Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fear mongering in the Church

Are We Witnessing America's Last Days? from First Dallas on Vimeo.

Watch this video before you read any further. It is a trailer for a sermon series to be held at First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX. Matthew Paul Turner of Jesus Needs New PR wrote a lengthy article on this video, so I will make my thoughts brief.

It is no coincidence that Dr. Robert Jeffress will begin this series on the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorists attacks; First Dallas uses every trick in the cinematic book - from brooding music to patriotic symbols - to stir up a paranoid faithrioticism (Mr. Turner's word). This video makes you feel fear and paranoia, all in the name of Jesus. Or America. Or First Dallas. I can't decide which one.

Since when should the Christian pledge such a strong allegiance to the United States of America? While I am no anarchist, I cannot support such close ties between Church and State. I can't see any example of Christ instructing His disciples to so closely ally themselves with political authority and sovereignty. Render to Congress what is Congress's, and walk the discipleship road to the Kingdom of God. A sermon series such as this one makes me wonder if this church loves America more than they love Jesus.

Furthermore, I didn't realize that churches send out advance copies of the sermon to receive reviews, as if it were a Hollywood movie. Neither Jesus Christ nor her disciples need the endorsement of Gov. Huckabee or the Dean of the Moody Bible Church. The Word of God is. God is the great I AM. You do not need to sell your product to me. If you have to win the praise man to make disciples, than you do not know the glorious joy of Jesus Christ. If you have to make your product look beautiful, then you do not offer the true Jesus.

And beginning a sermon series entitled Twilight's Last Gleaming on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 is sick. It's shrewd marketing. It manipulates our emotions and fuels our fears. I pray that this church would repent of its fear mongering, and I hope that Dr. Jeffress would bring a message of hope and love instead.

Until next time,

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Back to School!

We're here! We've made it though a hot summer, and students have returned for the 163rd session of Rhodes College. Classes begin today at Rhodes College, and I couldn't be more excited. I'm teaching one class this semester, Music: A Sound Experience, and I'm eager to apply the lessons I learned when I taught the course in the spring. I have a clearer understanding of what does work and what does not work for my students.

I love to teach; it's one of my most heart-felt passions in life. My job requires me to do so much more than impart a series of facts that will paint a chronological narrative of Western Classical Music. I seek to invigorate minds and to encourage my students to ask, "Why are we studying classical music? What purpose has it served civilization in the past? What is its purpose now?" I want my students to understand that music does not exist in a vacuum; music has been and will always be a product of people - the people who write it, perform it, produce it, and consume it. By the end of this semester, my students will hopefully be able to distinguish a Beethoven symphony from a Stravinsky ballet, but more importantly, they will know why we have placed music and certain so-called "masterworks" on the pedestals of immortality.

I love music. There has been one constant in my life, and that is music. Even before I knew Jesus, I knew music. Music allows me to express my story, my thoughts, my fears, my joys. When I hear music that I love, I want all my friends to hear it; music, therefore, builds community. We build community when we sing in choirs and play in bands. We build community when the symphony shares their final product to an audience. Music is not a luxury for the rich or a commodity to be bought and sold; music is vital to life. If you believe that music is but an elective for your life, then I challenge you to suffer an entire day without hearing music on the radio, on the TV, on your computer, on your iPod, and even in your head.

I love people, and I especially love college students. People aged 18-23 have a curious energy to them; their questions are more urgent and sincere than most people. There is an openness to learn things that adults don't have and children don't quite appreciate (although we all can learn a lesson on learning from children). Whereas the child blithely, persistently asks "why?" or "what is that," the college student asks these questions with more purpose and intent. These young minds are eager to grow and to become their best. You don't succeed in college unless you want to learn and grow, and I am blessed to teach at a college full of those students.

I love Rhodes College. I do. It's my alma mater, and it's my home. I love my students and my colleagues on faculty. I love the architecture that surrounds me when I walk through the Quad. My heart skips a beat when I hear the rumblings of the giant bell in Halliburton Tower swing on its axis, and then a deep, brassy tone peels across campus and into Midtown. I spent four years as a student at Rhodes. Now I'm beginning my second year as a teacher at this institution.

It's a scandal to have life so good.

Off to school! Wish us all luck and Providence.

Until next time,

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Thoughts on 26

There are a pile of dirty dishes and glasses looming high in my kitchen sink, and since we do not own a dishwasher, somebody's hands will be lucky enough to wash all of them clean. I figure that 1:00 AM is not the time to clean the kitchen, and the dirty dishes are going nowhere. The men of The Johnson Estate hosted a birthday gathering for my 26th birthday today, and those dirty dishes are a reminder of the Mexican food we ate, the margaritas we drank, and the silly games we played late into the night. Tonight was a night full of laughter and close friends; that's how it should be. Tomorrow, those dishes will be a reminder to me that I share a home with four wonderful men, and it is my honor and pleasure to serve them, to love them, to do life with them.

I am surprised at what a significant age twenty-six appears to be; I am now on the second half of my twenties. My thirties are not too far away from me, and today's opening convocation at Rhodes College reminded me that I am (thankfully) no more a teenager. This is the first time in seven years that I am living at the same address and in the same room for more than two years, and I am working the same jobs this year that I was last year. I gifted myself two birthday presents: a new MacBook Pro and the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (I am ashamed to say that I was genuinely excited to purchase this book). I've even gone through an entire package of dental floss, and upon finishing the first, I promptly opened a second one. In a word, I am growing up, and a number of anxieties accompany that reality.

Every so often, I think to myself, "Am I watching the best years of my life float away?" After all, I am 26 and I have never been in a serious dating relationship, while many of my college friends are married with kids. I have not spent a significant time of my life living in another country, but many of my friends have, either through mission work, employment, or school. I don't have a full time job and I still rent a home, while many of my friends are already home owners. Sometimes, I think that I have yet to grow up because I see my buddies living such mature lifestyles; I often wonder if I'm living a glorified, collegiate bachelor's life that sometimes likes to dress up nicely for work.

Then I think of all that I have done. I have been to three different countries on three continents, and I will add a fourth next summer. I claim the supreme privilege of calling the inner-city neighborhood of Binghampton my home. I have performed in Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Cannon Center, St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and Canterbury Cathedral. For a year, I served as a teaching fellow for one of the congregations of our neighborhood's house church network. My work has taken me all over the country and to the farthest reaches of the planet.

And today, I turn 26. My life is just beginning. My hopes are radiant, and my goals are larger than Goliath himself. Though the prospect of true adulthood frightens me, I am eager to grow, to learn, to sing, and share, and to laugh in the coming twelve months.

But in the meantime, that pile of dishes isn't cleaning itself, but it can wait till the morning.

Until next time,

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lessons on LGTB Bridge Building from The Book of Acts, Pt 2

Previously, I wrote a meditation on a lesson learned from Acts 8 on the subject of building bridges with the LGBT community. We saw how Philip placed a greater emphasis on proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to the Eunuch; he was less concerned with correcting the Eunuch's sexual identity. Today, we look at Acts 10-11, in which Peter receives from God a vision of a sheet filled with unclean animals. God commanded Peter to eat of the animals on that sheet, and he responds, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." God says back to him, "What God has made clean, do not call common." For the longest time, I thought that God was telling Peter and the rest of Christendom that it was now okay to eat these unclean foods, for Christ has come to fulfill the Law. Indeed, that is a part of this story, but there is another component to the vision that teaches us how to build relationships with other people.

At the beginning of Chapter 10, we are introduced to a man named Cornelius who is a Centurion in the Roman Army; we also learn that Centurion was a devout believer. God instructs the soldier to travel to Joppa to find a man named Simon (who is now called Peter). Faithful Cornelius packs his belongings and makes his way to the port city, and four days later, he finds his man. This is what happens next between Cornelius and Peter in Caesarea.

And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, "Stand up; I too am a man." And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered. And he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.
And Cornelius said, "Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing and said, 'Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.' So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord." (Acts 10:23-33, ESV)

Context is needed. Jews and Gentiles were never supposed to mingle with each other; the old Law of the Torah declared Gentiles an unclean people. That means that Peter the Jew and Cornelius the Roman (Gentile) should never be friends. Furthermore, early Christians and Romans didn't get on well either, yet we have a Jewish Christian and a Roman Christian sitting "in the presence of God." God called Cornelius, the Roman Christian, to visit the Christian Jew named Peter, a command that violated so many social norms and the covenant of the Torah. In fact, the Greek word that we translate as unlawful in v. 28 is athémitos, and another translation of that word is abomination. We've seen this word before in other passages from Scripture, from the Torah in fact.

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Leviticus 18:22, ESV)
It was an abomination for Gentiles and Jews to associate with each other. It was unlawful for men have sex with other men. These words, for the Biblical person, had the same meaning. God tells Peter, "Do not call common that which I have made clean." Before we jump to the conclusion that Bible clearly says that homosexuality is not a sin, let's step back to look at the bigger picture. Just as the ancient Jewish Christian no longer needed to fear the threat of defilement from being in the same room as a Gentile Christian, we no longer need to fear, judge, or exile the members of the LGBT community from our churches or presence. God has declared them clean, just as He has declared straight people clean. Many people, however, are loathe to associate themselves with members of the gay community; fear drives many possible relationships a Christian could have with a gay man or woman.

"What do I say if they ask if homosexuality is a sin?"

"What if my gay friend dates another dude?"

"My gay neighbors invited me to their wedding this fall. I'm afraid that if I go, I will validate their sinful relationship."

"My daughter just came out to me. What do I do?"

"My gay co-worker just asked me to have a drink with him at a local bar. Is he hitting on me?"

Love is not the foundation of those questions; fear and anxiety is. God says in His Scriptures to not call common or unclean that which he has made clean, and Jesus commands us to love one another. Peter and Cornelius did the unthinkable for people of their generation; they sat together in the presence of God. What will we do? How will we act? Will we define people by their sin? Or will we see who each person can be, whether straight, gay, bi, transgendered, or questioning, in the person of Jesus Christ?

Until next time,

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lessons on LGBT Bridge Building from The Book of Acts, pt. 1

I am reading through the Book of Acts for my devotionals, and I would like to share with you what I have learned in this reading. I will share my thoughts in two parts, with each edition focusing on one story in the Acts. For this post, let us look at Acts 8:26-40.

This is the story of Philip and the Eunuch. As Philip travels through the wilderness south of Jerusalem, he encounters a Eunuch from Ethiopia, and as you are aware, a eunuch is a castrated male, either by choice or not. Philip encounters the Eunuch as he tries to make sense of a Messianic Prophecy from Isaiah, and the Eunuch asks Philip to explain it to him. Beginning with the prophets, Philip shares with this man "the good news of Jesus." The Eunuch, overcome with the joy of the Lord, commands the chariot to stop by a pool of water, and he asks Philip to baptize him. Philip is only happy to oblige; he baptizes the man on the spot. The story ends with the Eunuch rejoicing on his journey, and the Holy Spirit bears Philip away to another place.

Wikipedia teaches us facts about eunuchs that are important to this story. The most obvious of these facts, as stated earlier, is the individual's lack of genitals; the eunuch would typically be castrated at an early enough age to stunt the production of testosterone, therefore keeping his physical appearance more boyish and his voice at a higher pitch. To state another obvious tidbit, he would have been unable to have sex with anyone, and he therefore would not be able to produce an heir. The eunuch, therefore, is not quite a man, but he is not a woman either. He is between genders. Wikipedia also notes that eunuchs have traditionally held a place of honor and trust in the court of royalty. Since a eunuch would be unable to produce an heir that could potential usurp the throne, the king could trust him with state and personal secrets that he would otherwise keep to himself. We know from Acts 8 that this eunuch was a servant of the Ethiopian queen Candace, so we know that he had a position of power and authority. One imagines, and wikipedia confirms this, that any eunuch would also have been a target of humiliation, ridicule, and degradation.

In this story, Philip sees this Eunuch, a true pansexual, studying Scripture, and when the Eunuch asks for Philip's wisdom, he freely gives it to the Gentile. When the Eunuch asks to be baptized after hearing the Good News, Philip does so immediately. No where in the Scripture does Philip berate the Eunuch on the validity of his confession, nor does the issue of the Eunuch's gender stand in the way of his baptism. Philip invites this man who transcends gender into God's Kingdom, and the Eunuch enters into God's courts with joy and thanksgiving.

The application of this teaching is immediate, particularly for those of us who are trying to reach out to our local LGBT community: do not allow alternative notions of gender to interfere with the work of making disciples. Some of my friends are quick to create a stance on homosexuality to use as a sort of shield; they want to be ready to remind our gay neighbors that their lifestyle is a sin. Philip, on the other hand, does not allow the Eunuch's gender, or lack thereof, to stand in the way of Christ's Gospel, nor does he make any attempt to rescue the Eunuch from his lifestyle in Candace's royal court. He simply proclaims the good news to the man, baptizes him, and sends the Eunuch on his way. (In fact, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church traces their origins to this Eunuch!) For Philip, the only position upon which stood was the Truth that good news is for all to hear!

To be clear, I do not believe that this Eunuch was gay; his very biology rendered him asexual. There are those who do believe that the word Eunuch could also mean "homosexual," and we could debate the semantics of the original language all we would like. It won't get us far. What we do know, as Philip himself seemingly knew, is that his convert was a man who transcended gender, just as many members of the LGBT community transcend gender in their own way. From drag queens, butch lesbians, effeminate gay men, pre-op and post-op transgender individuals, the gay community presents a diverse understanding and subversion of our dualistic notions of gender; even the reality of a man being attracted to another man calls into question the mainstream understanding of masculinity. This Eunuch in Acts 8 is only another part of the ongoing discussion surrounding gender and the Bible.

In short, Philip challenges all of us who are working to bring Christ's Gospel to our local LGBT community. We should not focus our energies on creating and standing behind an official position for or against homosexuality; rather, our primary work should be rooted in Christ's command for us to love one another and make disciples. That twink at your local gay bar might be the next great leader in planting churches, but if you place a greater emphasis on his sexuality over his potential in Christ, you may never release him to do the work that God designed for him to do. Look at Philip. He cared less about gender and more about Jesus, and in so doing, he indirectly took the Gospel to sub-saharan Africa through one of the oldest Gentile churches in history.

In the second part, we will consider Peter's vision in Acts 10-11 and his visit with Cornelius, the Gentile Christian.

But until next time...