Archive for category Health and wellness

Holding Hope

(I found this draft post in my files – it’s a year out of date, but I like what Paul and Tracey had to share, so up it goes…)

So, following on from my previous post, in which I described my impressions from my time with Tracy, the Baptist community pastor for Kaiapoi, I spent some time with both her and the senior pastor, Paul over lunch. They invited me to ask them questions, and I focused mostly on what it was like for Paul, my counterpart, to lead the congregation in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake.

IMG440Much of what Paul said reinforced what Tracy had already said.  For instance, he talked of the increase in the suicide rate; not so much among the young (who already have a horrendously high rate of suicide) but among older folks who just can’t keep going.  He talked of the feelings of tiredness and exhaustion which come with coping with being in a broken environment for two years now; how early optimism and the “We can fix this” attitude gets slowly eroded simply by the passing of time.  How the initial losses of home and security and (often) jobs, are compounded over time by the losses of friends and familiar landmarks.

A regular theme here is the phrase, “We’re off the map.”  They explained to me how an earthquake is such an unexpected event, and for each place, such a unique event, that there is no real resource for them – no road-map or guide-book for how they should be coping or what they should be expecting.  They are moving into uncharted territory in the ‘here be dragons’ zone.  This, of course, only exacerbates the stress and increases the load of each new day.  I know full well how pastoral work is difficult at the best of times; in the midst of earthquake consequences and recovery it becomes impossible for human strength.  And there’s the key.  Because they are forced to rely upon God’s grace for each day’s needs, they are convinced of his power to help and to heal.  The reasons for despair in their community are, for Paul and his congregation, an opportunity for optimism.  They look forward to the time when “God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21.4)

Because of this basic orientation towards hope; towards a future that is in God’s hands and is good, Paul and co. continue to hold hope for their people.  Paul says that “A ‘woe-is-me’ attitude is not good enough as the default position for Christian ministry.” Hand-wringing and lamentation have their place, but to stay there is to betray the best  part of the Gospel.  Paul looks to the story of Nehemiah leading the people of Jerusalem in rebuilding their city walls, and points out that while Nehemiah lists the various occupations of the wall-rebuilders, there are never any masons or engineers in the lists; it was ordinary people with ordinary occupations who got out there and dealt with the section of the wall that was closest to them.  He also notes that they did actually know what a wall should look like; they had the thing rebuilt within sixty-odd days.  “We don’t know what our future looks like,” says Paul, “But we do know that it belongs to God.”  Thus they have to rebuild in faith, and the first steps might be tentative, but they are foundational, and so essential.

And what are they putting in these foundations?  Paul is awaiting delivery of a strip of red carpet.  “We’re going to ‘roll out the red carpet’ for the Holy Spirit.”  It is God leading his people in their day-day lives that will bring the best expressions of the Kingdom coming.  They’ve recently begun giving away money in their services; with the proviso that the person taking the cash has to ask God how to spend it and it has to be spent on someone else, and they have to come back and tell the story.  The first sum was taken by a forestry worker who returned to tell, with tears in his eyes, how God had lead him to buy blankets for those who were sleeping in their cars still, as a bitter winter rolls around.

There is an emphasis upon fun and laughter – good medicine for the soul.  And “courage grows in company”, says Paul.  Getting people together – for any old reason – helps to build  resilience into people’s lives; helps to remind them that they are still part of a community – albeit a community that is hurting and changing and transforming into something new.

At this point Paul quotes Jesus’ saying about putting new wine into new wine-skins.  The past is gone and the loss hurts and grief is necessary – but the past is gone.  Something new is happening, and the something new demands new ways of doing things, new structures and new systems.  It’s this forward focus that will bring the community of Kaiapoi through these dark days – and it will still be a community because of the efforts of those like Paul and Tracy who are building foundations of hope into people’s lives.

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Ali is Feeling Good…

Ok; this is a story that I wrote when I got bored with the sermon I was writing on 1 John 4:1-6.  Behind John’s instructions to his little churches in Asia there was a major problem going on with the (pre-)gnostic teachers; their very ‘spiritual’ approach to knowledge, and the consequent detachment of ethics from Jesus.  But just lecturing about all that seemed very dry, so I made the attempt to give those bones a little flesh.  Given the conflation of two distinct (but all too often related!) forms of abuse in the story, several in the congregation found it a very uncomfortable reading.  The question I asked at the end of the story was, “At what point did the pastor clearly leave the path?”  What do you think?

Enjoy!

Ali is feeling good,

and tomorrow is going to be even better.

She’s moved towns, successfully

shifted into the little sleep-out behind her elderly aunt’s house,

started her new job

and got through orientation week without any very embarrassing mistakes,

and she’s going to a new church tomorrow.

Sarah, the girl at work who’s been training her, had invited her to come

and Ali had leapt at the opportunity;

so much better than turning up alone!

 

Ali is feeling good because she hadn’t been sure she could do it;

all her life she’s been plagued by uncertainty;

unsure about her own abilities

and unable to completely trust people around her.

 

Perhaps it’s because her dad left when she was little,

or maybe it’s just her personality,

but trusting other people doesn’t come easily.

Nor does Ali trust herself so much.

Despite what everyone tells her,

she still blames herself for everything;

for her parents break-up,

for her older brother’s bad behaviour,

for her mother’s anxiety and stress,

 

There’s one person, however, she does trust, and that is Jesus.

Since she encountered him a few years ago,

since he’d made himself present to her

during that amazing midnight conversation with her best friend,

she’s known at the very centre of her being that she is loved,

and that she can absolutely trust Christ to stay with her always.

 

She has learned to pause,

to step back from whatever uncertainty she’s facing,

to slip within herself and to reach out to him,

and simply discovering, again and again, that he is always there for her,

that his love is unchanged,

that he is still who he claims to be,

has helped her to overcome her fears.

 

She had found herself more able to concentrate on schoolwork;

had done well enough to get good marks, and go on the training course,

and now, here she is,

a new graduate in a new job,

in a new town,

making new friends.

 

And all because Jesus loves her.

Ali is feeling good.

And tomorrow, she will find out about this new church.

 

Now it’s tomorrow, and Ali is facing an enormous table, loaded with food;

on her left, Mrs Rhees, (“Call me Esme, dear, there’s a love.”)

is piling potatoes and corned beef onto her plate,

and to her right, Mr Rhees, (“We just call him ‘The Major’, mostly”),

is telling her about his years in the territorials,

and promising that later, she should see his collection of old medals.

Opposite her is their middle-age daughter, Rosie,

and her husband, Paul, nodding and smiling

as they hear again the stories that are part of the family furniture.

And at the end of the table,

Pastor Austeer is spooning white sauce onto his mounded plate.

Ali thought he looked especially hungry;

not surprising after all the energy he had put into his preaching that morning.

She’s not used to sermons that go for more than fifteen minutes,

and this one had taken almost an hour

– but she’d barely noticed the time flying past,

he was so animated and engaging, and,

although she couldn’t remember much of what he’d said,

she remembered that it had been very interesting.

Not surprising that he is staring at his pile of pink beef

almost as though he’s about to dive into it teeth first.

His gaze suddenly lifts from his plate to her face,

and she feels slightly scorched by the intensity of his stare,

before he flicks his eyes away, and, taking Esme’s hand from beside him,

and her daughter’s with his other hand, leads them in a prayer of thanksgiving

– shorter than the sermon, thankfully – and they begin eating.

Conversation is general at first

– they chat about Rosie and Paul’s children,

and about a new business opening up in town,

and about Ali’s home and family

(“So few couples seem to hold together these days”, sniff Esme.

“I’d never know what to do if The Major, here, left me.”

“Leave you!” he replies. “And have to eat my own cooking!?

Not likely, love!”)

and then about her new job.

“How are you finding the work, Ali?” asks the pastor.

“Not too strenuous?”

“No, the work isn’t too hard at all – yet, anyway.

And Sarah’s a real help while I get used to everything.”

“Yes, lovely girl, isn’t she?”  says Esme.

“Such a pity she had to rush away afterwards and couldn’t join us.

You know her mother once helped me with that Drama we did…”

and the conversation moves on to the drama society politics,

and then on to local body politics,

and then turns to the sermon from that morning.

“I didn’t quite get it,” the Major is saying.

“What was that you were saying about the Spirit?”

“What God teaches,” replies the pastor,

“Is that we all have the Spirit,

and the Spirit gives us all truth,

and so we all have all truth.”

“I find that hard to get my head around,” comes the objection.

“If we have all truth, why are so many Christians so blinkin’ wrong!”

“Clearly,” comes the cool, quick answer,

“not all who claim to be Christian actually are.”

Across the table Ali notices Paul fidget uncomfortably for a second,

and then go still again.

the pastor continues,

“and though we can quickly see that some are false Christians

simply because they embrace error in their doctrine,

others among us merely need to learn how to hear the Spirit’s voice.”

“So you say I’ve already got all truth, but maybe I’m not listening to it?”

“We all have all truth,

but not all of us are able to hear every word of the Spirit.

It takes … practice … to learn to recognise that still, small voice.”

“How?” Ali is surprised to hear her own voice enter the conversation.

“I mean… sorry, I’m new.  How do you practice?”

Pastor Austeer considers her for a second as he dabs sauce from his lips,

and then says, “There are various spiritual exercises that help us to ‘tune in’.

Would you be interested in learning?”

“Ooh.  Say, ‘yes’, Ali, do!” says Esme.

“Rosie and I did this course, and it’s really interesting!”

“What does it involve?”

“Mostly conversation, and some guided meditations,” said the pastor.

“Don’t worry, nothing spooky.

It’s just a useful way of getting rid of stuff from the past

that might be blocking our spiritual ears.

I have some space in my schedule at the moment.

You’d want after hours time, right?”

“Well, yes, if it wouldn’t be a bother…”

“No bother at all.  It’s what I’m here to do and I’m glad to do it.

Would you like to meet on a Thursday?”

And just like that, Ali finds her life taking a new direction.

 

Her home life is flat and uneventful,

as she cooks and cares for herself in her little room,

seeing her aunt only as often as she needs to pay her rent.

Work was at first challenging and stimulating

then became more predictable and even tedious

as she quickly masters her tasks.

Most of her workmates are older than her,

other than Sarah,

but Sarah, while friendly, is deep in preparations for her wedding,

and lives for the weekends when her fiancé is in town.

With no other friends, and certainly no romantic relationships,

Ali finds an unending diet of wedding talk grating,

and is glad, on Thursdays, to walk home in a different direction,

and knock on the frosted glass door of the pastor’s study behind the church.

 

At their first meetings he’d greet her with a warm handshake,

and then seat her on a couch, provide her with a coffee,

and take up station behind his desk.

Once there he talked at length about ‘doctrine’.

He covered all sorts of topics;

the responsibility of Christians to tithe and to give,

the importance of strong fellowship and regular attendance at worship,

the necessity of showing the world how pure their faith was,

and the dangers of the world –

how the world could distract and confuse young believers,

and how the world must be rejected like a rotten apple;

good for nothing but compost.

Ali asked an occasional question,

or sometimes he asked her something,

but mostly she simply let his words wash over and around her,

like she was a rock in a stream of words.

It was sort of restful

and a little bit flattering that he should give her so much individual attention.

He talked a lot about obeying the Spirit;

he talked of how Saul had been so drenched in the Spirit

that he had lain naked and prophesied before Samuel,

but also how Saul had disobeyed Samuel, and been rejected by God.

He mentioned others, too:

Tamar who was moved by the Spirit to dress like a prostitute

and so gave Judah the children from whom Jesus was descended,

Ruth, who obeyed Naomi and uncovered Boaz’s ‘feet’

(She blushed when he explained that this was a euphemism)

and became the grandmother of King David,

and Solomon who sought nothing but God’s wisdom

and was rewarded with great wealth, many wives, and long-lasting peace

as well as world-renowned wisdom,

and how God had entered into the temple Solomon had built.

“And now YOU,” he declaimed, staring intently at her,

“are the temple of the Spirit into whom God has entered!”

He emphasised how God wanted nothing but the best for his children;

that was why he gave the Spirit!

He was fond of Jesus’ saying about fathers, who were evil,

knowing enough to give their children good things,

so surely God would give his children good things, too,

or, as Luke put it, surely the Father would give the Holy Spirit.

 

This led them to a discussion about fathers

and the first of those guided meditations he had mentioned.

He sat beside her on the couch,

asked her to close her eyes and relax,

and stepped her back, slowly, through her memories of her father.

Eventually, painfully, she opened her eyes to find them swimming with tears

that slowly trickled down her cheeks,

and she quickly looked down so that her hair fell forward to hide them,

but he reached out and, very gently, wiped one tear away,

then turned to his desk for a box of tissues,

and a small pamphlet with a meditation on God’s divine father hood.

Then, when she recovered a little, he simply said, “See you next week”

and let her out.

She felt that she floated home in a soft mist;

slightly cut off from the world around her by the release of that old sorrow,

and also strangely touched,

intensely aware of the feeling of his fingertip on her cheek.

Their next meeting, he greeted her as warmly as ever,

and moved his chair to sit in front of his desk as he spoke about God’s love,

and his command that we should love one another,

and how love was the greatest gift of the Spirit,

but he didn’t mention her tears,

and she was grateful for his sensitivity.

 

Each week she meets more members of the church,

and is always impressed by how they all call each other sister, or brother,

how they treat each other with obvious affection,

and how they could ask each other the most searching questions.

“Are you giving as you should be, brother?”

“Sister, how are you getting on with disciplining your Jacob, now?”

but The Major and Esme always make a special point of catching up with Ali,

and Esme always asks how the course is going.

“Are you hearing the Spirit, yet, dear?” she asks.

“I’m not sure – I mean, Jesus is always with me, I know,

and I love to stop and …I don’t know, just be with him, I guess, but…”

“No, no, dear, not Jesus – we’re talking about the Spirit!

Have you heard that still small voice, yet?”

and Ali blushes and mutters that she’s not sure.

Esme looks at her steadily,

and said, quietly, kindly, but very firmly, “You’ll know when you do.”

And then she looks around and asks, “Where’s Sarah, today?”

“Oh! She said she was going to go see her fiancé this weekend,

and that they were going to go to his church, this time.

She’s never been, and he’s been asking her so she said she would.”

Esme looks startled at this,

and turns to the Major, behind her.

Ali is surprised to see that he is frowning deeply,

but he says nothing to her, simply turning and walking away.

Esme hesitates a moment, looking as though she might say something,

but then just hurries after him herself.

 

At her next meeting with the Pastor, he greets her with a stiff hug;

he’d started to do this each Sunday,

and she’d noticed that many people greeted each other with a hug,

so thinks nothing of it,

and they continue as previously.

This time he starts by asking her if she has anything on her mind?

She hesitates, and he quickly says, “You look troubled…”

“Oh.  Well, it’s nothing really.

Just, Esme was asking last Sunday, could I hear the Spirit yet,

and, well, I’m not really sure…”

“Would you like to be more sure?”
“Well, yes!”

“Then sit down, here,” and he moves to sit beside her, again, on the couch.

“What you need to understand,” he says, in a low, earnest voice,

“is that the Spirit is not of this world,

and so the voice of the Spirit can seem quite strange.

Even odd.

And that is why our obedience is of the utmost importance.

If we waited until we understood everything

then we would never do anything.

we need to be ready to obey even before we understand,

no matter how odd the Spirit’s command might be.

Do you understand this?”

“Yes, yes, that makes sense.”

“And so, when you begin to hear the voice of the Spirit,

you must obey without hesitation.

You must not quench the Spirit!”

“No.”

“Sometimes, what the Spirit asks might even seem wrong,

but that is because we are infested by the lies of the world.”

Ali looks at him.  He seems to be waiting for some response from her.

“I’m …I’m sorry.  What do you mean?”

“Well, consider.  If the Spirit said to you to kiss someone,

not a member of your family.

To kiss a man.

What would your mother say?”

“Well …she’d say it was wrong.  It was … dangerous.”

“I think you said your mother …she’s not a Christian, is she?”

“No,” Ali admits, in a small voice.

“Then she’s from the world.

and “you are from God, and have conquered them;

for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.

5 They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world,

and the world listens to them.

6 We are from God.

Whoever knows God listens to us,

and whoever is not from God does not listen to us.

From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.[1]””

“That was the apostle John said that, wasn’t it?” Ali asks.

“Yes. Well recognized. From his first letter.

Do you read the Bible much?”

“Yes. Well, most nights.”

“So you know that Paul said that we are “ministers of a new covenant,

not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.[2]”?

“What did he mean?”

“Simply that we shouldn’t let the scriptures bind us, my dear.

It is the Spirit that gives life, not dead letters.”

“But, surely the Bible…”

“Oh, yes! The Bible is a voice of the Sprit, too

– it is the Bible, after all, that tells us to greet one another with a holy kiss,

despite what your worldly mother may think –

but it isn’t the only voice of the Spirit, nor even the most important.

The most important, is right… here.” and he lays a long finger on her chest,

above her suddenly thudding heart.

He lets it rest there a moment, as he gazes at her,

then returns his hand to his lap,

turns slightly away from her,

and looks into the distance.

“Shall we practice listening to the voice of the spirit, today, then?”

Ali becomes aware that she is barely breathing,

and says, in a whisper, “Yes,” without taking her eyes from him.

“And if you hear the Spirit speaking,

are you willing to obey him?

Are you willing to put aside the distractions of the world,

to reject the advice of the world

and obey only the Spirit?”

She nods, and he turns back to her, and smiles.

“Then relax,

and close your eyes,

and wait.”

 

Ali waits, and hears nothing except her heart beating,

and her breathing slowly returning to normal,

and when she opens her eyes again, after perhaps five minutes,

it is to see Pastor Austeer smiling at her.

“Don’t be disappointed if you heard nothing.

The voice of the Spirit comes as it wills

and no-one knows where it comes from.

Keep listening throughout the week,

and remember, Obey!

Even if it seems an odd thing – especially if it seems odd!

Even if just a little thing.

Don’t ask to understand; just obey.”

“Yes. Ok.”

He smiles again, and sees her to the door.

 

Throughout that week, Ali tries her hardest to listen for the voice of the Spirit.

She starts to notice lots of little thoughts running through her mind.

“Kick the cat,” is one, when a cat crosses the road in front of her.

She’s fairly sure that isn’t the voice of the Spirit.

When she is brushing her teeth one time, she thinks “Upside down.”

as she gazes at her toothpaste.

It isn’t upside down,

but she practices obedience anyway,

and turns it upside down.

Going home from work one day, she is waiting at the crossing,

and thinks “Go,” though there is a car coming.

She closes her eyes, gulps, and doesn’t go.

The car roars across in front of her

and she walks home in confusion.

If she had stepped in its path, would it have stopped?

Or is she meant to have been injured and hospitalised,

and maybe killed?
Is that God’s plan for her life?

What with her wondering, and her listening, and her confusion,

she is not as focused on her job as usual,

but she’s startled out of a fugue at her workstation on Wednesday,

by Sarah saying, “Ali. Ali! ALI!”

“Oh. Sorry, Sarah.  I was… daydreaming.”

Sarah grinned.

“You’ve got up to the bit about listening for the Spirit, haven’t you?”

“Yes! Is it obvious?”

“A little bit.  You should have seen Rosie when she did it.

It was a few years ago, now, and I was just a junior in the Youth Group,

but I remember her wandering around in a total daze!”

“Have you done the course?”

“No. I don’t know that it’s for me, you know?

I’ve talked to a few people who’ve done it,

and they say that he just talks to them a lot.

Well we get that on Sunday!

I’d rather do something in a group.

Like a Bible study.

Hey! Why don’t we start one?  You and me?”

“Ah, maybe.   I don’t think, right now, though –

I mean, I’d like to finish this course, first…”

Sarah rolls her eyes. “Alright, whatever.”
Ali feels herself flush.

It sounds like Sarah doesn’t like hearing Pastor Austeer talking!

“I just want to see if I can hear the voice of the Spirit.”

“Well, I guess if you hear the Spirit all the time,

like the pastor seems to,

then you wouldn’t really need to study anything, would you?

The Spirit gives life and the letter killeth, right?”

Ali’s jaw drops open.

“How did you know that he…”

“Did he say that to you?

Well, he does say it a bit.

Usually when someone else is quoting the Bible. “

Sarah grins.  “Anyway.  I still think a group is a cool idea.

I think I’ll talk about it to Esme and the Major.

They’ve invited me around this evening.”

And off Sarah goes, leaving Ali more confused than ever.

As she walks home that evening,

she strains her ears for the voice of the Spirit

and eventually, throwing open the door to her little room

she slumps onto her bed in disappointment,

and flops backwards onto the pillows.

“Oh, Jesus, help me.” She says to the presence in the quiet behind her eyes,

and suddenly, she feels completely at peace.

Without knowing how she knows, she knows that it is ok.

Jesus is still there for her,

despite her inability to hear this voice that the pastor talks about,

and Jesus will never leave her.

She turns her face to the pillow and sobs,

and the next day feels much better.

 

That afternoon, as she sits on the pastor’s couch once more,

she tells him about the cat

and she tells him about the car,

and she tells him about the toothpaste,

and she tells him about her prayer

and the immediate relief she had felt in Jesus’ presence.

She doesn’t tell him about Sarah, however;

she just doesn’t know how to say what she feels.

 

He is interested in everything she does say,

and most of all in the tooth-paste!

“That was excellent, Ali, excellent!

That was wonderful obedience!  Well done!”

“But the car…”

“Maybe that, too, was the voice of the Spirit.

Who knows what may have happened!

Certainly it was a test of your faith, Ali, wasn’t it?”

He looks at her so intently,

she feels her breathing hitch again, and whispers a “yes”.

Without taking his eyes from hers,

he pulls his seat up and sits directly in front of her

as she perches on the edge of the couch.

“Let’s try to hear the Spirit again, now, together.

No – keep your eyes open this time.

Listen – and obey.”

 

Ali listens,

and finds her mind beginning to fill with the many words spoken here,

washing around her;

“Love one another…”

“What they say is from the world…”

“A holy kiss..”

“The letter kills…”

 

And then, blazing to the forefront of her mind, the words, “Kiss Him!”

Her eyes drop from his to the thin lips beneath,

and then up again

as she replays those words in her mind

and hears again their insistence,

and so she obeys,

leaning into his kiss as he reaches out for her

and takes her into his arms.

 

That evening, as she prepares for bed,

and all the next day,

she feels like she is in a Rosie-like daze,

as she replays in her mind those few, fervent moments.

The pastor had confirmed that he, too had heard that command,

and that though it didn’t matter what the world thought

– they were free in their obedience to the Spirit –

it was best to avoid all appearance of evil,

and not put any stumbling blocks in the way of weaker brethren,

so not to mention it to anyone else just now.

Rather, wait, and see what the Spirit might command next time they met.

 

They see each other at church on Sunday, of course,

and Ali blushes slightly as he gives her a warm embrace,

and places a chaste peck upon her cheek.

He says nothing,

but she sees anticipation in his eyes

and spends most of the sermon wondering what, exactly

the Spirit might say when next they meet.

 

Afterwards, however, as she talks with the Rheeses,

her thoughts are turned in quite a different direction.

After asking about Rose, who is pregnant again,

Ali remembers that Sarah had been going to see them last week;

“How did your evening with Sarah go?

Did she tell you her idea about a Bible study?”

The major’s pleasant face turns thunderous again,

and he turns away, leaving Esme to answer;

“Well, yes, dear, she did,

but we don’t think it’s right.

You see, she doesn’t hear the Spirit.

Her Bible study would be quite wrong.

And besides; we can’t meet with someone who’s been dis-fellowshipped.”

“Dis… what?  Sorry, I don’t understand.”

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about.

I’m sure she’ll come around.

Pastor will explain it to you later this week.”
And that was all she would say on the subject.

 

Sarah wasn’t at church that day,

and throughout the following week,

Ali gets the impression that she is avoiding her at work.

Finally she finds her seated at her workstation,

doing data entry.

“ ‘Scuse me, Sarah.  Where does this account belong?”

Sarah takes a quick look at the file in Ali’s hand, mutters “Give it to Fiona,”

and turns back to her work.

“Sarah,” Ali tries again, “Is there something wrong?”

The previously bouncy bride-to-be glances up at Ali,

opens her mouth as though to say something,

then snaps it shut again.

With her lips pressed together in a thin line,

she turns back to her screen once more,

and shakes her head mutely.

Ali stands for a second, then, with a shrug,

returns to her own work.

There is a message waiting for her, there.

“Pastor Austeer says half an hour later this Thursday”.

She reads it, wonders, and then crumples it up.

No doubt he will explain when they meet.

But that meeting is starting to look very unlike the one she had anticipated.

 

As she walks up to the frosted glass door on Thursday,

it bursts open and an obviously unhappy Sarah steps out, sees her,

and swings around to walk back to the road across the neighbours’ lawn

rather than come past her.

As Ali stands gaping, she sees tears on her friend’s cheeks,

her complexion burning brightly beneath them,

as though she is deeply embarrassed – or overwhelmingly angry.

As she turns back to the door,

she sees the pastor there,

spots of colour on his cheeks, too.

He reaches out to embrace her,

but then drops his arms as she stiffens,

and simply stands aside and says, “Come in.”

Ali means to ask him about Sarah,

and what ‘dis-fellowshipped’ means,

but he raises the subject himself;

“Ali, does your work require you to talk much with Miss Massingham?”

“No. In fact, she won’t talk to me at all, now, if she can avoid me.”

“Ah. It would be best if you left her alone as much as you could, now.

Can you do that?”

“Well… yes, but why? What’s she done?

Is this what ‘disfellowshipped’ means?

Is this because of her Bible study idea?”

“No, Not because of the Bible study idea

– though that was obviously inappropriate –

but because she has chosen to walk, once again, in the ways of the world.”

“What’s she done?”

“She is pledged to keep fellowship with us, here,

but she has been attending meetings of false Christians

where they teach error and confusion.

She must not be double-minded,

and she will not commit to stay away from them in the future.

She is antichrist: “19 They went out from us, but they did not belong to us;

for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.

But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.”

If I can quote John, again.

She has been avoiding you

because she was hoping to weasel her way back into our fellowship

by not breaking the rules of disfellowshipping.

And I suppose she may have been trying to protect you from any taint.

Has she succeeded, I wonder?

Are you ready and willing to obey the Spirit in this, Ali?”

 

Ali sags onto the couch, and squeezes her eyes shut,

feeling tears pricking behind her eyelids.

What is the Spirit saying?

As though reading her mind, the Pastor immediately quotes from Revelation;

15 ‘ “I wish that you were either cold or hot.

16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot,

I am about to spit you out of my mouth. …

You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked…

21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne,

just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.’

22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying …”

Ali, you can conquer this,

you don’t have to be poor and blind,

you can sit on the throne with God!  With me!

Let me lead you.

Are you willing to obey, Ali? Are you?”

She feels him, kneeling in front of her, just inches away;

his hands upon her shoulders tremble slightly.

She’s terrified that if she opens her eyes,

she will see again the mouth that she kissed just a week ago.

In the dark privacy of her mind, she calls out as she had before,

“Oh, Jesus help me.”

And immediately opens her eyes to look directly into the face before her.

 

“I… I’m not sure what the Spirit is saying to me,

but… but I wonder – I don’t know – where is Jesus in this?”

“Jesus?”

“Well, yes.  He was always so kind when people came to him.

I… this… it just doesn’t feel like something he would do.”

“ Jesus! Jesus was just a man.

He died, abandoned by God.

It is the Spirit of Christ which matters.”

“Jesus doesn’t matter?”

“No. The Nazareth carpenter was just a disguise God used;

a suit of clothing that he no longer has any use for.

It is the Spirit not the flesh, that we must obey.

Will you listen to the Spirit, Ali?”

“But the Bible says…”

“Don’t get hung up on the dead letter!

It is the Spirit that counts.”

 

Ali reaches into her purse and draws out her little Bible,

opening it at the marked page with trembling fingers.

“I was reading what we were talking about a couple of weeks ago.

Just before he says that we are from God and they are from the world,

he says this:

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit,

but test the spirits to see whether they are from God;

for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

2 By this you know the Spirit of God:

every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,

3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.””

 

“But the deadly letter…”

 

Ali stands up.  “I don’t know what Paul meant by the letter,

but I do know that the Spirit he’s talking about

is totally different to the one you’re serving!

I’ll stick with the spirit of Jesus if that’s ok.”

She turns in the doorway;

“Please say goodbye to Esme and the Major for me.  They were kind.”

and then she leaves.

 

Ali is feeling good,

and tomorrow is going to be even better.

She’s moved towns, successfully,

she’s doing well in her new job,

and she’s going to a new church tomorrow.

Sarah, the girl at work who trained her,

has asked her to be her bridesmaid at the wedding,

and Ali is glad for the opportunity.

 

 

[1]1 John 4, NRSV, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

[2]2 Cor. 3:6

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The Human Cost of Consumerism

This video impacted on me – like a rotten egg on my Sunday morning face. I’ve lived in these cities, and met and enjoyed time with people like those featured here. I’ve seen the industrial waste dumped into the local farmer’s fish-ponds, and I’ve seen farmers turned off the land their families have been working for generations to make way for giant industrial complexes; leaving them with no option but to take new jobs for abominable wages in dangerous conditions. And, yes, I have a cell phone in my pocket.
What’s the answer? Well what about we start asking questions of the current round of ‘free’ trade talks. Because it seems to me that the ‘free’ market means the freedom of richer people to become even wealthier at the expense of poorer people.
How about we start insisting on fair trade, instead? How about we begin the long journey of changing our trade agreements, one commercial sector at a time, so that we only trade with those who offer their employees the same protections we insist upon for our own workforce?
How about we re-establish industries in NZ that have been outsourced (at great cost) to ‘cheaper’ (read ‘more easily exploited’) labour forces, and work to supply our own needs for things like electronics, and shoes, and fruit? What would it be like, if we all went back to eating food seasonally, instead of expecting to have everything available, all the time?
How about we offer favourable tariffs to enterprises that provide worker protections and benefits over and above the minimum standards (often non-existent) of their own legal setting?
Pipe dreams? Perhaps, but what are the alternatives? More of the same? More industrial deaths? More exploitation? Unceasing market ‘growth’ requiring increasing consumption of diminishing resources? More, More MORE?!
Perhaps we need to make a start on a new path. The one we’re on leads inevitably to a terrible cliff, and too many are falling by the wayside as we rush head-long to that drop. Perhaps we need to forget the ‘free’ market. We might end up with fewer consumer choices – but more real freedom. Until all are free, none are.

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I Wanna Be SUPER-CHRISTIAN! (Sermon for Advent, 4)

I wanna be Super-Christian!

I want to get up before dawn every morning without fail

and spend three hours in prayer and meditation!

I want to fast twice a week

without thinking once about my waist-line.

I want to be able to perform miracles of healing

and cast out demons,

and diagnose short legs and roots of bitterness

with a single glance of my compassionate eyes,

and then, with a mere gesture or a whispered word,

set people free from whatever it is that binds them.

I want to be so filled with faith that I never have a single doubt

and I never have to work again,

because all my needs are meet by God.

I want to be so free from materialism that I own nothing,

but can still give away hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

I want people to immediately think of me

when they’re asked what a great Christian looks like.

And I want to be so immensely humble

that I’m never aware of this mass adulation.

I want to be so good at evangelism

that I just have to walk into a room for everyone to be instantly converted.

I want to be able to read and remember a book of the Bible a day

and actually understand everything I read.

And everything I write

(or at least, everything my researchers write in my name)

becomes an instant best-seller.

And not just in Christian bookshops either.

I want this direct line to God,

so that I always know exactly what He wants me to do

and he always knows exactly what I want Him to do.

And he does it.

Because I’m such a fantastic Christian.

I wanna be Super Christian.

What a pity I’m just me.

And the Bible says this:

1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,

but do not have love,

I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

2 And if I have prophetic powers,

and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,

and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,

but do not have love,

I am nothing.

3 If I give away all my possessions,

and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,

but do not have love,

I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient;

love is kind;

love is not envious or boastful or arrogant5 or rude.

It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,

endures all things.

8 Love never ends.

But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;

as for tongues, they will cease;

as for knowledge, it will come to an end.

9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;

10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child,

I reasoned like a child;

when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,

but then we will see face to face.

Now I know only in part;

then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;

and the greatest of these is love. [1]

According to the Bible, nothing else really matters apart from love.

Only love is eternal.

Hope and faith are right up there,

but hope is all about the future

and one day that future will arrive and we will need hope no more.

And faith is our trust in the one who we do not now see,

but one day we will see him face to face

and our faith will be taken up into adoration.

Faith and hope will one day be redundant,

but love…

love is eternal.

When Paul wrote those words to the Corinthians,

he was writing to a church where people saw themselves as super-Christians.

Earlier in this letter he said he was writing to them,

“so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another.

7 For who sees anything different in you?

What do you have that you did not receive?

And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?

8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!

Quite apart from us you have become kings!

Indeed, I wish that you had become kings,

so that we might be kings with you![2]

Paul can be really sarcastic when he wants to be.

To this church full of puffed-up people

who thought that the goal of Christianity is to become super-spiritual

he prescribes a radical change of direction.

It’s not about you, he writes, it’s about other people.

It doesn’t matter if you can speak in tongues or prophecy or move mountains;

what matters is how much you love.

It’s important to anchor Sunday morning sermon thoughts in reality,

so having your own personal examples of what Godly love looks like

is far better than having a few vague words from the pulpit.

So can we just pause for a few minutes

and talk amongst yourselves at your tables.

Ask each other this question:

“Who do I know

or what have I seen

that has shown me what real love is?

1 Corinthians 13 type love?”

Anybody want to share the example of Love they thought of?

Of course, Jesus is the greatest single example of love that we know of.

Paul points us towards him when he wrote to the Philippians:

2 If then there is any encouragement in Christ,

any consolation from love,

any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,

2 make my joy complete:

be of the same mind, having the same love,

being in full accord and of one mind.

(and here’s where he really begins to warm up…)

3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,

but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

4 Let each of you look not to your own interests,

but to the interests of others.

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

7 but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

8               he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

This passage is one of the most important Christmas passages in the Bible,

because it talks about Jesus’ birth in the same breath as Jesus’ death,

and it shows us that the birth, no less than the death,

was an act of humility and obedience and love on Jesus’ part.

By entering into creation with us;

by becoming one with the world he made

Jesus healed the division between creator and creation.

In his body He is the bridge between heaven and earth.

And in his embrace of creation,

his holding and enfolding of sinful humanity into the inner life of the Trinity,

he didn’t stop at the manger

but continued to the cross and the grave.

Manger scenes tend to be prettily painted and very sweet.

I’ve done that myself.

The danger is that we miss the amazing indecency of what actually happened!

There was the out-of-wedlock conception,

There was the long journey in the final days of pregnancy,

There was the inability to find a decent room,

and the agony of birth – amongst animals!

There was the use of a feed-trough as a cradle.

There was a frightened and jealous king

who slaughtered an entire village of baby boys,

and there was a frantic flight by night from the danger zone

and being a refugee in a foreign land.

Jesus birth wasn’t especially pretty or lovely.

It wasn’t even a standard first century birth;

It was awful.

It was a pointer to the death that was to follow.

When God chose to close the gap between us,

he didn’t just come to the good things and the good people;

he came to the lowest of the low – shepherds and tax-gatherers.

Foreign astrologers and village no-bodies.

And in becoming human, Jesus embraced sin, and pain, and sickness

– and death.

Even death on a cross.

It is because God has entered into the very worst of human evil

and has destroyed it from the inside

that we have hope today.

Jesus has kicked down the doors of death

and thrown open the gates of the grave.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

10 so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

Christmas is the beginning of Easter

and Easter is the completion of Christmas.

The two holidays cannot be understood apart from one another.

This has obvious implications for us:

This means that Christmas is not all about getting stuff

but is all about giving to people.

Giving hope and forgiveness.

Giving respect, and care and attention and compassion;

those things that mean so much more than stocking-fillers

and make such an amazing difference in the lives of lost individuals.

Please turn again to those around you, or simply sit and ponder,

and  ask yourselves:

“what can I do this Christmas that will make a difference for someone else?”

(Close in prayer)


[1]The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

[2]NRSV, 1 Cor 4:6-8

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The Bible and Homosexuality: Key Biblical Themes 1

While debate regarding social, cultural, medical and scientific knowledge is informative, and should contribute to shaping our responses, it is not determinative; scripture is.  As the church, we do not exist or act primarily in response to changes in human knowledge, but in response to knowledge that is not accessible to humans by our own powers; we are formed by the revelation of God.  That revelation is first and foremost the Lord Jesus Christ, and the testimony of the church to Him in the form of scripture.  That revelation is experienced in an ongoing way in the life of the church through the reading and preaching of scripture by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The mission of the church, Christ’s Body, is to continue to incarnate God’s love by the Holy Spirit’s power, and in this mission the scriptures are an invaluable aid.  They are first and foremost the revelation of God himself.  Secondly they reveal to us who we are in relation to God, and God’s will for us.  In considering this issue, we must attend carefully to what Scripture says.

Key biblical themes: Sex and Sexual Immorality: The Bible is not especially focussed upon sex, but nor is it silent on the matter.  The sexual misadventures of numerous biblical characters are part of the record (David, Samson, Judah, Herod) as are the more everyday difficulties (Jacob and Rachael / Leah, 1 Cor. 7) and delights (Isaac and Rebecca, Song of Songs) of sexual relationships.  While it includes both dire warnings against sexual excess and rhapsodic poetry about sexual love, overall the bible is very realistic about sexual matters.

Marriage/sexual imagery is used in the scriptures:

In the Song of Songs, Ezek. 16 & 23, Hosea 1 – 4, 9, Matthew 22:1-14, 25:1-13, Eph 5:21-33, Revelation 19.7-9 & Ch. 21.  The appearance of wedding feast imagery at the culmination of John’s apocalyptic vision is not just an echoing of Jesus’ parables of the feast of the Kingdom, and the coming of the Son of man being like the coming of a bridegroom, and Paul’s teaching that marriage is modelled on the relationship of Christ and the Church.  It is also a recapitulation of the Eden story, renewing the ‘marriage’ of Eden in its spiritual dimension through the renewed relationship between creator and redeemed creation.

 

Genesis 1: Male and female are the image of God:  In the Creation accounts special attention is paid to the sexually relational aspect of human being.  The Genesis 1 creation story makes the creation of humanity the culmination of creation, declares that Adam (here meaning human-kind rather than a specific man) is made in the image of God, and then immediately says, “male and female he created them.”  It was theologian Karl Barth[1], in the modern era, who drew attention to the meaning of this fact; that it is in our male/female likeness and unlikeness, separateness and connection that we are human and that we image God; as so often occurs in Hebrew thought the second statement is an interpretation and extension of the first.  Just as God is three-in-unity so we are three-in-unity with God. This relational image of God found in our sexual relatedness is what makes images of marriage and adultery so poignant as descriptions of God’s relationships with his people through the centuries and throughout the scriptures.  It is therefore of high importance to us.

Genesis 2: Our Likeness and Unlikeness make Men and Women Right for each other: The Genesis 2 creation account is less focused upon the ‘image of God’ aspect of our sexual complementarity, and more upon the human aspect; that we are not fitted for isolation, nor is the companionship of animals enough, it is the one who is ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’ to whom we are drawn, and for the sake of which we leave our past in order to enjoy (re)-union with the ‘help meet’[2] God has provided for us.  It should also be noted that the command of God to “be fruitful and multiply” in chapter 1 and the “leaving father and mother, and cleaving to his wife, and becoming one flesh” of chapter 2 occur before the fall of chapter 3.  Sex (and the children who come) are commanded and blessed by God, and are neither the cause nor the result of the fall.  There is absolutely no biblical warrant for making eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil of chapter 3 into a symbol for sexual relationships. Thus the creation stories tell us that our sexual complementarity has a vital role in imaging the person of God, and that it is in sexual union that we find a completeness without which life can be very lonely.

Genesis 3:  The Fall corrupted our sexual relationships as well as those with the Earth and God.   Chapter three of Genesis is also significant, as it tells us that sexual relationality was one of the aspects of our life that is ‘cursed’ by the fall; in opting to become morally independent of God (knowing good and evil for ourselves) we find that sexual relationships become competitive and exploitative, and we are ashamed of our nakedness where previously there was freedom and openness.  These aspects of sexuality are writ large in the ongoing story of God and his people both at the national and at the personal level as the scriptures in the box above so graphically illustrate.  Sexual immorality and guarding against it are henceforth a regular, though not a dominant, aspect of scriptural teaching, found in the law, the wisdom tradition, the prophets, and in the teaching of Jesus and his followers.

Sex in Redemption: Jesus and Sexual Sin  What happens to sexuality in redemption?  In relation to immorality, believers in Christ are called to imitate his holiness (I will examine holiness separately below), but more positively, it appears that sexual union is sidelined!  Jesus was clearly in favour of sexual morality, teaching that immorality should be understood in terms of motivation as well as in terms of actions[3].  He was remarkable for his kindness and forgiveness towards those who were the victims of sexual sin, and just as remarkable for his fury towards those who “do not practice what they teach – they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to help them.[4]”  This ‘type’ of person is seen in action in the person of Simon the Pharisee[5], in contrast to the ‘sinful woman’ whose faith saved her.  Jesus appeared to be very compassionate towards those who suffered the tragic nature of everyday life, on the one hand, and very impatient with those who made religious pronouncements on the other.  He was no liberal, but neither was he punitive.

Jesus and Marriage:  As regards sexuality in general, the only appropriate expression of sexuality in Jesus’ day was in marriage, and Jesus’ presence at the wedding feast in Cana, where he performed his first miracle, has been taken as an endorsement of marriage per se.  While this is reasonable, it is also limited.  Jesus undoubtedly did bless marriage, just as he blessed the children who are the fruit of marriage.  Nevertheless, he also made both marriage and family subservient to a higher goal.  Whereas the teaching of the epistles tends to be described as socially conservative[6], the teaching of Jesus can only be described as shockingly radical.  When asked an academic question about the resurrection from the dead, intended to trap him between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, he tells them that their conception of the resurrection is totally inadequate because of their assumption that current relationships will continue unchanged.  This is not so, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven[7].”  Earlier, in response to another such ‘trap’ question, Jesus evades looking like either a moral liberal who condones divorce, or a biblical illiterate for ignoring Moses’ teaching on divorce, by pointing his questioners back towards the Genesis mandate for marriage and refers to God’s original intention – but then goes on to commend those who don’t marry for the sake of the kingdom of God[8].  Most radically, Jesus teaches that the call of the Kingdom trumps every other responsibility; even, shockingly, those of family – wife, brother, sister, father, mother, and children.[9]  So while we can see that Jesus upheld marriage as God’s good intention, and taught against those who treated it lightly, or who engaged in sexual sin, he did not give it an eternal status at an individual level.  It is inconceivable that marriage is the only way for us to be in the image of God as per Genesis 1, or else we would be saying that Jesus could not image God as a human being – and he undoubtedly did do so.

The Apostles and Sex:  Similarly, Paul was also unmarried, and did not see marriage as the most important social status.  At the corporate level, Jesus used marriage as an image of the kingdom to come (as shown above) as did the apostles after him; but, like him, they did not see marriage as the greatest good; Paul, especially, highly commended life-long celibacy, but this was in the context of saying that marrying (or not marrying – or slavery or freedom, or being Jewish or Greek) was not as important as our status in Christ[10]. Elsewhere, Paul regularly lists sexual immorality as a significant evil to be avoided[11] as do other Apostles[12], and as did the council of Jerusalem[13].  Marriage, according to the writer of Hebrews, is to be honoured, and the marriage bed to remain undefiled for God will judge fornicators and adulterers[14].

An Essential Passage:  One of the most significant passages in this respect is Paul’s plea to the Corinthians[15] to separate themselves from sexual immorality, specifically a form of incest.  He instructs the church to expel the guilty party, noting that while they can’t either judge the world, or refuse to associate with the immoral of the world, they must do so in the case of those who call themselves Christian.  As Paul develops his argument, he lists various ‘sinners’ as types of those from whom the church must be separate. Initially he uses a list of four (5:10), then expands that list, repeating the first four and adding another two items to it (5:11), then climaxing his argument by repeating the list again and including a further four items (6:10) – it is at this point that we see the inclusion of “male prostitutes, and sodomites” (see below on the 1 Cor 6 passage).  It is sometimes argued that vice lists such as these are incidental to the point of the passage, being simply stereotyped lists of vices that Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jews agreed were abhorrent.  However, the inclusion of several specifically sexual sins in this list is quite deliberate, as Paul has a further point to make.  If we notice that Paul first addressed a specific situation of sexual sin, and then continued by addressing an instance of economic exploitation (one believer taking another to court) we then see that this list is heavily weighted towards the condemnation of economic and sexual sins.  Paul’s expostulation that those who perform such sins are denied entry to God’s kingdom is contrasted with the status of the believers as holy, washed, and made righteous (‘justified’) in Christ and by the Spirit of God (6.11).  This echoes the earlier language about holiness (5:6-8) in terms of pass-over holiness, with a reference to Christ’s sacrifice as a pass-over lamb.  The culmination of the argument that follows is of high importance to us: 12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. [16]

The Body in the Apostle Paul’s Theologysoma [body] is a relational concept.  It denotes the person embodied in a particular environment.  It is the means by which the person relates to that environment, and vice versa.  …it is precisely ‘bodiness’ (corporeality, corporateness) which enables individuals as bodies to interact with each other, to cooperate with one another. Redemption for Paul was not some kind of escape from bodily existence, but a transformation into a different kind of bodily existence. …as it is human embodiment which makes society possible, so the church is the means by which Christ makes actual tangible encounter with wider society.

(Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle 1998, 56,61,563-4)

Another View: Bonnington and Fyall (1996, 6) note that modern preoccupation with the body emphasises either pleasure, health, strength, or beauty, whereas a biblical preoccupation with bodily life is “ethical, eschatological, and theological”; “Glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6.20)”

The specific sexual sin targeted here is the use of prostitutes.  The significance for us is that Paul, over and against those who see bodily life as irrelevant to the spiritual life, sees our bodily being as an essential aspect of discipleship.  Paul was clearly dealing with a form of hyper-spirituality, where some of the Corinthians are saying that, either because there is no physical resurrection (1 Cor 15) or because the resurrection has already happened in a ‘spiritual’ sense (1 Cor 4.8), they are no longer subject to normal restrictions, and bodily existence is purely a thing of this world which is passing away.  This explains both sexual immorality in the church, and a push towards asceticism (1 Cor 7:1)[17] as well as the assumption of spiritual superiority because of the more demonstrative spiritual gifts, and the disordered worship (1 Cor 11 & 14).  In contrast, Paul says that our body[18] is the temple of the Holy Spirit and our individual bodies are, literally, members of Christ.  What we do with our bodies matters, and to use them for illicit sex is to use the body of Christ for illicit sex.

In Conclusion:  All this is significant because we must not allow ourselves to simply negate God’s good creation of bodily and sexual human being, but we must see that it is ordered in very specific ways for our benefit, and for the sake of the gospel, and, ultimately, while it can be laid aside for the sake of that gospel it may not be abused without damage to that same gospel.  We “wait for the redemption of our bodies”[19] – we are presently part of the redeemed body of Christ, and yet, though we have the “first fruits of the Spirit” we continue to struggle with sexual temptations.  Our present task is to strive for holiness by God’s power, and to demonstrate Christ’s forgiveness in our fallenness, rather than pretend to the perfection for which we wait.



[1] (Barth 2004, 8, 184 – 185, 194 – 5, 322)
[2] The KJV term ‘help meet’ means ‘suitable helper’ and as has been pointed out many times since, is by no means a description of subordination, as the same term is regularly used of God.
[3] Matt 5:27-30,
[4] Matt. 23:3-4
[5] Luke 7:36-50.  Several commentators have wondered how it was that the woman was able to have such free access to Simon’s house, and how it was that he recognised her.
[6] I have described elsewhere (http://tbc-sermons.livejournal.com/27883.html) how much of the teaching of the epistles regarding family and other social relationships only appears conservative to modern eyes – in its day it was often radically subversive.
[7] Matt. 22.30
[8] Matt 19:1-12
[9] Luke 14.26
[10] 1 Corinthians 7
[11] Rom 13:13, 1 Cor 5:1, 6:13, 18, 7:2, 10:8, Gal 5:19, Eph 5:3, Col 3:5, 1 Thes 4:3
[12] 2 Pet 2:10; 1 John 2:16; Jude 7,
[13] Acts 15
[14] Heb 13.4
[15] 1 Cor 5 & 6

[16]1 Cor 6:12-20, NRSV
[17] Both these features are found in Gnosticism in the second century, where they are strongly associated with a Greek philosophical dualism between spirit (good) and body (bad or irrelevant).
[18] Here in vs 19 and also in vs 20, the word ‘body’ is singular, but the personal pronoun ‘your’ is plural.  In other words, the body that belongs to all of us – the church – not our individual bodies as such.
[19] Rom 8:23

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Homosexuality, Post 6: Changing Sexual Orientation

Can homosexuals change?

Christians sometimes assume that homosexuality is a simple matter of choice, and that those who engage in homosexual activity should just stop.  Others acknowledge the difficulty of living with sexual desires which seem to have no legitimate form of expression, and wonder about how individuals can change their desires.  Therefore the research on whether or how people can change their sexual orientation is relevant to our debate.

What do we learn from stories of orientation change?

What should we make of the fact that so many apparently ‘heterosexual’ women and men ‘discover’ or ‘admit’ to their homosexual feelings and adopt a gay identity in mid-life?  One thing it tells us is that sexual identity is often not fixed. Against those who claim that homosexuals can never be anything other than homosexual, the anecdotes of people who have lived heterosexual lives (including marrying and having children) and then ‘come out’ as homosexual, tell us that people can move from one form of sexual behaviour to another – and if in one direction then why not in the other?  The answer to this is that of course there is far more pressure upon homosexual people to behave like heterosexuals than there is on heterosexual people to behave like homosexuals, so we would expect far more people to persevere in heterosexual functioning despite homosexual desires, than vice versa.  The point is valid, however, that people who later identify as homosexual can and do live successfully as heterosexuals.  So we learn that people can change their sexual orientation, and that sexual orientation is often not an either-or matter, but can be a matter of degree.

Many homosexual people have tried and failed to change their sexual orientation.  We don’t know what ’causes’ homosexuality, and the relative roles of biology, environmental factors, experience, and individual choices in shaping sexual attractions remain vexed.  One thing most researchers agree, is that regardless of ‘cause’ homosexual orientation for many people does seem to be set at an early age, and does not change easily if at all.  For this reason it is usually (though not always) wrong to regard those who are homosexual as if they made a deliberate choice to be as they are.  As many have said, “Who would choose to be discriminated against, a target of revulsion and hate, denied the ability to have children, and at significantly greater risk of violence?”[1]  The element of choice does not appear to arise so much at the level of sexual attraction, as at the level of sexual activity, and identity.

The knowledge that homosexual attraction is difficult to change comes primarily from those who have tried and failed to live as heterosexuals despite homosexual feelings.  The literature abounds with these accounts, and it is undoubtedly true that a very large percentage, perhaps the majority, of gay people have resented and resisted their sexual attraction to those of the same sex, but eventually found that they could not either repress their homosexual feelings nor adequately pretend or produce heterosexual feelings to the degree necessary to pass as ‘normal’.  In these circumstances, it is often a welcome relief to stop struggling and adopt a positive gay identity.

Some succeed in changing:  The difficulties of shifting homosexual attraction are also confirmed by the experience of those who provide change services for those who seek it.  It is by no means true that homosexuality is always impossible to change – there are many individual stories of people who have achieved some success in their attempts to alter their homosexuality.  Anecdotes, however, cannot be generalised.  If we are going to seek for truth in human experience, then it is usually best to look at carefully designed research studies to gain a comprehensive picture, alongside personal anecdotes.

A recent study shows that change is possible, and that attempts to change need not be harmful.  The best study of the effectiveness of change was completed recently by Jones and Yarhouse[2] .  After at least 6-7 years of seeking change through religious programmes:

  • 23% of the 61 people in the study reported a successful conversion to heterosexual attractions.
  • 30% were living a celibate life, content with their reduction in homosexual attractions.
  • 16% had modest decreases in homosexual attractions and weren’t satisfied with their degree of change but were continuing the process.
  • 7% had seen no decrease in homosexual attractions but had not given up
  • 25% either gave up on the change process without adopting a homosexual identity (5%) or gave up and adopted a homosexual identity (20%)

While the slightly more than 50% of the study participants who reported success in terms of their treatment goals may make the treatment seem somewhat mediocre, ‘curing’ only half of those who seek change through it, these results have to be read in the context of the professional debate within American psychology, where many have held for a long time that change was essentially impossible, and that those who sought to change their sexual orientation were at high risk of harm from the change process[3].  The Jones and Yarhouse study successfully refuted both those claims.  The authors of the study agree, however, that change is not possible for everyone, and is easy for none, being “most likely when motivation is strong, there is a history of successful heterosexual functioning, gender identity issues are not present, and involvement in actual homosexual practice has been minimal.[4]

Even ‘truly gay’ people can sometimes change their orientation.  It is sometimes said, especially in relation to items two and four of that list, that those who describe changes in their homosexual orientation were never actually homosexual in the first place, but rather were bisexual[5], and simply eliminated homosexual behaviours from their lives.  Because of this possibility Jones and Yarhouse created a sub-group in their study, scoring a 5 or 6 on the Kinsey scale (see box).  In an earlier report on their study, 8 of the 11 who reported a complete reversal of orientation were from this sub-group of the study subjects[6], demonstrating that at least for some definitively homosexual people, such change is possible.

The Kinsey Scale

 This is a seven-point scale where 0 = exclusively heterosexual, 6= exclusively homosexual, and 5 = predominantly homosexual with some incidental heterosexual activity.  The two main difficulties with using the Kinsey scale are that it is a simple bipolar scale – that is, it assumes that an increase in one thing (homosexual activity) is matched by a corresponding decrease in the other (heterosexual activity) whereas these two things might in fact increase and decrease independently of one another.  A better way to show this is to plot the two dimensions on separate axes.  Another problem with the Kinsey scale is that it focuses exclusively upon behaviour – which is much simpler to define.  A much more ambitious and comprehensive scale is the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid, which plots seven dimensions: sexual attraction, sexual behaviour, sexual fantasies, emotional preference, social preference, self-identification, heterosexual/homosexual lifestyle.”  Jones and Yarhouse did, in fact, use much more complex means of measurement than the Kinsey scale alone.

In conclusion, we can say that while science has found some biological factors that may lead individuals to develop homosexual attractions, the development of homosexual identity is profoundly culturally influenced, and homosexual behaviour, like all human behaviour, is a human choice, significantly shaped by both internal desires (attraction) and cultural factors (identity).

Many succeed in changing homosexual behaviour, but homosexual attraction seems to be much more deeply rooted and difficult to change.

Many people agree that biological factors in themselves do not provide sufficient criteria for moral correctness.    This argument cuts both ways.  Those who wish to claim that the (admittedly slim) evidence for biological causation of homosexual orientation makes it a morally good or neutral state must also contend with the counter-claim that the human body is obviously designed for heterosexual intercourse.  On the other hand, those who point to the biological features of reproduction and heterosexual intercourse as invalidating homosexual activity are then unable to say “we cannot argue from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’ as regards biological factors.

The most significant consequence of the above material for Christian reflection is that it should give us pause in providing pastoral care to those who experience homosexual attraction; we should not assume that such feelings can be dealt with simply or easily, and our churches’ advice and assistance must be informed by the best available research, not simplistic pop psychology or wishful thinking.


[1] One answer, of course, is that many Christians have chosen to accept precisely those conditions in order to follow Christ.  People are capable of enduring great suffering for a cause they believe in, and joining with oppressed minorities has always been attractive to people of great idealism – especially the young.  We should also remember that people are also quite capable of choosing behaviours that they know to be dangerous, addictive, and expensive; sometimes as part of a desire to ‘fit in’, sometimes simply for the sake of pleasure – or as distraction from pain – sometimes for other reasons more complex.  Human choice is always an element in human behaviour, and doesn’t always look ‘logical’.

[2] (Foust 2009) (Jones and Yarhouse, Ex-gays?: A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation 2007)

[3] (G. C. Davison 1978) (Haldeman, Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy for Gay Men and Lesbians: A Scientific Examination 1991) (Haldeman, Gay Rights, Patient Rights: The Implications of Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy 2002) (Baklinski 2009)

[4] (Jones and Yarhouse 2000, 103)

[5] (Haldeman, Gay Rights, Patient Rights: The Implications of Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy 2002, 261)

[6] (Jones and Yarhouse, 2007, Ch 8)

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Homosexuality, Post 5: Science? So What?

What does the Scientific Research Mean for Moral Decision-making?

Biological arguments have been used to undercut moral arguments:  Suggestions that people are homosexual because they “are born that way[1]” are used in debate to undercut moral arguments that homosexuality is wrong.  “How can it be wrong”, people ask, “if homosexual people cannot be any different – this is simply the way they are.”  In Christian terms this is often phrased along the lines of “God made me gay, and what God makes is good.[2]

The Consequences of making biology = ‘good’

Several conservative commentators have argued that if we accept an apparently inborn homosexual desire to be the ultimate arbiter of what is right, then wouldn’t we have to extend the same courtesy to those who experience paedophile or bestial desires (Torrance 2000, 178-180)?  The response to this is readily apparent, however, in that those forms of sexual activity are by nature non-reciprocal, with an inherent inequality between the participants.  Another argument, that lacks the same emotional force but carries greater validity, is that if a subjective ‘quality of relationship’ criteria (it makes us feel good) was made into the primary or even only criteria for the test of a good relationship, then adultery, polygamy, premarital relationships and other consenting adult sexual relationships could be justified (Coleman 1989, 190), and yet we still see these relationships as improper despite their meeting criteria for being mutual and satisfying.  The real challenge comes when we are asked to consider a relationship that is committed (even legally sanctioned), honest, mutual, exclusive of all others, and homosexual.

Moral Conservatives don’t accept that biological facts should determine moral arguments: Biological (or “God made me Gay”) arguments have been an effective tool in public debate, but it is a little short of the full picture.  Moral conservatives and gay activists have both taken issue with the idea of biological determinism – the ‘born that way’ argument.  While some conservatives have simply denied any notion of biological determinism[3] (and some have even done so on scientific grounds![4]) in order to maintain that homosexuality is a moral failing, other conservatives have accepted the scientific findings, but tend to say that “we can’t argue from an is to an ought[5]” – in other words, we can’t say something is good simply because it exists.  Cancer exists.  So does multiple sclerosis.  These are biological conditions.  We don’t call them good simply because they are biological.  People are born with many different forms of disability, and we don’t call their condition good simply because they are born that way.  We know that there is a genetic predisposition towards addictions of various forms, and we don’t accept that addictions are natural or right[6].  Further, Christian moralists argue that we are all “born that way” – that is, in sin.  The Christian story is not just a story of God’s good creation, but also of that creation twisted out of true alignment by human sin.  The doctrine of the fall teaches us that no aspect of human existence is free from the taint of sin, and no individual is born onto a level playing field as a free moral agent; the tragedy of the human story is that the race of Adam is hopelessly enslaved to sin.  Homosexual orientation, by this view, is simply one expression in the human race of the tragedy of the fall, no less (and no more) than any other congenital difficulty.

Gay activists are also very cautious about Biological determinism:  Gay activists have also been very cautious about research suggesting biological determinism[7].  One reason is concern for human rights abuses; several studies have tended to suggest that homosexual preference is a malfunction of some aspect of neurology or endocrinology, and that children could be identified as gay then ‘fixed’ by medical or genetic procedures – or aborted to prevent the birth of gay people[8].  For gay activists, these options are deeply worrying.  Another concern arises out of the fact that most people see a significant role for socialisation in the development of sexuality.  This implies some element of choice, and gay activists argue for their right to make ‘choices’ in regard to their sexuality – sometimes at the same time as they argue that they are ‘born that way’![9]  Few of us are comfortable with the argument that we are simply puppets of our genes – or of our hormones, our position in our family, our early child-hood experiences, the size of our amygdale, or the functioning of our hypothalamus.

Different Forms of Homosexuality in Different Cultures

David Greenberg, a gay rights advocate, has written extensively about the social construction of homosexuality through history.  He discovered four general types of homosexual behaviour:

  • intergenerational, in which boys or young men are desired as sex objects by older men.
  • class structured, in which a lower-class or caste is expected to provide sexual services
  • transgenderal, in which one partner adopts the identity of the opposite sex,
  • egalitarian …The practice of same-sex behaviour between two consenting adults, the western model, is relatively new on the world scene…

 W. P. Campbell (2010, 85)

 

It is important to distinguish carefully between different aspects of homosexuality:  At this point it is helpful to distinguish again between homosexual attractions, activity, and identity.  It is clear that there are many different factors that impact upon the development of these three facets of homosexuality.  For example, while biological factors may have a strong impact upon the orientation of sexual desire, the notion of homosexual identity, by contrast, is very clearly a cultural construct, as homosexual behaviour is widely diverse across cultures.  One often-quoted study of a New Guinea tribe described how all boys are expected to perform sexual acts upon unmarried males in order to develop true masculinity.  Once young men are married, they are expected to function in an exclusively heterosexual way[10].  Similarly, a great deal is known about the high regard classical Greek culture held for male beauty and companionship, and the normative expression of this in pederastic relationships[11].   Clearly there is a role for culture and social expectations in shaping homosexual identity, and thus activity.  These are the favourite arguments of those who argue for a social constructionist perspective.  It should be noted, however, that while these observations have been used to cast doubt on the validity of notions of homosexual ‘nature’, they can equally be used to cast doubt upon notions of heterosexuality as ‘natural’[12]!

Blurring distinctions undermines argument.

This distinction is sometimes blurred in favour of point-scoring; for instance, in the following excerpt, the writer does not distinguish between homosexual desires, and homosexual activities and identity.  W. P. Campbell (2010, 85) writes: Geneticists tell us that if homosexuality or any such behavioural trait …were determined by genes it would appear in every major culture.  Yet researchers Clellan Ford and Frank Beach found homosexuality rare or absent in twenty nine out of seventy nine cultures surveyed.

Campbell wants to claim that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice rather than an innate (and difficult-to-change) orientation.  However, because Campbell ignores the difference between attraction and activity/identity, those who oppose his arguments can easily say that he’s ignoring the possibility that those who are innately homosexual simply suppress their attraction in cultures that don’t provide any legitimate or safe means for expressing it.

The conclusion we should draw from this is not that some aspects of homosexuality are biologically fixed and unchangeable (though that is possible), or that others are merely culturally determined and therefore malleable[13] (though that is likely), but simply that homosexuality is a complex phenomena and one that defies simplistic cause-and-effect formulas.


[1] The refrain from a popular song linked strongly to gay activism.

[2] (McNeill 1994, 50) (Lowe 2001, 5)

[3] (Consiglio 1991)

[4] (Jones and Yarhouse 2000)

[5] (Hays 1996, 398)

[6] The ‘alcoholism’ analogy is often raised by those opposing homosexuality e.g. (Hays 1996, 398); against this Siker says “Most persons with a homosexual orientation do not recognise themselves in the analogy” (Siker 1994, 183), since, as Lowe says, “The evil of alcoholism is readily apparent, but homosexual love is positively good.” (Lowe 2001, 5)

[7] (Byne 1994)

[8] (Burr 1994)

[9] (Guy 2002, 158)

[10] (the 1981 report of Gilbert Herdt, Guardians of the Flutes, (NY, McGraw-Hill) quoted in (for example) Jones and Yarhouse, 2007, pg 206-7)

[11] see esp. (Scroggs 1983)

[12] (Grenz 1998, 13-33)

[13] In fact learned behaviours can be almost as unchangeable as those that are biologically determined (Byne 1994)

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