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.

The Horse and His Boy: Having Faith when it is Hard

CS Lewis - NarniaThe Horse and his Boy is my favourite of the series, but also many people’s least. This is due to a few reasons, of which I will highlight just two: most seriously the charge of racism; and, from a literary point of view, its marginal overlap with the rest of the series. But we must remember the metanarrative of Narnia, which Alister McGrath says is set between two great “advents”, the past redemption (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe) and future restoration (The Last Battle). Recalling our point from The Magician’s Nephew, that C. S. Lewis invites readers to inhabit and experience the Christian story, The Horse and his Boy explores the tension of living between Aslan’s first and last coming in a world beset by evil and characters burdened by doubt.

CS Lewis - NarniaThe first character we will explore is the Horse, Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah, better known as Bree. Bree grew up in Calormen and lived as an enslaved warhorse. Though he longs for the North and freedom, he has much to learn. His strength, military success, and self-assured confidence make him the natural leader in the journey northward, but also cause him to be full of hubris. Towards the end of the narrative, his pride threatens to keep him from Narnia; Hwin realises Bree is apprehensive about venturing beyond the Southern March because his tail is damaged (p298). After their flight, Bree grieved his cowardice in the pursuit that saw him abandon the party for safety (p275). He concludes that he is disgraced and unfit for Narnia, but the Hermit incisively addresses Bree’s problem, “You’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit…You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think…as long as you know you’re nobody special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse”. Aslan punctures our self-confidence; Bree had to learn that we are all unfit to approach Aslan, and abandon acceptability on his own terms. He needed to hear Aslan’s comforting invitation, full of tenderness, “You poor, proud frightened Horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare” (p299).

CS Lewis - NarniaThe second character I will unpack is the Boy, Shasta. One might call him the unlikely hero for, unlike Bree, he is unimpressive and by far the least imposing of the travelling party. However, there is a lesson to be learnt from this observation. As Shasta plods along the misty and frigid mountain pass, Aslan walks alongside and speaks with him. Shasta is miserable and lost, “Being very tired and having nothing inside him, he felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks” (p280). But Aslan tells Shasta that he was the one behind all of his misfortune and terrible luck (p281). When Shasta returns across the treacherous path, with the Archenlanders, he reflects on his conversation with Aslan, “I was quite safe. That is why the Lion kept on my left. He was between me and the edge all the time” (p290). This realisation, I think, is indicative of Shasta’s entire life, for Aslan was always with him in the confusing cloud, guiding the events in order to bring him back to Narnia, and himself. Reflecting on this brought another of C. S. Lewis’ works to mind, in Perelandra we read, “God can make good use of all that happens. But the loss is real.” Shasta’s life is full of unfortunate happenings, yet he is the unlikely hero, for unknown to him Aslan is mightily at work in his world to make all things right.

A repeated motif in Lewis’ narrative is Aslan’s insistence on telling the characters their story and no one else’s. In To the One who Conquers, Sam Storms reflects on how the biblical story has a remarkable capacity to challenge and overcome our misconceptions about who we are. Bree revealed the common combination of pride and guilt; he needed to learn that belonging to Aslan he could neither earn his place in Narnia nor  jeopordise his security. Shasta, on the other hand, could not believe that the many misfortunes of his life would end in anything but tragedy, because he was unaware of the sovereign and loving presence of Aslan who worked through all things to bring him closer to himself. Aslan is the person in whom all stories connect, but everyone needs to approach him as they are, alone.

Let’s be Sensible: Original Insights [Titus 2]

Being Sensible

Most people arrive at Bible College dreading the prospect of  Greek and Hebrew – nerdy as I am, I relished it. Not because I expected to have original insights on any given text but because I could have insight based on any given the original text. In general, to be perfectly honest, our translations do a fantastic job of conveying just what the original is trying to say because English is a wonderfully diverse and expressive language. Sometimes, however, English fails us and something exciting happens in Greek that is totally unseen in our English translations.

In Bible study we are working our way through Titus and we’ve just hit Titus 2:1-10. Already we’ve noticed that Paul is concerned about the mental activity of the Cretans. In his introduction, Paul says that it is “knowledge of the truth” that “leads to godliness” (1v1) and his response to bad behaviour on the part of the church in Crete is “instruction in sound doctrine” (1v9).

In my preparation I always like to read through the Greek and jot down my own thoughts before looking at commentaries or other translations simply so that I approach the text with some kind of freshness of mind. As I worked through 2v1-10 I was struck by the prevalence of σώφρων and its cognates (see vv2, 4, 5, 6 and outside 2v1-10 there’s 1v8 and 2v12).

The word “σώφρων” means something like “of a sound mind” and the idea is that living sensibly (sound mindedly) will result in curbing of one’s desires. The words “temperate” or “self-controlled” are, therefore, sometimes used in translation. In this instance “sensible” (HCSB, RSV, NET) seems like a good translation because it communicates the sound-mindedness of the behaviour. “Self-controlled” is certainly the more common option though (ESV, LEB, NLT, NIV – the ESV has actually reworked this section from the RSV). The trouble is that “self-controlled” lacks the link to thought life. Then there is also the annoying cognate “σωφρονίζω” which means to make someone be “σώφρων” – a concept that English cannot express in a word and so we have “encourage” (HCSB), “train” (ESV, NLT) and “urge” (NIV) but nothing that shows the link Paul is making between a sensible mind and good behaviour (“make the young women sensibly minded so that they love their husbands and love their children”).

No translation I have found picks up on all these occurrences and their cognates. But then, it’s not good English style to repeat words, English prefers synonyms. The unfortunate result is that as English translations alternate between “self-controlled” and “sensible” and even “train”, we lose the emphasis that Paul places on “sensibility” by his repetition.

This is a good example of why I am grateful of the little knowledge I have of Greek: as I read Titus 2, I automatically see a broader theme of Titus, how Paul believes that right thinking leads to right living.

Reflection on Bible College: Christian Disneyland

disneycastleI recall one of the first phone conversations I had after arriving at Bible College. Shiny shoes and starry eyes, I remember telling my mom not to worry that I was 1000+ kilometers away from home; Bible College is “like an extended church camp”. And it was. Good teaching and close knit community built around a common interest will always produce a high. More so, I would say, when that common interest is also the highest interest, namely God. The high lasted without decline for four years. Perhaps, however, it was a bit like the high of a stint in Disneyland.

I am told that Disneyland is built with a vast network of underground tunnels so that actors in costume are never found out of place as Goofy goes for a loo break or Mulan has Indian takeaways for lunch or the White Rabbit hurries through the park late for his appointment. The point is nothing in Disneyland goes wrong, vomit doesn’t have a chance to hit the floor and litter is vapourised as it leaves the negligent tourist’s hand. The world of Disneyland is surreal and fantastic – it’s designed to be, how else would it sweep you off your feet into the world of your imagination to “The happiest place on earth”? There’s only one flaw, it’s not real.

lonelyfootstepsAs I think of the time I’ve spent beyond Bible College, all 7 months of it, I realise that one of the experiences I share with many of my fellow graduates is a post-college low. It’s characterised by loneliness in some form, discouragement and possibly even lacklustre spiritual life. Of course these experiences ebb and flow and we are all now well enough equipped to deal with discouragement and spiritual struggles. I wonder, however, whether they are necessary.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade my days at Bible College for the world. I made lifelong friends there and the depth of relationship that I experienced I suspect will only ever be rivaled by marriage. I certainly wouldn’t wish anything different in my own life. In fact, the people are the biggest selling point in my mind for full time Bible College and they’re something I never would have imagined matter as significantly as they do, had I not experienced it for myself. But supposing there were another way?

Supposing the local church worked hard at training people from its own midst – perhaps resources would need to be pooled from a number of closely located local churches but the models are being developed for this sort of theological education. Now supposing instead of investing four years into the church community of George Whitefield College (because really, it was a church community, as much as I poured myself into my placement church, GWC was inevitably far more a part of my life), I poured those four years directly into the church to which I would minister in the years to come and the people who are pooled together from the vicinity for training purposes would be the ones I network with to do inter-church activities.

Maybe I haven’t solved the problem at all because I’m still pooling people together; I’m still doing “college”. I guess my friends who got married to other friends who met through college would never have crossed paths. I suppose the advantage of that sheer number of people you rub shoulders with and learn from would be lost. So maybe Bible College is the best solution but is leaving Disneyland a necessary experience?

Then again, given the option I’d rather leave Disneyland than never have been. What do you say?

Reflection: Heaven and Friendship

Grafitti by Bansky A thought came to me the other day. Large portions of our lives are spent enmeshed with the transient. So much of this life is fading away, receding from view, as we approach the horizon, moving through time’s inescapable passage. We leave things behind. And many of us won’t have the chance to return to precious memories. Friendship too can fall into that abyss of antiquity. Towards the end of my fourth year in Cape Town I noted that all the special times spent with friends were not only unrepeatable but also numbered, one less jointly juncture we would own: one less hike, possibly our last coffee, or a penultimate theological discussion. We live in the shadow of the end and we are running out of moments together.

A very good friend of mine, wise beyond her years, once told me: ‘saying goodbye creates one of the most unnatural feelings.’ The people we spend our lives with will not always be around, or even on the other end of a phone line. In Stevenson’s classic Jekyll and Hyde, Utterson says to his dear companion Lanyon, who wanted nothing more to do with Dr Jekyll: “We are three very old friends, Lanyon; we shall not live to make others.” Our lives as fraught with loss and full of the unrepeatable; we forever long for something or someone that has been.

Writing these reflections down brought another thought to mind. Towards the end of last year I went away with the leaders and boys from my youth group. For part of an evening we shared some encouragement from the year past along with what would strengthen us in the year(s) to come. I told them it was glory. The sure hope that I would see my brothers again in eternity, beyond the horizon and free from time’s relentless march. Glory is the absence of goodbyes. Each and every precious moment will not fall beneath the shadow cast by uncertainty and temporality. Our fondest memories actually provide a pattern for the future. For there will be more like them shared with the friends we have not lost.

Listen to David Brainerd’s diary entry from the 19th of August, 1742: “I prayed with [Mr Bellamy] and two or three other Christian friends, and we gave ourselves to God with all our hearts, to be His for ever. Eternity looked very near to me while I was praying. If I should never see these Christians again in this world, it seemed but a few moments before I should meet them in another world.” Brainerd understood that the world to come was resplendent with relationships, unending friendship in the undying light cast by our eternal God, the one who gives us into communion with himself and each other.

I often catch myself joking about glory, talking casually about it being an opportunity to meet and spend time with great Christian figures from the past. It very well might be. But upon reflection I cannot imagine leaving those who were dearest to me on earth for those I barely know in heaven. Now I realise this is beginning to sound quite speculative, so I will finish off. Is it not a marvel that our hope enmeshes the transient with the eternal? Friendships will continue into heaven. And while it is sometimes hard to imagine, glorified friendships will be more magnificent in the unadulterated presence of our God.

Author of Gilead, RobinsonTo close, here is a fitting quote from John Ames, in Gilead: “We know nothing about heaven, or very little, and I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculations on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us…but I believe Boughton is right to enjoy the imagination of heaven as the best pleasure of this world” (p189). What pleasures surpass real friendship?