When All You Want Is a Sandwich

Yesterday was one of those days that we all dread: the day where the schedule is so packed lunch becomes a faint, dying glimmer of hope. I managed to scarf down a peanut-butter sandwich before my voice lessons started, but it was a close thing. Warm-ups get a lot harder when you’ve got peanut butter residue all in your mouth.

Lent starts tomorrow. Did you remember? Originally, it was a time for those preparing for their Easter baptism to fast, pray, and prepare themselves for the majestic, terrifying, glorious, difficult journey of following Jesus for the rest of their lives. We tend to do baptisms year-round now whenever anyone makes that incredible decision, and so Lent has become a general period of fasting, prayer, and preparation for the Easter celebration.

Fasting happens quite a lot in the Bible – and why not, it’s a religious practice that goes back millennia. In particular, I think about Jesus. In the accounts of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, after a period of fasting, his first temptation is always turning stones to bread. The temptation is a nuanced one encompassing satisfying oneself selfishly, abuse of power, relying on the self instead of trusting God. Jesus realizes the nuance and responds to the temptation like so, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus cuts right to the heart of the temptation by reciting a passage that directly states that there is more to life than worrying about what we will eat or drink, and that we should “seek first the kingdom” and then “all these things will be given.”

Thinking further along in Lent, though, is the remembering of Jesus’ last Passover meal and Passion that follows. There, Jesus institutes a new meaning to the Passover symbols. He hands his friends and followers bread, and wine, and says that they are his body and blood that are broken and spilled out on behalf of the world he loves. There is something profound about such simple, common foods being used. Jesus didn’t use the bitter herbs, or the charoset. He didn’t use a mixture of spices or a complicated recipe. He used baked grains that are served at nearly every meal across the world and said, “Remember me.”

I am no longer completely confident I understand Jesus’ phrasing in choosing, “This is my body.” I have attended Mass and felt the Spirit move at the moment of consecration. I have also felt the Spirit move while dipping bread into a cup with fellow students. I have felt the Spirit present in the quiet or celebratory sharing of a piece of Matzah and a thimble of grape juice. I have shared this moment with people from all over America, and across the world. I say all that to make this point: every meal we share with those who believe, be they family or friends or new acquaintances, can become a celebration of Jesus, his life, resurrection, and Kingdom.

So as we prepare, some fasting, some not, stop and reflect when your stomach grumbles. We do need food, but we also need God’s life and His breath to sustain us. We need His Church, our fellow disciples, as we follow our King together. We need daily what God provides through His Word.

Whether you break your fast with toast and jam, or a magnificent smorgasbord, take a moment and pray. Be thankful, be joyful, be solemn, be reverent. Wherever you happen to be in life, give your worship and thanks… even over a peanut butter sandwich.

Sex Martyr

Everyone has a period of history that bothers them. At one point, mine was early 20th century American history, the period before and just after WWI. Thanks to Dan Carlin and the Hardcore History podcast, I now have a better appreciation for that period of history. (His Blueprint for Armageddon 5 part series on World War One is a masterwork of historical storytelling and commentary.) Once that hill was climbed, American history in general seemed dull and bothersome. Once again, a podcast saved the day: the My History Can Beat Up Your Politics podcast with Bruce Carlson helped me gain a better understanding and interest in the particulars of American history.

But there is one period that still irritates me because its effects linger on in today’s cultural milieu. (“Milieu” is such a fun word… I never get to use it in Children’s Ministry, so you all get to enjoy fun words with me.) This irritating period is the 4th and 5th Century in regards to Christianity and its relationship with marital relations.

Note: the following is a broad oversimplification of much more complex cultural and societal questions considered from a modern perspective with the hindsight of give-or-take 1500 years. (And also coming from someone who tries to recognize the limits of his own perspective when it comes to complex issues.)

Consider that, for the most part, the Jewish culture had a fairly positive view of sex as part of a healthy life and the creation of subsequent generations to carry on the name of God and His praises. There was a sense of obligation, joy, and worship in the making and sustaining of a family, which models God’s own choosing and sustaining of the Jewish family. (I find it amazing and a testament of God’s faithfulness that the Jewish people continue to thrive despite the hardship they have faced.) Genesis is very frank about sexuality and what constitutes a right, faithful sexual relationship. (See previous post.) Sex in the Torah seems to connect the ideas of procreation and faithfulness with marital relations, and sex outside of that system leads to long-and-short-term conflict. (See Abraham, Sarah, Hagar; Lot and his daughters; Jacob and his wives; Abraham and Issac lying about their marriages to foreigners; just to name a few.) On a complementary note is the Song of Solomon which, on its face, seems to be a celebration of the pleasures of sex as enjoyed by two impassioned lovers. (Or at least the enjoyment of the anticipation, since upon closer inspection the lovers never get closer than being on either side of a door.) So, we see multiple aspects of sex illustrated throughout the Hebrew Bible: procreation, faithfulness, and pleasure.

With the entrance of Christianity things got more complicated (than they already were.) Around the 4th and 5th centuries, though developing earlier, the church began to separate sharply from its Jewish roots, tending to lean more often on Greek philosophy and modes of thinking to interpret the Bible, Gospel accounts, and letters written to churches. (Despite, however, the overwhelming Jewish nature of both the authors and their intent to further the Jewish story by pointing to its ultimate end with the incarnation and return of the Messiah to put all things right.) This entering of Greek thought also lead to the entertaining of Gnostic ideas, such as the utter separation of spirit and physical matter. Simply put, the spiritual was good, and the physical was bad. (This despite the Creation account in Genesis having God call his creation good, and the subsequent outpouring of God’spirit on that physical matter and even more important sending of Jesus as fully God and man, a unity of spirit and matter on a scale we still can’t quite grasp entirely.) Suddenly, amidst persecutions and the rise of Gnosticism, the church found itself sorting out complex theology concerning Jesus, the Spirit, and how these concepts applied to the life of the church and its sacraments.

Following the gradual dying out of the official fire of persecution, the church found itself in an odd place. This place was a church that had survived persecution, but now had a bevvy of new recruits that were clamoring to enter because of the change in status of the church, not only of the recognition of, but alongside official imperial support of, the church. No longer did the church have martyrdom, dying for the faith or persevering through intense persecution, as the pinnacle of holiness for its members to strive towards so it sought a new form of martyrdom. Based on the idea that physical pleasure is, at best, a temptation and enslavement to it something to be avoided, or, at worst, simply evil, asceticism became the new standard. Asceticism is any intentional lifestyle designed around self-discipline which can include abstinence from luxury, self-deprivation, isolation, or other practices intended to bring about a spiritual holiness via purification of the body. Some of the early ascetics were the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) who left the cities in search of isolation where they would spend their days in fasting, prayer, and meditation on the scriptures, battling the spiritual evils. Following this, a more organized effort was launched in order to create intentional communities of fellow ascetics who all sought to aid one another in their spiritual disciplines by holding one another accountable.

Some of those writing around this time found that voluntary celibacy aided one in maintaining spiritual purity. Young men and women were encouraged in these writings to abstain from any sexual activity, and in marriage, sex was only to be used as a method of procreation… and even then enjoyment was out of the question. One thing to consider is that many of those authors whose writings we have from this period espousing this view were themselves voluntarily celibate, and were writing from that viewpoint. While I can get behind the idea of celibacy as a choice for some, who for their own reasons don’t desire a sexual relationship or are dedicated enough to make that decision, I find more problems with celibacy being required in order to have a sense of “holiness.”

This idea seemed to persist in different forms through the centuries where it still seems to have a place in mainstream Christian thought, if not in practice. In some ways we have swung perhaps a bit too far the other direction, which shows up in the pestering of singles to get married instead of enjoying that period of their life as one of adventure and discovery. However, I still hear stories of women terrified of marriage because of the sex involved, the stories they have heard. I still hear talk of sex being “dirty” and “not a topic to discuss in church.” If the church won’t talk about sex, how can we expect people to have a healthy attitude toward it?

Today, secular society seems to be in the thrall of three gods: Mammon, Mars, and Venus. Money, Violence, and Lust rule the roost. CS Lewis, in a lecture series that turned into The Four Loves says that Eros, erotic love, is a fickle, angry god, but can also be taken too lightly and made into a vulgar joke. Sex, in and of itself, is good because God made it. A healthy attitude toward sex includes an understanding of its goodness, of its symbolism as an act of ultimate faithfulness, of its place as a sign of joyful love, and of its place as the method of human procreation. Things that are necessary for survival can be enjoyable. A cool glass of water is both needed, and pleasurable after working in the sun. A delicious meal is pleasurable even though it is necessary. The act of reconciliation, while challenging and painful, can also lead to the joy of a renewed relationship. And, sex, while necessary for the continuation of our species, is, when done right, enjoyable.

To be fair, I can sense these thought patterns in myself. The word “pleasure” contains for me an almost lustful sensuousness about it that makes me wary of typing or saying it. Is that true, though: pleasure as something deemed concerning or controversial? I should probably stop and sum up my thought before I end up on another several thousand word philosophical tear about the rightness or wrongness of pleasure.

TL;DR Version:

The church has a history of downplaying sex in particular, and pleasure in general, tending to view it not as something good to be enjoyed in proper context of covenant faithfulness, but as a tool for procreation to be used in the proper context of covenant faithfulness. I have come to the understanding that this belief has its roots in secular Greek thought rather than Jewish thought, (or even Pauline, though even making that any distinction with Paul and Jewish thought is a false dichotomy) though I am open to rebuttal.

How do your discussions of sex sound? Do they reflect a healthy, God-reflecting view of sex? What has your experience of church discussion surrounding sex been? What are your personal views of sex and its place in in the life of a Christ follower?

When Your Ass Won’t Cooperate (Numbers 22)

Working in a church means you have two times a year when you get to use a “naughty” word: preaching on Balaam and his ass (donkey) and at Christmas when at least two songs talk about asses being at the manger. Of course, I am a children’s minister, and so I have to chuckle a little inside as my inner 5-year-old finds this hysterical.

I read this passage a week or so ago and was reminded of the absolute absurdity of the whole ordeal. Balaam is hired out by a king named Balak to do some cursing of his own – against the Israelites, no less. He consults God and receives a stern rebuke not to go with the king’s men and after a couple more asks (and a substantial raise) Balaam agrees to go with the men. God, however, does the thing my parents used to do when they were sick of me asking about doing something, replying, “Fine… Just do it…” Implied in that statement is the dire warning of a parent who foresees danger, but is willing to let a child learn a harsh lesson.

So Balaam is riding down the road and three times his ass refuses to cooperate, veering off the road, crushing his leg against a wall, and finally stopping. Balaam absolutely beat that donkey senseless, which ironically cued God to allow the donkey enough sense to talk and ask, “Why are you beating me? Do I normally do this kind of thing?” Balaam responds curtly, but his outlook changes, literally, when God reveals the heavenly guardian with the gigantic sword barring Balaam’s path. The guardian then reminds Balaam to say nothing except what God would give him to say. The sword reminding us that God will protect His people.

So, isn’t the donkey the good guy in this story? Well, yes, but I’m talking about another ass. See, Francis of Assisi coined a lovely phrase when he referred to his own body as “brother ass.” In a sense, he understood that there were two dueling natures in us, the natural and supernatural, the sinful and the godly. St. Francis saw something of what Paul was getting at when Paul described beating his body into submission as if training for the Olympics – self-discipline would lead to a more godly life.

I learned recently that the male body is an odd thing. For around 3-6 weeks after receiving the announcement, “I’m pregnant,” from his partner, a man’s body begins to flood his system with the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is the “stress” hormone that triggers a human’s “fight-or-flight” response. So at the same moment a man is feeling pride, excitement, and joyful expectation, the man’s body reacts by screaming “Get out of there or punch something!”

And honestly, this is the Christian life. Jesus is continually calling and leading us closer to God, into becoming more like Christ,and therefore more like ourselves. At that same time, our sinful nature is screaming, “Get out or attack someone!” And all at once we realize that we have become the proud owner of an uncooperative ass.

And so, like Paul, St. Francis, and many others, we begin to apply discipline to our lives to bring brother ass into line with God’s new life and our baptismal vows. We work out our faith with fear and trembling, mostly because trying to move an uncooperative animal takes a lot of coaxing, pushing, muscle, and exertion. (Ever tried to lift something too heavy and find yourself shaking like a destabilized washing machine?)

So if you find yourself confused about how difficult following Jesus is, find comfort in the fact that everyone else is thinking the same thing. We are all on the same road, with similar struggles, trying to find the best way and disciplines in order to bring ourselves into alignment with God and His way of living. And Jesus sympathizes with that. Remember, he lived among us for a while,  (and technically still does) and watched friends make fools of themselves, felt betrayal, watched as people stumbled and picked themselves back up again. God is rooting for us. He’s not like a spectator at a hockey match or a NASCAR event, hoping for a disaster. He’s a father, watching his child perform a balancing act, tensely hoping that she will make it all the way across this time without falling. And if she does, running over and picking her up.

How do you handle self-discipline in your own life? How do you model bringing yourself under Christ’s way of living? What habits are you developing in your children that will allow them to better evaluate and correct their lives?

 

Christian Romance

If you’re picturing some sappy novels following a “they meet, they fall in love, conflict arises, they surmount the conflict, happily ever after” plot, I apologize for that. Truly, if we could find a better way to express our natural inclination toward the romance, we may be in a better place today.

You have probably heard this in a million sermons and cheesy quotes, but “romance” used to be a story term used for adventure tales. I like this. It makes the idea of wooing a lady, or a fella, sound much more exciting than flowers, chocolates, some long conversations, moonlit walks, and a sappy proposal which ends not in wedded bliss, but a profound contentment. (Not that there’s nothing wrong with that.)

So, here’s my romance story:

I was stalked by my wife. Not in a “hunted in the jungle wearing camo and war paint” way, but in an “ooo, that one’s cute, I’m going to watch him,” kind of way. My first memory of seeing my wife is her confused, and slightly panicked face at having botched a red hair dye attempt and ending up with bubblegum pink hair. She and a friend were driving rapidly off campus to find a way to solve the problem. It wasn’t until later that I found out that there had been some looking through incoming freshmen pictures in her dorm for any newcomers that struck their fancy. Apparently my goofy, awkward face won my wife over and she began to look for me on campus.

Our first meeting involved her getting shoved right into my face by my friend, December, who might’ve been cupid but for the wings. (She was small, personable, and a bit on the goth side, so maybe cupid in a Victorian dress? I don’t know.) Anyway, we awkwardly greeted one another, my wife insisting that I played it cool the entire time. (Good for me!) And between December and the contrivance of our shared voice instructor, we began to spend a good amount of time together. She tried to scare me off. I’m not a fan of violent media, and without knowing she managed to be watching things along the lines of “Silence of the Lambs” whenever I came to visit. Somewhere in there was a four-hour long Dairy Queen visit where we lost track of time, obviously.

Later, her father and brother conspired to test my mettle by inviting me to join in a small patriotic concert. So I learned the choral music on my own and, with very little rehearsal, I showed up on the day of the first performance to the greeting of, “By the way, you’ll be swing dancing with Kristie.” (Remember, no rehearsal, no preparation, just, “Go!”) So we danced, I sang… Oh, it wasn’t a particularly small concert either in a 5,000 seat auditorium with a 200 person choir. (Ok, neither were quite that large, but to me, I might as well have been singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and ballroom dancing at the Superbowl.) Her father and I discussed my dating her over corn shucking before church that Sunday morning, and I was able to hold her hand for the first time on the way to church that morning.

Time passed and we became engaged, a long story for another day. We were married and have been living a dream since. And, in a way, I mean that. It has been a dream, a short, fleeting dream punctuated by moments of great joy, and deep sadness. We’ve had trouble, some arguments, but we’ve also laughed until breathless and sat in silence listening to our breaths.

Romance is an adventure. The adventure isn’t getting the girl or guy, it’s what you do after “I do.” The romance continues because the story doesn’t end. Each person is writing their portion of a shared story, which is in turn having a large part written by God.

It’s Valentine’s Day. Go make a story. Try something new. Succeed. Fail. Laugh. Cry. No matter what it is, cherish the moments made together. Don’t get to the end of life and say the words, “I wish we had…”

May God bless your Romance, whatever it looks like. May your story go on, and may it have more ups than downs.

Shouting at God

Prayer has been coming up a lot lately. I’ve seen a fair amount of people recently who have told me how they have been shouting at the Lord of Hosts. It would seem counter-productive to walk into a throne room and begin railing against the King on His throne… and here on earth, the response would be quick, relentless retribution for such insubordination.

Despite this, we see examples of harsh conversations between God and His servants. Abraham bargained for the lives of Sodom and Gomorrah, using God’s own justice as the basis for his argument. Moses confronted God, using God’s own faithfulness as the basis for not scrapping the Israelites and continuing the covenant through Moses. David and the other psalmists wrote poems which sound almost like scathing indictments of God’s lack of action, one in particular ending on a profoundly distressing note. (Psalm 88)

In many of these cases, there is a sense of protest that is often found in poetry and music written by the oppressed and marginalized. And, truly, if any people have felt the sting of those titles, the Jews have. So often we see ourselves as less than worthy to approach the throne, let alone to make any kind of protest, formal or otherwise. We forget that God has called us His children. As children, we have a right, no, a responsibility to bring our complaints and protests to our Father, our God and King. He would much rather hear the complaints from our own mouths than have us carry around a sullen silence. Now, does that mean that our complaint will be addressed immediately or in the way we want? No. But it does mean that our complaint has been heard. It does mean that the One who is capable of far more than we could ask or imagine is listening and will answer. (Remember, even Job received a response from God… It wasn’t what he wanted, but Job got the audience he requested.)

We’ve heard recently about the official dissent channels in American government that give employees in certain departments the ability to have disagreements with the administration while still protecting their status. We have that same ability. Prayers, questions, complaints, and general frustration, and even doubt will not change God’s view of us as His precious creations.

Prayer is a many faceted aspect of our relationship with God. We should take advantage of our direct connection to Him. The Bible is full of stories where this direct connection was rewarded with an answer. Again, the answer may not be what was wanted or when it was wanted, but the answer came in good time.

Is there something you have been holding onto in sullen silence? Is there something frustrating you or giving you grief? Take it to the throne? Walk in with confidence that your Heavenly Father will listen, understand, and will answer. But always be ready for an unexpected answer.

How does your prayer life model a good relationship with God for your kids? Do your kids see you pray? When? How do your prayers illustrate how we should pray?

Photo Credit: Shouting | by simiant via Flickr