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Posts Tagged ‘God’

Homosexuality is one of the most hotly contested issues in America today. Between marriage rights to theological debates to scientific analysis, this issue doesn’t look to resolve itself anytime soon. And typically, when there are these types of issues that find a familiar set of (different) demographics on each side of the issue, there are going to be factions that form outside of the realm of debate. One of the most obvious examples is the role of mainstream Christianity in the debate.

Christians have traditionally held the view that homosexuality goes against God’s intention for humanity. I say this not to validate the viewpoint—rather, it’s an important acknowledgement to understand the historical context. I also would hesitate to use the fact that it’s “always been this way” as a validation in itself. Christianity has a history marred with historical precedent that eventually gives way to progressive societal norms. Incest (Abraham), polygamy (too many biblical characters to name here), slavery (an overwhelming majority of pro-slavery arguments made during the Civil War era used Scripture as a divinely-inspired defense), Holy wars (too many instances to name here, from the Old Testament to Bible verses engraved on guns during the United States involvement in Iraq)—all of these prove that historical precedent of mainstream JudeoChristian thought/practice is hardly a reason to continue other antiquated practices.

However, what if there is an angle to the whole debate that both sides seem to be missing?

There are 5-6 passages in Scripture that seem to address homosexuality (or, at least, some realm of homosexual behavior). The interpretation of these verses is under debate, with most Christian Biblical scholars falling on one side and most secular Biblical scholars falling on the other.

But what if, in this modern era, the interpretation doesn’t matter? (Disclaimer: I think it does matter, not necessarily for the cause of homosexuality but for the overarching theme of Scripture misuse/mis-scholarship.)

What if everyone is getting the foundation of this debate entirely wrong?

Anti-homosexuality advocates frame the debate utilizing specific gender assignments. For them, men are to be with women and women are to be with men. By this uniformly understood view, everyone on our planet—and everyone ever created—is either a man or a woman. Every human ever created falls into either the category of “man” or “woman.” It has to be this way, right? Because “male and female (God) created them.”

The whole premise rests on this—philosophically, it has to. For a philosophical idea to maintain its soundness, it has to be followed to the infinite implications. And to define marriage, or love, as something that can only exist between a man and a woman, we have to have clear, unequivocal definitions of what “male” and “female” are that applies to every human being. If the definitions break down at all, then the argument is not sound. The totality of the anti-homosexual stance rides on the unequivocal belief that there is a clear distinction between the two genders. Gender itself has to be defined by two clear, separate groups. A human being is either one or the other.

However, this is most definitely not the reality.

 Gender, despite the primitive definition of the word, is not a dualistic lens through which every human being can be clearly designated. In fact, as we are learning more and more about the intricacy of the human body and its development, there is becoming an increasing understanding amongst the medical world that gender, instead of being a situation of being “one or the other,” is actually a scale of extremes. In this scale of extremes, “male” is a designation of one side and “female” is a designation of the other. Humanity, however, cannot be so neatly categorized—every individual falls somewhere on the scale between male and female. A growing number of studies have identified a human biology that doesn’t follow the precedent of the male/female dichotomy. The term for this gray area is “intersex,” and it is being widely recognized as a key factor in the gender stereotype debate. In short, intersex is the area on the scale between “male” and “female” that doesn’t neatly fit either category—and a significant portion of the human population is born in this gender gray area, where phenotypically understood definitions do not apply.

Intersex can occur in a number of different ways that are typically classified as disorders. These disorders occur in a number of ways and can be a result of genetics, hormones, and others. Allow me to give a rundown of the biology.

Humans are given a chromosomal designation. Women are (typically) created from two ‘X’ chromosomes, while men are (typically) created from and ‘X’ and a ‘Y’ chromosome. The mother always provides the first ‘X,’ while each of the father’s sperm carries either an ‘X’ or a ‘Y.’ The embryo, after the fertilization of the egg creates a zygote, is phenotypically asexual until roughly seven weeks after fertilization. Hormones begin taking over, and in typical biological processes, the physical distinction between male and female becomes more divergent up until birth.

Essentially, there are two basic ways to determine the gender of a human. You can look at the chromosomal nature: is the person XX or XY? You can also look at the physical evidence (genitalia, gonads) and phenotypically determine if the person is male or female.

However, this is not always the case—and the combinations of biological variance are all important. There are cases where human can be born with an incorrect designation of chromosomes—instead of XX or XY, the individual may be born XXY—or a person can be born with physical evidence of both male and female gonads/genitalia. There are many combinations thereof and I won’t go into all of them.

Anne Fausto-Sterling is one of the premier chroniclers of gender ambiguity today. In her book Sexing the Body, she writes that “While male and female stand on the extreme ends of a biological continuum, there are many bodies […] that evidently mix together anatomical components conventionally attributed to both males and females. The implications of my argument for a sexual continuum are profound. If nature really offers us more than two sexes, then it follows that our current notions of masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits. […] Modern surgical techniques help maintain the two-sex system. Today children who are born ‘either/or-neither/both’ — a fairly common phenomenon — usually disappear from view because doctors ‘correct’ them right away with surgery.”

This is the kicker though—according to the Intersex Society of North America, between 1% and 1.7% of live births exhibits some degree of sexual (gender) ambiguity. Between 0.1% and 0.2% exhibit enough ambiguity to become the subject of specialist medical attention.

So what does all this mean? What does intersex and sexual ambiguity have to do with the homosexuality debate that is currently going on in Christianity?

The entire framework of the debate rests on a clear distinction between male and female. The whole framework for calling homosexuality “sinful” means that a line has to be drawn, somewhere, between males and females. And yet, for up to 6.8 million Americans who are born with some level of gender ambiguity, there is no line. For the 400,000-800,000 people in America who were born with enough ambiguity that required surgery or gender assignment, it means that the line was drawn by doctors or parents, not God.

So, for an argument to be philosophically sound, it must follow its own implications infinitely. It must always be true or it is not considered sound. If a definitive distinction cannot be made between “male” and “female” that holds true for every human, then how can it hold true for anyone? Is someone male if they are genetically male, yet have female gonads and genitalia? If someone born this way is attracted to men, is it considered heterosexual or homosexual?

What about the small population who are born in a way that essentially makes the doctors and parents the determiners of the gender? If the parents determine to raise their child as a girl because she has female genitalia, yet is chromosomally XY (male), who should the child, according to Christianity, marry? Which option would be sinful, according to anti-homosexuality advocates? Or does the individual have the option?

The problem with the homosexuality debate is clear. It assumes that all people are created as either male or female. The Bible doesn’t really seem to address intersex humans. Yet, even as God created Adam and Eve male and female, doesn’t He also create intersex humans as both male and female? Or part male, part female? Isn’t it true that God doesn’t create mistakes?

The truth is, it is not a cut-and-dry situation. If homosexuality was so sinful, why would God create people who do not even know what gender they are? Are they simply supposed to guess which group they are supposed to be attracted to? If God’s law for love is based on classic gender definitions, then why would He allow people to be born who could potentially not fall into the classic definitions? Is God really that petty and confusing?

It hardly matters what is “normal” or “typical” when it comes to this debate—if God were to have only created ONE person that didn’t fit inside of classic gender definitions, then the entire debate would be rendered meaningless. And yet He has created millions.

Perhaps we can lose this talk of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” altogether. Wouldn’t the terms “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” be somewhat obsolete, based on their linguistic limitations to accurately describe humanity?

 If all people, genetically and physically, actually fall on a gender scale that includes various shades of gray, can’t we just let love be love, no matter who is involved?

If God is the author of Love, even defined and described as Love, can we stop determining who gets to love and who doesn’t?

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A narrative has been percolating in my mind for several months now. I have spoken bits and pieces of it in random conversations and in various group settings, but I believe that it’s not going to feel complete unless I write it down. Hopefully, however, through the writing of this I can allow my thoughts to more neatly organize themselves in a way that is neither caustic nor judgmental—rather, I hope to bring to light a fresh view of something that is, well, really not so fresh.

This narrative begins several months ago on a Monday night.

I am a part of a young adult Bible study group that meets Monday nights. On this particular night, we were wrapping up the book of Ezra. I am not going to take the time or space right now for a background on the book (but I encourage you to read it and draw your own conclusions). At the end of the book, beginning in Chapter 9, an interesting theme arises: intermarriage.

The Israelites, led by the leaders and the priests, had entangled themselves with surrounding tribes and had not been faithful to the law that was set by God that strictly called them to not marry or make covenants with a long list of people groups (Exodus 34; Deuteronomy 7, 23). Ezra, being the spiritual leader of the people, was confronted by the leadership of the Israelites about this. They admitted that the people have been making covenants and engaging in the practices with these surrounding tribes.

Ezra was chagrined. The rest of chapter 9 is devoted to a mournful, apologetic prayer to God concerning the terrible transgressions of the people. Surely God was enraged at these practices, especially since He had finally allowed the people to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. He publicly wept and prayed until a crowd gathered around him, also crying out with guilty tears. One man, Shecaniah, stepped up with a seemingly perfect solution: “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.”

So they followed through with these plans. They kicked out all non-Jews. Mothers and wives and children were suddenly banished, homeless and destined for poverty. They dealt with the unclean men who were willing to engage in the intermarriage with discipline as well (but not banishment).

As we began to discuss this story that Monday night, the initial consensus was that the right steps toward purity had been taken. God had given them some fairly clear laws and the people had disobeyed. They remedied the situation by amputating the reason for the problem, right? In fact, they had very religious and Godly reasons for ostracizing the group of foreigners and half-breeds (which is what they called them)! God had called them to purity, and they were standing up for truth, for the law, for God. They were standing up for what was right.

In fact, it’s pretty straightforward. If you don’t fit within the confines of the law (and the half-breeds didn’t) then you were religiously ostracized. After all, it’s what God commanded. Sometimes standing up for truth is ugly, right? When people don’t fit within the plan, God’s people have to stand up and do something!

Flash-forward several hundred years.

One of these ostracized half-breed groups, the Samaritans, had long-since settled in the northern part of what is now the West Bank. They were, in fact, descendents of the intermarriage discussed in Ezra: modern day Y-chromosome studies and mitochondrial DNA analysis has shown that they descended from both Israelites (including priestly lines) and mostly Assyrian women.

And they were religiously hated. The full-blooded Israelite populations referred to them in derogatory terms and were not to speak to them. The Samaritans could not worship at the Jewish holy sites (though they considered themselves mostly Jewish). Centuries later, the Jewish community was still standing up for the purity and righteousness God had called them to—and they were good at it.

That’s what it takes to follow God’s law, right? An unwavering commitment to the truth that God had laid out for them—the impure be damned (literally).

It is in this context that a man who had been listening to Jesus preach asks him a question. It should be noted that this is no ordinary man—this is a man who Luke calls an “expert in the law.” This is a man who was very familiar with the story in Ezra–a man whose disgust with the Samaritan people ran deep. This is a religious man who had very religious and even godly reasons for believing what he did. In fact, being an expert, he could probably name the very spots in Deuteronomy in which God forbade marriage and covenants with the Assyrians, the very ancestors of the Samaritan people.
And this expert has one question for Jesus: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus asks, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” It almost seems like he’s asking the man, “You are an expert—but let’s see if you really understand the ideas behind the laws.”

The man answers by quoting parts of the Law from Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus responds positively: “Good answer, do that and you’ll live.”

It’s at that point that the man seems to notice his hypocrisy. He looks for a loophole, a way out—it’s almost as if it suddenly dawns on him that he hasn’t been living this way. You can almost imagine him going through the people in his life, gauging whether or not he has loved them, and hoping the people he hasn’t loved weren’t his “neighbors.” He responds with, “And who is my neighbor?”

You can see him trying to justify his way of life. This devoutly religious man, who has undoubtedly spent his life trying to understand and study the law of God, has had religious reason to follow through with his marginalization of others (read: Samaritans). He has been standing up for God’s law, right? He has been standing up for truth, for purity! He is an “expert” on what it means to follow God’s law!

And Jesus responds with one of the most well known stories in the Scriptures.

He begins the now familiar story with a man who is walking on a road and then getting robbed, beaten within inches of his life, and stripped naked. He is left for dead. A priest sees the man and passes by, unwilling to help. In fact, he doesn’t just pass by; he walks to the other side of the road, perhaps so that he didn’t have to be bothered by having the man in his sightline. (I’d imagine that puzzled looks would be exchanged from the people listening to this story—was Jesus calling out a religious leader? Can you imagine the modern day equivalent to a priest? A mega-church pastor, maybe? Or another kind of Christian leader—an evangelist, maybe, or an author?)
Then a Levite does the same thing. A Levite was someone who worked in the temple. Again, people would have been shocked and even angry. Was he just going down the hierarchy of the religious elite, calling them all out as being someone who doesn’t love their neighbor (which, you remember, he said was how someone gains eternal life)?

But then, truly the most shocking aspect of the story is spoken. Let’s be honest, Jesus could have picked anyone to be the hero of his story. He could have picked a Jewish man. He was, after all, talking to an expert in the law. Why not make him the hero of the story? Instead, he does something far more controversial—and I hope you can grasp just how controversial it is, given the preceding two pages of context I have given. In fact, what Jesus says is nothing short of game-changing.

The third man to pass by helps the beaten, bloody man. The third man is the hero. He is the one who exhibits the love that neither church leader was willing to. He is the man who, according to Jesus, is going to inherit eternal life by loving his neighbor. Who is this third man?

A Samaritan. Jesus, speaking to a Jewish expert of the law, picks a Samaritan man to be the hero.

A half-breed. A man who has been ostracized and condemned the church in the name of truth and purity—yet will inherit Eternal Life ahead of the church leaders.

And why? Because he loved his neighbor.

He may not have belonged in the church, but he loved like Jesus calls all of us to.

This story prompts two questions. Primarily—what people groups today do we (as the religious folk) ostracize/marginalize/criticize/hate in the name of truth and purity? Muslims? Gays? Liberals? Evolutionists? Democrats? Postmoderns? Younger generations? Atheists? Would Jesus, if he was telling the story today, pick someone from one of these groups to be the hero? Who have we decided to separate ourselves from for the sake of being godly—only to miss out on the true message of Jesus?

Second—what can we do about it? How can we begin looking less like the church leaders of Jesus time and more like Jesus?

I think the first step is this: we need to begin making these people the heroes of our stories. Like the church leaders, we may have had some very “godly” and religious reasons for marginalizing some people. But like Jesus, we need to stop marginalizing and start interacting. Stop hating those that are different and begin loving them as people who, like the Samaritan, are just as capable of loving God and people.

We need to begin thinking less about who is “out” and who is “in” and more about what we can do to make sure that all people are viewed as “neighbors.”
The truth is that Jesus preached a message of love, not religion. We are all connected as neighbors in humanity.

I hope we can begin tearing down the walls of injustice and intolerance so that people can see Jesus’ love, not the stale religion of exclusion.

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religulous-posterI just watched Bill Maher’s documentary, “Religulous.” It was a fascinating and often hilarious portrayal of an agnostic’s attempt to illustrate that religion is destructive, backwards, and will ultimately cause the self-inflicted end of humanity. His apparent thesis came at the end of the movie, where he said that his purpose was to stir doubt within people—to Maher, doubt creates humility, and human history is littered with people acting on what they perceive as certainty. The most violent acts in history are most often caused by people who believe, with absolute certainty, that they have it all (or mostly) figured out.

The interesting thing is, if I had a conversation with Maher, we’d probably agree on more things than we disagree on.

I too believe that religion has been the most destructive force in the history of humanity. In the beginning, the earliest humans spent their time wondering where they stood with the gods, leading them to begin sacrificing their children to these spirits. More wars and battles have been waged in the name of God (or, gods) than any other motive. Even the creation of the United States is scarred with white Europeans believing that they had God on their side as they slaughtered, raped, and displaced hundreds of thousands of Native Americans.

While Maher clearly has an agenda, which appeared to be an effort to shame any and all religious people, I truly think we could find a lot of common ground. At one point in the film, he stood in front of the richly built palace-like Vatican and exclaimed, “Does this (gesturing toward the palace) look like anything Jesus had in mind?” I wanted to stand up and cheer—in some strange way, Maher could read the Gospels and understand that Christ wanted nothing to do with political power, money, and even religion! In another scene, Maher interviewed a Christian leader. The exchange went as follows:

Maher: What should I call you? Reverend?

Reverend: No, please call me doctor.

Text at the bottom of the screen: Not only is this man not a doctor, he has no degree…of any kind.

The interview that followed was shameful and angering as the “Doctor” Reverend, with his many gold rings and designer suit, explained that Jesus was wealthy and wore fine clothes. Maher asked him about the many, many times Jesus appears to condemn the pursuit of wealth and riches, and the man responded that the more he follows God, and the more righteous he becomes, the wealthier he will get.

The fact that this man is representing Jesus is appalling—he does NOT represent the Jesus of the New Testament! I found myself agreeing with Maher.

Bill MaherThroughout the movie, he clearly does what most news anchors do after a disaster: pick the least intelligent people to interview. This is on purpose—the point of his movie is to shame religion! In that way, he clearly wanted to choose people who were contradictory and hypocritical in their religiosity.

The movie, however, allowed me to take comfort in the fact that I do not consider myself a follower of any religion. The actions and words of Jesus lead me to believe that following Him was never meant or intended to be a religious activity. It was never meant to be called “Christianity.” Following Jesus was about pursuing a beautiful servant lifestyle in which we are called to lovingly and humbly “wash the feet of this world.” Religulous” was a funny, biting, irreverent (duh!) movie about the fallacy of pursuing peace by waging religious war—and while I didn’t agree with Maher on many things, I did find myself realizing that true Christ-followers and Maher have a lot of common ground.

That said, he clearly is out to prove himself smarter, or more right, than those who have faith in any kind of higher Being. In that way, he is just trying to assert power over others, which makes him no different than any of the religious people he argues with.

Power over others is always the wrong pursuit, which is why Jesus calls us to lives of “power-under:” service, love, humility, and generosity. It makes me wonder. If all “Christians” actually looked like Christ, would Maher be so quick to reject them? I think not.

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Like most people, I drive several miles over the speed limit. I typically don’t view this as dangerous. In fact, either do local police, based on the fact that I’ve never been pulled over for speeding. My motivation for driving over the speed limit has nothing to do with disrespect for authority or romantic notions of “sticking it to the man.” I do it simply because I can—I do not have anyone reprimanding me.

It’s funny how our rules and laws work. If I can bend or even break them without getting caught, then it’s almost not even considered reprehensible. It is simply beating the system.

For some reason, we have so romanticized the ideas of beating the system that our ideas of God have been overrun—we imagine Him as someone who is bound by laws he created or laws that are beyond his control. Because of this, the death and resurrection of Jesus are seen as God “beating the system” or “breaking the rules.” We look at Jesus death and bloodshed as the necessary and sufficient way for our lives to be restored—we see his death as the replacement for our (eventual) deaths from the infection of sin. We say things like “we are covered by the blood of Jesus” or “we have been healed because of the blood of the lamb.” But what if this linguistic imagery is incomplete?

jesusblood1Is God really simply bound by some bloodthirsty, petty law that requires death for all who “fall short?” Wouldn’t that make God a secondary character in this story? And, perhaps even scarier, wouldn’t that mean that the Law is the main character?

If, in fact, all God needed was Jesus to shed his blood, to die, then why did God protect the infant Jesus from Herod’s demand that all young boys be killed? Would that not have sufficed?

Maybe the life, the example, and the healing of Jesus were just as important as the death.

For a further look at this, check out this video: http://www.godscharacter.com/mediagallery/media.php?f=0&sort=0&s=20090306184151808

Or look at this blog: http://www.godscharacter.com/

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Ruts

Have you ever had problem with motivation?

I have. My whole life, in fact, could be written as a series of battles for motivation. I remember when I was training for a half marathon several years ago. I had a goal in mind and a routine planned out. I even enjoyed running—once you begin, it’s hard not to get caught up in the endorphins that surge when working out. My biggest problem was getting started. I totally lacked any motivation to actually get up and put on my running shoes. Once I began, it was enjoyable. I just had to actually begin.

I don’t think I’m the only one with this problem. In fact, we all have issues with getting motivated, so we have to set up processes and routines that help motivate us. Think about it: you are not inherently motivated to wake up at six tomorrow morning, so you have to set up an alarm to help motivate you to get up. After enough mornings of waking up early, your body adjusts to a routine or process and soon you are able to wake up naturally at that time. Our lives are built around skeletons of artificial motivation.

I want you to imagine something. Imagine you are pushing a cart of bricks on a path. You work, day in and day out, to push these bricks along the path. Because the bricks are heavy and the activity is strenuous, you become disheartened and often lack motivation to continue. In fact, the activity seems mundane. Why are you pushing the cart of bricks along the path to begin with? Why not do something else? A battle for motivation creeps in.

But you’ve been pushing these bricks for far too long. A rut slowly appears in the path as you continue pushing. Sweat starts building up on your forehead and you rest, briefly, to remove your cap and wipe it off. Soon, however, you realize that you need to continue pushing. The rut beckons. You aren’t sure why you continue, but you realize that the rut is there. You have been pushing bricks for a long time and, honestly, what else would you do? The rut is proof: you were made to push bricks. It took years to wear this rut into the path! The bricks, heavy as they are, helped to push the cart wheels into the dirt. You and the bricks have been building this rut for as long as you can remember. You can’t stop now.

Soon the rut, this arbitrary byproduct, becomes the artificial motivation you need to keep pushing the cart. Just like other routines and habits, the rut becomes the skeleton around which you build your life. And like any good rut, it soon becomes the motivation through which you continue. The rut beckons.

So, head down, arms straining to push the cart, you continue. Sweat drips down your nose and drops to the ground. Your hands become sore and stiff. Hunched over as you are, your back starts to ache and throb. You can’t stop now, though! You couldn’t stop if you wanted to! The rut is beckoning you to continue. It is motivating you. It whispers to keep pushing the bricks. It is what you were made for. Your sore hands, your achy back—they aren’t problems. They are signs that you are doing what you should be doing. They are not symptoms. They are evidence of your success!

Suddenly a breeze sweeps through and lifts your cap off of your head. It gently carries the cap several yards off the path and drops it. Startled, you look up and around you, eyes darting to find the cap. And what you see takes your breath away.

How had you not noticed it before?

All around the path, you see color. Your eyes drink in vast fields of wild flowers, more beautiful than any painting or photograph. Purple flowers slowly sway in the wind, seemingly dancing to some ethereal and delicate tune of nature. Blue and yellow flowers, instantly bright and jovial, allow the wind—the same wind that stole your cap—to caress and pull them gently in soft unison. Occasional bees bounce in and out of the flowers. If they are busy, they sure know how to hide it. You see small blue and brown birds flutter and jump in the flowery quilts of color.

In the distance you see giant fields of pink bushes, providing a buffer between the near fields and distant forests. From where you’re standing, you can see the deep green of the forest leaves being pierced by rays of sunlight, creating hues of green and yellow that you never knew existed. Beyond the forests, on the far horizons, you see deep purple and blue mountains with peaks that shoot upward past the clouds, covered in layers of snow.

All around you, creation is begging you to come up with new words to describe the beauty that you are trying to consume. The cap is forgotten, for God created this land to fill your mind to the brim—and fill your mind it has. You stand and watch the flowers move together. You see a bee and follow it with your eyes until it flies so far away that it becomes lost in a sea of color. Everything in you is trying to soak in the immense beauty that extends as far as you can see.

You have no idea how long you’ve been standing and enjoying the sight around you, but suddenly you remember. The bricks! The cart! The rut in the path! The task you were made for!

You look back down at the brown path. You look at the cart, half-full of bricks. Why were you carting them, again? What are they for?

You look at the rut, which has suddenly lost its powers of motivation, and then you look back out at the flowers and bees and trees and birds. Your heart screams with longing, for all you want to do is run amongst the fields, lie down in the flowers, explore the forests and climb the mountains. Your heart longs to be free from the task before you, so that you can escape the path and the bricks.

And so, both hands on the cart, you try to steer it off the path. You push and pull and try to move the cart to the side, into the fields that you so long to run through; the cart fails to budge.

And then you realize why the cart won’t move. The rut, once a powerful tool for motivation and continuance, holds the cart captive. It clutches the wheels, daring you to try to remove the cart from its grasp. The rut that you created, with your years of hard work, is now preventing you from moving. You push and pull, rocking the cart to try to get it out of the rut, but it won’t budge, and then a dangerous thought crosses your mind. What if you abandon the cart of bricks?

You can’t! It’s the task you’ve been given, right? It’s what you were made for, right? You begin to wonder who or what told you that you were made to push bricks and create ruts. Where did you learn that your life should revolve around pushing bricks?

You look out, again, at the beautiful creation that surrounds you and fills your eyes with dancing, moving tapestries of color, and in one motion you drop the cart from your hands and run. You run away from the bricks and the cart and the rut; you begin sprinting through the fields of color, smiling bigger than you’ve ever smiled before.

In fact, as you run, you exude so much joy that you begin laughing until your face hurts because you are so happy to be enjoying the beauty that was previously only something you could observe.

You run until you can’t run anymore and, still smiling, you lay down amongst the flowers. With birds chirping all around you, you fall asleep in the gentle sunshine.

*****

Do you know what the first commandment God ever gave humans was? It wasn’t, “Do not murder,” although that would have been a good one. It also wasn’t, “Do not sin,” although that would have been a good one too. The first commandment God gave humans was after he had just created man and woman in the midst of the Garden of Eden. He said to them, “Eat freely.”

“Eden” means “pleasure.” He told them to go eat freely in the Garden of Pleasure.

Isn’t that beautiful? Maybe it gives us a hint as to God’s original intention for creating us. Maybe we aren’t meant to push carts of bricks. Maybe we aren’t meant to create these ruts that only end up trapping us.

What if we’re meant to take pleasure in His creation? What if we are meant to “eat freely?”

If you feel like you aren’t motivated to continue creating ruts, maybe a lack of motivation isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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I feel like there’s something more. I think that this life is too important. What if, maybe, we’ve been going about this all wrong?

Listen to Christians. Listen to them define what it means to follow God. Listen to their definitions of salvation. Listen and see if you can find meaning behind “getting saved.” Because I can’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Christians. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for them. But what if they’re wrong?

I am taking a (required) evangelism class at the conservative Christian university I attend. The theme and attitudes of the class are staggeringly disappointing; it fails to go beyond the “notches-on-the-belt” ideas of Christianity. It might as well be titled “How to Beat People Up with the Bible.” Yet, the even sadder truth: these ideas come from the wellspring of traditional Christian thought and are among the most prevalent ideas in modern Christian culture.

This is not just bothersome to me—it goes beyond that. It is detrimental to the very foundation that Jesus laid down.

I’ve heard it said that, when Adam and Eve first took a bite of the fruit in the Garden of Eden, it wasn’t that they were gaining knowledge of good and evil. In contrast, they already had such knowledge; good and evil merely represented God’s ideal (which they understood) and anything that separated them from that Godly ideal (which they also understood). When they ate the fruit, what happened was an actual clouding of reason: they began to take it upon themselves to judge between good and evil. The Original Sin was not one of knowledge-gaining. Rather, it was the beginning of an infection that subjected humans into a constant battle of judging the things around them based on their own intuitions and fears.

So what is sin? Sin can be defined as any kind of personal judgment—when we make a judgment on how “good” or “bad” someone is. It goes beyond that, however. For Christians, not only do we choose (and often enjoy) making judgments on how good or bad a person is, but we take it many steps further by thinking that we have God on our side. So not only do we classify people as good or bad, we classify them as “Christian” or “nonChristian, lost, unsaved, ungodly, etc.” And we back it up with Bible verses that often don’t have any application to this idea of human judgment.

Isn’t it possible that we are never meant to judge whether or not someone is “saved?” Because when we start believing that we can judge when someone is “Christian” or not, then we inevitably try to draw some line. We inevitably try to create some classification. We try to create categories: “This person is saved, that person isn’t.” Or “you can do this to be saved, but you can’t do that.” And once this happens, it’s Christians who are the most sinful of all.

When we try to draw a line of salvation, when we try to classify people as “saved” or not, two terrible things happen (and I’m not overstating it when I use the word “terrible,” in fact, I’m understating how negative this action is.)

First, we play God. The Bible is very clear that He is the ultimate judge, not us. But, beyond being this “Judge,” he is the ultimate Love. He loves people so much that only He has the grace that would cover people we’d never think of extending grace to. For all we know, he could end up extending grace to everyone (after all, he loves people more than anyone could.) So who are we to decide? Why do Christians think that we have cornered the market on discerning whether or not God is extending ultimate grace and compassion over His creation?—especially since He always surprises us by extending compassion over people that don’t meet our human requirements.

Secondly, drawing this line of salvation creates complacency. Once people have crossed this made-up line, Christians tend to be hands-off. Making disciples turns into signing people up for reservations to heaven. What if it’s about so much more than just escaping hell? What if Jesus wants to make people whole now—a wholeness that goes beyond just praying a prayer and agreeing on a list of Christian truths? What if Jesus wants to rid people of this infection of judgment? It is easy to say that belief in Jesus equals a life changed. But what if the life doesn’t look any different?

If someone “prays the sinner’s prayer” and then continues living a life infected with judgment, how do they make the cut? Does this person cross that imaginary line of salvation that so many Christians want to draw?

And what about a person who genuinely loves and lives free of judgment, and yet hasn’t gotten “saved” by Christian standards? What if this person looks more like Jesus than most of His followers? Does this individual not make the cut?

If all love comes from God, then isn’t a person who lives a life of selfless love a Godly person, even if they don’t recognize who the love comes from?

Maybe it’s time Christians stop trying to categorize people. Maybe it’s time we allow ourselves to be rid of the infection of judgment. Maybe we can start accepting all people as beautiful images of their Creator. Maybe then we can stop doing more harm than good.

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I was right. Well, in seventh grade I was right. In seventh grade, 12-year old Austin predicted that 20-year old Austin would be doing exactly what I am doing now. The crazy thing, though, is that my life in January of last year looked nothing like my life currently does.

At the beginning of January, 2008, I spent the majority of my time rooting on the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs. I was in a committed relationship with a girl who, at the time, I thought I was going to marry. I was a full time student at the University of Washington. I was taking classes for a Political Science degree. My heart had no room for God, and I was fine with that.

In seventh grade, though, I never anticipated that I’d be doing any of that. Well, I kind of liked watching football. I had maybe hoped to have a girlfriend by the time I was 19. I had paid some attention to politics, enough to know that I hated Bill Clinton and Al Gore. But my picture of life at 19 included none of these things. In seventh grade, I had a singular focus: I wanted to be a youth pastor.

My goals did not extend much beyond that image. For whatever reason, I felt that God’s plans for my life were crystal clear and had total confidence that I would never deviate from those plans. Funny how things change.

In between the ages of 12 and 19, a lot of things interfered. My family moved from Bible-Belt Oklahoma to Seattle, the land of the pagans. I began getting very interested in hyperconservative politics and met a girl who changed everything. I decided to stay in Washington to pursue a life that seemed safe, comfortable, and largely inconsistent with any ideas I had in seventh grade.

And then, at the end of January last year, things changed. My life was turned upside down, or downside up, or whatever. I was invited to help out, begrudgingly, on a Winter Retreat for a youth group that I graduated from two years earlier.

I had no desire to go. I didn’t know the youth pastor; I didn’t know any of the kids. I would miss a weekend hanging out with my girlfriend. I would be stuck in the mountains with no cell phone reception. It sounded like a hellish weekend.

The bus ride to the camp was awkward. All of the high school leaders were on a different van, leaving me the sole high school leader on a bus full of teenagers I didn’t know. Then, as I relieved my boredom by playing games on my phone, a group of kids sitting near me introduced themselves. Rachel, Patty, Elisa, and Sarah decided that they were not going to allow me to be silent.

In that moment of introduction, the tide began to shift. Some of the discomfort I felt began to fade and some of my irritation began to dissipate. When we arrived at the camp, I started spending time with the youth pastor, Nick, who quickly went from being a weird but personable guy to being my weird and personable friend. And he asked me to be a full time leader, not a one-time counselor/chaperone. I declined.

By the end of the weekend, though, I knew that I was coming back. I had too much fun with the students. I got to know Nick too well. The hard shell that surrounded me had been cracked.

As Nick and I began hanging out more and more, we started having serious conversations about God and life. As I came to youth group, I began taking more of a participatory role. The more time I spent with the students, the more I loved being with them. The more I allowed God to change my life, the more I realized that there was no going back.

And seventh grade Austin resurfaced, this time to simply say, “I told ya so.”

A year later, I am no longer going to the University of Washington. I am now attending classes at a Christian college. I am no longer pursuing a degree in political science; rather, I am taking Bible classes and pursuing a degree in religion. I am no longer in a committed relationship—spending every weekend with the students was costly. Loving God is no longer a figment of my past that I simply paid lip service to. My relationship with God is at the forefront of all that I do.

That’s not to say everything has changed. I still root for the Cowboys (even if they miss the playoffs.) I still enjoy a minor interest in politics, albeit from a drastically different point of view. And I think that most people would agree that I’m not the best youth leader.

But, a year later, I have purpose. I have meaning. I’m not just “sucking air on this planet,” as Nick likes to say. Just like everyone else, I’m still a little messed up. And, to be totally honest, I don’t know that I want to go into youth ministry.

But the trajectory of my life as gone from being one that was entirely self-serving to being one that can be summed up by a simple phrase: I want my life to matter.

“If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.” 1 John 4.20-21 (The Message)

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