Reflections on LeFouGate

LeFou - Beauty and the Beast 2017With the release of Beauty and the Beast around the corner and the (completely intentional, as far as I’m concerned) controversy over “LeFouGate,” I have been thinking (again) about the LGBTQ / SSA community and the church. The big question on my mind is one that has been asked many times before: how do we make both compassion and holiness our priorities?

It seems that one the major problems is that the idea of the church and its reality are two very different things. Although we say we are against all sin, what we do stigmatises sexual sin and brushes pride, greed and selfishness under the carpet. We say that the church is a community and that everyone is welcome – in fact we would say we are the best community – but in a small group I attended a gay friend once said the best experience of community that he has had has been outside of the church. I asked him what he meant by “best experience of community” and he explained “where I feel like people care about me and try to understand me.” So yes, once again we can say the church is failing on this front – if you’re reading this and you’re in the LGBTQ / SSA community, sorry for mucking this stuff up for so long!

Two responses that I don’t think are helping us are (1) saying “love the sinner hate the sin” – this response is definitely on the side of “love them with the truth even if it hurts.” Sure, there’s something to be said for this approach but the problem is that it stops far short of knowing “the sinner” and forgets how core of an issue this is with regards to self-identity. I think if we are going to be compassionate, this solution is going to let us down. (2) Reframing sin in terms of brokenness (which I wrote about that a while ago). Although this helps us to be compassionate by using language that is not condemnatory, it also turns us into victims of our own sin rather than wilful agents. This is actually more of a problem to the heterosexual community which seems to have gravitated toward this language because while sounding generous and loving, it excuses and plays down our own sin.

So what’s the solution? Well if you want a solution to a problem that has been plaguing the church for the last few decades and to which few people even gesture at answers, you’ve come to the right place – if you know me, you know that I don’t hesitate to give definitive answers to life’s difficult questions (*sarcasm people). But to suggest something rather than crash landing this post at this point, I will say two things.
Washed and Waiting - Wesley HillFirst, read (and this, by the way, is the only solutiony type thing I’m going to offer). In his Experiment in Criticism Lewis writes

In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s probably something you already know – reading the words of people we don’t understand helps us sympathise with them. So I will recommend Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting to anyone who still hasn’t read it. Unfortunately nothing else that I’ve read is springing to mind that I want to recommend so highly (if you have suggestions, put them in the comments!).

Second, to loop back to LeFouGate, watching Beauty and the Beast is not going to help you sympathise. The media’s approach to gender identity is going to be to affirm and to normalise which will make us conservative types recoil all the time (until the normalisation takes effect). We need stories about people who are struggling with their own identity because in their stories we learn sympathy. Imitation Game (about Alan Turing breaking Enigma during WWII) is one example I can think of, a more recent one – though not as good an example – is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (the latest in the Harry Potter world) – watch Credence (the adopted son).

Let’s be clear, these movies are normalising identity struggle and I’m confident that their objective is to normalise alternative sexualities but they do also depict the internal struggle that I think Christians all to often fail to appreciate in the people around us – people around us who we are called to love. I think whatever loving means, it’s going to involve some sort of understanding. Whatever you decide to do in response to LeFouGate, let’s remember that Beauty and the Beast is a story in which love transforms the unlovable and our decisions and actions communicate to those around us – what we say and what we do need to correlate.

Brokenness: How We Reframe Sin

Broken WorldPastors and service leaders often tell stories or make reference to a sporting event or news item to connect with the congregation. Recently, however, I have noticed these techniques give way to the sure-fire connection that is made when the person upfront talks about brokenness. At a prayer meeting someone lamented,

We are broken people
Living in a broken world
Breaking things

And on reflection, I wouldn’t argue with it.

I also didn’t argue with it when it was said because we were talking about plenty of truly broken things in people’s lives. Things over which they had no control and that introduced seemingly senseless pain. Brokenness is a word that captures this idea really well and yet, I remember a time when I would have said, “We are fallen people living in a fallen world.” So I’ve been wondering about the difference.

My church did a series on Joel – the minor prophet who spends three chapters finding synonyms for “swarm of locusts.” The locusts come as God’s judgement on Israel. “Why are you telling me this?” you ask. Because somehow we did not talk about judgement in the series: week one: “the power of stories,” week two: “the possibility that pain is for our good,” week three: “the hope for restoration” (my titles). Each week the worship leader would welcome us and talk about how we probably all had rough weeks and that we come together as broken people to be refreshed by the Word and I was being my usual (non-critical) self thinking, “what happened to sin?”

Broken JarThen it dawned on me. Brokenness is something that happens to us. Jars get dropped, balls hit windows, iphones fall out of pockets – they all get broken and they are broken through no fault of their own. Broken things are victims. We are victims.

On the other hand, sin is something that we do. We are the perpetrators: we pull the trigger, we bend the truth, two options are presented and we choose the morally inferior one. Sinners are blameworthy and we haven’t wanted to take the blame since back in the garden.

I’m still not sure what the difference between fallenness and brokenness is but I am pretty confident about the difference between brokenness and sin. And the reason that the worship leader keeps talking about brokenness at the beginning of the service and we keep praying about it in prayer meetings is the same reason that the sermon series on Joel never accused me of being a sinner. I don’t like taking the blame.

Brokenness reframes sin turning us into victims
rather than perpetrators

Don’t misunderstand me. There are broken things and we are broken people. Not every bad thing that happened to you is the result of your own sin. And yet, the reason that I live in a sinful world is as much about me as it is about anyone else. Maybe in a generation that has such apathy to obedience and holiness, it’s time to own up to the part we play in breaking our world.

Brexit: Turns Out We’re Adolescents

I wish I could claim to understand something of international politics but I can’t. There are a few striking features of the UK’s vote to part ways with the EU though. The first is what a hair’s breadth of a margin the leave voters won by: 51.9% to 48.1%. The second is that Scotland’s “32 council areas” unanimously voted to remain. The third is that politics is our new idol.

A Hair’s Breadth Majority

Democracy clearly has problems – you give the decision about how a country should be run to a population that doesn’t understand much about anything needed to run a country. To be honest, that’s why the ANC is still in power in South Africa, it’s why Donald Trump is the republican nominee in the USA and, as far as I can tell, it’s the reason for Brexit. Don’t get me wrong, democracy is not all bad but it’s interesting to see that such a small majority alters the course of a nation with a decision that will, no doubt, have lasting significance beyond the UK.

What’s interesting to me about this is that my generation likes to doubt its parents. The heroes in our stories are people whose parents didn’t understand/appreciate them but who triumph with their unconventional wisdom which their parents come to see is not so bad after all. Well, it turns out that we are adolescents when it comes to politics because the 67% majority that supported the UK’s membership in the EU in 1973 – in our parents generation – was wrong.

The same thing happens in our churches and in theology. In church life, it’s one of the reasons (thankfully not the only one) church planting is popular among younger pastors: our parents churches all have deep rooted systemic problems. The only solution is to start from scratch with our new ideas and then we’ll have the perfect church. In theological circles everyone is flocking to narrative analysis of texts because whatever our parents were doing clearly didn’t get us anywhere in terms of understanding the Bible. Whether its the rejection of our parents’ taste in music or the switch to lectio divina style devotions, one thing is clear our parents didn’t have a clue.

This makes me wonder what our successors will be saying 50 years from now because it seems to me we aren’t paying very much attention to what anyone before us did right. Hopefully those who follow us will be more generous.

So What About Scotland

Recently Scotland was on the receiving end of a lot pressure to stay a part of the UK (which I think was a good thing anyway). Ironically Scotland’s say when it came to the EU was swallowed up by its big brother. So, in spite of the fact that “A majority of voters in all 32 council areas in Scotland voted Remain,” (source) Scotland will need to leave the UK to make that happen. I am reminded that this generation that is so preoccupied with minority voices is also really only interested in those little voices if it is not affected by them.

We are pretty good about listening to minority voices when we have no vested interest in their concerns. When we have competing interests, however, it’s harder to hide how self-serving we really are beneath our normal veneer of social concern.

As Christians I think we need a bit more cross and a bit less comfort in our idea about what our lives are about – and I’ll be the first to admit I’m a comfort idolater.

There’s a New God in Town

Apparently this generation is excited about political engagement. It seems as though politics is where stuff is going wrong. It also seems as though if we were more involved we could fix it and make the world a better place. A few decades ago people were thinking the same thing about science (and then we made an atomic bomb and blew up a couple of cities which remain uninhabitable). Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, our salvation is not going to come from politics – Americans are learning that the hard way as Christians who have dominated the political arena for a long time are forced to realise that the Christian face in politics is a farce.

“Stay” or “Remain,” neither one will fulfil what it promises and even if it did you would find that what it promised was not what you wanted or needed. Just as well the gospel doesn’t offer us whatever the popular vote decides we need – instead we are offered things that seem like the opposite of what we need: instead of democracy we are told that Jesus is lord and we have no rights. Instead of comfort we are offered a cross. Like practised adolescents though, we know better than God and so it will take a miracle for us to lay down our demands for freedom and rights and comfort. It’s fortunate that miracles are not foreign to the One who is still calling us, “Come, follow me.”

Hunger will Pass

Grain FieldHave you ever read the Bible and thought, “why is this even here?” Me too… and that is especially true when I read Numbers 7. But, I have just found a way of reading at least some of it in a new light. In the NIV for Numbers 7:87 we simply read,

The total number of animals for the burnt offering came to
twelve young bulls,
twelve rams and
twelve male lambs a year old,
together with their grain offering …

Numbers 7 is (I think) the most repetitive chapter in the Bible; the offerings brought by each tribe are enumerated (for all the twelve tribes). By the time we reach verse 87, we are in the summary section that recounts (in laborious detail for the thirteenth time) what each tribe had brought. But recently I read this verse in a Rabbinic interpretive translation (the Targums), which says:

The total number of bulls for the burnt offerings came to twelve;
a bull for each leader of the father’s house;
twelve rams, because the twelve chiefs of Ishmael will perish;
twelve one-year old lambs, because the twelve chiefs of Esau will perish;
and their grain offerings, because hunger will pass from the world;

The Rabbis have added these interpretive elements to the end of each line. They’re all interesting but take a look at the end of the last line – yes, pause and re-read it. Question: Why should we offer grain offerings? Answer: because hunger will pass from the world.

because hunger will pass from the world!

That’s an awesome justification – imagine living in an evironment in which you work your land, growing all the crops you possibly can and, when harvest comes, knowing that this is what you will be surviving on until the next harvest. Before you start gathering it all up though, you take a bunch of it and offer it to God. Why? Because hunger will pass from the world. That is, because the harvest you are gathering in right now is from him and by giving an offering you are acknowledging that if you needed more, God would have given you more and, as his child, one day he will; one day hunger will pass from the world.

 

Rainbows Everywhere

Rainbow flagOf late, everyone on the interwebs has something to say about rainbows. All the major tech companies that run our lives and enable us to communicate have done something and millions of us have have leapt onto the band wagon in our various digital incarnations. I decided pretty quickly that I shouldn’t say anything. “My thoughts are half-formed,” I reasoned, “my mind is too easily swayed,” and what’s more, “how Christianity functions in a post-Christian pluralistic society is too complex to reduce into a blog post, let alone 140 characters.”

But I’ve realised that that’s the wrong response so this is my whole-hearted attempt to speak to an issue that demands the whole of our hearts.

The reality of the rainbow

friendsThe reality is that homosexuality is not something that we can address like global warming or terrorism. It is not impersonal and it is not distant or detached from our day to day lives. Unforutnately it’s also not something that is helped by most of our responses; jokes, trite sayings and fear or anger.

As we each consider the sins that most plague us, there is no doubt that shame and remorse are evoked. When that sin is attached to our identity, “adulterer,” “liar,” “gossip” these feelings are even more pronounced. I cannot imagine a way to read the Bible and argue that homosexual practice is okay with God but let’s be fair; the Bible doesn’t justify any of the sins resident in my heart. I am the biggest sinner I know and I’m ashamed to say it.

The truth of the rainbow

I have nowhere to hide my sin and homosexuality is no different. Before God, the US Supreme Court can send a delegation of their finest lawyers and every tongue will hang in silence. So politics will not protect us from the judgement of God. That’s something a lot of Christians seem to think we should remember at this point but let’s not forget that legalism, theological acumen and erudition and, yes, even “being loving” won’t protect us from God either.

noahs ark people drowningThere is a story about a rainbow and a promise in the Bible that is preceded by the most violently destructive event the world has ever known. The flood was God’s response to a sinful world. It was his response to people who lived in rebellion against him. The truth behind the rainbow at the end of that story is that God judges sin whether he’s given you the ten commandments or your conscience or two thousand years of Christian witness. We answer to him and he doesn’t take sin lightly.

The promise of the rainbow

In spite of human sin, after the flood God points to the rainbow and promises never again to flood the world. In other words, from this point on there will be no interim judgement: we await only God’s final judgement.

To my homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ I say, let’s fight the good fight together: I’ll encourage you to fight your desires that are in rebellion against the rule of God and I pray that you will do the same for me.

To those who practice homosexuality, I say what I say to the Athenians in ancient Greece, to the South Africans in 21st century Pietermaritzburg and to everyone in between:

God now commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

I don’t know what I would do if I ran the world. However, I do know that homosexual practice is sinful and I do know that, along with all those who take advantage of laws allowing gay marriage, I will stand before a holy God in shame. The rainbows I keep seeing remind me that God is patient but certainly not that he will tolerate our rebellion.

Why the Rainbow Nation is Good for the Gospel

The Rainbow Nation BridgeThere are plenty of things that can be said in favour of our Rainbow Nation here in South Africa and I don’t think what you are about to read is even most poignant. What I would like to focus on does, however, cut to the heart of the sacred/secular divide that Western culture seems bent on inflicting on our societies.

Why The Rainbow?

Let’s consider, for a moment, the intent behind calling ourselves a “Rainbow Nation”. Desmond Tutu is credited with the term which “intended to encapsulate the unity of multi-culturalism and the coming-together of people of many different nations, in a country once identified with the strict division of white and black” (thanks wikipedia).

The significance is partly in what it does not mean: we are not a group of people that come together and lose our diversity and multi-culturalism. When I had the misfortune of attempting to mix paints, irrespective of my objective, I somehow always managed to produce an unusable colour I affectionately remember as “vomit brown”. This kind of mix into a homogenous mass is not what it means to be a rainbow nation. We retain our colours, cultures and creeds and we find a way to live with all those in harmony.

Vomit Brown PaintIn America, diversity becomes vomit brown – everyone wants in on the American dream and so the diversity that once existed is slowly eroded as everyone succumbs to the demands of the dream or is crushed under its weight. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that America wants a secular public sphere – what better way to harmonise our differences than deny them and pretend none of us have any convictions at all?

In an article I read recently Richard Neuhaus is remembered as “almost single-handedly” challenging that idea – the idea to reduce “religious belief to private worship”. In essence he argued,

Separation of church and state could never mean the separation of religion from public life. The most deeply held beliefs and values of American citizens could not and should not be quarantined from the life of the contemporary polis.

That sounds great but in America it has been far from successful. The lack of success is because diversity in America means anyone can come but you have to conform. In South Africa, however, when secularism raises its vomit-brown head, we can cry “rainbow nation” – a term that means my Christianity is an essential part of my identity and not something I will cover up when in public like some embarassing tattoo.

Colourful FaceThe “Rainbow Nation” means we have to learn to live with each other – a potentially perilous task – but it also means that my convictions don’t have to be swallowed up into the amorphous mass of cultural uncertainty; they are colour in the rainbow. More importantly, rather than being a mere band of colour passively reflecting the light thrown onto us, Christians wearing their Christianity in public are themselves light in a dark world. This Rainbow Nation opens the door to light, hopefully as Christians we will not forego the opportunity to shine.