Sunday, March 26, 2017

What Does God Really Say About Same Sex Marriage? Find Out Here.

Do you know what a guy says when he breaks up with a woman?  He says, “I broke up with her.”   But do you know what he says when the woman breaks up with him?  He says. “It was a mutual decision.”   Many years ago, I dated this woman named Karen, and well, when we broke up, it was a “mutual decision”.   

Still I got over the hurt.  We stayed good friends even.  We’d grab a bite to eat or hang at the beach.  We’d even talk about our love lives. One day, after a particularly tough romantic experience, I called Karen.  I asked if I could come over to unload.    But when I got there, I realized.  She had something to share herself.

She told me in her quiet way, “Kennedy, I have something to tell you.   I like girls.”  Strangely enough, I wasn’t shocked.  It made sense even.   She told me.  She had struggled with it her whole life.   But only lately had she been willing to admit a truth she had known all along.    

Later, she moved west to Iowa for graduate school.  We kept in touch.  We talked about her struggles as she dated women and yearned for a long term relationship.   Then she met Lisa, a friendship that blossomed into love.  A few years later, she and Lisa visited me at the church I pastored on Long Island. And I married them, with two of our church’s elders standing as proud witnesses. 

Now Karen and Lisa have stayed together for 20 years.   They have raised two sons that Karen conceived through artificial insemination.  It hasn’t been easy.  Both of their boys have special needs.  One of them, Aidan, almost died, and for months, Karen lived in San Francisco as he went through surgery after surgery there.    And Luca, their other son, has autism.  But through it all, they have stayed together. 

And Karen has always been a devoted Christian.   That’s how we met.  We both were working at the same church in New York City.  We’ve often prayed together.   Karen’s prayers have always lifted me up.   And I’ve lifted up many prayers for her too.

But was I right to marry them?   After all, Many Christians frown upon these relationships.   These words from Ephesians that we read again today imply that marriage is something that happens only between men and women.   So do these words apply to Karen and Lisa and others like them?   These questions don’t only impact Karen and Lisa.   They impact thousands, millions of people, who want to follow Jesus, yet are attracted to the same-sex.   Are these two things incompatible?   In the words we’re about to read, and in Jesus’ own words that we will explore too, God shows us the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.


Do these words apply to two men getting married or to two women?   And the answer is that at least as they were written, they don’t.   They don’t apply for good reason.  In Paul’s day, these marriages didn’t even exist.  And for that reason, you can’t look at this passage alone to understand what God has to say about same sex marriage.   After all, the Bible doesn’t say anything about smart phones or cars or computers either.  Why?  Those things didn’t exist either.

But let’s be clear, same sex marriages didn’t exist, but same sex relationships certainly did.   And the Bible has some choice words on those relationships, and they aren’t good.  

Right at the beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he goes off on this mini-sermon on how awful pagan culture is with its idols and obsessions.  And in the middle of it, Paul says this.  

“Refusing to know God, they soon didn’t know how to be human either—women didn’t know how to be women, men didn’t know how to be men. Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men—all lust, no love. And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it—emptied of God and love, godless and loveless wretches.”

Wow, that doesn’t sound good.  And it’s not.  Paul is pointing to something that has as much relevance today as it did then.   We live in a culture that has all sorts of sexual confusion and dysfunction.   Tens of millions of people, gay and straight, look at pornography, and they pay the price in relationships caught up in a false sexuality that has no basis in reality.  Way too many know the emptiness that comes from sex without love and commitment, and it is destroying them. 

Yet interestingly enough, even as Paul is certainly against that behavior, that’s not why he is giving that sermon.  Instead, Paul is using it to actually catch out religious people not pagan ones.   In his words,  he is setting up a sermonic surprise attack.   You see.  As Paul starts condemning pagan culture with its narcissistic and idolatrous ways, religious folks would have been eating it up.   Yeah, Paul, you get ‘em; those nasty pagans with their depravity.   But right at the end of the sermon, Paul throws a curveball.  He says this.    

Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.

Paul is telling them, your self-righteousness is blinding you.  You need God’s grace and forgiveness as much as the pagans do, maybe more.  The great Christian writer, C.S. Lewis put Paul’s point this way.

If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong.  The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins.  All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasure of power, and hatred….Thus a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.

Wow, C.S. Lewis had a way of putting things.  But you still might be thinking.  Ok, judgmentalism is bad, but still Paul does say those things about same sex relationships, doesn’t he?  But here’s the problem.  It’s the same challenge we ran into with the words in Ephesians. 

Paul had no idea that a love based relationship between two people of the same sex could even exist.  In his culture, the typical same-sex relationships were lust-based ones, things like older men having relations with teenage boys.  That’s what Paul is focusing on here, what he knows. 

Paul’s words don’t describe the relationship of my friends, Karen and Lisa.  They haven’t turned away from God.   Their relationship is not based on lust.  It’s based on a deep love and commitment. Heck, it’s kept them together for 20 years.   So, is there anything in scripture that could help us to understand whether a loving, committed same-sex relationship is morally right or wrong?  There is.  But it comes in a place you would not expect.  It comes when Jesus talks about food. 

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says these shocking words, at least to his hearers. 

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable.  He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)  And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.  For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Now how do these words of Jesus’ give us guidance on same sex relationships?  To see that, you   
need to understand what Jesus is talking against, something called a cleanliness code.  

After God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God gave them a complex set of these cleanliness codes to order their life.  God called them for example to separate dairy products from meat ones.  These laws had deep roots in spiritual understandings.    For example, when you separate milk, the stuff that sustains a newborn creature, from meat, the flesh of a dead animal, you are symbolically separating life from death.   But the codes carried more than just symbolic meanings.  They helped Israel establish a clear identity, one that helped them from falling into the idolatry of their neighbors.  So these cleanliness codes by Jesus’ day had become one of the key ways to tell how close a person was to God.   

But here Jesus blows that apart.  Jesus says. Outward actions don’t define your righteousness.  The state of your heart does.    Righteousness can’t go from the outside in.  Righteousness has to come from the inside out.   This may seem obvious to us.  But in Jesus’ day, his words rocked the religious world. 

His words blew away all the old categories of defining who is in and who is out.  In the early church, it led them to welcome and include all sorts of people who before had been excluded.   The early church welcomed Samaritans, even though in the past they had been considered un-clean.  Then it welcomed eunuchs, even though sexual mutilated people had been considered unclean.   Then the early church welcomed Gentiles, even though their dietary habits had before made them unclean.   When a tension developed between an outer category that had previously made a person un-clean and the inner state of that person’s heart, the church followed Jesus’ example.  They looked to the heart.  These decisions did not come easily.  No other decision generated more controversy than the dropping of the cleanliness code as a definer of one’s relationship with God.   But the church did drop them.    

Now what does this have to do with same sex relationships?  Everything.   A cleanliness code helps you define something’s proper place.   If something’s not in its proper place, it’s dirty.  It’s unclean.   If meat gets mixed with dairy, the food becomes un-clean, and those who eat it become unclean.   Now we don’t have nearly the cleanliness codes of Jesus’ day, but we do have some. 

Let’s say you spill water on a table.  Why when you do that, do you say the table is dirty?   Did the drink transform into dirt when it hit the table?  No, of course not.  You know.  The drink is not in its proper place.   And thus it has become dirty.  Drinks belong in cups.  They don’t belong on tables. 

It’s the same reason that when my nephew went to work in China, one of the first words he learned was the word for dog.  Why?  The idea he might unwittingly eat dog in a restaurant terrified him.   Now, if he’d eaten dog, would he have died?   No, dogs are perfectly fine to eat.  But for most Americans, they’re not.  Dogs belong in our backyards not on our dinner table.  In other words, when it comes to eating, they’re not clean.    

And in the Bible, concerns about same sex relationships rose up out of these cleanliness codes.  Women and men go together.  Women and women don’t.  A man with a man is not in his proper place.  He’s unclean.  Now for the early church, they had no problem keeping this code in effect.  Why?   When they saw men with men or women with women, they did not see only an outward rule broken.  They saw twisted hearts; the twisted hearts that Paul described in Romans. 

But what happens when a couple doesn’t exhibit the twisted heart.  What if they haven’t turned away from God?  What if their relationship is not based on lust or idolatry but on love and commitment?  What if their relationship enables them not to exchange the truth for a lie but the exact opposite?  What if their relationship enables them to exchange a lie they’ve been living for a truth they’ve denied  Do you continue to focus on the outward category or the heart?   If you follow the direction of Jesus’s words, then you look to the heart. 

So when I look at my friends’ faithfulness to each other, I see no contradiction between that faithfulness and their faithfulness to God.    Two people can live in a committed, loving, same-sex relationship and live faithfully as followers of Jesus.  In our own denomination, so many have come to this same conclusion, that it gives permission for pastors to marry folks of the same sex if they so choose.    

Now, you might disagree with this interpretation.  Many Christians do.  But in the meantime, wherever you stand, let’s steer clear of judgment.  It saddens me when I see Christians label other Christians as bigots or question others’ commitment to Jesus rather than try to understand their honest attempts to discern God’s will.  

But how can you do that, when you feel so strongly one way or the other? You look to Jesus.  You look to what God in Jesus did for you   When God went through infinite agony on the cross, God did it because without it you had no chance.   You had become so lost, so twisted up, that nothing less than the death of God could save you.   But God loved you so much that God was glad to pay that price.  Hebrews tells us that for the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross.  And you are that joy.  And when you know that, what God had to do to bring you home, it frees you from judging others.  You realize that gay, straight or whatever, everybody is equally lost.  And it frees you from judging yourself. Why?  You see how infinitely God loves you, not because of what you do or not, but simply because you are.   And when you know that love, you have a love that defeats disagreements; that defeats death; that defeats everything. 


Sunday, March 19, 2017

What Is the One Thing That Makes for a Great Marriage? And Why Is That One Thing Different Depending on Your Gender? Find out Here

Do you know that Christmas story by the writer O. Henry.   It goes something like this. This poor young couple has nothing to give each other at Christmas.  But the woman has this beautiful long hair.  So out of love for her husband she sells her hair to buy him a chain for his beloved pocket watch, a gift from his father.  At the same time, the man sells that very same pocket watch to buy his wife a beautiful tortoise-shell clasp for her long hair.   So Christmas arrives. They open their gifts.   And as they look at these now useless gifts, they realize that in these gifts they have received a gift far more significant. They now know that they love each other so much they are both willing to lay down what they value most to give for the other.  It’s a great story.  But s that the way it really works in the world of relationships?   I think this darker version gives a more painfully accurate perspective.    

As in O”Henry’s story, my poor young couple also has nothing to give each other at Christmas.  And the wife, Jane then sells her hair for a watch chain for her out-of-work, discouraged husband.  Meanwhile the husband, Tom, after a hard day of job-hunting  grabs a drink with his buddy Jim before heading home. He tells Jim, “This Christmas stinks.  I don’t have a job.  I don’t even have a gift for my wife.”  And Jim says, “No problem, Tom, here’s 20 bucks.  Go out and get something.”   Tom remembers that she was complaining about the tea kettle.  So off he goes to Target to to get one for his beloved.  As he drives home, he’s feeling better.   “At least I got something,” he thinks.  She’ll see that I’m trying to do right by her.”

But Jane is at home, wondering. “Where is Tom?  He better not be drinking with Jim, after I sold my hair to buy him this gold chain.”  Tom comes in the door smiling.  He places the Target bag on the table.  “Merry Christmas, sweetheart”   Jane looks in the bag.  She sees the tea kettle.  She thinks, “A tea kettle?  This is the best he can do?”   She throws her gift across the table and pulls off her hat.   “Look, I cut my hair off for you to buy you this chain, and the best you can do is a tea kettle?  But Tom doesn’t really understand what’s happening.  He turns to his wife, “What happened to your hair?”   Janes yells back.  “I cut it off for you.  Don’t you understand, I cut it off for you.”   But Tom is thinking, “I liked her hair, and yes, the watch chain is nice, but she had such nice hair.”  He assures her, “Don’t worry, honey, it’ll grow back in, and you’ll look as beautiful as when I first married you.”   But this comment does not have the effect that Tom thought it would.  The fight just gets worse.   Tom thinks, “I did the best I could, and it doesn’t count for anything.”   So out the door he goes to get Jim’s feedback and sympathy.  As the door slams, Jane thinks, “I can’t believe it.  My husband is going back out drinking on Christmas Eve?”   15 minutes later, as Tom walks into the bar, she calls him, telling him that he better get his little tookus home right now or else.  Tom looks to his buddy, Jim, and says, “Bro, don’t ever get married.  Your life is no longer your own.”   Sadly, he puts on his coat and heads home. 

Now how do you make sure that your marriage looks more like the first story, and less like the second?   In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

Ephesians 5:21-33

The preacher Andy Stanley said.   I have never seen an ugly wedding but I have seen lots of ugly marriages.  But how does that happen?  That question can have lots of answers, but in the words we just read, God points to maybe the most important answer of all.   What often messes up marriages has to do with men and women, how they relate to each other in marriage or rather don’t relate to each other, at least well.  How do men and women in marriage come together to make their relationship work?  Here God tells you.  God says.  Making your marriage work lies in you giving up your power, and that giving up tends to look different depending on your gender.

At the beginning, Paul makes it clear.  In marriage, both men and women have to give up power.   That’s why the passage begins with these words.  “Be subject to one another, out of reverence for Christ.”    This passage does not endorse a lack of equality that places men above women in marriage.   Instead, you could say it endorses a sort of mutual inequality.  Each partner need to give up their power to the other, and this this giving up tends to look different, depending on your gender.

How does it look different?  Let’s start with how giving up power usually looks like if you are a man.   Why start there?  Because God took twice as much space to talk to men here as he did to women, so it makes sense to begin where God put the emphasis.   

In these words, what does God, through Paul, tell men to do?  He tells them to love their wives.   And in that command God is showing men the power they have in marriage.  The more men effectively take the lead in loving their wives, the better their marriage will be.   But here’s the problem.  Men often don’t take the lead.   Out in the world, in the workplace, with their friends, men often take the lead but in their marriage, not so much.   What do I mean?   In marriage, men tend to get lazy. So they don’t treat their wife like their lover, but more like their mother.   So here’s the pattern that typically develops in many marriages.   

In marriage, the women dress them.  They decide what they’re going to eat.  They give instructions on the kids.  They deliver their “honey do lists” so they know what they’re supposed to be doing and when.     Now men think that this is just great.  Everything is good.  I’m being a good husband.   But usually the woman is not thinking that at all.  She is thinking, “When is this guy going to take the lead around here?  Why am I always the one who has to tell him what I need, what I want, what needs to be done, what he needs to wear, what matches and doesn’t, what he needs to eat and not eat?  This is ridiculous”   

Why is she thinking that?  It’s because all this passivity sends a powerfully hurtful message.   The man is communicating that this relationship isn’t important enough for him to take the initiative.  I’ll do that at work.  I’ll do that with my buddies.  But here, in my home, with my wife and family, I don’t think so.   And that’s the power men need to give up, this power of entitlement that lays back on leadership in the very place their leadership is needed the most.   They must lay down this power that lays all the responsibility for nurturing and sustaining the relationship on the woman. 
Now this is hard for men, because what our partner needs to feel, men often don’t.  At times, my wife has said to me.   I think you’re angry about something.  I can tell.  And I say, “No, I don’t feel angry at all.” Then a few days later, I’ll come back and say.  “You know.  You were right.  I was angry.  I realize that now.”   And she looks at me stunned at how a person can be angry and not even know it.  But for lots of guys, that’s perfectly normal.     So trying to take the lead with this person, whose emotions are often so much more on the surface than our own, that’s hard.  It requires men to get out of their comfort zone, to do things that for them may not seem all that necessary at all. So a man can ask.   “Why in the world does she need that to feel loved by me?”           

That’s why Paul says to men, “Men, when your body is hungry, what do you do?  You feed it. ”    Paul knows.  Men may not know if they’re really feeling angry, but they sure know when they’re feeling hungry.   So Paul says what you know how to do for your body, you need to learn how to do for your partner.  What your marriage needs is your loving, sensitive and proactive leadership.   What does this look like? 

It may mean going home and saying to your wife, “This year, I’m going to shop for my own clothes, and I will work hard on buying something that will show I care about my appearance.”  It could mean saying.  “This week, I will take the kids for a night so that you can go out and spend time with your friends.”    It might mean taking the lead in making your own Honey-do list, and then actually getting it done  or setting up a date night or picking up some flowers to surprise her one evening.   The specific actions can differ, but what matters is that you are doing them.  You as the man are taking the lead in the loving, the lead in making the relationship strong, the lead in making your partner feel valued.    You are saying to your wife.  I cherish you.  I will make you and this family the top priority of my life…….But what if this happens?  What if a man gets serious about taking more responsibility in the relationship?  What if he starts really working to show that he cares about his wife’s needs not simply by his words but by his actions?

Then something like this can happen.  The woman thinks, “I know this guy.  I love him, but no way can he pick out his own clothes, and if I leave him with the kids, he’ll probably lose one of them.  And he’ll never be able to put together a decent to do list.  And, if he sets up a date night, who knows where we might end up?”   So she resists giving over any of this power and responsibility.  When she reacts this way, the guy usually doesn’t push back.  He gives up.  He goes, “Oh well, what’s the use?  And it’s back to business as usual.”  

And that’s the power that the woman has to give up, her need for control, her unwillingness to let go and trust her partner, even when he doesn’t do it exactly as she desires.  A woman has the power to destroy her marriage by shaming her partner, by communicating to him directly or indirectly that he is not worthy of her respect or confidence.   What does this look like?  
  
Let’s say a husband brings home a box of chocolates to his wife for Valentine’s Day.   But she asks, “We’ve been married for ten years, and you still don’t know that I like the truffles and not these?”  Well, the next year, the husband, now feeling burned, backs away from responsibility.  He thinks, “I’ll get a Godiva gift certificate, and that way, she can pick up exactly what she wants.  No more problems.’   Now the wife is more upset.  She doesn’t understand why he couldn’t go to the trouble of picking the chocolates himself.   So what is this guy’s problem?

At the risk of gross oversimplification, here’s the problem.   For women, often what they most need from their spouse is to feel their partner’s love and affection.  And what do men need?  They need to know they have their partner’s respect.  And the less they have it, the less confident they feel to take the lead in loving that their spouse needs.  That’s why when Paul talks to women, he focuses on respect.  Paul is saying.  You empower your partner when you affirm any responsibility he takes instead of critiquing it.  You set him up to succeed.   So when men begin taking responsibility, then women have to let go and let them, and affirm them in those steps, as feeble as they might be, instead of reacting critically.  What does this look like?   Maybe something like this.

 “Honey, you are so amazing for bringing these chocolates, and Godiva too, very impressive.  But if sometime, you could bring me some of their truffles, well, then you would just send me right into heaven.”   Guaranteed that man will be buying truffles and soon.  Or for a more pedestrian example, “When you pick your underwear off the floor, it makes me feel so good that you’re being sensitive to how much responsibility I have with the house and the kids.  It really is thoughtful.”   Well the man feels like he is a success and maybe not only will he pick up the underwear, he might even take on some more household chores.   Or, “You did such a terrific job with the kids this afternoon.   Thanks so much.”   Now as he succeeds there, he might take on a whole weekend with the kids in the future.  When a woman sets up her husband to succeed, even when it means letting go of a responsibility that she thinks she could do better, she is letting go of her power to destroy her partner by shaming him and not respecting him.

Now if you are thinking, “Yep, my partner needs to stop criticizing me like she does.”   Or, Oh, he so needs to take more responsibility for nurturing this relationship.”   Guess what?  That’s not your job.   Your job is not to change your partner.  Your job is to change yourself.


But how do you do that?  How do you let go of that power, whether it be entitlement or control?  You look to the one who gave up everything for you.  When you walked away from God, God didn’t.  God took the lead in winning your love back.  In Jesus, God even became one of you.   In Jesus, he showed you that he cherished you so much that he gave up his very life for you.   And in that love, God relinquished control as well.  Even when you were at your worst, Jesus never condemned you.  Instead on that cross he prayed this for you.  Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.    As you see how God took the lead in loving you, through that grace and love you will discover more and more the power to take that lead in your marriage.  And as you see how God let go for you, how God always affirmed you, you will gain the freedom to let go of control and affirm your partner.    And as you do, your marriage will blossom and grow into the beautiful creation that God intended it to be, a creation that even mirrors God’s amazing love for you.  

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

What Is The One Crucial Power Difference Between Men and Women?

I really like to tell jokes.    So it didn’t surprise me when I was thinking about the topic for today, that I remembered a joke.

Little Billy and Susie lived next door to each other.  And each Sunday, the two walked together to their respective churches.   Billy went to the Presbyterians while Susie went down the street to the Methodists.  One Sunday as they walked, they saw that the bridge over the creek had washed away.   Susie said. “I’ll be in big trouble if I get my Sunday clothes wet.”  Little Billy said, “So will I!  What do we do?”  Susie said, “Well, why don’t we take our clothes off,  fold them up and put them on top of our heads?  That way we both get across, and we can put on our clothes on the other side.”   So sure enough, they both undressed, put their clothes on top of their heads, and walked through the creek.  On the other side, they put their clothes back on, and headed off to church.  But as they walked, little Billy became very quiet.   Susie asked.  “What are you thinking, Billy?”  And Billy said, “I never realized there was such a big difference between Methodists and Presbyterians.”         

Now Billy was right.  He and Susie were different, but it had nothing to do with where they went to church.  More than that, those differences between both men and women, both the real differences and the false ones, continue to create some of the most challenging issues not only in marriage, but everywhere. 

Are men and women really that significantly different?   What are those differences? What difference do they make in the world around us?  What difference do they need to make?  In the passage we look at today, God addresses those very questions.   And as you hear what God is actually saying here, you will discover a message that liberates both men and women.  It liberates them to live out the unique gifts each has.  More than that, God’s message points the way to a world that truly values the different gifts of women and men, equally and fairly.   So, let’s hear what God has to say. 


What are the differences between men and women?   What impact do those differences need to make?   Here, God addresses these very questions.   And the answers God gives might surprise you.  
What is the main difference between men and women? It lies in how each uses their power.   And only when people honor and value both feminine and masculine ways of using power do the relationships between men and women become what God intended them to be not only in marriages, but everywhere.

So before, we look at how these power dynamics need to play out in marriage relationships, we’re going to look at how they need to play out in every relationship.   So next week, we’ll address marriage relationships in particular, and then to cap off this part of the series, the following week, we’ll look at the question of same gender relationships, and how they fit into this whole conversation.
Now almost everyone hears the words we just read today as endorsing a difference that goes like this.  Men get more power, and women get less.   Yet that interpretation, one that you’ll often hear in Christian churches, misses Paul’s entire point.  So what is Paul’s point?

Well, first Paul is saying that between men and women real differences do exist.   And more and more, research confirms this reality.    For example, science has confirmed that women see gradations of color far better than men do.   So, guys, when she tells you it doesn’t match, believe her.  Her brain is just better on that than yours.   And the list of differences goes way beyond that, and it gets longer all the time.

Yet Paul here is getting at something deeper, something more basic to who men and women are.  And to do that, Paul naturally speaks in broad terms.   For example, when Paul addresses men, he focuses on telling them to love their wives, and when he addresses women, he focuses on telling them to respect their husbands.   So does that mean women aren’t supposed to love their husbands or that men aren’t supposed to respect their wives?  No, of course not.  That would be ridiculous.   Paul is pointing to tendencies that occur in relationships, tendencies that are rooted in the different ways men and women tend to exercise power, tendencies that are literally rooted in creation.  

So to understand those differences that Paul is addressing, that’s where you need to begin.  You need to go back to creation, to the stories in Genesis.   And what does Genesis tell you?

Let’s begin at what God tells you about men.  In the beginning, God gave Adam, the man in the garden, a specific job.  God told Adam to name the animals.   Now, why in the world did God do that?   Did God have a creative block when it came to animal naming?   Sheesh, Adam, I can’t figure what to call these feathered things that fly?  Can you help me out? 

No, God is telling you something deeper.  God is telling you how men tend to exercise power.   When you name something or someone, do you sit down with the namee, and go through the options?   No, you just deliver the name, and that’s it.  When Chantal and I named our son, Patrick, he never got a say.   We just decided that was the name our son was going to have.  The same holds true, when you name anything.   I named my cat, Moonie, and that was that.  He didn’t get to choose.    But that naming function points to a certain way of using power to order the world.   It points to power that goes out and simply delivers the verdict; that gets it done. 

A few years ago, the consultant and researcher, Carol Kinsey Goman did research on how men and women communicate differently in business settings.   Do you know what she found were men’s three greatest communication strengths.   Beyond commanding physical presence, it was direct and to the point interactions, and effective display of power.   Now, why did men have those strengths?   It’s because men are namers.  That’s how they tend to exercise power in the world, directly and to the point.   

And on the other hand, when God creates Eve, how does God define her purpose in relationship to Adam.   God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”    Now, in how we read those words, we assume that means Eve had a subordinate role, Adam’s little helper.  But that assumption could not be more wrong.   In the Bible, the word helper, almost always exclusively refers to God, as in God, our help and our salvation.  And that makes sense.

What does helping imply?  It implies that someone needs your help, that on their own, they do not have the power to do what they need to do, and you do.   For example, when I help my son Patrick put on his clothes, it is because I have a level of power there that he doesn’t yet have.   Now, if I simply just always do it for him, am I actually helping him? No.   If I want to help him, I will use my power to enable him to eventually have that power himself.  

And do you see what that tells you about how women tend to exercise power in the world?  They tend to use their power in such a way so as to enable and empower others.   For example, when Goman looked at women’s top strengths in communicating in business settings, what were the top 3?  She discovered that women have strong listening skills and great ability to pick on non-verbal signals and to show empathy, in other words skills that enable them to multiply their power by enabling others.  

Now does that mean that women don’t name things or can’t directly exercise power?  Of course not.   Nor does it mean that men can’t be good at listening or developing teams.  It is simply saying that generally women and men bring different tendencies and gifts to how they exercise power and relate to others.  For example, if a woman directly exercises power, it is generally done out of a motivation to empower others.   And when a man develops a team, it is done out of his desire to get something done.    

More than that, God is saying that neither of these tendencies can stand alone.  The first time in the Bible that the words not good appear, they appear here.  Why?  God is saying that Adam is missing something.   In other words, the different gifts and tendencies that women and men tend to have are ones that the other needs.   They complement each other.   After all, if you want to get something done effectively, what do you need?  Do you need the ability to directly order things in certain ways?  Or do you need the ability to empower others to together get things done.   And the answer is that you need both.   And when both those ways of approaching people and exercising power get honored and valued then human beings flourish.   

Yet, tragically that hasn’t happened, and in Genesis, God lays out that reality too.  After the fall of human beings in the Garden, God gives a painful picture of how evil twisted the relationships between men and women. God says that now due to this break in relationship with God, men will struggle with thorns and thistles as they work, and women will desire their husbands even as their husbands rule over them.  In other words, men will be frustrated in effectively making an impact in the world.   And in their frustration, they will become tyrants, particularly in their homes.   And women, instead of bringing to bear their gifts of using power in interdependency, will find themselves caught in a fearful dependency on the men in their lives.   And as a result of this twisting of God’s vision for the relationships between women and men, the whole world  suffers.     

In other words, when people say that the ideal of the Bible is that the man rules over the woman while the woman lives in adoring subjection; that is the exact opposite of the Bible’s ideal.   The ideal of creation portrays two people, who bring together different but complementary ways of being in the world.  And by so doing that, they together bring fulfillment not only to each other but to the whole creation.  

Yet, too often in our culture, and in the church as well, only masculine ways of power get affirmed.   People act as if that is the only way that power can be exercised.  Yet from the beginning, God affirmed that power comes in both ways, not only in power to, but also in power through.   And only when both forms of power get affirmed and honored, can human beings become all that God created human beings to be.


How do you live into this vision?  How do you live into it in your workplaces, in your families, in your neighborhoods?   How do we live into it here as a Christian community?  You look to the God from whom both those forms of power come.  And you look to how God in Jesus showed those forms of power together in one person.   Jesus, who empowered his disciples to heal and proclaim, and who boldly ordered the demons to flee.   Jesus, who gave up all his power, so we might be empowered to live joyfully as God created each of us to be.    When you see what God in Jesus did to break this curse, including the divisions and inequality between women and men, that has brought such suffering and brokenness to our world, it will free you.  It will free you to use wisely the ways of power that God has given you.  It will free you to learn from and honor the ways of power God has given others.   And together, by God’s grace, it will free you to work with God, to create a world where difference is valued and honored, where both women and men find their gifts affirmed, and where as people flourish together so does all creation.  

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Three Things That Will Bind You Not Only to Your Spouse But to God And to Others

I love my cat, but I don’t want to look like him.  Yet some folks seem to get so wrapped up in their animals that they start looking way too alike too.  

 Just look at this woman and her dog.  I don’t know but that’s almost a little spooky.  


Or how about this man and his dog, talk about getting up close and personal.   


Heck, it even affects the famous.  Just look at Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and this dog.    

  

Why am I showing you pictures of people and their pets?  What in the world could that have to do with anything I’m talking about in the Bible?   It’s because in two words in this passage from Ephesians today, God is saying, that what looks like is happening with those owners and pets, actually kind of does happen when you get married.   And the same thing happens even more so when you become a Christian.

God intends marriage to change people at a deeper level than they often realize.  And because they don’t realize it, their marriages never become the rich and life-changing gift God intended them to be.  But more than that, God intends the same not only for the relationships in marriage,    but for the relationships you have here, with the people in the pews right around you.   And only when you realize that, do you begin to understand the rich gift that God intended this community to be.
How does God intend marriage to change you?   How does God intend for this community to change you?  In these words, God shows you.  Let’s hear what God has to say.


When you get married, lots of things start to change.   Often where you live changes, and certainly how you live does.  But marriage changes more than that.   Together the two people actually create a new entity, one that transcends and transforms them both.   And as powerful as that change can be, it actually points to a deeper one.  It points to the transformation that happens when you become a Christian.   Still in both cases, often this transformation doesn’t fully happen.   The marriage never becomes the intimate new creation God created it to be.   Christians never experience the depth of change God intended them to have. 

For that to happen, three things need to occur, and when they do, then your marriage will become the intimate union God intended it to be, and your communion with God and the folks here will become the intimate one God intended it to be as well.

But before looking at those three things, what is this new entity that marriage creates?   Paul tells you here when he quotes this sentence from the Old Testament.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”   When God tells you here that these two are joined, it doesn’t mean some sort of loose connection like between a couple of train cars.  No, this word actually means glued together, like two missing pieces forming a whole.    But then God goes further.  God says that these two people actually become one flesh.   In some deep sense, their joining together creates a whole new thing, some new compound that didn’t exist before.  

Take this cup of water here.   How do you get water?  You combine two quite different things, hydrogen and oxygen, and when you do, you get water.  You get a radically new substance that is one of the most powerful on the planet.   If you doubt how powerful, try going without it for a few days or hanging around the ocean when a hurricane hits.  

In much the same way, God is saying that when you get married, your union makes a new thing, a new thing more powerful than you realize.   But beyond that, throughout this passage, Paul keeps comparing marriage to Christ and the church.  Why?   When you become a Christian, this same sort of new creation occurs.   That’s how the term Christian came about.   Outsiders created the word to describe the first followers of Jesus.   And what was the word they created?  They created one that means little Christs.   They saw that when someone became connected to Jesus, that union created something radically new, not just in that individual but in that whole Christian community.  

Yet, in reality, both in marriages and in churches, these new creations often fail to become what God intended.  Marriages never really become one.  They exist more like oil and water.  Yes, these two folks mingle together but they so don’t unite.   And among Christians, the same thing happens.   People’s connection with Jesus, and with one another only goes so far.  It never becomes the new community that God intended to change the world.  

So how does this happen not only in marriages, but here in this church family.  It happens when you do three things, when you let your dirt be seen; when you let others’ words reshape you; and when you realize that you can’t go it alone.  

What do it mean to let your dirt be seen? Well, before you take a bath, do you try to avoid looking at your stinky and dirty places?   If you’re like me, you actually look for them.   I smell underneath my arms.   I check my feet, and my fingernails.   Otherwise, how am I going to know what to wash, right?    In marriage, you’ve got to do the same thing.   You’ve got to be willing to show your dirt.   If you are now one flesh, then your dirt won’t just affect you, it will affect your partner too.   You’ll both start to smell so to speak.    More than that, your partner can reach dirty places in you in ways you can’t.   He or she can clean things up in you that you haven’t been able to do in years.   Yet too often, couples don’t risk that vulnerability.   And because they don’t, they don’t really become one.  They become more like roommates with privileges.  They never find the intimate union God created them to have. 

And what God expects from marriage, God expects from Christian community.  God doesn’t expect you to share your dirt with everyone.   But God expects you to share it with someone.   It’s why in the book of James, God says.  Confess your sins to one another that you may be healed.   God is saying.  Show your dirt to someone.   Why?  Because the showing will heal you.   It will clean you up.  And it will create the sort of intimate community God intends you to have.  It’s why the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said.  “If a Christian is in the fellowship of confession with a brother or sister, he or she will never be alone again, anywhere.”

But beyond letting others see your dirt, you’ve got to let others’ words reshape you.   In marriage, this actually occurs almost automatically.    As you are with this person day in and day out, the words that they share with you about you have the power to reshape you.   If they pour words of love and affirmation into your life, you become more and more who they say you are.   Your partner’s word pull out beauty and greatness within you that you didn’t realize were even there. 

But this power goes the other way too.  Often couples don’t realize the power their words have.  So they deliver some jab to their partner, one not all that different then they gave to their parents or siblings or friends.  But when it hits their partner, it hits so much harder.  You think you shot a bee-bee gun, but instead you unleashed a bazooka.  So you throw out a few digs, and when you look over, there’s nothing left of your partner, but two sneakers with smoke coming out.  

Or to put it more seriously, you’re like the character Lenny, in the book of Mice and Men.  In that book, Lenny loves to pet animals but because he doesn’t know his own strength ends up killing them.  In your marriage, you can be like Lenny.  You don’t know how deadly the power of your words can be.  And the unity and power of your marriage will have so much to do with the words you speak to each other.

In the same way, through this Christian community, Jesus can speak words into your life that radically change who you are.   My Aunt Mavis, who died last week, became an accomplished educator where she lived.   And how did that career begin?  It began when the pastor of the mission church that she joined, called Hollywood Church by the way, told her she could be a great teacher.  And because of his words, she became the first person in that community to go to college.   A  Christian community has the power to speak words into your life that empower you to become all that God created you to be.  And in the same way, too, these communities can speak words that literally kill the presence of God within you.    The power of a Christian community lies not just in what we do, but in what we say, in the words we speak to one another. 

Finally for your marriage to become what God created to be, you have to realize that neither of you can go it alone.   Just as in your body, your feet can’t decide to go in one direction, while your hands go another, so it is in marriage.  The great preacher, Martin Lloyd Jones, tells a story of how after a sermon he preached, this man came up, and fervently shared how God had called him to be a missionary.   Immediately, Jones asked him.  “Have you talked to your wife?”  The man said.  “No.”   And Jones said, well, if the Spirit of God is calling you to go on the mission field, then the Spirit will tell your wife the same thing.  You can’t go it alone.  

In marriage, if you lead lives that are too separate, where decisions aren’t wrestled through together, then whatever unity you have will fracture.  You will never become the powerful entity God created you to be.  You can’t go it alone.

And it’s the same in a Christian community.  This Wednesday, we’ll show the first part of a stunning documentary, Into Great Silence, on the monastic community in Chartreuse, France.  When the director first approached the monastery decades ago, the monastery’s leader, the abbot, said to him. “Ok, we’ll discuss this and get back to you.”    Sixteen years later, the abbot called and said, “Ok, now, we’re ready.”     Why did it take so long?  Because that community didn’t move forward until they were ready to do it together. 

No one goes it alone.  Even Jesus knew that.  It’s why the first thing Jesus did to begin his ministry was call his disciples.  He called together a community.  Even Jesus didn’t go it alone. 

Will that commitment limit your freedom at times, both in your marriage, and here?  Yes.  Will it slow you down?  Definitely.  Will it be frustrating at times?  Yes.     But if you truly want a marriage, if you truly want what Jesus offers you here, then that’s simply the way it is.  As the physician, Paul Tournier put it, “There are two things you cannot do alone: the first is to marry, the second is to be a Christian.

But how do you actually do these things?  How do you find the courage to risk showing your dirt?  How do you get the grace to speak words that lift up when you so want to say words that destroy?  How do you find the patience and strength to go together, even when that going gets hard?


You look to the one who meets you here at this table.  In Jesus, God did not just see your dirt.  God took that dirt on himself so he could make you clean.   And even when you nailed him on that cross, what did Jesus say to you?  He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Even there, his words lifted you up.    And at this table, they continue to do that.  As Mary Karr describes communion.  “You are loved, someone said.  Take that and eat it.”    And as you take and eat it, you will realize.  You never have to go it alone.    The same God who didn’t abandon you on that cross, will never abandon you.   And in the power of his love, you will find the courage to let your dirt be seen.  As his words lift you up, you will discover the power to use your words to do that for others.  And together with Jesus, you will discover the power of what can happen when you come together in unity, both in marriage and in this place.  And in that unity, you will be stunned at the beauty and the joy and the richness, God will bring.   

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Why Friendship is the Relationship You Need Most in Life and Marriage

Over the course of your life, what kind of relationship do you need the most?    Sure, at the beginning, you need the parent-child relationship, but is that the relationship you need the most over the course of your whole life?    After all, at some point, your parents pass away, so what do you do then?    And yes you have your family, but not everyone has great relationships with their families or may hardly have a family at all, yet they can still have a life of great relationships. 
Now you might think, then it’s the relationship of marriage, as we are doing a series focused on that.  But you can have a wonderful and fulfilling life of relationship, and yet not be married. After all, Jesus wasn’t.    And as much as we might wish otherwise, marriages don’t last forever.  Even in the longest lived marriages, one partner will pass away before the other.  
So, what kind of relationship do you need the most?  You need friendships.   It’s why the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle said. Without friendships no one would choose to live, even if they had all other good things in life.    Or to paraphrase the preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick; No one is the whole of him or herself.  Your friends are the rest of you.  
Why are friendships so crucial?   It’s because friendships can encompass every relationship in your life.  As you become older, your parents even as they remain your parents may also become your friends.  And the same can be said of any relationship in your life from siblings to co-workers.   And when it comes to marriage, friendship matters most.   In the end, what you will most need from your spouse isn’t a lover or a parent.  What you will need most is a friend.  
Yet too often, not only in marriage, but in life, people don’t grasp the full meaning of what a friend can be.    They never experience the full depths of what God intended friendship to be.     What makes for profound friendships not only in marriage, but in life?   In these words from Ephesians, God shows the way.  So let’s listen and hear what God has to say.  
Let’s get real for a moment.  No matter what any book or movie might tell you, marriage is no Hallmark card.    You can say that marriage is a lot of things, but one thing it sure isn’t is sweet.  It may have sweet moments, sure, but sweet?  No way.    Some days, after a hard day of marriage, a couple can fall into bed and the only thing from this passage that makes any sense is those words: behold what I am talking about is a mystery.  (Thanks, Tim Keller J)
And if marriage isn’t sweet, you can bet life isn’t sweetness and light either.  Sure, it has its moments.  But as the famous psychiatrist M. Scott Peck put it, “Life is difficult.”    And in the challenges of marriage and life, what you will need most to make it through, to make life great even in the toughest of times is friends.  
But what makes a friend in marriage and life?   If you look to Facebook, it tells you that all it takes is a point and a click.  But we all know.  It has to be more than that.  So what makes for real friendship, the sort of friendship that can make a marriage great; that can make your life great.   In the end, what makes a friendship is what you share.   The more deeply the things that you share, the more deep the friendship becomes.  And in great marriages, you share the deepest thing of all.  You share with each other the same mission that God has for every person on earth.    But before we look at what that mission is, let’s talk first about what makes a friend a friend. 
The writer C.S. Lewis wrote that the difference between a friend and a lover lies in what you look at.   With a lover you are looking at your lover’s face. That is where your gaze goes.   But with a friend, you have someone who stands beside you and together you gaze at the same thing.  What makes a friend is that you share something.   Maybe you share a common interest.   Maybe you share a common background.   Maybe you share the same ambitions or hopes or beliefs.    But whatever it is, you’ve gotta share something.  That’s what binds you together, and the deeper the sharing, the deeper the friendship.  What do I mean?
What if you have a friend and all you share is the same hobby or the same club?  That sort of sharing is nice and all.  But that friendship only goes so far.  But what if you and your friend have shared more than that?  What if you’ve walked together through a hardship or loss?  What if you’ve shared life-changing experiences together?   That sort of sharing makes a friendship go deep.   It bonds you together.   It makes for a relationship that can even last a lifetime.
And the deepest type of friendship goes beyond that even.  It goes to the friends with whom you shared the same goals, the same purposes; the same mission.   Maybe that mission happened in the military or school or in the raising of your children.  Maybe it happened because you shared a business together or came together in a joint cause.   Why is that the deepest friendship?  It’s because when you share a mission together like that it encompasses everything. You are sharing a journey together.   In that journey, triumph and losses inevitably come.  Life changing experiences just happen.     A journey like that holds it all.  
And every marriage carries a mission.   That mission isn’t raising kids.  After all, every marriage won’t have kids, but it will still carry a mission.    So what is the mission of marriage?  In the passage we just read, God points to it in the instructions given to husbands.  He tells husbands to love your wives in order to do what?  In order to make her holy.  These instructions may be directed to specific partners but the overall vision encompasses both the partners in marriage.  So what does God give as the mission?   Marriage is given “in order to make you holy.”
Now if you find that confusing, it’s because you don’t understand what holy actually means.  Holy means wholeness.  Holy means completion.  In marriage you come together to make each other whole.  That’s your ultimate mission, to shape in each other the greatness God created  each of you for.   A good marriage will not only show you your broken places, it will give you a partner who can help you mend them.    A good marriage matures you.  It refines you.  It challenges you to become more than you thought you could be.   And that process can be hard.   And in that process, you don’t simply need a lover, as powerful as that role is.   For that to happen, you need a friend.    
And over the course of that journey, through heartbreak, through triumph, through good times and bad, that friendship grows deeper and deeper.    Your partner doesn’t simply become your lover.  He or she becomes your best friend.  
But that friendship doesn’t simply happen.   For any friendship in marriage or in life to become great, you need to do three things    First, you need to show up.   Or as Proverbs puts it, a friend loves at all time, and especially during adversity.
Many years ago, when I served a church in Long Island, we had gathered after worship to plant a tree for Earth Sunday, and afterward, we circled together for a prayer.  That’s when it happened, when George collapsed.   We all saw George, one of our elders, a man I was close to, die of a massive heart attack within minutes.   I spent the afternoon with his devastated wife and children at the Emergency Room.   As I got home later that day, I didn’t know what to do.  Finally, I called a fellow pastor, Stephen, and told him what had happened.  An hour later, we were sitting sharing a beer in a local watering hole.  I can’t remember one thing he said to me that night.   That didn’t matter.  What mattered is he showed up.   
But beyond showing up, you need to show yourself.    Real friends don’t simply not let you down, they also let you in.    What forged that friendship that night is not simply that Stephen showed up, but that I showed myself, my hurt, my vulnerability.   And in life and in marriage, if you never let your friend in, if you keep things on the surface only, then that friendship will never become what it could be.   Is that risky, even dangerous?  Yes, but there is no way to take the danger out of human relationships.  And in the end, the more dangerous option is to shut yourself off.   For when you shut yourself off from the vulnerability, you also shut yourself off from the final thing a great friend gives you. 
Even as a faithful friend will not ignore your flaws and shortcomings, a friend will see far more that.  He will see who you can be.  More importantly, he will show that to you. As the Bible describes it, a good friend blesses you.   In the Bible a blessing isn’t something you give after a sneeze.  No you give a blessing to give someone a vision of what they can be.   Often fathers delivered them to their children as they died.  Why?  They wanted in these last words of blessing to inspire their children with a beautiful vision of what their future could be.    And a good friend will do the same.  They see in you what often you can’t see.  
Someone once asked the artist Michelangelo how he created his magnificent statue of David. What did Michelangelo say?   He said.  “I looked inside the marble and just took away the bits that weren’t David.”   That’s what a great friend does for you.  He shows you the David that you can’t yet see.
And when that sort of friendship happens in your life, and in your marriage, oh, the wonders it will work.   As the writer, G.K. Chesterton put it.   There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally.  It may be conceded to the mathematician that four is twice two.  But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.  

But let’s be honest.   This side of heaven, this vision of friendship, as inspiring as it is, is still not fully possible.   Even as you and I strive to be such friends, we will have moments that we will fail.   We will fail our friends, and our friends will fail us.   So, why do human beings hunger for it so?   It’s because that hunger points to the One who is the friend who will not fail you ever. 

Why did God in Jesus come to you?   Jesus came to make you holy, to make you whole and complete.  And in that mission, Jesus would not stop at anything.   When your fears and darkness captured you, Jesus showed up.    He didn’t just show up in that darkness.   He went down into that darkness to deliver you.   On that cross, Jesus became utterly vulnerable to that darkness, to your darkness.  Why?   He saw the light within you that you couldn’t see.   Jesus saw what you could be, and he died to make it so.    And if Jesus did not fall away from you on that cross, he will never fall away from you.  Even when you are faithless, this friend will be faithful.  


And in the power of his friendship, you will discover the power to become more and more the friend God created you to be.   In the security of his love and grace, you will find relationships that go deep, friendships that grow into greatness.  And you will find them not only in your marriage.  You will find them in this place, in this family of faith, in this community of the friends of Jesus.  And in those friendships, you will find a greatness in you that you did not know even existed.   You will discover that two is indeed not twice.  Two is two thousand times one.