlsbad
Fr. Rod Hurst, Grace Episcopal, Carlsbad
Rev. Nick King, Carlsbad Mennonite
Rev. Ron Collins, Carlsbad Mennonite, Retired
Rev. Betty Collins, Carlsbad Mennonite, Retired
Rev. David Wilson Rogers, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Carlsbad
Rev. Gene Harbaugh, First Presbyterian Church Carlsbad, Retired
Rev. Steven Voris

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Hobby Lobby and Christianity

Monday’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby has incredible implications that people of faith must take seriously. Unfortunately, the populist rhetoric surround the decision not only fails to address the real issue, it dangerously masks it in a destructive assault of self-righteous arrogance and superiority. As Christians, we need a different approach.

Religious freedom and the Constitutional right for us to practice our religious faith without undue interference of the government, as well as our right to not be forced to compromise our religious beliefs is a central truth that I hold very prominently. (The very fact that I have the freedom to write this blog hinges on that freedom.) The owners of Hobby Lobby have been long recognized (renowned or reviled—you choose) for their conservative, evangelical Christian faith. At the core of the faith expressed by many Conservative Christians there are major aspects of the Affordable Health Care Act that conflict with the values of personal responsibility, independence, and the role of governance in society that are vital the Evangelical Christian faith. It is understandable and I appreciate the fever to defend the tenants of such faith. Truly, the decision was a victory for Conservative, Evangelical Christianity therefore celebration is in order. I get that!

Religious freedom has another side, however. As many have pointed out, the so-called “freedom of religion” in the Constitution also means that we are to have freedom from religion and, freedom to not have someone else’s expression of religious faith thrust upon society as a whole. For many Americans—both devoutly Christian and non-Christian alike, the ruling is seen as one very narrow expression of the Christian faith as given the power to impose their religious beliefs on the whole nation. What is particularly troubling for many is the belief—right or wrong—that women’s rights, equality under the law, and essential freedom were trampled. Therefore, this ruling is seen as a cataclysmic step backward and a serious defeat to genuine religious freedom, not to mention women’s reproductive rights and therefore must be denounced as a serious miscarriage of justice. I get that!

Unfortunately, the whole case is much bigger that one corporation’s presumed religious freedom or the responsibility of faithful Christians to exercise religious freedoms in upholding God’s will. It would be nice if were that simple. The Hobby Lobby case is convoluted in partisan politics, vastly conflicting and contradictory interpretations of what “freedom” truly is, vehemently held religious, social, and political beliefs regarding the practice of abortion, the extremely controversial political firestorm of health care in America, and an emotionally charged citizenry that either viciously hates the current President of the United States a United States or staunchly defends him. Virtually all of these volatile perspectives are held within uncompromising and largely uninformed belief systems that are fueled fear rather than fact. Therefore, win or lose, the battle lines in this Supreme Court ruling were drawn long before the case was ever heard by the Justices and those lines actually have little to do with the principle of religious freedom.

The fundamental issue is about control. Who is going to control this country and our incredibly diverse citizenry? When issue-based political posturing rises in response to a split decision such as in the Hobby Lobby case, the driving force is a vehement push for control and there are factions that are willing to sacrifice almost anything to obtain it. Both sides of the argument are guilty and, as long as we believe we are truly acting out of the authenticity of our Christian faith, both sides invoke the name of God as the legitimacy of our unyielding argument against those whom we know are just deceived, ignorant, and destined to destroy all that is good and holy in our nation.

Perhaps, as a people of faith, there is a better way. It is time that we, as Christians, step back from our fiercely partisan political posturing and put a stop to the unholy division of God’s children into Conservatives and Liberals (or Fascists, Communists, Radicals, Progressives, Extremists, Socialists, or whatever arbitrary label is carelessly thrown about). It is time that we take note of the overall ministry of Jesus Christ. He never advocated for a particular economic or political system. Jesus taught to render ultimate authority to God (Mark 12:28-30), love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:25-37), give to Government what was due to Government (Luke 20:20-26), and to work for the establishment of Biblical justice (Luke 4:18-21). As Christians, Christ calls us to a life of service that improves the world for all, not just a faithful labor that creates a world which suits one’s own political, economic, religious, and social desires. Christianity, at its best, is a religious faith that serves the common good.

The Hobby Lobby decision—along with any number of split-decision rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States that tap into deeply-held religious convictions—has the power to divide the Body of Christ in ways that are devastating to our shared ability to represent God in this world.

Therefore, as Christians, perhaps we would be better suited to serve our Lord by casting off the idolatrous clothes of our partisan rancor and invest our energy in working to restore faith, hope, and trust amongst each other. Otherwise, in our fear-driven efforts to prove how right we are and how wrong they are, we may very well destroy everything that is good about both sides as the whole thing collapses in under the weight of our own pride and arrogance.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


He was a close friend of Jesus Christ whose friendship was not enough to garner the attention he and his sisters thought appropriate. Yet, when the great need came, Jesus was nowhere to be seen. They sent word, hoping against hope, for Jesus to come before it was too late. However, it was not going to happen. Jesus delayed—simply procrastinated for all they knew—his return and Lazarus died.
     Four days after his death, Jesus finally arrived and, much to the dismay of Lazarus’ sisters, seemed rather unconcerned with the brutal reality. He had other things in mind.      Mary and Martha were angry with God, angry with Jesus, and grieving bitterly over the death of their brother. “If you had been here,” Martha chastised Jesus, “my brother would not be dead.”      Martha was a practical woman. She had little use for vague spirituality and talk of things which were beyond her logical, reasonable, and highly rationalized existence. She is remembered as the one who was so distracted with housekeeping and proper decorum that she had no use for the teaching and blessing Jesus had to offer. She lived, bound in a world where truth is defined in mathematical, practical, and functional rules which could not be broken, not even by Jesus Christ. Controlling her environment with these rules and practical sensibilities was critical to her identity. She was one who had to know what was happening and thrived on being in control of the process. It gave her security, peace, and assurance.  It is easy to understand her anger at Jesus. At the death of her brother, and Jesus’ seeming lack of concern for the situation, she was out of control and that made her angry, afraid, and defensive.      “Lord, if you had been here,” Mary then called out to Jesus, “my brother would not have died.”  Yet, unlike her angry sister, Mary’s cry was in tears. She was a deeply passionate woman; the one to wear her emotions on her sleeve, the one to disregard her sister’s practicality for her spiritual dreams and hopeful visions. She believed in a God bigger than practicality, sometimes to her own demise. Yet, like Martha, Mary was also in the throes of grief. She was bound up in a world of raw spirituality and fanciful hope. It was Mary that disregarded the important chores of the house in order to sit at the feet of Jesus and it would be Mary who would opulently anoint the feet of Jesus only days before his crucifixion—an outlandish expression of spiritual love that all the practical disciples found ridiculously wasteful and irresponsible. It is easy to understand why she felt so betrayed since the faith she clung to so tightly had failed to deliver. Her brother was dead and there was no getting him back. The controlling forces of life and death had closed in on her brother, rendering prayerful hope and fervent faith irrelevant. Painfully accepting the inevitable, she poured her tears out at the feet of Jesus seeking some form of reassurance to assuage her catastrophically broken heart.      Jesus met these two women in their grief—Martha in her anger stemming from her complete loss of practical control over her world and Mary in her tears stemming from her inevitable surrender to the practical control of natural forces. Two people, bound in the chains of their own limited theology and understanding of the world, each engaging Jesus in the only way their faith would allow.      Together, they approached the tomb where the body of Lazarus was buried. Then, in a powerful demonstration of his amazing empathy and compassion, Jesus cried at the tomb of his dead friend. Then, through his tears, Jesus demanded that the tomb be opened.      Inside lay a man who had been friend to many. Like his sisters, Lazarus was also bound. Yet unlike the emotional bindings of stark partiality or blind spirituality, Lazarus was bound in the shroud of death. His was a physical binding—constrained to the bands of cloth used to envelop the body prior to burial. Yet, Jesus transforms the reality to open the eyes of all that we may see a much deeper binding.    
     Jesus Christ prayed, and then cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus! Come out!” Much to the amazement of all gathered, Lazarus—the man who had been bound in death—began to walk out. Jesus had liberated him from the bonds of death. Yet the scene was woefully incomplete. Lazarus had life, but he could not live. Death still shrouded him. Although no longer dead, he remained bound in the burial clothes and tight bindings in which his body was tightly held. Even his face was covered. Truly, Lazarus was the living dead—physically alive and yet unable to live. It would take a second miracle to grant true life!       Leaving the miracle incomplete, Jesus then turned to those gathered to witness the power of God. He called out to everyone present, “You! Unbind him and let him go.” Jesus gave Lazarus his life, but he entrusted the people of Bethany, the village where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived, to liberate him from the bindings so that he could truly live—it took a community to fulfill the miracle of Jesus Christ!      At least three people were unbound that day. Martha was freed from her bindings of practicality and the need to control her world. Mary was released from her bindings of hapless spirituality and her need to spiritualize everything without regard to reality. Lazarus was released from the bindings of death and the discouraging culture which, if left bound up, will inevitably destroy the true life of any Christian community. All because of Jesus’ power and the faithful efforts of the gathered community.    
     Yet, in this story from the 11th chapter of John, unbound more than just these three. All of Bethany was unbound from their fear of death, their strict adherence to coldly rational practicality, and their blind faith in unrealistic superstition. They were unbound from their prison of death as they came together to unbind the one to whom Jesus had given new life. They were unbound from individuality to become community.      

      The culture of death to which Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were inextricably bound has often been restored in our modern culture. Holding strictly to Martha’s practicality, Mary’s Superstition, or Lazarus's solemn existence, the church will stay bound Imagine, the church that has been given new life in Jesus Christ may never be able to lift its hands in praise to the God who gives us life. Fixed on what is wrong, what can never be, or what is simply irrational will only drive a church back into the tomb where life cannot thrive. The call of Christ, however, echoes past the pages of scripture, across the span of time, and barriers of culture, language, technology, and belief. It calls to us today. To the Mary’s and Martha’s of our church, Jesus calls out. To the bystanders just waiting to see what God will do, Jesus calls out. To the people afraid of the death of our church, Jesus calls out. To the people who see only hope and promise, Jesus calls out. To those who are angry, Jesus calls out. To those who are in tears, Jesus calls out. To you and I, the ones who look longingly at Jesus with the heartfelt and dismayed frustration that Jesus should have done more to preserve this church we so love, Jesus calls out. Now it is our turn, for Jesus has called out:
“Unbind him, and let him go!” 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Revisiting Gay Marriage

“I cannot support a church or a pastor that affirms gay marriage!”

Not surprisingly, I’ve heard this claim more than a few times since I preformed Eddy County’s first Same-Gender Marriage this summer. The angry, spirited, and hurtful backlash against my belief in Marriage Equality has been a humbling experience for me and one that has forced me to seriously and prayerfully revisit my long-held theological positions on marriage equality.

I understand that people have strong religious and moral convictions. I respect that the idea of homosexuality in general, let alone same-gender marriage, violates the religious beliefs and moral convictions of some people. Honestly, I once felt the same way. As one who believes in religious diversity and upholds the blessing of our Constitutional freedom to practice religion free from discrimination or incrimination, those who believe in their own right that same-gender marriage is a sin have every right to that belief and should never be singled out or sanctioned for their beliefs.

I believe, however, there is a lot more to the debate regarding this issue that needs to be shouted from the mountaintops and written large for all to see. Right now, the debates over sexual sin and traditional marriage are so focused on gay people having sex that the church is overlooking—or completely ignoring—a serious conversation that we need to be having!

First, we need to take seriously the difference between historical marriage and modern marriage. Historically, marriage, including Biblical accounts of marriage, has more to do with property rights than love. In the modern age, this is not the case. In Biblical history a woman was exchanged by her father to the groom and his father’s family in accordance with a business transaction. In a literal sense, the bride ceases to be the responsibility of her father and becomes the responsibility of her groom and his father’s family.  This is symbolized in the traditional changing of the woman’s last name to the man’s. Additionally, love and personal choice were frequently not part of the marriage covenant. Brides were exchanged at the behest of the fathers’ or sometimes the groom’s choosing and rarely had input or choice by the woman. Therefore, when people clamor for some sort of a traditional or biblical marriage, I have to question, “by whose standards and whose interpretation of scripture are we defining traditional and biblical?” Bottom line, I don’t see any traditional or biblical marriage happening in modern American culture and I don’t think any of us want to return to a world that treats women and girls as possessions to be owned rather than children of God to be loved and respected.

Condemning sexual sin is, perhaps, the larger issue at stake here. I find it difficult that people are fast to judge two women as an abomination to God and destined to hell because they are intimately involved yet we live in a culture that sexually objectifies just about everything. Consider a few questions:

Why is it an abomination to God for two consenting adults to live out a natural, loving, and affirming covenant relationship while we frequently turn a blind eye to the fact that scantily-clad women with artificial breasts and air-brushed bodies are being used to sell everything from cars and office equipment to guns and beer?

Why are people so offended because two men wish to be married, but some of the most popular television programs on the air today glamorize the bed-hopping behavior of their characters?

Why are some people so against the notion that a church or a pastor will perform a Gay-Marriage which has been approved by State law but ignore the fact that sexual exploitation, rape, sexual abuse, infidelity, domestic violence, and hideous emotional viciousness permeates so-called “traditional marriages” every day?

The pornography, sex-trade, and adult entertainment industries are, in my opinion, far more dangerous to our families, our culture, and our understanding of healthy sexuality than the relatively small percentage of loving adults who have chosen to live in a life-time covenantal partnership of marriage.

Finally, we have to remember, marriage is not all about sex. Frequently, when I engage in conversations with people about how repulsed they are regarding same-gender marriage, they are focused on the sex. “It is wrong!” It is a perversion.” “It is unnatural.” “It is against God’s will.” We all know the arguments and, more often than not, they all focus on the physical act of arousing the genitals for pleasurable outcomes.

Let’s be honest! Marriage does involve sex, but sex is not all there is to marriage. You show me someone who feels otherwise, and I’ll show you someone who doesn't understand marriage at all. Marriage is about covenant and commitment. Marriage requires sacrifice, mutuality, compassion, grace, and understanding. Marriage is a partnership forged in love and a mutual decision to be together no matter what. As I say in my wedding ceremonies, it is an intentional decision to permanently live together in a common life where each partner may be to the other, “a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.” It is the covenant, not the pleasurable stimulation of genitals that makes a marriage. Often times, I fear we forget this necessary fact when debates about same-gender marriage arise and become contentious.

So, when it comes to Same-Gender Marriage I think it is time we re-frame the debate. It is not a matter of who is right and who is wrong as there are clearly different ways of interpreting the Bible and church history. It is not a matter of forcing anyone’s religious beliefs or spiritually-defined moral standards on others as we must honor our freedom of religious expression.

When it comes to the debate on Same-Gendered marriage, we need to all take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Today we live in the most sexualized culture I think history has ever known. The overall divorce rate, the ubiquitous availability of pornography, the use of sexuality in marketing, the media objectification of women, the constant need for Domestic Violence Restraining orders and Battered Family Shelters, a burgeoning sex and human-trafficking trade, and the vast numbers of women who are essentially sexual slaves in their own home are the real sexual sins that this society must address. Rather than investing money, time, and emotional arguments in the definition of marriage, we would all do better to invest that energy into strengthening the covenants of marriage and cultivating an environment where the covenant thrives. It is time we re-frame the debate!