Archives For Adam Hamilton

GC2016-logo-color-hi-resThe United Methodist Church’s global gathering began yesterday in Portland, Oregon. As it kicked off, over 100 United Methodist clergy symbolically came out of the closet in protest to the denomination’s current disciplinary language regarding homosexuality as ‘contrary to Christian teaching’

I sympathize and support Adam Hamilton’s proposal, which recommends the United Methodist Church create flexibility in its language for this issue to be worked out at the local level in congregations and conferences. One of the ways I think that local solution manifests itself is by pastors and and parishioners being open and honest in dialogue about how they view the subject. Too often its not just gay clergy in the closet, it’s straight clergy’s views.

To that end, I offer a perspective on how Christians can reflect on the inclusion of gay marriage and gay ministers into the Body. In seminary I was friends with several gay Christians who possessed obvious gifts and calling. I’ve seen one of the most gifted potential ministers leave the United Methodist ordination process before it left him, and I’ve known too many church members feel the need to hide their true selves or their children.

But the welcome I believe the Church should offer is more than just a trite appeals to ‘love’ and ‘inclusivity’ that too many progressives commit.

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke. Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it. The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke?

Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons?

Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit.

But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question. And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side.

It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness?

Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained.

In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others.

Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another.

Perhaps the signal case of the blessing of diversity is God’s promise to Abraham that by him all the nations of the earth would become blessings to one another (Gen. 18:18). The promise to Abraham interprets “otherness” as primarily moral, in the sense that the other is the one that sanctifies — difference is intended for blessing.

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates. But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

To reflect trinitarian holiness, sanctification must involve community. It involves commitments to a community from which one can’t easily escape, whether monastic, nuptial or congregational.

Gay and lesbian people who commit themselves to a community — to a church, or to one another as partners — do so to seek greater goods, to embark upon a discipline, to donate themselves to a greater social meaning. Living out these commitments under conditions of sin, in a community from which one can’t easily escape — especially a community such as marriage, and monasticism — is not likely to be straightforwardly improving. The community from which one can’t easily escape is morally risky. It tends to expose the worst in people. The hope is that community exposes the worst in people in order that the worst can be healed.

For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires.

Conservatives wish to deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification.

But that is contradictory, because so far as I know no conservative has ever seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than cross-sex couples do. It is at least contradictory to attempt in the name of holiness to deprive people of the means of their own sanctification,

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways.

It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings.

I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion. I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

GC2016-logo-color-hi-resThe quadrennial global gathering of my tribe of Christians, United Methodism, begins their ten day exercise in ‘Holy Conferencing’ today in Portland, Oregon.

“Holy Conferencing” most often = Roberts Rules of Order, Democratic Practices, and Political Ideologies Slathered in Prayer

I realize I’m prone to cynical anti-institutionalism, but Bishop Will Willimon assured me that General Conference is not only a gross waste of the Church’s resources and energy but is ample cause for healthy cynicism.

As at every General Conference, the agenda will be consumed with debate about the United Methodist Church’s stance towards homosexuality, an issue over which the Church has been mired in an impasse for decades. While there are proposals before General Conference to move forward and adapt the Discipline’s language, including a realistic, moderate proposal from Adam Hamilton, with which I concur, it’s easy to sympathize with those people, both liberals and conservatives, who wish the Church simply would move on from this all-distracting issue.

I wonder, though, if closing off the conversation, as many conservatives would prefer, belies our own status as Gentiles. By seeing the welcome of gay Christians into the household of God, and into its disciplines of marriage and ministry, as a closed question, do they fail to recognize how their own admission into God’s People is possible only through an act of God’s grace that is every bit as unnatural as they take homosexuality to be?

Here’s what I mean:

In Romans 1, St. Paul writes that homosexual acts are “against nature” (para phusin). Eugene Rogers points out that in Romans 11 Paul uses this exact same phrase to describe God’s act of adopting Gentiles in to the household of Israel. God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the People of God, Paul says, is “against nature.” God’s grace is such that Christians owe their salvation to God’s unnatural act.

Rogers argues that because Christians have been adopted so unnaturally, they must be a people of hospitality to both Jews and outsiders. He adds that because they are saved by such a strange grace, the adoption of gay Christians in to the People of God must not be a closed question for straight Christians. The salvation of Gentile Christians by the God of Israel proves that no work of inclusion is beyond this God’s unnatural grace.

For Episode 5 of our Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast, Morgan, Teer, and I talk about General Conference and the Church’s welcome of gay Christians with my friend, Andrew DiAntonio, who is now the Social Media Director for the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Conference.

The audio isn’t perfect, but here you go. Be on the lookout for podcasts with Todd Littleton, Tony Jones, and NT Wright.

Subscribe to and download the Crackers & Grape Juice Podcast in iTunes. Just search ‘Crackers & Grape Juice.’ And PLEASE give us an all-star rating- it makes it more likely others will discover the podcast.

You can also find the podcast here: http://www.spreaker.com/user/crackersandgrapejuice.

Still on medical leave, I’m not back to work yet, but you wouldn’t know it from my Inbox. My post from last week on the refugee crisis provoked a number of protestations that I was playing politics.I could reiterate that welcoming refugees isn’t a political position for Christians. It’s a commandment given to Moses. It’s one of the hallmarks of the Jubilee that Mary sings about in her Magnificat. And it’s one Jesus doubles down on in his preaching.

I know the social media soundbites would have us fear these refugees aren’t really displaced people but terrorists bent on harming us.

Of course, that doesn’t really settle the issue for Christians because:

A) The most common exhortation in scripture is that we are not to be fearful

B) We’re to love and pray for our enemies too.

Damn, there’s no out for us.

Rather than argue the point, perhaps its best to extend an invitation. Instead of insisting that our borders be closed and our states refuse any refugees, Christians should partner with other Christians in and around the Middle East who are attempting to care for refugees.

Rather than clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook, retweeting red-meat or trolling on a blog and thinking you’ve fulfilled your baptismal obligation, why not kick over some cash, as my family will this Advent, by giving to International Orthodox Christian Charities.

What better way to worship the Holy Family who were refugees than by caring for another refugee family who are, through God taking flesh, holy?

Here’s what Adam Hamilton recently wrote on the subject. Hamilton, founder of the largest United Methodist congregation in the U.S., is a reliably moderate voice on issues facing the church and the world. He’s neither liberal nor political and his congregation is in one of the most conservative parts of the nation. Incidentally, the video above was produced by Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio.

‘When God came to this earth, he came as a child fleeing the horrors of tyranny, living as a refugee for the first years of his life.

Years later when Jesus would describe the Last Judgment to his disciples he spoke of the final judgment being a moment when the Son of Man would separate the nations of the earth as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  The sheep would be welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom, and the goats sent away.  Jesus said the difference between the sheep and the goats was that the people who were sheep in this parable were those who helped people in their hour of need.  The people who were goats turned them away.  Who did they help or turn away?  It was the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, and the stranger.  Stranger in Jesus’ parable signifies the foreigner.  I think Jesus included this last category because he himself had been a refugee in Egypt.

In the parable it appears that the goats thought of themselves as religious.  They were therefore surprised when, at the last judgment, there were turned away.  So, why did the goats turn away those who were in need? I think it was because they were afraid and they allowed their fear to override their compassion and humanity.  And the sheep?  They found the courage to overcoming their fears and to act with compassion and love.

We’re right to insist on proper screening of refugees (on this I don’t know enough about the current processes for screening to know if it is adequate or not). If the current practices are inadequate, let’s improve them. But our fears cannot lead us to completely close off our hearts to children, families, seniors who need our help and have nowhere to go.

The Syrian crisis is complex.  Doing our best to ensure security is important.  But we must also find a way to help people fleeing from harm to find refuge.

If you’re not receiving refugees in your state, how can you or your church help those who are?’

 

Church-RainbowAs I mentioned in previous posts, Last week I received a book in the mail, gratis: Seeing Black and White in a World of Gray. In both its title and cover design, it’s meant to be the rejoinder to Adam Hamilton’s ‘Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.’

arnoldbook‘Seeing Black and White’ purports to be the orthodox correction to Hamilton’s insufficiently biblical, conservative, traditional, historic, theological, _____________ book; that is, Hamilton’s book doesn’t take a sufficiently strong stand ‘for the bible’ and against ‘the gay agenda.’

The freebie book arrived at a time when some, like Adam Hamilton, in my United Methodist tradition are proposing a third ‘way forward’ through the stalemate over homosexuality and others are openly advocating for a conservative schism from the United Methodist 843504001902Church.

‘Strategic disunity’ is the euphemism I’ve seen used by those who don’t want to see the Church’s strength frittered away in lawsuits.

I suspect those advocating for an amicable schism now have read the tea leaves and realize that, demographically speaking, they’ve already lost the debate on homosexuality. For people my age and younger, even amongst the most conservative evangelical tribes, homosexuality is a non-issue.

Conservatives will never be stronger on this issue than they are at the present, or perhaps better put, the conservative argument is only going to find a rapidly shrinking audience on this issue as public opinion continues to shift.

So better now than later for conservatives to take their assets and run.

The issue of sexuality aside, I find it ironic- and indicative of a deeper problem- that conservatives, those who by definition seek to ‘conserve’ historic institutions and whose frank assessment of human sinfulness leads them to take a dim view towards utopian-minded movements (like creating a ‘purer’ church), are the ones agitating for a schism from the larger UMC.

No matter how we might disagree over sexuality, conservatives should at least agree that an even graver sin we Protestant Christians continue to commit is Protestantism itself, our continued, unreflective disunity from the Church Catholic.

Conservatives routinely pray for revival in the Church but seldom, if ever, do they pray that the Spirit will so manifest itself by repairing what was torn asunder in the Reformation.

As Stanley Hauerwas writes:

The very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully worship.

Unfortunately, the Catholics are right. To be saved requires our being made part of a people separated from the world so that we can be united in spite of — or perhaps better, because of — the world’s fragmentation and divisions. Unity, after all, is what God has given us through Christ’s death and resurrection. Catholics can celebrate their disagreements because they understand that our unity is founded upon the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that makes the Eucharist possible. They do not presume, therefore, that unity requires that we all read Scripture the same way.

The Church’s unity is a present reality won by Christ on the Cross; it is not a goal we can attempt to achieve through politicking or persuasion.

All we can ‘achieve’ is harm to the unity already established through Cross and Resurrection.

There are myriad groups in the United Methodist Church advocating various causes in and around sexuality. There are those who want strategic disunity, those who want to maintain the status quo by asserting their demographic strength, those who want to find a third way and those who want to make the denomination more welcoming and inclusive.

Thus far, I’ve not seen any groups on Facebook or Twitter advocating for the reunification of Methodists with the Church Catholic even though the reason for the original ‘protest,’ justification by grace through faith, has been settled since the 16th century.

So rather than advocating for ‘strategic disunity’ through yet another schism in the One Body of Christ, rather than making another ‘protest’ an end in itself in the face of the unity won by Christ, I think conservatives should instead begin advocating for a Methodist reunification with the Catholic Church.

After all, at least there they’ll find brothers and sisters who already share their views on sexuality. Why wound Christ with another division to his Body when what conservative Methodists seek is already found?

Rather than spend their time and energy bringing yet another wound to Christ’s divided body, conservatives could expend those same resources attempting to persuade our Catholic friends to ameliorate their positions on celibacy, female ordination and the primacy of the bishop of Rome.

Moves that would give the rest of us fewer and fewer reasons, save our outright nationalism or prejudice, not to (re)become Catholic.

Not to mention, there’s the whole question of whether in a post-Christian culture the religious marketplace can afford to have so many competing, niche products.

Already ours is a culture that asks ‘What’s a Methodist? Presbyterian?’

The first resolution proposed for next week’s annual conference in my corner of United Methodism proposes that we make our official language more progressive towards homosexuality.

I expect that resolution will meet with its predictable counter argument.

Perhaps as the denominations that once fractured the Church Catholic 4 centuries ago fracture themselves it’s time for a different sort of resolution altogether.

I doubt the schismatic conservatives would claim me, but on their behalf: I move that we United Methodists seeking to heal the wounds long ago done to Christ’s Body take measures to reunify with the Catholic Church whence we came.

Only such a motion, I think, is true re-form.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Church-RainbowLast week I received a book in the mail, gratis: Seeing Black and White in a World of Gray. In both its title and cover design, the book presents itself as the doppleganger to Adam Hamilton’s ‘Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.’

843504001902‘Seeing Black and White’ purports to be the orthodox correction to Hamilton’s insufficiently biblical, conservative, traditional, historic, theological, _____________ book.

My church folks will be the first to tell you that I’m neither a Hamilton aficionado nor apologist. His books and sermons have always struck me as so intentionally unoffensive as to be uninteresting. I’ve always thought him too vanilla, serving up barely spoonful of medicine with all the helpings of safe, saccharine piety.

This is a confession that will probably prevent my ascension to bishop but I’ve even (and often) joked that Adam Hamilton would be the perfect pastor for the First Church of Pleasantville– before the residents of the cinematic town discovered color.

But apparently my estimations of Hamilton as milk-toast, whitebread, and benign to the point of narcolepsy were wrong because somehow he’s managed to offend the black-and-white residents of the United Methodist Church.

Let me pause there and just reiterate the point:

The fact Adam Hamilton has managed to offend an entire segment of the UMC- offend to the point of provoking a rival book- says much more about the self-righteous, persecuted self-image of the offended backers of Seeing Black and White than it does Adam Hamilton.

You can judge a lot by a book’s cover. That ‘Seeing Black and White’ mimics (mocks?) Hamilton’s book and is not published by the official publishing house of the United Methodist reveals much about the state of the denomination.

The introduction alone to the book damns Hamilton with faint ‘bless his heart’ praise for his leadership and pastoral wisdom while accusing him of elementary missteps of logic and contradictions against the plain reading of scripture.

The rest of the book goes on to deconstruct Hamilton’s work and to argue the traditional perspective on marriage and sexuality. There’s nothing surprising or new in the book save the posturing of its title, it’s self-professed brave stand against the ‘gray’ of our postmodern, permissive relativistic society.

Indeed the only real surprise in Seeing Black and White is the delusion that what this stymied debate needs is but another impassioned exegesis of the conservative (or the liberal) position.

You’d think if it’s one thing conservatives and liberals could agree upon it’s that both sides are well aware of the other’s facts, texts and arguments.

Seeing Black and White is a clever title given its a rejoinder to Seeing Gray.

Still, while I’m neither liberal nor conservative, I have to admit I’m at a loss how anyone could seriously survey our culture, which is hyper-partisan to the point of dysfunction, and come away with the conclusion that what our world or Church needs MORE of is black-and-white thinking.

Black and white is exactly what ails my (increasingly) little corner of the Christian world.

Case in point, last night I viewed a live chat on Twitter hosted by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, two of the primary sponsors of A Way Forward, a proposed third way through the Church’s impasse on sexuality.

In a nutshell the third way boils down to this statement:

We propose that the United Methodist Church entrust to each local church the authority to determine how they will be in ministry with gay and lesbian people   including whether they will, or will not, allow for homosexual marriages or unions.

The live chat I viewed involved Methodists, mostly pastors, from all over the country discussing the (de)merits of A Way Forward.

I sat transfixed the way one is when there’s pileup of cars and limbs strewn across the highway.

Karl Barth once quipped derisively that it’s a miracle any one comes to Church expecting to hear a word from the Lord. Watching the ticker-tape of mean-spirited condescension and self-righteous finger-wagging from my duly ordained colleagues, Barth’s words hit home last night, revealing the true sinfulness of this debate.

It’s not simply that one side has equated their view with ‘biblical authority’ and the other with ‘the Gospel of inclusion and love’ such that to compromise isn’t just impossible but immoral, for it would be to compromise either the scriptural word or the Word Made Flesh.

It’s not simply that the heels-dug-in nature of both the liberal and conservative views prevents the Church from addressing more urgent concerns like poverty in the developing world and discipleship in the post-Christian one. arnoldbook

No, the true sin is that the assumed righteousness of the conservatives’ and liberals’ respective causes is so BLACK AND WHITE that it leads to- and even justifies- self-righteousness.

There’s something wrong with a position when pastor upon pastor on Twitter don’t even pretend to be practicing what they preach.

I don’t give a damn about what Romans 1 says or what part of Leviticus Jesus never contradicted or who is the 21st century equivalent of the eunuch Phillip came across in the Book of Acts. None of that matters.

Because  there’s something very wrong about the ‘rightness’ of a cause that permits ministers to be mean and blithely so.

As in most things, I think Barth was right.

It’s a miracle people even go to Church given what I see from her leaders on Facebook and Twitter and Tumbler.

And maybe Adam Hamilton is wrong.

Maybe the best way forward for the UMC is for its members to get rid of its pastors. Maybe then they could find the path to comprise.

closeup1 2We just wrapped our winter sermon series on marriage and love.
Too often when it comes to love, sex and passion people presume that the Christian tradition only has list of ‘thou shalt nots.’ On the contrary, the only Puritanical Christians were the Puritans. From the earliest of the rabbinic traditions to the earliest of the ancient Church Fathers, sexual ecstasy- and its preceding mutual vulnerability- have long been considered something like a parable for how God loves us.
God sees us completely as we are…naked…and loves us.
I asked my friend Janet Laisch to write a post showing how this has been reflected in Christian art:
PHD968While plenty of artists portray love, and only a few artists identify their inspiration as Song of Songs, only Bernini achieved in sculpture what Song of Songs achieved in writing: the physical expression of love is a gift from God which connects us with the divine and with what it means to be fully human. Similar to how the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem, is found in the bible, this erotic sculpture is found in a church. Both share an explanation of our union with God through the metaphor of erotic love. In 1645, Cardinal Cornaro commissioned Bernini to sculpt the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa for the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, in Rome. Like all Baroque art, Bernini sculpted it to trigger a religious response in the viewer; though not all artists who created religious art were as deeply religious as Bernini.
The first time I visited the Cornaro Chapel, I was stunned by what I saw. At first glance, a holy light emanated from gilded heavenly rays above the sculpture and the entire sculpture floated so that the figures levitated on the cloud below them. Walking close enough to touch the sculpture and looking up, a secret window, hidden behind the wall revealed the actual light source. Touching the cloud, it felt like cold stone rather than billowy cotton which had been reinforced with concrete below and behind it to make this stone appear to be floating. Bernini achieved a masterful installation where the event appears in action like a scene in a play rather than stagnant stone. It will not surprise you that Bernini was not only the most celebrated sculptor in all of Rome, but also a set designer, painter, architect, gilder, glassmaker and playwright and he married “one of most beautiful women in all of Rome” who became the model for Saint Theresa. Combining these art forms, Bernini hoped to elicit a religious response in each of us.
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By looking, we too become voyeurs to Saint Theresa’s vision. Two theater boxes flank the sculpture on the left and right and realistic, portrait-like sculptures of the wealthy donor–Cardinal Frederico Carnaro–on the right side react to what we see together. It is important when defining this work to mention what it is not, this art is not pornography; it is inside a church. We are experiencing a holy vision first-hand. It parallels the Song of Songs 6:13, when people watch the woman lover, “Dance, dance girl of Shulam. Let us watch you as you dance. She responds, “Why do you want to watch me as I dance between the rows of onlookers?”
teresapeepers
In the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Bernini expertly conveys different materials from a billowy cloud to feathery angel wings; the differences in texture make the image appear more real and more immediate as if it is taking place in front of our eyes. Bernini sculpted, in white marble, Saint Teresa and the angel. He cut away marble to reveal flesh–stone that appears alive rather than cold.  Bernini chiseled away from a block of marble to reveal flesh underneath. Bernini’s work characteristically captures a moment in time and appears kinetic: hair and drapery sweeping in the wind. His marble becomes flesh malleable and reactive to other marble. A marble hand depresses a marble body, clearly indenting the marble where the two stones meet. The difference between these two sculptures illustrates just how effectively Bernini made marble appear to react like flesh; below Bernini’s sculpture– a love scene from a pagan story, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which church fathers glossed in Christian terms starting in the Renaissance– is shown first while Rodin’s, from 1882, The Kiss, is shown second.

The Kiss 1901-4 by Auguste Rodin 1840-1917

Like the Song of Songs, the theme of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa is how erotic love and passion are analogous to what union with God must be like.  Theresa’s vision represents from Song of Songs, ” Asleep on my bed, night after night I dreamed of the one I love; I was looking for him, but couldn’t find him. ” For Theresa, who is a sainted nun, her union with the divine happened through a vision which she recounted in graphic physical detail. Saint Theresa wrote, “It pleased our Lord that I should see the following vision a number of times. I saw an angel near me, on the left side, in bodily form. This I am not wont to see, save very rarely…. In this vision it pleased the Lord that I should see it thus. He was not tall, but short, marvellously beautiful, with a face which shone as though he were one of the highest of the angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Seraphim…. I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God.”
bernini-ecstasy-of-st-teresa-sPHD968
The male angel is indeed stunningly beautiful and he smiles, clearly deriving his own pleasure, as he looks at the nun’s beautiful face and lifts her robe slightly. With the angel’s other hand he holds an arrow, which he  points not at her heart as St. Theresa had written, but lower on her body.  St. Theresa’s head is thrown back, her eyes are closed and her lips are parted. Her drapery hangs in a kinetic frenzy mirroring her physical experience. The floating cloud references the intensity of her pleasure.  The obvious reference to a physical, erotic union cannot be ignored. She experiences ecstasy through divine union in her mind, soul and body. Her faith in God only increases the intensity of her vision.
Remembering that the model for Saint Theresa is Bernini’s own wife adds to its meaning; he portrays his wife’s ecstasy resulting from this divine union. Bernini is both a passionate artist and a deeply religious man. When he married his beloved wife, he experienced a spiritual awakening, he changed, and he forever deepened his faith. Here he not only portrays Saint Theresa’s Ecstasy then, but also his own wife’s ecstasy. Here he invites God into every aspect of his marriage.  When we recognize this truth as well, when we too invite God into our own marriage, our love only intensifies and brings us closer to each other and to God’s plan for us.

 

 

 

Let No One Tear Asunder

Jason Micheli —  February 3, 2014 — 14 Comments

1391011150566.cachedThis weekend I concluded our marriage sermon series by reflecting on how the issue of marriage, in particular homosexuality, threatens to split the United Methodist Church.

In it, I tried to survey the four broad perspectives that exist within the larger Church and within my own congregation, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each view. Ephesians 2.13-22 was my text.

Here’s the audio. You can also download it in iTunes or, better yet, download the free mobile app.

 

      1. Let No One Tear Asunder

A Case for Gay Marriage

Jason Micheli —  February 1, 2014 — 5 Comments

RogersThis weekend I will conclude our marriage sermon series, Love to Stay, by discussing the marriage debate in the larger Church and unpacking the divergent perspectives in a fair way.

To prepare, I thought I would post a pro/con series of posts by written by former teachers of mine at UVA whom I respect immensely and whose work has shaped me.

Today, it’s an argument from Eugene Rogers, whose book, Sexuality and the Christian Body, is the best theological treatment of marriage in general that I’ve discovered.

Rogers was my very first theology teacher, my very first religion professor. I didn’t go to college thinking I’d be doing this with my life and I wouldn’t be had he never entered my life and ignited my curiosity about God.

Here it is:

I want to consider gay marriage by first reflecting on the theology of marriage, and I want to reflect on the theology of marriage under the rubric of sanctification. This approach is consistent with the tradition of the Orthodox Church, which regards marriage as a way of participating in the divine life not by way of sexual satisfaction but by way of ascetic self-denial for the sake of more desirable goods. Theologically understood, marriage is not primarily for the control of lust or for procreation. It is a discipline whereby we give ourselves to another for the sake of growing in holiness — for, more precisely, the sake of God.

In this respect marriage and monasticism are two forms of the same discipline, as the Orthodox writer Paul Evdokimov has argued. They are both ways of committing ourselves to others — a spouse or a monastic community — from whom we cannot easily escape. Both the monastic and the married give themselves over to be transformed by the perceptions of others; both seek to learn, over time, by the discipline of living with others something about how God perceives human beings.

Rowan Williams has written, “Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s [Son] makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created [and we marry] so that we may be caught up in this, so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.” Like all forms of asceticism, this is a high-risk endeavor. It can expose the worst in people — so that it can be healed.

Sexuality, in short, is for sanctification, that is, for God. It is to be a means by which God catches human beings up into the community of God’s Spirit and the identity of God’s child. Monogamy and monasticism are two ways of embodying features of the triune life in which God initiates, responds to and celebrates love.

Monasticism is for people who find a bodily, sexual sanctification first and foremost in the desirous perception of God. Marriage is for people who find themselves transformed by the desirous perception of another human being made in God’s image. In a marital or monastic community, the parties commit themselves to practicing faith, hope and charity in a situation in which those virtues get plenty of opportunity to be exercised.

This way of understanding the Christian life obviously takes seriously the embodied character of human life. And embodiment implies diversity. The Holy Spirit characteristically rests on bodies: the body of Christ in Jesus, in the church, in the sacraments and in the saints. As the Spirit forms the bodies of human beings into the body of Christ, she characteristically gathers the diverse and diversifies the corporate, making members of one body.

We can see the Holy Spirit working for a harmonious diversity as she hovers over the waters in creation. Let us suppose that “Be fruitful and multiply” applies to the commands “Let the earth put forth vegetation” and “Let the waters bring forth swarms” and “Let the earth bring forth everything that creeps upon the ground” (Gen.1:26, 1:11, 1:20, 1:24). In all these cases, the earth and the waters bring forth things different from themselves, not just more dirt and more water. And in all these cases, they bring forth a variety of things: one might almost translate the phrase as “Be fruitful and diversify.”

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke. Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it. The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke? Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons? Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit. But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question. And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side. It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness? Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others. Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another. Says Williams:

“The life of the Christian community has as its rationale — if not invariably its practical reality — the task of teaching us to so order our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.”

Perhaps the signal case of the blessing of diversity is God’s promise to Abraham that by him all the nations of the earth would become blessings to one another (Gen. 18:18). The promise to Abraham interprets “otherness” as primarily moral, in the sense that the other is the one that sanctifies — difference is intended for blessing.

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates. But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

For large sections of various Christian traditions, blessing does not float overhead. Sanctification comes through concrete practices of asceticism, a discipline or training through which lesser goods serve greater ones. This asceticism is not a bizarre, antiquated Christian weirdness. Americans are already deeply if sometimes mistakenly invested in one kind of asceticism: dieting and working out at the gym are physical disciplines that are supposed to bring spiritual benefits. Indeed, they are supposed by some to bring the greatest of these, love. Surely there are more effective disciplines than those.

To reflect trinitarian holiness, sanctification must involve community. It involves commitments to a community from which one can’t easily escape, whether monastic, nuptial or congregational. (The New Testament devalues commitments to one’s family of origin.) Even hermits and solitaries tend to follow the liturgy, the community’s prayer. The first hermit, Anthony the Great, emerged from solitude with an increased sociality, so that people were drawn to him. His “heart had achieved total transparency to others” (in the words of Peter Brown).

Gay and lesbian people who commit themselves to a community — to a church, or to one another as partners — do so to seek greater goods, to embark upon a discipline, to donate themselves to a greater social meaning. Living out these commitments under conditions of sin, in a community from which one can’t easily escape — especially a community such as marriage, and monasticism — is not likely to be straightforwardly improving. The community from which one can’t easily escape is morally risky. It tends to expose the worst in people. The hope is that community exposes the worst in people in order that the worst can be healed.

Christians will see such healing as the work of Christ. Many Christian traditions portray Christ as a physician who must probe people’s wounds in order to heal them. For example, St. Romanos the Melodist offers this account of Christ explaining his mission to his mother at the foot of the cross:

Be patient a little longer, Mother, and you will see how, like a physician, . . . I treat their wounds, cutting with the lance their calluses and their scabs. And I take [the] vinegar, I apply it as astringent to the wound, when with the probe of the nails I have investigated the cut, I shall plug it with the cloak. And, with my cross as a splint, I shall make use of it, Mother, so that you may chant with understanding, “By suffering he has abolished suffering, my Son and my God” (from On the Lament of the Mother of God).

For the risk of commitment to be worth it and to have the best chance of success, the community must have plenty of time and be made up of the right sort of people. Growth takes a lifetime. The right sort of people are those who will succeed in exposing and healing one another’s flaws.

For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires. The crucial question is, What sort of created diversity will lead one to holiness?

The answer is no doubt as various as creation itself. But certainly same-sex couples find the right spur to vulnerability, self-exposure, and the long and difficult commitment over time to discover themselves in the perceptions of another — they find all this in someone of the same sex. Theologically, says theologian David McCarthy, a homosexual orientation is this: “Gay men and lesbians are persons who encounter the other (and thus themselves) in relation to persons of the same sex.” Some people, therefore, are called to same-sex partnerships for their own sanctification. Opposite-sex partnerships wouldn’t work for them, because those would evade rather than establish the right kind of transformative vulnerability.

The difference between members of a same-sex couple is not “merely psychological,” but also an embodied difference, if only because sexual response is nothing if not something done bodily. Difference cannot be reduced to male-female complementarity, because that would leave Jesus a deficient human being. Jesus did not need a female other half to be fully human. (This point raises the issue of what singleness is for, but that’s a question for another day.)

If this account is correct, then it turns out that conservatives wish to deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification. But that is contradictory, because so far as I know no conservative has ever seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than cross-sex couples do. It is at least contradictory to attempt in the name of holiness to deprive people of the means of their own sanctification,

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways. It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings. I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion. I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast to his son, and sent his servants to those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.” But they made light of it and went off . . . Then he said to his servants, . . . “Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find. And . . . so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt. 22:1-13).

Not to celebrate same-sex weddings may also be morally dangerous.

5058886937_3bcf357e06_zThis weekend I will conclude our marriage sermon series, Love to Stay, by discussing the marriage debate in the larger Church and unpacking the divergent perspectives in a fair way.

To prepare, I thought I would post a pro/con series of posts by written by former teachers of mine at UVA whom I respect immensely and whose work has shaped me.

First today is this piece by John Milbank.

John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory is without a doubt one of the most influential works of theology of the last 50 years. It sparked the Radical Orthodoxy movement and is the jumping off point of another nearly as important book: David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite. 

Here’s Milbank’s argument:

During the course of recent debates in the British Parliament over the proposed legalisation of gay marriage, it has gradually become apparent that the proposal itself is impossible. For legislators have recognised that it would be intolerable to define gay marriage in terms equivalent to “consummation,” or to permit “adultery” as legitimate ground for gay divorce.

Thus, despite the telling squeamishness in much contemporary conversation on homosexuality, which invariably steers away from its physical aspects, the legislators have been forced tacitly to admit the different nature of both gay sexuality and of gay sociality. But such an admission destroys the assumption behind the legislation and the coherence of what the legislation proposes to enact.

The assumption behind the legislation is that “fairness” must involve the application of universal rights to each individual in the same way and in the same respects. But this admission reveals that, in the current instance, such application would prove grossly unfair, inappropriate and unrealistic.

The coherence of the legislation depends upon erasing the clear distinction between civil union (which is already available for both straight and gay couples) on the one hand, andmarriage on the other. But if the binding and loosing of gay and straight marriage are stipulated in different ways, then in effect such a distinction has been reinstated.

The suspicion arises that the proposed legislation before the British Parliament seeks only an empty change in nomenclature – this is borne out by the fact that the intended circumscription of gay marriage is so diluted as to render it indistinguishable from gay civil partnership.

Why, then, should Christians worry, if this is all just a matter of terminology? Can we not live with differing definitions of marriage? Perhaps, in order to safeguard the churches from pressures to conform to the norm, we should now welcome a withdrawal from the churches of their rights as a civil marriage broker. This would leave the churches free, in their turn, to claim that only natural and sacramental marriage are genuinely “marriage,” while state marriage is mere civil union. They could trump secularisation by declaring that the era of civil marriage had been a failed experiment.

This may, indeed, be the direction that the churches now need to take. However, the graver fear surrounding the new legislation is that secular thought will not so readily let go of the demand for absolutely equal rights based on identical definitions. In that case, we face an altogether more drastic prospect. Not only would “marriage” have been redefined so as to include gay marriage, it would inevitably be redefined even for heterosexual people in homosexual terms. Thus “consummation” and “adultery” would cease to be seen as having any relevance to the binding and loosing of straight unions.

Many may welcome such a development as yet a further removal of state intrusion into our private lives, but that would be to fail to consider all the implications. In the first place, it would end public recognition of the importance of marriage as a union of sexual difference. But the joining together and harmonisation of the asymmetrical perspectives of the two sexes are crucial both to kinship relations over time and to social peace. Where the reality of sexual difference is denied, then it gets reinvented in perverse ways – just as the over-sexualisation of women and the confinement of men to a marginalised machismo.

Secondly, it would end the public legal recognition of a social reality defined in terms of the natural link between sex and procreation. In direct consequence, the natural children of heterosexual couples would then be only legally their children if the state decided that they might be legally “adopted” by them.

And this, I argue, reveals what is really at issue here. There was no demand for “gay marriage” and this has nothing to do with gay rights. Instead, it is a strategic move in the modern state’s drive to assume direct control over the reproduction of the population, bypassing our interpersonal encounters. This is not about natural justice, but the desire on the part of biopolitical tyranny to destroy marriage and the family as the most fundamental mediating social institution.

Heterosexual exchange and reproduction has always been the very “grammar” of social relating as such. The abandonment of this grammar would thus imply a society no longer primarily constituted by extended kinship, but rather by state control and merely monetary exchange and reproduction.

For the individual, the experience of a natural-cultural unity is most fundamentally felt in the sense that her natural birth is from an interpersonal (and so “cultural”) act of loving encounter – even if this be but a one-night stand. This provides a sense that one’s very biological roots are suffused with an interpersonal narrative. Again, to lose this “grammar” would be to compromise our deepest sense of humanity, and risk a further handing over of power to market and state tyrannies supported by myths both of pure human nature and technocratic artifice.

It is for this reason that practices of surrogate motherhood and sperm-donation (as distinct from the artificial assistance of a personal sexual union) should be rejected. For the biopolitical rupture which they invite is revealed by the irresolvable impasse to which they give rise. Increasingly, children resulting from anonymous artificial insemination are rightly demanding to know who their natural parents are, for they know that, in part, we indeed are our biology. But this request is in principle intolerable for donors who gave their sperm or wombs on the understanding that this was an anonymous donation for public benefit.

The recipe for psychological confusion, family division and social conflict involved here is all too evident and cannot be averted. In this instance we have sleep-walked into the legalisation of practices whose logic and implications have never been seriously debated.

From this it follows that we should not re-define birth as essentially artificial and disconnected from the sexual act – which by no means implies that each and every sexual act must be open to the possibility of procreation, only that the link in general should not be severed. The price for this severance is surely the commodification of birth by the market, the quasi-eugenic control of reproduction by the state, and the corruption of the parent-child relation to one of a narcissistic self-projection.

Once the above practices have been rejected, then it follows that a gay relationship cannot qualify as a marriage in terms of its orientation to having children, because the link between an interpersonal and a natural act is entirely crucial to the definition and character of marriage.

The fact that this optimum condition cannot be fulfilled by many valid heterosexual marriages is entirely irrelevant, for they still fulfil through ideal intention this linkage, besides sustaining the union of sexual difference which is the other aspect of marriage’s inherently heterosexual character.

1391011150566.cachedThis weekend we will conclude our marriage sermon series, Love to Stay, by discussing the current marriage debate in the larger Church, particularly around the issue of homosexuality. 
Adam Hamilton, author of Love to Stay, recently sponsored a motion at General Conference, the United Methodist Church’s international gathering, which stated that faithful United Methodists disagree on our understanding of homosexuality but that we’ll continue trying to find ways to work together. 

 
The intent this weekend will be to examine the various perspectives that exist within the larger Church and our own congregation, and to do so in a fair way so that those who agree with a particular position would recognize it as their own.
We hope that, by offering a charitable reflection on this issue, church members will be empowered to think critically about the merits and shortcomings of each perspective and to imagine a hopeful way forward as a community of faith.
 
For those with children, we want to convey our special assurance that the content will be thoughtful and theological, not explicit in any way. 
If you have questions about the issue that you would like to hear addressed, questions you think worth raising or points that you would like to hear articulated, we would love to incorporate your feedback into the sermon.

Send me a message or leave a comment below.

Because this is an issue over which United Methodists disagree, it’s all the more important to make this time a dialogue as much as possible. 

n-t-wright

ἀδιάφορα, or adiaphora to those of you who don’t use Greek, is the theological term for:

“things indifferent.”

How can you tell the difference between differences which make a difference and differences which don’t make a difference?

As John Wesley is reputed to have said about Christians and their beliefs:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.

Of course, proving that we Methodists get our doctrinal slipperyness honestly, how do you determine what is ‘essential?’

Who determines what is essential?

And perhaps most important of all: how do they determine it?

Historically, essential doctrines have always been discerned and debated over time by means of ecumenical councils. Think Nicea or Chalcedon and the creeds which they produced as a result of their consensus.

Presently, as any sentient creature knows, issues of marriage and homosexuality divide the ‘big C’ Church with passion and biblical motivation on both sides and no small amount of fatigue in the middle.

As much as those in the middle would like to move on from the issue and get about the Church’s ‘mission,’ we can’t.

As much as those on the ‘progressive’ side would like the Church to hurry up and get with the times, we can’t.

And as much as the traditional side would like to persist in its tradition and ignore the segment of her Body which believes the Holy Spirit is leading in a new direction, we can’t.

That’s because marriage- and sex within marriage- is not ἀδιάφορα. It’s a belief about which the universal Church has always held a particular, universally-held view.

It’s too important a belief, in other words, for individual churches (or individual Christians for that matter) to chart their own path.

Likewise, it’s too important a belief to ignore what many Christians believe the Holy Spirit has persuaded them about the matter.

Marriage is not ἀδιάφορα; therefore, marriage is a belief that necessarily calls out an even more essential marriage: ours to Christ. The Church’s unity.

And so, like any marriage, we’re stuck with each other for the long haul and, as in any marriage, we need to figure this out together. In conversation.

Here’s how NT Wright put it in his final address as bishop:

“Unlike the situation with children and Communion; unlike the situation with the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate; in the case of sexual relations outside the marriage of a man and a woman, the church as a whole, in all its global meetings, has solidly and consistently reaffirmed the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament. But the substantive issue isn’t the point here. 

The point is that the Church as a whole has never declared these matters to be adiaphora. This isn’t something a Bishop, a parish, a diocese, or a province can declare on its own authority. You can’t simply say that you have decided that this is something we can all agree to differ on. 

Nobody can just ‘declare’ that. The step from mandatory to optional can never itself be a local option, and the Church as a whole has declared that the case for that step has not been made. By all means let us have the debate. 

But, as before, it must be a proper theological debate, not a postmodern exchange of prejudices.

No doubt it isn’t perfect. But it is designed, not (as some have suggested) to close down debate or squash people into a corner, but precisely to create the appropriate space for appropriate debate in which issues of all sorts can be handled without pre-emptive strikes on the one hand or closed-minded defensiveness on the other…to recognise and work with the principle of adiaphora; and that requires that it should create a framework within which the church can be the church even as it wrestles with difficult issues, and through which the church can be united even as it is battered by forces that threaten to tear it apart.”

 

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our sermon series on marriage, I’m blogging my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

Today, I’m still reflecting on  2.1-17.

As I mentioned earlier, in chapter 2, verse 3 of the Song, the young woman sings:

   With great delight I sat in his shadow,
   and his fruit was sweet to my taste. 

And in case it’s not obvious to you, she’s talking about a vine of a different sort. This portion of the poem continues with imagery of mountains and gardens and, uh, “fruit-tasting.”

In my prior take on Song of Songs 2 I noted how the young woman who narrates her passion in the Song contradicts our prejudices of the Old Testament taking a mechanistic view of sex generally and a misogynistic view of women specifically. In the Song of Songs, we find quite the opposite.

The primary narrator is as bold and forthright in what she desires as any Cosmo article and the fact that her aggressive passion is not chastened but canonized tells us that her desire is good.

Even holy.

For my second take on Song of Songs 2 I notice not the woman’s 8 1/2 Weeks worthy word pictures but the fact that those word pictures have mountains and gardens in their background.

That is, I can’t help but notice not the novelty of WHO is speaking but Where she is speaking it.

Describing it.

To put it bluntly:

She’s describing her beloved and herself making love in the outdoors, with mountains behind them, naked, in the light of day, in a springtime garden.

Garden.

St Paul chooses the image of Jesus as the Second Adam to describe an alternative and antidote to the Fall in the Garden of Eden.

I think I like our narrator’s version in the Song of Songs better.

Certainly the allusions to Eden are one of the reasons the ancient rabbis included what would otherwise be a Madonna song in the holy scriptures.

And if it was one of their reasons, then this is more than this unabashed passion with the lights on is more than a passing allusion.

We can reason from the Song of Songs that shame is not intrinsic to sex nor was it intended by God to be such.

Irony is almost always tragic and no less is the case here, for shame is often the very thing Christians attach to sex.

Unashamed, unafraid lovemaking in the light of day is as homey an image of New Creation as any I can think of.

Just as irony is always tragic, from inferences always follow corollaries. If unashamed sex, outside, in the day, with the lights on best describes what Sin undid in Eden, then ‘Sin’ is anything we do to make sex ‘dirty.’

By ‘dirty’ I turn to Robert Jenson:

‘Sadomasochism, bondage and the like are not harmless deviations; they are attacks on humanity…the blessing of marriage brings sex within the gate of the coming new and transformed Eden, so restores its innocence.’

9fd2f25f6a96a760872a425d027134abNeo-Calvinist pastor, Mark Driscoll, infamously declared the Song of Songs to be his favorite book of scripture, an attention-getting claim if you’re speaking primarily to bible nerds. Driscoll even preached a long sermon series through the Song of Songs. That I’ve gotten this far in the Song without referencing that bile is a testament to my character.

Nevertheless…in one particular sermon Driscoll takes the graphic imagery of the Song of Songs, an erotic poem, a POEM, and uses it as a biblical mandate for wives to perform ____________ for on their husbands regardless of their own reciprocal desire.

He’s taking the Song of Songs and putting it back in the Old Eden.

Where it doesn’t belong.

 

lightstock_78926_xsmall_user_2741517No One Marries Their Soul Mate

In fact, as I pointed out in my sermon this weekend, you never even marry the right person.

When teaching about Heaven, I frequently stress the point that ‘soul’ is a concept foreign to scripture. As far as Judaism and Christianity are concerned, you don’t have something called a ‘soul.’

It therefore follows that you don’t have someone called a ‘soulmate’ out there either.

I know we all like to go weak-kneed thinking (a la Jerry McGuire) that there’s a specific, special person out there meant just for us who will ‘complete us’ and that, if we only find them-and they us, we will have married our perfect match.

Happily ever after.

Like two puzzle pieces being fit together.

But here’s the problem:

Puzzle pieces don’t change. Everything else about puzzle pieces, save that missing space, remains the same.

People, especially married people, do change.

As a prank in seminary I once logged into several online dating sites and changed my friend’s profile information to hilarious results.

What struck me then, even on the ‘Christian’ sites, was how they were all premised on the popular myth of ‘compatibility.’

If you had asked me twelve years ago if Ali was my soul mate, if she was the perfect person for me, I would have told you without pause: ‘Damn straight.’

But here’s what I’ve learned from my own marriage and from watching others’ marriages. Here’s the point and beauty of marriage:

Marriage is a means of grace.

Like the eucharist, it’s one of the means by which we grow and become more perfect creatures.

We don’t pick our perfect match because we ourselves are not perfect the day when we say ‘I do.’

Such perfection is only possible through a life lived with our spouse.

We never marry the right or perfect person, we never start out with our ‘soulmate’ because marriage doesn’t allow us to stay the same person we were when we started out. Sometimes for good and sometimes for ill, a life lived and shared together makes us different people.

Marriage isn’t two puzzle pieces coming together.

It’s more like two rough diamonds being polished and perfected over a lifetime.

You don’t marry the perfect person for you.

Your marriage creates the perfect person for you.

You don’t begin your marriage with your soul mate.

God willing, you end up with someone who is your soul mate.

If you had asked me twelve years ago if Ali was perfect for me, I would’ve said yes.

But I was wrong.

I was wrong because back then I couldn’t have anticipated how my life with Ali was going to transform me in unexpected ways. She’s made me a better person. Thus, she’s more perfect for me now than she ever could have been then.

faith1Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian whose own memoir testifies to both the redemption and the pain marriage can bring, puts these same thoughts this way:

We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person. just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge is…learning to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

 

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our sermon series on marriage, I’m blogging my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

Today, it’s 2.1-17.

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

I don’t even need to cite the movie; you know the scene:

Sally Albright: Most women at one time or another have faked it.

Harry Burns: Well, they haven’t faked it with me.

Sally Albright: How do you know?

Harry Burns: Because I know.

Sally Albright: Oh. Right. Thats right. I forgot. Youre a man.

Harry Burns: What was that supposed to mean?

Sally Albright: Nothing. Its just that all men are sure it never happened to them and all women at one time or other have done it so you do the math.

And then, to prove her point, sitting there in the diner Sally takes her good, long time coming into the garden of delights. To use the Song of Songs imagery.

And when she’s done…well, just watch it:

Everyone’s seen the scene and quoted the line, though in my marriage ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ is a distant fourth to ‘white-man overbite,’ ‘wagon wheel coffee table,’ and ‘_______ is quiche of the ’90’s.’

Turns out, When Harry Met Sally’s ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ scene isn’t just ubiquitous it’s theologically instructive.

Where Sally’s sated desire elicits hunger from the two-top at table 8, the young woman of the Song of Song’s desire for her lover is meant to arouse (pun intended) in us a similar desire for God.

The Old Testament usually receives critique and suspicion as being the testament that takes a dim of women generally and women’s sexuality specifically. Despite our assumptions, here in the OT of all places, a woman’s forward, sexual desire is presented in an unabashed and positive light.

In chapter, verse 3 of the Song, the young woman sings:

   With great delight I sat in his shadow,
   and his fruit was sweet to my taste. 

If you think she’s talking about apples and oranges, then you probably thought Led Zeppelin’s ‘Lemon Song’ was also about horticulture.

But no, the ‘Sally’ of the Song of Songs is every bit as bold and unashamed about her desire as the Sally in the film.

By the time we get to verse 16 of the same chapter, the young woman is overcome with hunger, love and desire. The preceding verses climax by breaking breathlessly from poetry and metaphor.

With an almost asphyxiated shout she cries:

My beloved is mine and I am his…

Of course the English translation turns the lights down on how she says it.

In Hebrew:

‘My beloved- mine. Me- his.’ 

And that a poem not unlike the scene in When Harry Met Sally made it into the scriptural canon is a very good indication that when the ancients heard this young woman cry out in passion: ‘My beloved- mine. Me- his’ they heard an allegorized version of the Hebrew Bible’s primary profession of love:

‘I will be their God and they shall be my people.’

By including a long, racy poem like the Song in the canon, the ancient rabbis wanted us to look at this woman, think of our relationship to our Beloved, and respond with our own desire: ‘I’ll have what she’s having…’

As Bernard of Clairvaux observes:

“What does she say when she says ‘He for me and I for him?’ We do not know, because we do not feel what she feels. O holy soul, what is this ‘He’ for you, what are you for him?

What, I beg to know, is so familiarly and gracefully given and returned between you? He is for you and you in turn are for him.

Can you speak to our understanding and tell us what you feel?’

The Song of Songs, in other words, is like so many of the songs on the radio. It’s meant to make us long, to wonder what it’s like to be her and to have that other in her life. It’s meant, I’d argue even, to make us jealous of her lover.

 

 

 

 

Marriage: Someone Better

Jason Micheli —  January 21, 2014 — 2 Comments

lightstock_78926_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s the weekend’s sermon from our series on marriage and relationships. The text is 2 Corinthians 3.12-18. To illustrate Paul’s point about us being transformed from degree of glory to the next, I brought in my rock tumbler.

You can also download the sermon in iTunes here under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Better yet, download the free Tamed Cynic mobile app here.

 

      1. Marriage: Someone Better

And here’s the text: 

Since this is a sermon series on marriage, let’s just cut to the chase, shall we?

Here’s my advice for a happy, healthy marriage. As Dennis likes to say: Are you ready?

Here it is:

     Always.

Always.

Always put the cap back on the toothpaste. Or have separate sinks.

Oh, and if you’re ever watching The Office on Netflix and she turns to you and asks: ‘Am I your Pam?’

Say yes.

I offer it to you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Just kidding.

Ali and I- we have a great marriage. And I think we have a great marriage because we discovered early on what was the source of conflict in our relationship. We discovered early on what is the problem in the relationship that makes us fight.

It’s…me.

I remember our very first fight after we got married. I wanted to go out with the guys like I’d always done before, and Ali wanted me to stay behind with her and cut the cake and toss the bouquet.

Ali and I recently celebrated our anniversary.

We’ve been married 11 or 12 years. We celebrated our anniversary with flowers and a romantic dinner. During the dinner I looked at her in the candlelight and I said with my best Richard Gere squint: ‘Of all the people in the world, I chose you.’

And Ali looked back at me through the candlelight and she said: ‘Of all the people in the world, I chose you?’

Ali and I have been married a dozen or so years, but we actually met and started dating 20 years ago. It was love at first sight. The first time she looked at me through my binoculars I was goner.

Actually, Ali and I first met at swim team practice. I’d like to think it was my Baywatch body and snug Speedo that first made her smitten, but if tight-fitting, inappropriate athletic clothing made people fall in love with me, then I would have a congregation full of secret admirers.

 

For our first date, Ali and I went to see Jurassic Park, a movie in which a woman and 2 children are captive to 1 juvenile man’s narcissistic, irresponsible behavior.

Back then, Ali described the movie as frightening.

Today, she describes it as foreshadowing.

20 years. That’s crazy, right?

Ali and I dated for 8 years.

8 years! Which I think demonstrates that I was really good at commitment.

Ali, on the other hand (not to mention every other woman I’ve ever asked) thinks it demonstrates that I was really good at avoiding commitment.

8 years! That’s a lot of movies and dinners out. And you know, it’s funny. It just shows the difference between courtship and marriage. In all those 8 years of popcorn at the movies and dinners out, I can’t recall Ali ever once noticing that I smack my food when I eat.

Now that we’re married…different story.

8 years- that’s a lot of jewelry too. Every birthday, Valentine’s Day and anniversary.

I think it says a lot about marriage that for Ali’s birthday this past week I got her not diamonds or gold but a lithium-ion cordless driver-drill. That’s what she asked for.

It wasn’t even wrapped in a negligee. Because she asked for that too.

I think a lot of you know I grew up in a broken home; I didn’t grow up knowing what a healthy marriage looked like.

Ali though grew up in a great family. A healthy family. A Leave It to Beaver family. The kind of family of which I never imagined I’d one day be a part.

Most husbands complain about their in-laws but my in-laws are different. Mine even let me call them ‘Mr and Mrs Keller.’

You might not know that Ali grew up Catholic.

And Ali likes to say that because she grew up Catholic, she thinks of our marriage as a sacrament.

Specifically, the Sacrament of Penance.

She says that surely a lifetime with me will be enough to get even the worst of her dead relatives out of hell.

A life of hell for some lives in hell, she likes to say.

 

Even though she grew up Catholic, it was Ali who first encouraged me to become a Methodist pastor, and back then I thought that was a tremendous gesture of support. Of course, at the time Ali assumed that pastors like priests had to take vows of celibacy.

So I’m not exactly sure what she was encouraging.

 

    Anyway, as you know, Ali and I have 2 children. Kids certainly change things.

    I like to say marriage is different now that we’ve got 2 little boys in the house.

    Ali likes to say marriage is different now that she’s got 3 little boys in the house.

 

And I suppose that’s fair.

I’m sure Ali never imagined that the shy, sophisticated, Ivy League, French-film watching gentleman to whom she once said ‘I do’ would one day be teaching her boys to burp the starting lineup for the Nationals or that he would one day be ranking her boys’ farts by both sound and scent or that he would prove genetically incapable of putting the toilet seat down.

But if she never imagined it back then, nothing surprises her now.

When St Nicholas brought the boys a telescope for Christmas, Ali knew that quickly the Ur-anus jokes in our cul-de-sac would outnumber the stars in the sky.

And when we gave Gabriel a microscope for his 8th birthday, surely she anticipated that soon, heeding the siren call of science, we would be sticking snotty boogers on slides.

Still, every now and then, whether it’s my potty humor or the sheer amount of time I spend on the potty, I can spy the question dart across Ali’s face.

Just as I’m sure every now and then, for reasons silly and significant, she sees the question dart across my face:

 Are you the same person I married?

 

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Are you the same person I married?

     And as every married person knows, that question always has 3 correct answers.

The first correct answer is: No, I’m not the same person you married because marriage changes a person.

But at the same time, the correct answer can always also be: Yes, I’m the same person you married; you just didn’t know fully who you were marrying.

And of course the third correct answer, maybe the best answer, the hard Gospel-truth answer is: I don’t know. You tell me. Because now that we’re married, you know the person I am better than I know myself.

 

I’ve been a pastor for 13 years. I’ve taken hours and hours of counseling classes. I’ve worked with I don’t know how many couples. I’ve got shelves of books on marriage in my office, but it’s in my own relationship that I learned the fundamental rule of marriage.

I call it Jason’s Rule. It’s my take on Hauerwas’ Rule

Jason’s Rule goes like this:

You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying. 

Whether you have a terrific relationship or a terrible one, Jason’s Rule always holds true.

I don’t care if you’ve already lived with the person you’re marrying or if you’ve filled out a hundred e-Harmony compatibility questions, Jason’s Rule always prove true.

You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying.

And if that sounds scary, just consider that Jason’s Rule has an even more frightening corollary:

You are never as fully known as you are known by the person to whom you’re married. 

You are never as fully known as you are known by the person to whom you’re married.

     Marriage isn’t just a process in which you discover who the stranger is that you’ve married.

Marriage is a process in which you discover who the stranger is that you call ‘you.’

To borrow St. Paul’s metaphor, marriage unveils the ‘you’ you really are.

That’s what makes marriage such a beautiful leap of faith, but that’s also what makes marriage such a rough and tumble process.

It’s why even the best marriages aren’t easy or painless.

 

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(pull out the rock tumbler and his/her buckets of rocks)

Because when you’re in love, all you can see are the person’s good attributes.

You think she’s a gem. A flawless gem.

She’s beautiful and affectionate and fun and trustworthy.

 

You think he’s perfect. Perfect for you. A jewel with only minor imperfections.

He’s handsome and compassionate and tender and can make you laugh.

 

When you’re in love, not only do you see only the person’s good attributes, you develop expectations about marriage based on those attributes.

 

You think he’s thoughtful, always remembers to open the car door for you, so you expect that when you’re married he’ll always remember that your drink at Starbucks is a tall, skinny, sugar-free, decaf, soy, vanilla latte, extra hot, no whip- and if he doesn’t remember he must be sending you a message.

 

Or you think he’s brilliant. So you develop an expectation that he’ll never have a problem remembering that the proper way to fold a bath towel is first in half, lengthwise, and then in to thirds, from the sides.

 

Or you think she’s sensitive and empathetic so you develop an expectation that when you communicate like this (long, sullen cavemen silence), she will understand perfectly that what you meant was:

‘Honey, your critical comments about the messy house make me feel unappreciated for making you handmade pasta for dinner.’

 

Or, let’s say, you think she’s beautiful and affectionate and so you develop an expectation for what she won’t wear to bed. And you think he’s understanding and a flannel pi’s are so comfortable so of course he’ll understand why you’re wearing those to bed now that you’re married.

(I got that example from a friend)

When we’re in love, all we see are a person’s good attributes and then we develop expectations about marriage based on those attributes.

Here’s the other thing:

When we’re in love, before we’re married, not only do we have an incomplete understanding of the other person.

We have an incomplete understanding of our self.

We bring in to marriage a self-image that’s been formed by the judgments and praise of people who don’t know us as well our spouse eventually will know us.

Consequently, as we live our lives with someone else, we discover that we’re not the same person we thought we were.

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So what happens?

What happens when you take 2 love-blind, self-blind people and put them inside a marriage?

Because in a marriage, there’s not a lot of room to hide. You’re exposed.

All the veils are pulled away.

It’s not that there’s no secrets in marriage.

It’s that there aren’t as many secrets as we would like.

In marriage, the two of you are brought into close, inescapable, day after day contact.

And now, the other’s flaws and imperfections, which seemed small or insignificant before, now that you’re inside a marriage- they appear larger and are always right there in front of you.

Where before you fell in love with an outgoing person, now that you’re inside a marriage you can see how his outgoing personality stems from how emotionally needy he is.

Where before you only saw how carefree she is and you loved it, now that you’re inside a marriage you see that she’s not just carefree she’s unreliable.

Where before you loved how confident he is, now that you’re inside a marriage you realize that confidence is actually arrogance and makes him dismissive to you.

Maybe you fell in love with the way he showed patience and respect to everyone, but now that you’re in a marriage you notice how you’re the only person he’s not patient with.

Maybe you fell in love with how much he enjoyed children, but now that you’re inside a marriage you realize he expects you to raise them just as his mother did.

You see, it’s Jason’s (foolproof) Rule:

You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying.

And don’t forget the corollary to Jason’s Rule:

You are never as fully known as you are known by the person to whom you’re married.

So once you’re inside a marriage, it’s not just the other person’s flaws and imperfections that are revealed. It’s your own.

Maybe, before, other people in your life had pointed out your shortcomings.

But it’s different with your spouse.

Because when you’re inside a marriage, your flaws and shortcomings are on display day after day.

And it’s different with your spouse because your flaws and shortcomings hurt them more than anyone else and, as a result, directly or passively, they’re going to point them out to you.

So whenever you put 2 love-blind, self-blind people into a confined space like a marriage, it’s not long before their rough edges start to rub against each other and knock into each other and cause friction and stress.

And even in the best of marriages, it’s not long before you’re wondering:

Are you the same person I married?

But notice, it’s not your spouse who’s unveiling your flaws and imperfections.

It’s marriage.

 

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I know this will come as a shock: I was a nerd as a kid.

One of the things I did as a boy was polish rocks into gems.

And so I can tell you that if you just put 2 sets of rocks into this tumbler and nothing else, 1 of 2 things will happen.

     The first possibility?

They’ll just bounce past each other, over and over, like strangers, without ever effecting each other.

You could leave this on for a lifetime and at the end all the rough edges will still remain, nothing about them will have changed.

They could spend a lifetime occupying the same space, but you’d never guess they’d done so because they’re still the same as they were before.

They’ve never done more than just slide past each other.

 

That’s one possibility if you put 2 sets of rocks in to a tumbler and nothing else.

     The other possibility?

They’ll just immediately start knocking into each other.

Their rough edges will rub against each other, chip away at each other.

Quickly, it will get noisy inside there.

Heat will gradually build up from the stress and the friction.

And if you try to add a few other rocks to the mix to save the situation, it won’t work.

 

Eventually, who knows when, they’ll break each other apart along with the rocks that came along later.

 

Tumbling requires this special grit compound.

It’s the essential ingredient. It’s what allows them to knock around inside there; so that, they smooth and polish and perfect each other instead of destroy each other.

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You can’t put 2 people and nothing else inside a marriage anymore than you can put 2 sets of rocks and nothing else inside a tumbler.

You can’t put 2 love-blind, self-blind people and nothing else inside a marriage and expect them to ever do anything but bounce past each other for a lifetime or destroy each other.

Something else is required.

Grace.

When we speak of God, the word ‘grace’ refers both to God’s unconditional love towards us, and the straight, ugly truth about us.

You can think of St Paul: ‘While we were yet sinners because God loved us Christ died for us.’

Just as when speak of our relationship with God, the word grace refers both to love and truth, when we speak of our relationships with each other, the word grace also refers to love and truth.

Grace is an important ingredient for any relationship, but it’s essential inside a marriage.

     Grace is about clarity and charity.

     Grace is the ability to tell the truth about your spouse to your spouse in love.

Grace is the ability to tell the truth about your spouse not to your coworker, not to your best friend, not to your counselor, not to someone in your small group, not to your mother.

Grace is the ability to tell the truth about your spouse to your spouse in love.

Grace is the ability to tell the truth about your spouse to your spouse not in spite, not to settle a score, not to get back at them for something they said 9 days ago- and, by the way, isn’t it interesting you’ve been counting.

Grace is the ability to tell the truth about your spouse to your spouse in love.

     Which implies you’ve already forgiven them in your heart before you ever speak the truth from your lips.

    And, perhaps more importantly, grace is the ability to hear the truth about yourself from your spouse and trust their love.

Grace is the ability to hear the truth about yourself from your spouse and not get defensive, not retaliate, not explain yourself.

Grace is the ability to hear the truth about yourself from your spouse and trust their love.

It’s is an important ingredient for any relationship, but grace is the essential ingredient inside a marriage.

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For instance,

I can be self-centered.

And selfish.

And egocentric.

I know that will come as a surprise to all of you who assumed I’m an easy person to be married to.

It did to me.

I didn’t know.

Until Ali told me.

It was a few years ago.

She told me not in anger- okay, a little bit of anger. But not in spite or malice. Not in the moment of a disagreement or when I had my defenses up.

She told me after she’d already forgiven me.

She told me, she said, because she loved me.

She told me what she saw. The flaw in me.

And how it effected her. And us. And the family.

And how it effected me, from being who I could be.

 

And I tried to hear her. And not get defensive. Not get angry.

And not joke it away, which, you’ve might’ve guessed, is another flaw I have.

Sometimes marriage shows you a really unflattering reflection of yourself and you’re tempted not to look at it or take it seriously.

But I did.

And I said I’m sorry.

And then I said thank you.

And she just looked at me as if it were the most obvious thing in the world and said: ‘That’s my job.’

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That’s just it- it is.

Her job.

     Grace- truth with love- it is her job.

And it’s mine. And it’s yours. It’s part of our baptism.

St Paul says that each of us is being transformed.

We’re moving, Paul says, from one degree of glory to the next and from there to the next degree of glory.

We’re being ‘unveiled’ of all our sin and pretenses until we meet God face-to-face.

The way John Wesley puts that: Each of us is a sinner by grace moving on to perfection.

The way Jason puts it: We’re each of us rough-edged rocks, with flaws and imperfections, being polished into the gems God always intended us to be.

St Paul says that each of us is being transformed.

Moving from one degree of glory to the next.

And St Paul says that happens through grace.

Truth with love. Love with truth.

     Truth without love isn’t grace.

Telling your spouse the truth you see about them without love- that’s not the essential ingredient. It will just add to the friction.

 

And love without truth isn’t grace.

Loving your spouse without ever telling them the flaws you see in them- that’s not the essential ingredient either. It just leaves everyone as rough and flawed and unperfected as they were at the start.

      And perfection- turning rocks into gems, moving from one degree of glory to next- is the whole point of life.

     And it’s the purpose of marriage.

     Perfection of the other, turning rocks into gems, moving the other from one degree to the next degree of glory and them moving you- that’s the purpose of marriage.

That’s why what can be scary question at the beginning of a marriage: Are you the same person I married?

Is the the very best thing a husband and wife can ever say to each other at the end:

‘I’m not the person you married. Thank you.’

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* A few of the above jokes were taken from here. For further reading, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage

 

 

 

 

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our sermon series on marriage and relationships I decided to blog my way through the Bible’s own Skinemax Channel: The Song of Songs.

In 1.9-17 of the Song of Songs, the young woman and her lover voice to one another their reciprocal admiration for one another. They name their attraction. They call out what they find beautiful in the other. About the other.

9 I compare you, my love,
   to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots. 
10 Your cheeks are comely with ornaments,
   your neck with strings of jewels. 
11 We will make you ornaments of gold,
   studded with silver. 

12 While the king was on his couch,
   my nard gave forth its fragrance. 
13 My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh
   that lies between my breasts. 
14 My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms
   in the vineyards of En-gedi. 

15 Ah, you are beautiful, my love;
   ah, you are beautiful;
   your eyes are doves. 
16 Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
   truly lovely.
Our couch is green; 
17   the beams of our house are cedar,
   our rafters are pine. 

I once had an old professor at Princeton who shared with us how he and his (criminally young) newly wed wife spent every evening of their honeymoon reciting a section of the Song of Songs to one another.

From either side of their bed.

Naked.

I’m sure he thought something like: ‘I’m showing them how powerfully scripture and liturgy can form every part of our lives.’

We all thought: ‘Gross.’

The vomit in my throat aside, my professor was (inartfully) conveying an ancient and sweeping biblical principle:

There is no deeper knowing of another than knowing the other in their nakedness.

Two people stripped of every guise or pretense, making themselves vulnerable to another, baring every imperfection and risking to see if they are a delight to the source of their delight…

They know each other in a way that no one else can know them.

Except God.

imagesAs Rowan Williams writes:

“The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God…”

This is why nakedness in general and the Song of Songs in particular long have served as a metaphor for how we know and are known by God.

It’s this metaphor from which comes the practice of veiling the bride.

The gradual, ongoing unveiling of bride to groom and groom to bride that happens over the course of a marriage is like a laboratory of learning how God sees us.

Williams continues:

“The body’s grace itself only makes human sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption. To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God’s child.”

The prevailing Gospel of Inclusiveness leads too many couples to presume that love and marriage means their partner should accept them as they are and never ask them to change.

Cultural presumptions aside, the fact remains that true married love changes you whether you think it should or not.

Married love changes you because, other than your relationship with God, marriage is the only place in which you are perceived as you truly are, shorn of all pretense.

In marriage alone, you are shaped and changed by the perceptions of other. Seeing you for who you really are, your spouse alone can help shape you into who God would you have be.

It’s in being seen for you really are

It’s in being seen naked, in both a literal and metaphoric sense

And yet still being loved, still being a cause of delight for your delight

That you get closest to how God loves you

And thus grow into God’s likeness for you.

Some Christians refer to marriage as a sacrament. Others prefer to name it a covenant. Everyone concurs that marriage is a ‘means of grace.’

Like the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Just as the habit of constant communion over a lifetime shapes you in unseen, untold, unnumbered ways, being revealed to another over a lifetime reveals, by grace, a different you.

 

 

 

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our winter sermon series on marriage and relationships, I’ve decided to blog my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

1.6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
they made me keeper of the vineyards,
but my own vineyard I have not kept! 


7 Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
where you pasture your flock,
where you make it lie down at noon;
for why should I be like one who is veiled
beside the flocks of your companions? 


8 If you do not know,
O fairest among women,
follow the tracks of the flock,
and pasture your kids
beside the shepherds’ tents. 

     My mother’s sons were angry with me/they made me keeper of the vineyards/but my own vineyard I have not kept! 

     This poem shouldn’t continue.

It shouldn’t go on.

Were Dr James Dobson the author and ‘family values’ his muse, then you can be sure the poem wouldn’t persist past verse 6.

Or, at the very least, the poem would conclude with a cautionary, moralizing coda to young women about the dangers of not protecting their “vineyard,” about the mandate to keep their vineyard pure and wait for God to send them their foreordained vintner.

Something tells me Dr. Dobson isn’t sufficiently subtle for poetry but if he were then Song of Songs 1.6 might be followed by allusions to the permissiveness of modern culture and its anything goes media.

But the Song of Songs doesn’t with Hester Prynne finger-wagging. It doesn’t end at all. No poetis interruptus here. Instead the Song continues on for 7+ chapters of soft-core poetry that would make Skinemax proud.

And that’s remarkable.

That this Song continues at all is gospel.

Good news.

It’s grace.

An unmerited, unexpected gift.

Because, we’re left to conclude, this unfaithful young woman (my own vineyard I have not kept!) has been forgiven by her betrothed.

He loves her still.

His love is steadfast.

Read simply as an exchange between two mortal lovers then this poem might only conjure the worst type of Jerry Springer, Ike & Tina melodrama.

Read- as it is- as a piece of the biblical canon and thus as a piece of poetry that witnesses to God and God’s relationship with God’s People, then this poem sings with a U2-like, stadium-show volume.

The forgiveness implied within here is enough to make Easter deja vu all over again.

 Because the betrothed’s off-stage forgiveness of his fiancee parallels God’s own forgiveness of his unfaithful people.

What’s more, the physical reminder of the young woman’s sin (her dark skin which resulted from the labor imposed for her infidelity) now has become a mark of greatest beauty and pride.

Like Peter who after Easter could weave the blemish of his 3-fold denial of Christ into a beautiful declaration of God’s forgiveness, this young woman’s lover’s forgiveness allows her to rhapsodize (dark skin) that which would otherwise remain repulsive (in an ancient context).

A lover’s forgiveness makes it possible for sin and shame to become instead a part of a larger, more redemptive story.

Lovers possess the power to turn their relationship’s greatest tragedy into their greatest triumph.

Of course, the caution with the Song of Songs should always be against making poetry do the work reserved for prose alone. Nonetheless I think there’s a reminder here.

Over the course of ministry I’ve encountered a number of couples who share this Song’s couple’s struggle if not their youth; that is, I’ve encountered a number of couples encountering what could/should be a marriage ending betrayal.

Be it with another’s body or with a bottle or _________________.

The challenge in encountering such problems is also the opportunity:

To not let your partner’s sin be the end of your story.

To work- to do the work of forgiveness and then to work- towards making a partner’s sin into a larger story of mercy and love.

To work for that day when your partner’s ‘dark skin’ can be seen not as the blemish it originally was but as a cause for beauty.

In other words, to work…so that you can say ‘X happened to us, he/she did Y to our marriage but we’ve overcome it and have discovered a life even more delightful.

Certainly it’s easier to end the poem at v.6.

To go on requires…

faith?

It’s easier to end the poem at v.6, but, take Easter as your evidence, sometimes the alternative leads to a far more interesting story.

This isn’t to say every partner’s sin should follow unremittingly with the other’s forgiveness. The Song allegorizes God’s forgiving love of our unfaithful love.

It would be idolatrous to think we’re capable of God’s frequency of forgiveness.

This Song, then, doesn’t mandate our forgiveness in every instance. Rather, it points out the possibility of forgiveness in ever instance.

It points out the reality that when we forgive- when we invite forgiveness with those magic words ‘I’m sorry’- we’re participating in the very life of God.

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For our winter sermon series on marriage and relationships, I’ve decided to blog my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

I’ve loathed much of contemporary Christian music not so music itself or the modern medium but for the message of its lyrics.

Too often the songs are limited to the first person. ‘I’ am the subject of whom I sing and God is made the object of my wishes and desires, which is exactly the opposite of how scripture typically speaks of God and us.

Frequently the songs strike me as little more than repackaged pop love songs with ‘God’ switched in for he/she.

‘Jesus in my pants songs.’

We called them in seminary.

The Song of Songs, however, causes me to wonder if I was wrong in my dismissals. The Song of Songs is most definitely not contemporary and from the very first verses it’s unabashedly a first person love song:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
your anointing oils are fragrant,
your name is perfume poured out;
   therefore the maidens love you.
Draw me after you, let us make haste.
   The king has brought me into his chambers.
We will exult and rejoice in you;
   we will extol your love more than wine;
   rightly do they love you. 

-1.2-4

This isn’t an abstract ode to the idea of love. The young woman narrating races to first base with a demand for kisses, and, we can surmise, she hopes to not stop there.

Her lover (whether he’s king of a realm or just her heart we’re left to guess) enters in verse 4 when she enters his bedroom chambers. He must be a stud, for the young woman tells us that not only does she long for him others do too: ‘…‘rightly do they love you.’

As I mentioned before, that the ancient rabbis included this thoroughly secular, erotic poem in the canon of scripture tells us how they understood it. They and the Church Fathers after them believed it was about more than a young woman and her lover.

It was about God’s People (Israel, the Church) and their relationship with God.

What’s interesting about reading this section theologically is that the roles get reversed from what you might expect.

No longer is God the first person subject of the sentences, as God is in most of the bible.

This ancient Song sounds more like many contemporary Christian songs.

We’re the ‘young woman.’ We’re the ones speaking/singing of our longing.

And God is the ‘king.’ God is the object of our desire. Erotic desire.

The theologian Robert Jenson writes that in this erotic desire for God we can find a poetic illustration of how the Eastern Orthodox Church understands salvation:

“…the Song was a favorite way for them to describe salvation. Israel does not here long for forgiveness of sin or rescue from disaster or for other gifts detachable from the Giver, as Western theology tends to conceive salvation, but simply for the Lord himself.

The longing is aesthetic rather than ethical; it is longing for the Lord’s touch and kiss and fragrance. The Lord is simply loveable, and salvation is union with him, a union for which sexual union provides an analogy.”

One of the reasons I’ve dismissed the contemporary ‘Jesus in my pants’ songs is that I feel uncomfortable singing them.

For example, ‘I’m so in love with you…’

I love God, sure. But to say I’m in love with God? Weird right?

Except the Song of Songs makes me do a double take.

I’m driven in my faith by ideas, concepts, theology and even hands-on service.

Maybe what I’ve resisted in those ‘Jesus in my pants’ songs is what the Song here lauds as a needful part of faith- maybe the most important part:

Desire.

I can remember the tables-turning charge that hit me with my first kiss. And so, I’m sure, can you. Why would we want our experience of God to be anything less?

Shouldn’t our first kiss be a foretaste of our experience of God rather than our experience of God being only a fraction of the experience of a first kiss?

It’s always tricky to ask poetry to do the work of prose. Asking what it means in some deep way is to betray the nature of a poem. Nonetheless, having just read a news story about how 1/4 tweens are sexting, I think this is a sound takeaway:

Touch, kiss, embrace, and __________ are all approximations of our eventual union with God.

They’re holy things.

Thus they are occasions for neither shame (as is the case for many conservative Christians) nor a simple shrug of the shoulders (as is the case for much of secular culture).

They’re holy, good, sacred things.

As such, they should be treated as reverently as priest holds the host and as joyously as a parent holds their baby for baptism.

Or, as Jesus said: Don’t throw your pearls to swine.

 

 

The G(od) Spot

Jason Micheli —  January 7, 2014 — 2 Comments

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517This weekend we kick-off a 4 week sermon series on marriage and relationships based off of Adam Hamilton’s book, Love to Stay: Sex, Grace and Commitment. 

The first of those subtitled themes has spooked some sober-minded fellow sinners.

Sex, the assumption seems to be, is simply not a suitable subject for a sermon (unless, I suppose, it’s in the service of preaching ‘against’ some form of sexuality).

Ironically, this time last year I posted an article about how Christians are uncomfortable with the full implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation. The post, ‘Jesus Farts,’ netted me a scolding from my bishop whilst simultaneously proving the point of the post: we don’t think of our bodies in a divine way and we certainly don’t want to think of the Christ in a full-throated physical way.

The reaction to my post last year and a single theme of Hamilton’s book this year has convinced me that many Christians have a malnourished theology of the incarnation.

We’re closeted Gnostics.

We think ‘God’ is Spirit thus godly things must be ‘spiritual things.’

We’re conditioned by the Enlightenment.

We doubt that the objects of the material world point to and are sustained by Beauty itself.

We forget that by taking on physicality in Jesus Christ the Divine imbues our physical lives with the divine.

The things which comprise our everyday, material, physical, fleshly lives are sacred.

Holy.

 Just as with the tangible objects of bread and wine, the physical touch of another can be a means of grace.

The reaction to the first subtitled third of Adam Hamilton’s book has provoked my interest not in Hamilton’s book (sorry, Adam) but in a little book of the Old Testament.

The Song of Songs.

All of the above, then, is just throat-clearing to say that during our 4 week Love to Stay sermon series I will be blogging my way through this much-neglected (if known at all) part of the Jewish and Christian canon.

So read it with me and check out the future posts.

Even though the Song of Songs is one of the most commented upon books by theologians and biblical scholars, chances are you’ll have to locate it by way of your bible’s table of contents.

Before I commit to the Song itself perhaps a little courtship is in order.

The Song of Songs falls under the Old Testament’s ‘Wisdom’ literature, but it’s not at all like the other books in that category.

The Song of Songs does not meditate on the goodness of God in a suffering world a la Job.

The Song of Songs does not reflect on faith in or fear of the Lord as the Psalms do.

The Song of Songs contain no prudent, pithy sayings like you’ll find in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes.

The Song of Songs is not like anything in the Hebrew Bible at all.

It’s not law, prophecy or covenant history.

It’s an erotic, explicit series of poems to love.

Physical love.

The Song of Songs is about a passionate young woman and her not-always-as-interested lover.

The Song of Songs is about erogenous zones and seduction, aromas and places to be found alone.

The Song of Songs could make Shakespeare blush and the 50 Shades author red with envy.

hs3Most of the poems in the Song of Songs are narrated in the voice of the young woman, a woman who, in the words of one ancient commentator, is without modesty. Contrary to what you may think about the stodgy, antiquated bible, this young woman’s voice and desire drives the arc of the book.

Here’s the odd thing about the Song of Songs: it’s completely secular.

None of the poems make any mention of God, faith or religious practice.

It’s just about the erotic passion between this woman and her lover.

‘Just?’

The full title for the book is The Song of Songs: Which is Solomon’s. It has a subtitle too.

That construction, Song of Songs, is a Hebrew idiom for a superlative. The Hebrew Bible uses it a lot, mostly in constructions like ‘Lord of Lords’ and ‘Holy of Holies.’ In other words, this form of superlative most often is a way of referring to the Most High God.

And so…

Song of Songs likely could be a way of saying this Song is about God or that this is the godliest, holiest, most sacred of songs.

Why not? The Old Testament prophets frequently compare God’s relationship with Israel to that of a jilted lover or a cuckcolded spouse.

Why must the analogies always and only be in the negative?

While we can’t be sure who wrote the Song of Songs or what was their intent by writing it, we can be certain what the ancient rabbis intended by including it in the canon. In this ode to erotic, physical love they found an analogue to the love between Israel and her God.

Later the ancient Church Fathers found in the Song a parallel for the love Christ has for his Church, and because the Church Fathers believed the external works of God mirror the interior life of God, they found in the Song a description of the love the Father and Son have for each other through the Spirit. chag1

Sex, according the most ancient way of reading this scripture, is an analogue for the love between the Trinity, the love between God and Israel and the love between Christ and the Church.

As anyone who’s taken the SAT’s knows, sound analogies work both ways.

The ancients didn’t just read the Song of Songs as suggesting that God is like the erotic passion of lovers.

The ancients believed the Song of Songs showed that the erotic, physical passion between lovers is like God.

It’s not just a poetic description in other words. The erotic love between lovers really does correlate, in reality, to the nature of God. Indeed our love is only an approximation of it.

A foretaste of it. Foreplay, if you like.

As Robert Jenson puts it:

“By the classic understanding of Creator/creature analogies, mostly developed by Thomas Aquinas, this does not mean that our eroticism is the original and that we construe God’s relation to his people by projecting it. Just the other way around, it means that human lovers’ relations to each other are recognizable in their true eroticism only by noting their analogy to an eroticism that is God’s alone.

Just as our faulty righteousness can nonetheless be anticipation of our eschatological sharing in God’s own righteousness, our frail eroticism can be an anticipation of final sharing in the fulfillment of God’s and his people’s desire for another.”

Eschatological is a jargonny word, I know.

For the laymen out there, the quote means this:

Heaven will be a lot more fun than sitting on clouds and playing harps.

 

 

 

 

Midrash in the Moment: Money

Jason Micheli —  November 26, 2013 — 1 Comment

IMG_1470Nothing tightens a congregation’s collective sphincter, quite like the subject of money.

Preaching about money and giving and generosity just makes people uncomfortable. This weekend I thought I’d turn the tables; perhaps it should be my turn to be uncomfortable.

And nothing makes me more anxious than preaching without any notes.

So on Friday, I asked people to send me scripture passages about money that they found challenging, confusing, or obscure.

I wrote them down on a spinning wheel and then ll just shot from the hip and thought through the passages as we landed on them at random.

As I mentioned in one of the services, if we were to put every scripture passage that speaks about money onto a spinning wheel like the one above we’d need a wheel that was 233 times bigger than this one.

Each of the 4 sermons were different this weekend; unfortunately, I’ve only got the recording from the 9:45 service.

Here it is. You can also download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

      1. Midrash-in-the-Moment-J-Micheli-11-24-2013.mp3