Saturday, July 4, 2015

Culture, Counter-Culture, and the Way of the Cross

Through the years on this blog, I have occasionally touched on the hot-button issue of sexual orientation. Today I find myself increasingly reluctant to do so, because the topic has become such a lightning rod, and because I know so many people who are touched by this issue, either directly or indirectly. Indeed, I consider myself to be one of them.

Yet for those same reasons I find I must speak, for the recent rush toward universal acceptance of the LGBT lifestyle has grown into a stampede virtually overnight, so that people who wonder where the herd is now headed will not say so out loud for fear of being trampled.

Frankly, it is not fun to be labeled a hateful bigot. So what can be said that will now be helpful?

First and foremost, the church's guiding principles on this topic are as they have always been: love, grace, truth, obedience. God did not set us upon the earth as its judges, but as His witnesses. This means we are to be holy, to be sure ... a peculiar people, set apart from the world. Yet this holiness is not innate, but was dearly bought, and we who have been blessedly forgiven and redeemed cannot then turn and condemn those who are lost and dying. Jesus' views on Pharisees and unmerciful servants are plain and compelling. There is no one for whom our Lord reserved harsher words, and we ought never to forget it.

What's more, we who grew up before same-sex relationships went mainstream need to remember that passive revulsion is not acceptable simply because it's not active hostility. Jesus did not tolerate ambivalence toward the "really lost" in His disciples, but demanded they lift up their eyes and see the need.

How far does this imperative go? Consider Rosaria Butterfield, who once fiercely advocated for the lesbian lifestyle she lived before converting to Christianity, and now provides helpful perspective on what mercy demands of us. Warning ... it is far more than mere tolerance:

On the other hand, in this current environment much of the church--especially our youth--seems eager to veer from mercy into full-throated advocacy. Rainbow-colored profiles recently adorned the Facebook pages of a surprising number of my young Christian friends, as they joined the "celebration" of the US Supreme Court's decision to legalize gay marriage nationwide.

Is this wise? Is it loving? Is it God-honoring? After all, Jesus loved the sinner, but He did not celebrate the sinner's sin.

Some of these same friends also posted this interesting article by Canadian pastor Carey Nieuwhof, in which he essentially says that Canada has had the same law for a decade and the sky has not fallen.

What he also says is that the church must be counter-cultural:
"If your views are cultural, you’re probably not reading the scriptures closely enough."
This statement appeared to get less notice from my young friends than some of Mr. Nieuwhof's other salient points, to include his reminders that non-Christians cannot be expected to live like Christians; that the church ought not be looking to government for validation; and that there are many other sexual sins rampant in the church. All very valid and good points.

Yet they are also incomplete when unmoored from their starting point, for none of it removes the basic fact that homosexual behavior is clearly set forth in Scripture as sinful, and Christians must not let laudable compassion for the LGBT community devolve into giving license to sin.

The church cannot be counter-cultural while simultaneously celebrating the culture's latest trend. In the words of professional football player Benjamin Watson:
The pressure of conformity is overwhelming at times. In light of the recent court interpretation of the constitution, the pressure is more intense than ever. Compassion, an important virtue, for our fellow man compels us to consider the feelings, plight, and desires of others in controversial times. Like a deceptive undertow along the seashore, though, emotions can sometimes carry us away, appealing to our human longing to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. A movement, a cause, or a certain political position, give us a chance to make our mark, to make our difference and to be noticed among the generation. With emotions and tempers flaring, venom and accusations in the air, and the battle lines being drawn more clearly each passing moment, I find it of utmost importance, now more than ever, to return to truth. 
Christian football player Ben Watson
makes a counter-cultural statement
Throughout this process, the years long debate to redefine marriage, I regret that I have had more disdain for those who engage in a same sex attraction lifestyle than I have had for those who engage in a number of other outright violations of the Word of God like drunkenness, idolatry, or adultery (1 Corinthians 6). It is a constant battle to extend the same grace to those I struggle to understand as to those who’s sin strongholds I can identify with. It is NOT my job to hate, disparage, or condemn anyone. I lack a hell to send anyone to, or an achieved righteousness by my own merit from which I can justifiably fire accusatory arrows at anyone. It IS my job, however, to hold truth in its proper place and to call myself and others to the standards set forth in God’s word, the only absolute in a world of opinion.
Holding truth in its proper place is difficult when our ideology leads our theology, and truth becomes the first casualty. In such instances, we see the case for scripturally justifying homosexual conduct is quite a tortured one. But such is the cultural and ideological desire to defend this particular category of sexual behavior that God's clearly enunciated design for the monogamous male-female union is pushed aside, while the explicit and repeated New Testament proscriptions against same-sex unions are rationalized away.

Of course, everyone assumes Paul is talking about someone else when he warns those who "give approval to those who practice" evil. Yet in the case of homosexual behavior, it is clearly listed among the sins he is troubled by in this passage, so Christians need to ask themselves whether "compassion" that encourages something God hates is really compassionate, any more than "politeness" that fails to pull someone back from the path of a speeding train is worthy of the term.

In short, ought not our compassion drive us to speak the truth in love, rather than encourage the sinner in his sin?

As to whether this is just one of many sexual sins the church struggles with--indeed it is! The key, however, is that the church "struggles" with most of those sins. The problem with the discussion we are having now is whether we ought to simply stop struggling with this particular one. For most, the act of "coming out" means the struggle is over, and the behavior will not merely be owned, but celebrated as a lifestyle. This makes it an especially perilous sin, because it is life-defining in a way that others are not.

While there are certainly lots of hypocrites in the church committing all manner of sexual sin, as long as they recognize the wrongness of it there is a way for them to repent.
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. -- Proverbs 14:12
The gospel we preach is about life eternal. It is death we hate, and we must love the dying enough to want to keep them from it ... even if it means provoking their resentment. This is hard, but it is the way of the cross.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Desiring to Justify Myself

Location: Quảng Ngãi, Quang Ngai, Vietnam
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” -- Luke 10:29
It is easy to scoff at the arrogant lawyer who prompted Jesus' parable about the Good Samaritan, this insolent jerk who wanted to find excuses for his hatreds--or at least his indifferences--and thus challenged the teacher to clarify the reasonable limits of love. It is easy to scoff, because most of us see more of the Samaritan in ourselves than we do the lawyer.

But if I'm honest, far too much of my life is spent desiring to justify myself.

This pursuit is not restricted to holding up my arguments as superior to others', though that is certainly part of the picture. No, this goes to the very core of my sinful psyche. Every pursuit of accomplishment, fame, respect, power, and love seems tainted by a desperate, faithless craving for self-justification. 

You see, while God clearly tells me that my life is supremely valuable based on His work in me, Satan tells me that I must make a name for myself. Satan insists that I must prove my worth. Satan mocks that if people do not think that I am wonderful, then I must be a failure.

I therefore set myself frantically to the task of demonstrating that my dirty rags can be cleaner than yours, or at least clean enough. The very hopelessness of the cause ought to drive me to the cross for a fresh outpouring of divine grace, yet time and again I prove too weak even for that. Rather, I pathetically plunge these rags back into the muddy waters of my own life and vainly scrub, defying both belief and reason.

Jesus' parable not only destroys my own self-justification, it demonstrates the healing life I am constantly shunning. The grace of the Samaritan is fully available to me at every turn, outstretched in the compassionate hand of my Father. All that is required is for me to stop striving to justify my life by my own merits, lay still, let him bind up my wounds, and take me home.

* Note, thank you to my friend, John Cheek, for inspiring this post.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Relevance of Strangers and Exiles

Location: Quảng Ngãi, Quang Ngai, Vietnam
This week, the headlines shouted and celebrated another high-profile example of the American church bending to accommodate the values of our prevailing culture. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whose membership has declined 47% since 1967, has once again updated its constitution ... this time to embrace same-sex marriage. By doing so, it has doubled down on its bet that "relevance" is achieved when the church molds itself to more closely resemble the world around it.

But is "relevance" where this quest actually leads? No, this kind of relevance is a chimera, as attested to by the collapse of the PCUSA's membership. In fact, it is worse than that, for while it draws on our deep desire to fit in with our culture, the quest for the world's good regard is really poison to the church. This leads us into an astonishing place, for by pursuing relevance at all costs, we are gradually slouching into irrelevance.

This is because we don't understand what is supposed to make us relevant.

The church's relevance is born not of our identification with the world, but by our love for the world while identifying with Christ. Until we stop trying to be the church the world thinks it wants, we cannot be the church the world really needs.

How shall we then live, now that the culture has decided en masse that our views are no longer merely quaint or weird or puritanical, but hateful? Surely we must change?

Well, yes we must, but not in the way we seem to have decided. First, we must understand that our supreme example, Jesus Christ, wasn't crucified for his irrelevance, but rather for the way His extreme relevance threatened the culture's arbiters of what was acceptable. His relevance was built not on the compromise of his principles, but rather on his commitment to them, which was enveloped in a life-giving gospel of love.

What we must do, therefore, is much, much harder than simply repudiating the values and principles of our forebears in favor of the enlightened, modern, accepted truths of our contemporaries. Nor is it profitable to simply rail against the culture in favor of what was "traditional", a clumsy and loaded word that ensnares many into a sinister trap of arrogance and judgmentalism.

What is required of us is a bold love--one that risks rejection, isolation, stigmatization, and even real persecution for the sake of clearly speaking the truth about God's salvation--yes, including the hard parts about His wrath and coming judgment--to this lost and dying world in need of a Savior. This is the gospel of the faithful, of those who paid the last full measure of devotion:
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.
The relevance of the church is tied up completely in the inherent relevance of the gospel ... a gospel which does not seek to minimize sin, but rather to maximize Christ and His grace. It means moving boldly but lovingly into the lives of those who reject Him and His truth, in order that they may see Him in us, receive His love and message and Spirit, and thus be saved.

Living the reality of the "stranger and exile" means that we recognize the sinfulness of what the Bible clearly identifies as sin, but do so with compassion instead of condemnation, because we are so keenly aware of the truth of 1 Timothy 15:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
Deciding to live this way will hurt, both because of the world's rejection, and because we will pour our hearts out for so many who will respond with indifference, ambivalence, and sometimes even rage. But Jesus did not promise that He would deliver us from pain in this life--in fact, quite the opposite. Our promises are anchored primarily in the hope of the indescribable happiness that will come with eternity in God's glorious kingdom, and also in the supernatural strength, comfort and joy that He provides us here, in the land of our sojourn.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Because Slavery is Not Over

Location: Hanoi, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanh was 17 when she was kidnapped to China. Invited by a classmate to a nearby town to shop, she was sold by her “friend” to a sex trafficker. For the next 6 months she was trapped in the hell of an underground brothel.  
Fortunately, this brave and resourceful girl was able to get a message to her family and explain her desperate situation. The Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation was alerted to the case and went immediately into action to find her.  
After painstakingly tracking her down, the team engineered a dramatic rescue. They then raced back to Hanoi, where Hanh was reunited with her family. Two of her traffickers were also arrested that day by Chinese police. Hanh is still recovering, but will soon return to class, and hopes to finish high school next year.
Hanh's story is the reason why two months from now, my son and I will be riding Russian motorcycles for ten days through northern Vietnam. 

Because the scourge of slavery didn't end in 1865 ... it has just mutated into a worldwide, $32 billion industry that feeds on a human toll of 2.5 million people per year. The problem is especially acute here in Vietnam.

And because we can do something about it. 

Rally Indochina 2015 helps raise money and awareness for Blue Dragon Children's Foundation,  which through direct action rescues Vietnamese kids from Chinese brothels, illegal sweatshops, and off the streets, then helps the police go after those who stole their childhood.

You see, my son the engineering student is on a leave of absence from college this term, and has been spending his days volunteering down at Blue Dragon's Hanoi headquarters, helping them with many of the technical tasks associated with running a foundation. He picked this cause based on the way they are directly involved in helping save people in dire need.

When I say "directly involved", I mean they physically send people on rescue missions, whether it be out onto the streets of Hanoi, into sweatshops in Saigon, or to brothels deep inside southern China. Sometimes the missions can be quite harrowing. 

Just two days ago, in fact, Blue Dragon posted this news item on their Facebook page:
For the past 10 days, Blue Dragon's Rescue Team has been communicating with a 17 year old Vietnamese girl who was trafficked and sold to a Chinese brothel. Desperate to escape, she had an opportunity yesterday to run away and has done so with 2 other girls. They are in hiding and waiting for our team to find them, so they can get back to safety in Vietnam. The girls have been incredibly brave to take this risk; it shows that they will do anything to escape the horrors of sex slavery.
That is what they do. This is how it works:

I first became aware of Blue Dragon through my work at the US Embassy in Hanoi, and believe me, this is one group that is even more impressive the more you get to know them. While many human trafficking groups focus on awareness and government action, Blue Dragon focuses on kids: rescuing them, returning them, and helping them recover.