“I have standards for my God, after all…”

So my faith community, the Resistance, offers almost weekly Resistance LABS, which are described as

 

…one of the ways we say “Yes” to Jesus’ invitation to follow him and learn to walk as he walked in the world. From the first words of the Bible, where God declares his world “good,” Christians have understood that all of life is sacred and drenched in the divine. Every moment, person, and occasion is spiritual, and God wants to make everything holy. Resistance Labs are a powerful way we come together to declare that creation is good and God’s fingerprints can be found on every inch of it. Labs are totally optional, one-hour classes meeting for exactly four weeks around a variety of subjects: parenting, marriage, food, fitness, personal finance and investing, home repair, beginner and advanced theology, Bible study, etc. Our expert teachers come right from our community: we share with one another the gifts of knowledge and wisdom we’ve been given. Think of them as pro-tips, life hacks or brain food. Just know that they’re awesome.

 

I’m very grateful for and proud of our community for offering the latest LAB, which dealt with human sexuality, including the Church’s relationship with the LGBT community. Of the four one hour sessions for this LAB, the latter topic (the Church and the LGBT community) was reserved for just one of the hours, with some time for follow up questions available during the final week/hour. Naturally, the conversation was much too big to flourish under such constraints, but I’m glad we made an attempt to begin this discussion, and I hope it continues.  I’ll admit that I left the final night of the LAB last night disheartened, but again this was mostly a function of the conversational constraints noted above. That said, this is what I like about the four week conversation we had (so far):

  • I appreciate the way our lead pastor, Ben, framed the Church’s relationship to the LGBT community. He said that for many long years the Church and the larger culture stood united in their universal condemnation of homosexuality and, sadly, homosexuals. Both seemed to find  homosexuality abhorrent and held the homosexual at arm’s length, if outright rejection, exclusion, and judgment didn’t occur.  Over the past thirty or so years (roughly), all that has changed. Culture has clearly moved on and acceptance of homosexuality and homosexuals is ever more common, even in legal terms as laws change and courts rule in favor of equal rights for the LGBT community. This, Ben said, has left the Church very much at a loss as it determines how it should respond to these new developments. Ben was quick to say that the Church was utterly wrong for joining in with culture’s previous treatment of the LGBT community, but challenged us not to repeat the mistake by blindly joining in with culture now as it moves in the opposite direction. He went on to say (as I interpret his words) that our task first and foremost is to love our neighbor. He said judgment belongs within the Church (presumably in the form of holding each accountable to behavior consistent with the right relationships God calls us to). It is not, he said, to be leveled at those outside of the Church. Our stance, then, toward those who have no interest in following Jesus or who are just discovering him should be clear. We love them, unconditionally. If most faith communities did this- just this- the world would be a very different (and much more Christ-like, I would argue) place.
  • I like that we wrestled with Scripture. Ben went piece-by-piece through the very few verses that may deal with homosexuality, explaining why many of them simply don’t relate to the current practice of monogamous, consenting homosexual relationships between adults. When left with just a few verses that could be interpreted as applying to such practice, Ben led us in wrestling with the implications of the apparent Biblical witness against it, however limited it may be.
  • I like that both throughout the LAB and repeatedly in conversation Ben has said that whatever guidance we get from Scripture about the practice of homosexuality, we again are to love our homosexual neighbor and not let this single part of their identity cause us to exclude them from fellowship, from relationship, even (I hope) from participation in the covenant community. Speaking of this single (however significant) part of their identity, I like that both Ben and our other pastor, Joey, reminded us that people are complex beings created in the image of God and are therefore irreducible to one single issue or aspect of who they are, like sexual orientation. This is an important reminder, echoed by some great thinkers and practitioners in the Church like Jenell Paris.

All of that said, I found myself dissatisfied with how things officially ended last night. Of course, I cringed when someone attending the LAB uttered that great conversation-killer “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” but my frustration I think goes beyond that.  I should probably preface any further comments by repeating the game-changing realization I came to some years ago. Emerging from a lifetime steeped in rules-based, checklist oriented “fundagelicalism,” it finally dawned on me that I needed to unlearn much of what I had been taught because while the rules regarding how to live and what it means to follow Jesus were terribly important, counter to what I had been taught growing up they were not the only or most important thing. The rules serve a greater purpose; they are there to point us in the direction of right relationship with God, one another, and the world. Thus, as I like to say now, “rules are for relationship.” Rules are signposts and markers. They show us where boundaries lie. They can lead us down the path we need to follow to keep up with Jesus and love our neighbors and God’s world best. They don’t define who we are, though, and we can never hope to follow them completely. Always, our greatest consideration should be the right relationships we’re trying to pursue. As we read in Scripture, after all, “the Sabbath was made for man,” not the other way around. Likewise, often Jesus said, “You have heard it said-” after which a rule followed- before adding “but I tell you-“ after which Jesus expands or changes the rule, flips it on its head, or takes it to an absurd extreme (a mere lustful thought about your neighbor’s wife=adultery?), thereby showing that the rule cannot be relied upon to set us free, to make us whole, to save us; that even if we were following all the rules we knew, perpetually we “still lack one thing.” If it’s salvation we’re after, the rules and any attempt to follow them (even rules about right thinking, I would argue) offer us little hope.

In my own life a rule that my father followed was not to get divorced. I’ve thought about this often because my mother struggled with many mental health issues and was very, very abusive. So that rule to not divorce was meant to point him in the direction of right relationship with his wife, my mother. However, making a rule to preserve the right relationship within a marriage had a larger purpose and was meant, I believe, to serve the greater good, which in this particular marriage should have been the health and well-being of not just both of my parents and myself but also my dad’s other three kids from his first wife (who died) and the larger community they were a part of, etc. In honoring that rule to not get divorced, my Dad allowed all those other relationships (and moreover some of those people) to be utterly destroyed as a result of my mother’s abuse. I mean lives were ruined. I don’t know that either of my parents were particularly better off for staying together, either. I believe that God hates divorce and I understand why. I have to believe, though, that he also hates child abuse and would prioritize the health and well-being of a child over preserving a very damaged, and damaging, marriage.

 

So, rules are for relationship.

 

Jesus is our only hope.

 

So what, then? Another thing I like that Ben did is both this week and last prior to the LAB conversation about the relationship between the Church and LGBT community and the follow-up Q&A this week, Ben preached sermons related to (last week) how God is ever on the move, leading us into new understandings of what it means to follow him and how to do it best- and- (this week) how (in my words) Scripture works best when understood for what it is. We do not have a single source text dating back thousands of years that was uttered by God, perfectly preserved, and flawlessly translated over the centuries. We have instead many, many fragments of a variety of source documents written (and actually first spoken before being written in some cases much later) over thousands of years (counting both testaments), none of which perfectly agree with one another. Moreover, a word in some languages cannot be found in another or has several possible meanings, meaning that every time Scripture is translated many, many interpretive decisions are made. Of course, when those words in Scripture finally reach our own eyes or ears, that interpretive process happens once again, as any single word is filtered and understanding is reached- or not- based on our previous understanding of and experience with that word.

The point of all of that is simply to say that we do God, his written Word, ourselves, and our neighbor a great disservice when we try to reduce all of this to simple pronouncements like “the Bible says…” whatever. I would add that Scripture also works best when understood for what it’s for. It’s not (merely) a rule book, and certainly isn’t meant to serve as a science textbook or even (only) as a written history. The Bible is story. It’s God’s story and ours, the story of God’s wooing of humanity throughout the ages, a process that continues to this day. It is, Lord willing, gospel, good news for all the people, meant to bring great joy. Sometimes, to be sure, it’s bad news before it’s good news. Part of the story involves some hard truth-telling about relationships that have not gone right, about what happens when those rules that are meant to point us toward right relationship are not followed. Sometimes even the rules themselves are bad news when they call us to do better or when rules that pointed 1st century people in the direction of right relationship are judged by 21st century people for how far away from those right relationships they still were. Nonetheless, if the good news isn’t eventually gotten to; if Scripture is only bad news, I can’t help but think we’ve missed something.

I fear that we’re still missing something now. If we 21st century Christ-followers do 1st century Christ-followers a disservice when we judge them and their rules because they still allowed slaves and tried to silence women in church, I wonder what 41st century Christ-followers will say about us, about our relationships and the rules we use to try to make and keep those relationships right? There is reference in Scripture to God’s law being written on our hearts, and I believe this is what he desires for us. I do not (merely) believe and follow the rules- the Bible- after all. I believe and follow Jesus. The rules are not the foundation of my faith. Jesus, the living Word, is. This is a much harder way to go, I would add, a much narrower path. It requires me to relate to a living God rather than a (in the view of some) dead book. It is a relationship between “I” and “Thou,” not “I” and “It” (a book, the rules).

In all of this I was reminded of a story I heard on NPR about a new book I’d like to read. The book is An Idea Whose Time Has Come by Todd Purdum. The subtitle will give you a sense of what it’s about. It is: “Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The book opens by telling a story about a young African American serviceman, recently returned from “fighting for freedom” in Vietnam. In the anecdote the Army captain was “tired and hungry one day after fixing up a modest rental house for his wife and baby son.” He went to a local drive-in, hoping for a burger. He knew they wouldn’t serve him inside, but he tried to get car service. Finally a carhop came out and asked him if he was Puerto Rican or an African student. He said “no,” and explained who he was. The carhop then explained that she was “from New Jersey” and “didn’t understand any of this,” but wasn’t allowed to serve him. She said he could drive around to the back of the building and she would bring him a burger through the back door. He said he wasn’t that hungry and drove away. His name was Colin Powell. After describing the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the book goes on to relate that shortly after passage of the bill Colin Powell went back to that drive-in and was served without incident.

I mention this story because I find it very illustrative. Clearly God’s word- God’s good news of love for all people- was written on that woman’s heart, but she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, act on it because the rules stood in the way. At that time in our nation’s history God was leading people on to the next step in right relationship with one another, and it meant finally abandoning and rejecting practices that had once found support in Scripture. More and more, I suspect we’re at another one of those moments. I’m reminded too of something I’ve spoken often of on this blog, Bart Campolo’s seminal talk about the limits of God’s grace and his approach (at the time) to Scripture. Christianity Today did a little piece about it at the time. They said:

“Some might say I would be wise to swallow my misgivings about such stuff, remain orthodox, and thereby secure my place with God in eternity. But that is precisely my point: If those things are true, then God might as well send me to hell. For better or worse, I simply am not interested in any God but a completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving One who is powerful enough to utterly triumph over evil.”

The quote comes from Ivan Karamazov, the great skeptic of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. No, actually, it just parrots Ivan’s famous rejection of God. The quote appeared in The Journal of Student Ministries, written by the founder and chaplain of Mission Year and a national representative for Compassion International. That would be Bart Campolo, son of Tony, the activist/evangelist. Elsewhere Bart Campolo describes his “article of faith,” saying, “I required no Bible to determine it, and—honestly—I will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that suggest otherwise.”

Campolo explains that he reached these views while processing the rape of a 9-year-old girl, whose Sunday school teacher said God must have allowed it for a reason. Again, the parallels with Ivan Karamazov stand out. Ivan denounces God, whose justice he refuses to trust. “And if the sufferings of children go to well the sum of sufferings that was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.” Campolo likewise favors his conscience over the biblical view of justice. “I am well aware that I don’t get to decide who God is. What I do get to decide, however, is to whom I pledge my allegiance. I am a free agent, after all, and I have standards for my God, the first of which is this: I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am.”

Dostoevsky knew Christians were ill-prepared to answer these questions about theodicy. That’s why he created Ivan. What would you tell Ivan and Bart?

 

A writer for the BBC wrote about it too and references the CT piece above. He said:

 

Since the bishop of Carlisle now has us talking about whether God sends storms as a judgment for sin, now is probably a good time to mention the storm that is currently engulfing the American evangelical activist Bart Campolo (pictured). It all began with an article published last October in The Journal of Student Ministries — an article (or the “Barticle” as it’s now become known) which some Evangelicals in the United States say is “heretical”.

Bart Campolo is a keynote speaker at this year’s Summer Madness festival at the King’s Hall in Belfast, which ends tomorrow, and came into the Sunday Sequence studios today to talk about the controversy (“listen again).

You can read “The Limits of God’s Grace” here and Bart Campolo’s attempt to quell the storm of protest following its publication here (broken link).

Christianity Today writer Collin Hansen has written that Campolo is an evangelical equivalent of Ivan Karamazov, the rationalist atheist in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Hansen writes:

 

Campolo explains that he reached these views while processing the rape of a 9-year-old girl, whose Sunday school teacher said God must have allowed it for a reason. Again, the parallels with Ivan Karamazov stand out. Ivan denounces God, whose justice he refuses to trust. “And if the sufferings of children go to well the sum of sufferings that was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.” Campolo likewise favors his conscience over the biblical view of justice. “I am well aware that I don’t get to decide who God is. What I do get to decide, however, is to whom I pledge my allegiance. I am a free agent, after all, and I have standards for my God, the first of which is this: I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am.”

 

So what is Bart Campolo actually saying? I asked him this morning, “Why didn’t God intervene and stop the appalling gang rape of the nine year-old girl? What answer do you give her when she asks?”

He told me, “If God pre-ordained that rape, I hate him, and I won’t worship him. If God stood by and allowed it, I want nothing to do with him.” The explanation he appears to have arrived at is this: God loves the nine year old completely and (he writes) “the suffering of that poor little girl—evil’s doing—will somehow be redeemed, and she herself will be healed as part of the complete redemption and absolute healing that is to come for all of us”. But God is unable or unwilling to force his way into people’s lives; and sometimes God’s will is thwarted in our world.”

 

All of which adds up to an extremely difficult series of questions for many evangelicals to even countenance. If God’s mercy wins out in the end — here, there and everywhere — doesn’t that mean that everyone is eventually saved?

Universal salvation as the ultimate gift of a God whose power is temporarily limited in this world, and whose character is only partially revealed in a sacred text whose meaning is re-negotiated by every generation: these are claims that will not seem outrageous to many contemporary theologians. Some (though not all) within the evangelical community of faith may cry theological foul play and get angry with Campolo for raising these discomfitting questions, but that nine year-old girl deserves an answer, doesn’t she?

Universalism isn’t necessarily the topic here, though it may be related. I think the limits of God’s grace is, though. I have standards for my God, too, but more importantly I think he has standards for me, for all of us. Life with Christ is a journey, after all, individually and collectively as the Bridegroom leads his Bride ever closer to their home, a kingdom which has come but is yet coming, one in which enemies are reconciled, sin is forgiven, and all of creation is made whole. Our identity- whether gay or straight, man or woman, Jew or Gentile, is to be found in Christ and will be fully realized and made right in that kingdom. For that reason, I can only add my voice to the many who say, “Lord, come quickly.”

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