Monday, 30 December 2013

Theology of Sex

I spoke about abortion and the unborn in recent posts so I thought I should probably be clear on my theology of sex just to give it all a context.  

            When people found out that I was in seminary a common topic they would bring up for discussion was Dan Brown’s novel “The DaVinci Code”. They would look at me with scandal in their eyes and ask me about what I thought of Jesus being married.

            One of the contradictions in the book was that it was somewhat based around a 12th century Gnostic group in France sometimes called the Cathars. Gnosticism was a Heresy that has been with us for a long time. One of the main points of Gnosticism is that they deny the goodness of creation. In Gnosticism an evil god created the world, and it was a better and more pure God that came to rescue us from this evil physical material world. The Gnostics believed that the body was a kind of prison for the soul and that the true Gnostic found a way to free the soul from its slavery in the body. The most devout Gnostics were celibate and wouldn’t have children because they believed that having children was causing more souls to be enslaved in bodies. Having children was actually a bad thing to do.

            There’s the contradiction. In Gnosticism, they probably wouldn’t like the idea of Jesus having a physical body, let alone producing children. It’s a contradiction in the DaVinci Code that Jesus would have had children with Mary Magdalene who would have gone on to become the royalty of Europe.

            The funny thing is that Gnostics have a problem with a married and reproducing Jesus. We don’t have to have a problem with that possibility. In Christianity there is no sin in being married, or in being single. Our problem with the idea of a married Jesus is that the scriptures don’t say he was married. We wouldn’t have a problem with it at all. A married Jesus is not a less holy Jesus. However, according to scripture Jesus was celibate. It is the Gnostics who have a problem with a married and sexually active Jesus, not Christians.

            I sometimes think that it was an incredible act of mercy that Jesus chose not to marry. Can you imagine Jesus being married with a wife and children and then going to the cross? There are some vocations that require us to be celibate. There are other callings that require us to be Married. 

     It might be helpful to differentiate two uses of the word "chastity". The word sometimes describes a virtue, and at other times a spiritual discipline. As a virtue "chastity" is character trait a person has when they routinely, consistently, and without much effort, keep sexuality in its proper place in their life. As a spiritual discipline, chastity is when someone abstains from sexual expression so that it doesn't become an addiction or an idol in our lives. Ideally, the 'discipline' will help lead us to the attainment of the 'virtue'. The discipline places our lives in a position where we are able to receive God's grace, which in this case is the virtue of chastity. Chastity as a virtue is freedom and a proper functioning sexuality.  

    Here's how one book puts it, “Chastity is the virtue by which a person integrates his or her sexuality into his or her own Christian life” (Lawler, Boyle, May- Catholic Sexual Ethics). That means it is a discipline for both single and married people. It's how we integrate our sexuality into who God has called us to be and what he has called us to do. 

            In C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters the demon Screwtape is advising a lesser demon, Wormwood, on the art of leading a human soul astray. At one point, on the topic of prayer, Screwtape advises, “At the very least, [humans] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls” (p16). It is a point that is worth thinking about because if we don't take that seriously we will begin to slide towards Gnosticism (the false belief that God didn't make the material universe and that our goal is to escape the material world). We have bodies and we live in a material world. It is a fallen world in many ways, but it is still the world created and called "good" by God. Our bodies are good. Our sexuality, our femaleness and our maleness, is good. Our desires are good and sexual pleasure is good and created by God. When we place these desires and pleasures in proper context in our lives then they play an important role in our perfection and the establishment of the kingdom of God. Screwtape bemoans the fact that demons have not found a way to produce a pleasure. The craft of the demons is to twist the good pleasures and place them out of context and towards false goals. It is God who is the true creator of pleasure. Our sexual desires and pleasures are good, but since we live in a broken world we often find our desires to be broken. We hardly need examples of how our sexuality is fallen.
    
       
            In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are first commanded to go and reproduce. Sexuality was a part of the God’s plan before the fall. Think about that, the first command of God to the first human couple is to reproduce.

            But when they fell they began to feel shame about their nakedness. They hid from God and they hid their nakedness from each other. They felt shame and they felt the need to protect themselves from each other. They were no longer free to be intimate with God, but they also damaged their intimacy with each other. They were no longer free to know each other as fully as they wanted to because they were afraid. They felt shame.               
           
            We all desire intimacy. We desire to be fully known. We want to have every deep dark corner in our souls exposed to another person, but we are afraid that if that other person really knows us fully, then they might not love us, so we hold back. We feel shame. We hide our nakedness behind the fig leaves that we sow together.

            This issue with intimacy along with a bunch of other stuff gets mixed up with our view of sexuality and it gets twisted.  I think it’s pretty safe to say that we, as a culture, have issues with intimacy and sexuality. In our desire for intimacy, sex can seem like a shortcut to intimacy. But, really that ends up being a false and temporary intimacy unless it is placed in a strong relationship like marriage. Promiscuous sexual expression can never fulfill our desire for intimacy. It gives the illusion of intimacy, but it doesn't last. 

            Thinking about our sexual desires, C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity asks us to imagine a culture where people gather around a covered dish. The cover is slowly lifted while people hoot and holler. The cover is finally lifted to reveal a porkchop.  Now we might suspect that these people are starving, but when we look into their culture to see if they are a starving people we find that in fact they are not starving and are actually eating quite well. We would suspect that something has gone wrong in their desire for food.

            Now we imagine that instead of a porkchop, say we have under the cover, a naked woman. It is an image of strip clubs and the pornography industry. Mix these influences with all the sexual images we are fed everyday through the media and through advertizing- is this evidence that we are sexually starved, or that something has gone wrong in our sexual desire? I would imagine that it is plain that something has gone wrong with our desire.

            To strengthen his argument, Lewis points out that if a young man were to obey all his sexual urgings in a pre-contraceptive culture, he might well populate a small town quite quickly. Isn't this evidence that our sexual desires have become twisted in some way? Our desire is our of line. We are in danger of becoming slaves of our desires under the illusion of freedom.    
            
The result of this twisting is that we can end up treating each other as objects for our own personal sexual gratification. We forget that we are persons to be respected and valued, not to be used and abused for our own selfish use.

            What I have found most helpful in terms of the discipline of chastity is to get my head around God’s vision of sex, as expressed in the Bible. This is a huge topic but I want to just hit the main points. Before I get into this, I want to apologize to those who have been called to life-long celibacy. Yours is a valuable and important calling, but this is a bit more geared towards those dating and married. I hope it will still be of benefit though.

    (We do need to remind the Protestant church that celibacy is a valid lifestyle. Jesus himself lived a celibate life, as did many saints throughout the church's history. It is a counter-cultural calling in our overly-sexualized culture, and is a strong witness against slavery to our desires in a culture that sees celibacy as unhealthy or impossible.)    

            First of all, the assumption of the Bible and Christian Tradition is that the context for sex (intercourse) is marriage. This isn’t about God trying to ruin anyone’s fun, it’s about where sex belongs and what it was made for. It is about where sex is of most benefit to our transformation into the image of Christ and is of benefit to the further development of the Kingdom of God. There are generally four Biblical visions of sex within a committed relationship like marriage. 
1) Sex is a unifying force. 
2) Sex is sacramental or symbolic.
3) Sex can lead to new life through procreation.
4) Sex in the context of marriage provides a proper and safe outlet for our sexual desires so that it doesn't become destructive.



1) Sex is a unifying force.        
Jesus quotes Genesis In Matthew 19-
21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.  22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.  23 Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken."  24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.  25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:21-25)

            One of the truths about sexuality is that it unites people. It draws them together as few things can. It unites them physically, but also emotionally as it is a very intense and pleasurable act. The biological chemicals released in the act leads to something called 'bonding' which has a relationship solidifying function.
            Just as the act of sex can lead to greater intimacy, it can also be an expression of the unity and intimacy that already exists between the couple. They are two sides to the same coin. One feeds into the other, which ideally leads to greater and greater intimacy. 


                       
2) Sex is sacramental or symbolic.
           Sex is meaningful (rather than meaningless). Even a handshake means something, and sex means something more than a handshake. It points to something beyond the physical act. It points to a relationship and ultimately and mysteriously it points to God. 
          One way to understand a sacrament is that it is a sort of symbol that points to God.  Paul talks about how marriage points to God in Ephesians 5 where he says:
   25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, ...   28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church,  30 because we are members of his body.” (Ephesians 5:25-30)

         One distraction in this text is that we can get really hung up on the gender roles. Instead, try to see through that distraction to the deeper truth. A wife and a husband are to love each other the way that Christ and the Church love each other. Think for a moment about what it means to be loved by Jesus. Imagine the church at its best. Envision the Church’s service and worship done all over the world because of the love for Jesus.

           All over the Bible we hear God speak about his relationship with His people as if it is a married relationship. When they turn their backs on God they are a adulterous spouse. They are cheating on God. The best vision is in the Song of Songs- a poem that the church has viewed as the passionate love of God for God’s people.

           In a mysterious way sex and marriage symbolize God and God’s love for His people. A long-lasting marriage shows us something about God’s commitment to us and how God desires to be intimate with us.           



3) Sex can lead to new life through procreation.
            The first commandment for the human beings in Genesis chapter 1 is to be fruitful and multiply- to procreate.
            27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28 God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it”. (Genesis 1:27-28)
            Sex and marriage until very recently has been connected with the possibility of children. I’m not saying this has to be the case for every act of sex or every marriage even, but it is important for us to recognize that this is important. Sex involves all the stuff that is needed in the creation of human life.
            It is only because of recent contraception technologies that we can even question this. And we would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t take procreation into account when we thought about God’s vision of sex.



4) Sex in the context of marriage provides a proper and safe outlet for our sexual desires so that it doesn't become destructive.
            This is a bit of a negative purpose for sexuality in marriage in that it actually prevents something bad from happening rather than promoting something good (like strengthening a relationship). 
     A reality of having a physical body is that we have biological desires to express ourselves physically with another person. Married sexuality provides a safe outlet for that very real physical desire to be expressed.
            Sex is a powerful force and it can be destructive if not placed in its proper context. Think about electricity in a lightning bolt vs. the electricity that allows your TV to work. Similarly, Sex is a powerful force that needs to be in its proper context if it is not going to cause damage.      
            Paul says something about this in 1 Corinthians 7.  He says that because people were letting their desires go wild in Corinth,
“each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. 5Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” 
            The point is that sexual expression is a part of marriage, and is the proper context for sexual release. Paul is saying that our instincts and desires matter.  Our sexual instincts and desires are good and given to us by God, but they do their best work when they are expressed in the context for which they were made.



Marriage as Spiritual Practice
            Marriage can be seen as a spiritual practice. In this relationship we are called to grow closer to God and to become the kind of people God wants us to be.

When we live as married people we are learning to give of ourselves in selfless love- putting our partner’s interests before our own. We learn to be happy even though we don’t always get our own way.  We can learn self-control. We learn to be patient when they annoy us. We learn to forgive and be forgiven when we hurt our partner, or are hurt by our partner. We learn to compromise. Marriage teaches fortitude- the ability to be strong and stable. In marriage the couple challenges each other to become better people. Marriage teaches us to be drawn into deeper and deeper intimacy- even though it’s not always easy. But, all this doesn’t mean that marriage is always serious work. Marriage is a cure to profound human loneliness and need for intimacy (to know and be known). Marriage is also a gift to us and it is a source of an amazing amount of joy and in that way it is a little taste of heaven. Research has shown that those who are married are usually happier, wealthier, healthier, and have children who adjust better in society (Waite and Gallagher, 2001).    

Hopefully this helps us to understand what the church means when it says that sex is meant for marriage.  Among many other things, marriage gives a safe home for our sometimes wild desires and turns them into something good.  Through marriage our sexuality is linked to the greater story of what God is doing in the world and this takes away our need to feel ashamed of sex.  If a child is to be conceived from sex, the context of marriage provides a social context that is an ideal framework for a baby baby. (Just because a married relationship is unhealthy it doesn't follow that the framework of marriage doesn't work. Math done badly doesn't mean we should give up on math.)  Sex is also a very concrete expression of the deep joining of two people that happens in marriage, it wouldn't make sense for one to happen without the other.

Chastity, is the practice of keeping our sexuality in the context it was designed for, which spiritually trains us. Chastity is not an end unto itself, rather, it is a practice that helps us draw closer to God as we live a life that is more in tune with who God created us to be. Chastity puts sexuality into perspective. It helps us keep our priorities straight. And so, Chastity is a practice for both single and married Christians.

Chastity trains us in love. Chastity teaches us that there is more to human relationships than sex. Chastity teaches us that intimacy is different than sex. Chastity teaches us to not objectify people. Chastity teaches us to live in freedom, rather than being enslaved by our sexual desires. Chastity teaches us that there are more important things than sex. Chastity trains us to place eros (passionate sexual love) in the broader context of agape (unconditional and sacrificial Godly love).

Chastity, especially in the context of a marriage (a high-commitment covenant relationship) trains us to love even when we don’t feel like it. Love is beyond our own grumpiness, or our state of digestion. While the romantic feeling of love is important, that is not all love is. Love is also an action and a commitment. Chastity teaches us to become less-selfish and more generous and self-controlled as we are also living for our spouse and possibly children. We also learn to be more courageous because we understand that others rely on us. We are trained to become more humble in taking others’ opinions into account, rather than getting our own way all the time. We learn to become more patient because we live with someone who is different than us who will inevitably do things that annoy us. Marriage teaches us how to forgive. Marriage teaches us about God’s unconditional love for us. All these are ways that a healthy relationship can train us as spiritual beings.

          Through marriage our sexuality is linked to the greater story of what God is doing in the world. Through our training in chastity and by the grace of God, our character and our love spills over into our communities and becomes a transformative force in our world.


          Though the discipline of chastity is difficult. The end result, through God’s grace, is the virtue of Chastity. This means that chastity becomes a part of who we are. That means it will stop being a struggle and we will have peace and tranquility in our lives as we become more who God created us to be. 

The sensitive topic of abortion

Okay, so I know this is a really controversial topic, but think it is one that needs to be discussed more. I think it is discussed by people who already agree with each other, but not among those who disagree with each other. And when it is discussed in mixed company, it is rarely discussed helpfully. I think it’s often angry people not listening to each other, rather than people listening to each other and willing to be convinced.  I think it is a discussion worth having for my generation in particular because in the world I grew up in it felt like everyone already made their decision and it was too controversial to talk about, so my generation wasn’t really given space to have the discussion that happened in the 70's. I don’t remember discussing it as a part of a social studies class, for example. I also used the word "unborn" in a recent post and I felt the need to unpack why I used that word in the context of "the vulnerable".  

Here's my position. I believe that a child growing in a womb is life. That life should be valued.

Our society has attempted to remove procreation from sex. It has been largely successful because of the development of contraceptive technologies. This separation doesn’t make sense from a biological point of view and I don’t think it makes sense from a social or spiritual point of view either. I’m not saying that every sexual act has to be geared toward procreation, but in general when we are dealing with sex we are dealing with the elements of procreation- sperm, eggs, and wombs. Sex, in general, is what leads to babies. Pregnancy as a topic on TV sitcoms is likely to be treated as an STD. It is treated as an unexpected and negative consequence of recreational sex. So, just as one might go and get pills from a doctor to clear up an STD, or have an operation to remove a cancerous cyst, one might deal similarly with a pregnancy. My primary worry hear is the disregard for life as a natural consequence of a particular and (in general) willing act.

I also know there are all kinds of other issues that get mixed in here- miscarriage (where the life is naturally ended by the body), rape (where sex is not willing), extrauteran gestation (where the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother). I’m actually not completely that black and white on this topic. I’m not saying that an abortion should never be performed. If the mother’s life will be seriously endangered, then I would probably recommend the action. Though, I would still say that the life that is ended in the act should be respected. I would even suggest a funeral service to recognize the death. There are situations where discernment and prayer and wise guidance is needed. I suspect the majority of abortions that are performed are not about saving the life of the mother, or dealing with the consequences of a rape.  

Our society is teaching our children that sex is about recreation and we are giving little guidance to them about this besides being “safe”. We don’t seem to be talking about the meaning, purpose, and effects of sex. We are more concerned with technique and preventing teen pregnancy and STDs. I suspect the majority of abortions are about birth control. As a teen I remember having friends who used abortion in this way. I know one friend who had 5 abortions. For her it was birth control. It wasn’t about rape or health. It was birth control. I don’t actually remember the ethics of it ever coming up in my group of friends. I also doubt that anyone in the health care system broached the topic of ethics with her.

One of the reasons I think people get angry on this topic is that it is often treated in an overly individualistic manner. It is treated as an individual choice and therefore an individual sin. Abortion, however, is more of a communal sin than an individual sin. We have created a culture that does not welcome children. Children are an inconvenience. They prevent us from working or going to school. They cost money to care for. Extended families have broken down in the pursuit of ‘success’ and career. So grandparents and aunts and uncles, are often not available to assist. (Sometimes grandparents have disappeared to Arizona or Florida.) We have created a culture where sex is about recreation and so males feel free to use women for their own gratification (even if it is consensual sex). Commitment to a child is not foreseen and not desired, so males often feel little reason to stick it out and are often shocked that they have some sort of financial responsibility to the child if the woman decides not to have an abortion. We have created a culture that places an extraordinary about of pressure on young mothers to have abortions.

So whose sin is it? Every one of us who has not bought groceries for a single mother. Every one of us who has not volunteered to care for and love a child while their mother works or goes to school. Every one of us who has contributed to a culture of recreational sex without consequences. Every one of us who has treated children as an inconvenience and nuisance. In general, this sin is on us as a culture. The young mothers who have abortions as a form of birth control are acting according to the pressures we have placed on them as a society.

What would it be like to be a part of a culture that welcomed children into our midst and celebrated over them as the future generation? What if we treated them as the people who will eventually take over our society as teachers, scientists, and health care workers? Why do we treat children as an inconvenience when we will all rely on them in the future?  

I know that’s a selfish way to think about them, but that’s the society we’ve created. In a consumerist culture where we are primarily concerned with “what I’ll get out of it” perhaps we need to be reminded of who will be taking care of us in the long term care facility where many of us will end up. Who will your doctor be? What kind of a society did they grow up in? Did they grow up in a culture where life was measured in terms of its productivity and inconvenience? When you are ‘non-productive’ and laying in a bed consuming society’s resources who will be caring for you and how will they value you? Will you be valuable because there is life in you? Or will you be not valued because you are “useless” to our society?     

the trampling of the vulnerable by the powerful

Matthew 2:13-23





            There's a little known Christmas story that I would like to share with you. It is from Revelationchapter 12.    
            1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.

            It is not the sentimental picture we are used to seeing associated with the birth of Jesus. Danger, however, is always looming. The birth of Jesus will disturb the balance of power. The messiah will bring with him a kingdom that is in opposition to the oppressive powers if this world.
            In this little known Christmas story the dragon is threatened by the power of Christ, and attempts to destroy the child. The powers of this world are not comfortable with Jesus. The Pharisees are bothered by him. The priests, the Sadducees, and eventually the Roman Empire represented by Pontius Pilate are all disturbed by the presence of Jesus. Those who have power in this world do not want to give it up, and don’t like having their power challenged.
           
            Jesus will deal with constant opposition from the powers in this world and we see the beginning of this in our Gospel reading. King Herod was a bit of a puppet king placed in power under the Roman Empire. One of the things rulers like Herod are most paranoid about is loss of their power. Herod even killed three of his own children for treason near the end of his life. We see this same sort of paranoia in Pharaoh in the Exodus story when he commands the killing of the Hebrew children. In Herod we see a man with great power who is paranoid about the potential loss of it. He realizes how fragile his power actually is. And so, when he hears about the birth of a particular child, he is especially afraid. 

            Strangers arrive in Herod's kingdom. They are stargazers or magicians, and somehow from a distant land they noticed something that has happened right under Herod's nose. A new king of the Jews has been born. And of course where else would the king of the Jews be born but in the powerful city of Jerusalem, so that is where they go to look for the child. Herod, the present "king of the Jews" hears about the newly born king from strangers, who arrive from another land, and who are foreign Gentiles. When King Herod hears this news he is surprised and frightened. When you are ruled by a tyrant and your tyrant becomes afraid, you become afraid as well.
            Herod gathers his scholars to find out where Scripture says the child would be born- that is, where the Messiah was supposed to be born. His scholars report to him that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then secretly calls the magi to him to pass on the information. The last thing he wants is for the people to flood into Bethlehem and replace him with a mere child. So he secretly calls them to himself and after finding out how old the child would be according to when the star appeared to the magi, he sent them off saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." And when we hear Herod say this we should hear the hiss of the dragon in Revelation. He has no plans to pay homage. He sees the child as a threat and would have the messiah killed to protect his fragile throne. He would use the magi to find the child, but when the magi escape Herod's manipulative tactics, he turns to violence killing the children 2 years and younger in and around Bethlehem. Based on estimates of the population of Bethlehem at the time that may have been around 20 children.
            And that is the kind of world Jesus is born into. Jesus is born into a world where a powerful king will kill children out of fear. Jesus is born into a world where children are killed to protect the power and control of tyrants. He is born into a world where the powerful get their way- regardless of right and wrong.                                     
    
            The bad news is that we still live in a world where the powerful get their way. Even killing children who threaten their power, control, and ideals. We look back to Nazi Germany and we see Jewish children being killed for the vision of Nazism. More recently we can look back to the genocide in Rwanda where children were slaughtered over the vision of an ethnic group. In China there are strict and brutal policies set concerning who is allowed to have children and how many. If the child does not fit into the government's vision of the 'one child policy', or the ideal of having sons rather than daughters, then the child may be sacrificed. We sacrifice children in sweat shops as we seek cheap clothing. Children are sacrificed as they seek clean water while we live lives filled with smart phones and televisions. There have always been vulnerable people sacrificed for the sake of keeping some people powerful and wealthy. There have always been vulnerable people sacrificed for someone else's vision of success.
            Herod lives inside us. He lives in us when we abuse what power we have, overlooking the vulnerable. Our culture gives us a certain vision of success. Our culture can sometimes place that vision ahead of the vulnerable. Sometimes we put that vision of success ahead of people’s lives, and sometimes that leads to people suffering.  The homeless, those with mental illness, the elderly, those who are severely disabled, children, and the unborn (I recognize that is controversial for some) are all potential victims when people try to hold onto a particular type of power. The vulnerable are usually those with little voice and little ability to fight back when confronted with oppression. When we place society’s vision of success ahead of people that can't defend themselves the Herod within us is exposed. If we were to follow the Christian vision of love, then instead of seeing people who are threats to our power and success we will instead see people created in God's image. 

            The good news is that there is someone to challenge those who use their power to get their own way while trampling on the vulnerable. The child Jesus and the movement he starts will challenge the power of tyrants. Jesus is born into a world of violence and manipulation. Jesus is born into a world that needs his salvation. The dragon is very real, and it knows the power the little baby Jesus has. It will do everything it can in order to destroy him. But the power of Jesus breaks that law we live with that says that the powerful always get their way.
            When the Magi were searching for truth. God gave them a sign in the sky.  King Herod tried to manipulate the magi to help him find the Messiah in order to kill the baby who is his competition. However, God used King Herod and his scholars to point the magi in the right direction using the Scriptures. It is God's will that prevails, not the tyrant’s will.  God then uses a dream to protect the wisemen. And then another dream is given to Joseph, the baby's father, which thwarts Herod's plans to kill the messiah. God's will prevails. 
            Eventually, the child is ready to face the dragon. Jesus chooses to stand before the dragon. The dragon gives all the brutality it can muster. The powers of the world torture and kill Jesus on a cross. And when the dragon is tired and believes that the threat of Jesus is behind him, three days after the battle Jesus comes out of the tomb, dusts himself off and asks, "Is that all you got?". And it is. It is all the dragon has. Jesus took it all onto himself. Jesus went right to the limit of the dragon's strength- a humiliating tortured death on a Roman cross. And he came back standing and the dragon had nothing else to throw at him.
            The power of tyrants has a limit. But, the power of Jesus works differently. His is the power that created the stars and keeps them in existence. Though, he was not born in a place of power like a palace in Jerusalem, it was more humble, in the less important city of Bethlehem, and he was placed in a manger used for feeding animals. He will eventually enter Jerusalem on a donkey, not a war horse. He will rule, but it will not be the rule of a Tyrant. Jesus will rule like a shepherd who loves his sheep.  He will choose followers, but they will not be Herods, or Pharoahs, or Roman emperors, each with an army. The followers he chooses will be fishermen, tax collectors, and ordinary people.  By North American standards, they would be the vulnerable- Uneducated and from a people under the boot of an occupying army.  The kingdom Jesus sets up is an alternative power- its people work differently, its politics function differently. In the kingdom power is not used to crush the defenseless. Jesus even says that it is in the least that we find him and serve him. He identifies with the vulnerable.

            Jesus's kingdom and his people cannot be destroyed because that kingdom is Jesus himself and the people are the Body of Christ, which though they may lay in the tomb briefly, will eventually rise again. We as the followers of Christ will stand against Tyrants who use their power to kill toddlers to protect their fragile throne. 

            Herod is dead. The Roman emperors are dead. The Roman empire is no more. Jesus is alive. His followers are alive and active in the world. We are still confronted by powers that threaten the defenseless. Greed for wealth and power is alive and kicking in this world, but Jesus is still stronger. The power of his love is stronger. His love can transform the Herod we all have within us.  His love knows no limits. His love reaches even to the Gentile star gazing magicians- to draw them to himself.  
            In a world where the powerful seem to always get their way, we can be assured that there is a power that is stronger. It is a power that identifies with the weak and defenseless rather than crushing them or ignoring them. Tyrants will come and go, but the presence of Christ will remain and his followers will remain.  Christ and his people will outlast the dragon. Thanks be to God.      

  

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Christmas




Imagine two characters in a book. They have their own world. They have their own story. In the midst of their story one character turns to the other and says, “Jenny, do you think we might be characters in a book”. To which Jenny responds, “I think you have too much time on your hands. I’m not letting you watch the Matrix anymore”. And John replies, “No, really. What if all this is a story created by someone else”.  …
If the author wanted to let them know that they were indeed characters in a book, what would this author do? … Perhaps the author would leave clues throughout the story that would lead them to ask such questions. …. But, what if the author wanted more than just for them to ask questions? What if the author wanted them to really know her, not just question reality and entertain the possibility that they are characters in a story? … If the author wanted to introduce herself she wouldn’t speak at the pages of the book. She wouldn’t nestle herself up next to the pages. … The most effective way for an author to introduce herself to characters in her story is to write herself into the story so that she becomes a character in her own story.  This is what Christians believe happened when Christ was born. In Jesus we experience God. (this is an image used by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity)    

            Of course God has made himself known to people in the Bible in numerous ways. In the Bible God communicated to people through dreams, through a burning bush, and through messengers like angels. God even manifested as a cloud which came to be called the Shekhinah. This cloud rested on the top of the mountain when Moses received the Law. This cloud travelled with the people in the wilderness and would rest on the Ark of the Covenant.  God would use this manifestation of His glory to communicate with Moses as he led the people in the wilderness. This cloud was a mysterious way that God presented Himself to the people He was leading. It was a sight of power and holiness. It was fearful for most of the people. To the extent that the people were afraid to approach this Presence. On the mountain they asked Moses to speak to God for them because they were afraid. This same Presence would rest in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple- A part of the temple that housed the Ark of the Covenant and was only entered once per year, and only by the High Priest, and only on the holiest day of the year. The temple was like a nuclear reactor and God’s presence was treated like dangerous radiation. One wrong move could mean disaster. God’s power and holiness was understood and treated with respect and fear.

            An author named Donald Miller once told a story about a man who was a Navy Seal who was part of a covert operation to free some people that had been taken hostage. They successfully penetrated past enemy lines and barged into the room where the hostages were kept. The hostages had been kept there for months. They had endured torturous conditions and were obviously traumatized.  They were all crowded in the corner, laying down, submissive. Thinking, if they ignored what was going on they wouldn’t be hurt.  The seal team yelled at the hostages to get up and follow them before they were found out and had to deal with enemy fire. The hostages, in their confused state, weren’t sure what to do. They were frozen with fear. They weren’t sure if it was a trick. They didn’t know who they could trust. The seal team wasn’t sure how to move these people. They couldn’t drag them out.  … One of the soldiers got an idea. He put down his weapon and took off his helmet and curled up next to the hostages. … Suddenly he was one of them. Without his weapon and without his helmet they saw his humanity. He put his arms around them and stayed there a long time, until their eyes dared to meet his. He whispered, “follow me”. He stood up and one by one the hostages stood to follow him. The soldier became vulnerable so that the hostages would allow themselves to be rescued.
            I wonder if something similar was happening when Jesus was born. This Shekhinah, the Holy Spirit, rested on Mary and she became pregnant (Luke 1:35). The God who the people were afraid of on the Holy Mountain would come to them gently and humbly. He would snuggle up to them and put his arm around them. … He would write himself into the story in a new way. As a baby. And through this flesh and blood he would show us God’s character, and ask us to follow him. Just as the Temple in Jerusalem was the place where God’s presence was experienced on earth, so now Jesus’ body would be the new temple. Jesus would be the place where God’s presence was experienced.  

God came to us as a baby- vulnerable and weak. In need of warmth, milk, and attention. He came as the child of an ordinary girl, from a fairly ordinary family. He came where there was no room for him and so he was placed in an animal’s feeding trough. When God wrote himself into the story of humanity- when He wanted to give the clearest image of Himself- this is how He came. Not as a king, or an emperor. He came as a child of ordinary people.         
As he grew we would see God even more clearly as he spoke about God’s love for humanity- His scandalous acceptance of those the religious would not accept- those they would call sinners. He touched the untouchable, and healed the hopeless. He wept at the grave of a friend and then raised him from the dead. He taught us to love- telling us to forgive as we want to be forgiven- To not heap judgment on each other. He taught us to love with no boundaries, so we are to love even our enemies. He taught us to release our anxieties and fears and trust God. He opened himself up to love and that means leaving himself open to rejection. He made himself vulnerable and humanity nailed him to a cross as he spoke words of forgiveness over them. In Jesus we see the character of God. God is not the angry old man in the clouds throwing thunder bolts at sinners. If we want to see God clearly, we look at Jesus.

            What Jesus made possible was God living intimately in us. We are invited to become the body of Christ. If we dare live as if this is the story we are living in, then we open ourselves to the possibility of God coming again in human flesh- through us. We become vessels of God’s presence. When we love, God loves through us. When we show compassion, we become God’s lips and arms to comfort a hurting world.
There are plenty of examples of Christ followers who are less than loving. But, let’s not criticize a hospital because it contains sick people. Let’s look at those who have been healed and transformed through Christ’s Church. Let’s look at people like Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, and Martin Luther King- Maybe even Pope Francis. Look to those who are the shining lights of humanity. In them we see what we can become with God dwelling inside us.

            At Christmas we fill our lives with tinsel and lights and cookies and presents. And that’s okay. We should celebrate. We should be extravagant. But we should be careful that all this doesn’t overshadow what is really happening at Christmas. We are being offered the opportunity for Christ to be born in our hearts. You might feel like your heart is an unfit place for the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. You might think of some of the dark thoughts that reside in your heart. … Well, remember that he was willing to lay in a manger surrounded by animals. He is willing to rest in our hearts as unfit as we might feel to have him there. He will come and he will make them fit for him if we are open to being part of his story. 

Saturday, 21 December 2013

How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Extended Ending

How the Grinch Stole Christmas:
The Extended Ending

(just a silly thing I wrote for our Nativity play)

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!
IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas…. Perhaps … means a little bit more!”

 And what happened then…?
Well… in Who-ville they say
That the Grinch’s small heart
Grew three sizes that day!
And the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight,
He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light
And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast!
And he…
HE HIMSELF…!
The Grinch carved the roast beast!


You may think that is how the story ends
But there is a bit more my curious friends
At the Who feast, as they ate, the Grinch inquired
how his dark heart was so wondrously rewired
and released from its hate and grump and callous uncaring
And filled instead with love and with sharing



And as the Grinch carved the roast beast,
He turned to the Who who headed the feast,
And asked, “sir, what was it what made my heart grow
As I stood with my sled in the cold cold snow?

And the head Who turned to the Grinch with twinkling eyes
“Your heart grew because of someone who came in disguise
“He filled your heart with love like a balloon
“And warmed it like a sun-filled day in late June

“So it wasn’t a ‘what’ at all but a ‘who’?,
 asked the Grinch as he began to chew

“It was a who”, the old Who replied
I shall introduce you, I’ll be your guide
But to know anyone, you must know their story
perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of his glory
There are many places to start, but where I’ll begin
is with a young girl who held God within

“There was a young girl who was often in blue
She helped with the chores, and to pray she withdrew
Once, she was visited by an angel and told of a babe
Who would fill her belly, and the world he would save.
The girl responded confused by the message
Perhaps the angel misheard the date of her marriage
But there was no confusion at all
As a mother, this is how she would answer God’s call

Her betrothed was a descendent of David, a great king
It was he who gave her the promise of marriage, and a ring
He was a gentle, strong man, and a skeptic at first,
But the angel told him it was God’s son she would nurse.
So the two of them stuck through the difficult plight
And journeyed to Bethlehem where he was born in the night.

He was not born in in a hotel for there was no room
The King of Glory arrived in a defenseless costume
He came as a child, vulnerable and weak
He was placed in a manger, a cow at his cheek
The owner of all, he gave it all up
To become one of us and offer his cup
He was not recognized and so was not greeted
Except by a few, the humble, not the conceited

Angels told shepherds of the baby’s arrival
Though, King Herod threatened the child’s survival
Following the wise men, the king would conspire
Hoping to destroy the baby messiah
The wise men arrived, and delivered their treasure
Upon seeing the child they were filled with pleasure
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh, odd gifts for one so small
The little one was still struggling even to crawl
But accurate gifts, for a king who would save
The world from their sins and stand so brave
Against evil and corruption and teach us to love
He would be wise as a serpent and kind as a dove

Away from the evil king, they fled
until they heard that king Herod was dead

The Grinch kept on chewing his delicious roast beast
But was looking puzzled and his forehead was creased
“excuse me, I don’t understand how this child
 Is connected to my heart being beguiled
It is a fascinating story you’ve told
But as for the connection, I’m still a bit cold”

The wise Who looked at the Grinch with kind eyes
“Grinchiness plagues this world and it stands unwise
To live with such hate and greed in your heart
What the child offers us is a brand new restart

You see, when he came among us he seemed quite plain
But if we really knew the degree of his domain
We would see that in this child’s face we meet our creator
And in this small child we see that God is no evil dictator
But, rather, kind and willing to bend to meet our eyes
Like a father who is loving and infinitely wise
He came to be with us, and show us his face
In order that we might have a lasting embrace



He entered a world that was broken and fallen
Filled with pain and sorrow and people like Stalin
He came to correct what had gone wrong
Where we were weak, he became strong
Where we were tempted he continued to fight
As a human being he would be our white knight
He would fight for us against every foe
And his victory on us he would bestow
He even fought death, the dark grim reaper
And came out on top, as if in the grave he was merely a sleeper.


And so he looks for cold hearts that have shrunk with hate
And looks for a door, a window, or small gate
So he can enter in and fill them with love
That they might grow large and the hate be disposed of
You see he came to show us who we were meant to be
Lives filled with God’s love, courageous and free

And so, Mr. Grinch, what you felt in your heart,
Was Christ’s presence giving you love to impart

And the Grinch finally got it, His heart and his head
Were knit together with one loving thread
His eyes filled with wonder and his grin grew bigger
His heart grew another size and was renewed with vigor
He finally saw how Christmas still came
How the whos kept on singing, in spite of his game
In his heart he saw the small child in the manger
Love incarnate, risking the danger
To show us God’s care and infinite grace
But above all, to show us his face


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