As I See it Now

As I see it now, there are always two ways to tell the truth.

I realized this as I was telling my story for the umpteenth time to a friend yesterday. The telling of my story has changed drastically over the years. Its evolved from some one-celled amoeba to a living, breathing organism. I no longer hold my story by the hands and guide its steps. My story moves of its own accord. It reveals beauty I choose to forget in day-to-day life. It shows me glimpses beyond the veil of this decaying world into a redemption so grand my heart can only now handle infinitesimally small viewings. The kindness of God flows like spirit, guiding my words in such a way that even my feelings are compelled to follow. In the telling, God’s glory and my life feels aligned in honest and raw display. Something of the image of God wakes to life.

It is not something I have manufactured.

It was not always this way.

Bitterness once took the reigns of my story. It is possible it will do so again. And you know what? That bitter tale is just as true as the way I tell my story now. How can that be?

Listen closely.

I’m not talking here of a shift from pessimism to optimism; negativity to positivity; or even bitterness to beauty.

I could tell you my story and point out to you proofs of how now I know God is clearly not kind. I could show you the particularly cruel ways life has handed me exactly what I most feared when I prayed for redemption. I could tell you that God is, above all things, a Master Manipulator who enjoys playing this cosmic game with all of us to see how we react. There is plenty in my story, and probably in yours, to prove this to you. I could encourage all of you like Job’s wife to curse God, live the way you want to live the remainder of your life, and die.

But my narrative unfolds in such a way now that God’s kindness simply spills out. Mercy overflows from a perspective I can’t even comprehend. It’s nonsensical faith. It’s ridiculous hope. The reality of this otherworldly perspective does not take away the grief. The loss and sorrow are as acute as it has ever been.

But this way of truth-telling also refuses to suppress the joy. God’s faithfulness lights candles and I snuff them out and he lights them again and the cycle goes on and on but more and more are lit and eventually I can’t help but notice. Just . . . notice . . . that perhaps . . . there is a little light here after all.

Gently, confidently, God’s kindness whispers:

But wait . . . there’s more.

How long can I wait for redemption to win?

It will never arrive fully; not until the day I die. How can I possibly cope?

By telling my story. By being a living Psalm, crying out to God for help on one hand and shaking my fist at Him with the other. By allowing Spirit to tell the truth of my bitterness or the truth of hope in Christ or the truth of both.

And sometimes, by watching my story remind me of love that defies and defines all my attempts to describe it.

The Physicist

This is a short story reflection of the tension I feel between God’s holiness and humanity. His goodness is in question. My doubts are many. I trust Jesus, but not fully. I disobey Him, sometimes on purpose. I want to forget Him and forge my own path but find His kindness meeting me in solitude and drawing me back to Him all the time. I am like a little kid in the presence of a physicist, angry and afraid of things I can’t possibly understand. And that’s how this story begins.

I meander around the physicist’s equipment, far above where my little arms can reach. I don’t understand anything of what he does. I just know it’s complicated. His eyebrows furrow a lot – the intensity of focus he puts into his work is unmatched.

I dare to interrupt: “Play with me?”

He turns at once, kneels to my level. The warmth in his eyes make no sense in contrast to the coldness of his confounding instruments. I shudder, afraid of all that is mysterious and holy.

“Don’t be afraid, little one,” he says in a gentleness that flows like a rippling brook.

I say nothing, but glance down at the bright blue ball I have in my hands. I toss the ball halfheartedly towards the physicist. He pretends to be taken aback by the strength of my throw, teetering over and falling to the floor. I can’t help but giggle as he sits up with a playful grin.

He tosses the ball back to me, but I miss catching it. The ball careens into a bunch of important-looking glass tubes that crash and explode and before I know it I’ve run into the physicist’s arms.

I don’t know why I ran to him.

I’m shaking with fear and pulling away. “Are you mad? Are you mad?” I whisper frantically. He holds me an arms-length away from him and touches my cheek. His eyes still hold a playful gleam, but there are also tears mirroring my own.

Smiling, he boops me on the nose with a tap of his finger and leaps to his feet. He goes to the corner of the room and pulls out two brooms and a dustpan.

“Cleanup on aisle 2!” He shouts, saluting me and handing me the smaller of the two brooms. I smile then hang my head in shame. Again, he kneels to my level. and lifts my chin. I stare past him, avoiding his gaze.

“You can tell me,” the physicist says, pushing a strand of hair behind my ear. “I already know,” he continues, finding my gaze. He looks serious. I turn away.

“It wasn’t an accident,” I whisper, gesturing to the hundreds of pieces of still-smoking broken glass. “I wanted to see . . . what . . . you would do,” I explained.

The physicist waited patiently. “And . . . it was kind of fun . . .” I finished lamely.

The physicist sighed knowingly. “How do you feel now?”

I look around the room at all the infuriating instruments. “I don’t know,” I reply honestly. “I don’t know if I’m sorry or not,” I admit, crossing my arms in a gesture of self-protection. The physicist nods, sets his broom down, and sits with me on the floor. “Don’t you have to work?” I ask, hoping he will stop paying attention to me. I’m feeling uncomfortable.

“This is my most important work,” he replies, stretching out and leaning back on his elbows.

I have a sudden urge to destroy more things in the lab. I hate all of it – all the things I don’t understand. How can the same man who plays catch with me work with such terrible tools?

We sit for what feels like an eternity. I keep expecting him to leave – to give up. Finally, he gets up, walking out of my line of sight.

I imagine now I can do what I want without his interfering.

Suddenly something brushes against my knee. It’s the bright blue ball, rolling slowly past me. Confused, I turn back towards the scene of the crime. The physicist stands amidst all the shattered glass and offers, “Play with me?”

And that’s how I began to love the physicist.

L’Abri Conference Reflections: Christianity’s Liberating Sexual Ethic

L’Abri is French for “the shelter.” The L’Abri ministry was founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer in 1955 to provide a hospitable environment for any person seeking honest answers to honest questions about God and truth. Following in that tradition, a L’Abri Conference provides an opportunity through lectures, discussions, and personal interaction to deepen understanding of what it means to be fully human in light of the transformative truth of Christianity. Each lecture, workshop, mealtime, and discussion is designed to facilitate an exchange of ideas among conference attendees and speakers.

What follows is the second installment of a series of reflections from my attendance at the 2019 Nashville L’Abri Conference, Being Human in a Fragmenting World. Click here to read the first.

“Bodies with Meaning: Christianity’s Liberating Sexual Ethic” was one of my favorite talks from the conference, even though it left me with a few pressing and frustrating questions. Phillip Johnston’s talk was largely about two massive cultural code shifts in relation to how we think about and steward our sexuality.

Johnston started with a quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Shameless, which mirrors well the sexual ethic of today.

In summary, our modern-day sexual ethic is: desire + consent = freedom.

For the Christian, this conclusion provokes some questions . . . how, if at all, have sexual ethics changed since biblical times? If different, is the Christian perspective on sexuality restrictive or liberating? How so?

In order to answer these questions, we need to go way, way, way, way back in time.

In the apostle Paul’s culture, the pre-Christian cultural code for sexual ethics viewed bodies as an indicator of status. Johnston described, in graphic terms, a code we would now consider barbaric.

Every person in this ancient culture operated from either a place of honor or shame, what Johnston calls the “honor-shame light switch”. Based on the cultural code of the day, someone’s body was subjected to either honor or shame. If the switch ever flipped to shame, there was no going back, and the impact was devastating.

Predictably, men were allowed more sexual “privileges” than women. In those times, marriage was nearly universal. Girls were often legally married by the age of twelve. The main mark of a woman’s honor was chastity. If a girl was chaste prior to marriage and was able to have children, her body was considered honorable. Some things that could take away her honor forever and leave her open to rampant abuse was if she was raped, subjected to forced or unforced prostitution, or if she was infertile.

Men, on the other hand, had generally more control over their own honor. The main mark of a man’s honor was moderation. He was allowed a “slippery time” in youth to engage in all manner of sexual activity, but when he reached a certain age, he was expected to have self-control. Self-control, however, was defined rather loosely.

When married, culture permitted men to have sex with other women as long as those women were not married. In other words, a man was free to take advantage of a woman’s body even if she was currently considered an honorable woman. This act, of course, would flip the woman’s honor/shame switch to irreversible shame.

It was even considered virtuous to have sex with a prostitute in order to avoid adultery. Men were culturally permitted to engage in sexual activity with young boys and slaves in a similar fashion as unmarried women. Men had total control over the honor/shame switch of virtually everyone else in society.

It is to this horrendous sexual ethic that Paul addresses and introduces a distinctly Christian code. This code stated that sex is only meant for a husband and wife. Any sexual pursuits outside of that relationship were not just shameful, but sin.

Any sexual activity outside of this permissive sexual outlet between husband and wife would be akin to spitting in God’s face.

We can see how the Christian sexual ethic influenced the ancient Roman culture in a good way. Indeed, many women and children ran to the Church’s teaching during this time, as it was the only safe haven from sexual abuse in the Roman empire. The Christian sexual ethic, while “restrictive” to men, undoubtedly resulted in more positive, healthy, godly sex lives, as well as overall relational well-being for everyone.

But what about the modern-day cultural sex code? Johnston pulls from an op-ed piece from the Atlantic to describe the sex practices and thoughts of the age, which has ultimately resulted in a sex recession. People are having less sex, because meaning is being erased from the act due to constant consumption.

We desire sexual intimacy, but we no longer know where the goodness of sexual intimacy is located.

Modern culture declares not that our bodies have status or meaning, but that they have possibility. Our imaginations are only limited by the notions of consent and desire. Where does this boundary-less sexual ethic lead us?

To the fragmentation and callousness of human hearts.

Sex is no longer sacred. It is simply a tool used for pleasure.

We use it so casually that we have lost the concept of its goodness. In my opinion, it is like we have gorged on imitation strawberry syrup for so long that we have lost our taste for real strawberries.

At this point in Johnston’s presentation, a lack of clarity and cohesion discomfited me. As he went on to describe how in the Christian view bodies have meaning because of their eternal destiny and sacramental nature, I found myself both agreeing and lamenting with his lackluster conclusion to receive our bodies as meaningful gifts from God.

In the historical Christian sexual ethic, what kind of gift is a sexually-charged body to a single person? To an LGBTQ+ person? To a paralyzed person?

These questions remained unanswered by the end of the presentation. Dissatisfied, I spoke up, asking what is the good news of a Christian sexual ethic for such people?

He did not give me a direct answer. Though I spoke with him more fully in private after the presentation, I still felt there was a lack in substance of how the Christian sexual ethic was good for me, personally.

I see how the Roman sexual ethic was degrading and repulsive.

I see how modern-day promiscuity rips open hearts and leaves them calloused.

I see how the Christian sexual ethic is endlessly more beautiful and dignifying in comparison.

But…

Let’s tackle just one of the above people groups… one that many of us are a part of: singles.

How is the Christian sexual ethic good for me as a single person? Indeed, what good is sexuality at all, if I never get married? What exactly am I showing the world about the eternal destiny of the body and the sacramental nature of the body in my singleness?

Well, in essence, I’m showing an aspect of what heaven will be like. There will be no marriage in heaven. There will be no married people. There will be no sex. Marriage and sex are merely cheap imitations of the ecstasy and commitment eternally ours in heaven because of Jesus.

The only reason singleness often sucks right now is because of sin. The Church is not living up to its calling. Married people are not living up to their calling. Single people are not living up to their calling. We are all falling short. Sin tarnishes everything, even our glimpses of heaven from our earthly perspective.

So, I will ask my honest and perhaps selfish question of discontent… how is the Christian sexual ethic good news for me in this cultural moment?

Yes, I know sex is not all goodness and beauty all the time, even in marriage. There are obstacles and unique frustrations to sexuality that marriage brings – scenarios I can honestly imagine to be much worse than never having sex. We live in a scarily sinful world.

But . . . I am a sexual being. What good can I do with that fact in my singleness other than weep and pray, taking comfort in the truth that Jesus understands how I am feeling? My natural inclination is to want to commit myself holistically not just to God, but to another human being. Why God made us that way when some of us are not in healthy marital relationships is beyond me. Then again, why did God make food if some people are starving?

Sexuality is not just about sex, but I’m referring to sexual acts here because it is something that Christian singles are indeed missing experientially within our sexuality, if we are following God.

What is good about that?

I don’t think there is anything intrinsically good about being a sexual being with no opportunity to give of oneself holistically, sexually. But, Paul does call singleness a gift. The goodness of the gift of BOTH marriage and singleness lies in what we choose to do with our desires and if we ultimately will surrender to Love, Who is God Himself. This is something none of us want to hear. It doesn’t seem fair, to some of us caught in less-than-ideal situations.

I truly did not want to end with a dissatisfying conclusion, but it seems on some level, I must. Just as there’s mystery in marriage, there is mystery in singleness that is uncomfortable to my very human heart.

It has been helpful to me reading through a book called Surrender to Love, by David Benner (I have only finished the first chapter). I will end with this quote, in hopes it will encourage you as it has me.

“Creation is an outpouring of love – an overflow of love from the heavens to earth. Creation not only declares the inventiveness and resourcefulness of God but reveals the abundance of his love. Creation declares that humans are born of love and for love, created in the image of a God who is love. Love is our source and love is to be our fulfillment.

Made in God’s image, humans are invested with a nonnegotiable dignity. We are compatriots of God, not just creatures of God. Even more astounding, God chooses us to be his friends. That imputed status was never annulled, despite our sinful rebellion and declarations of independence.

Creation was God’s plan for friendship. We were not brought into existence simply so that we could worship God. Nor were we created simply for service. Human beings exist because of God’s desire for companionship. We are the fruit of God’s love reaching out toward creatures who share enough similarity that relationship is possible.

Humans were created for this intimate communion with their head-over-heels-in-love Creator God. When God thinks of us he feels a deep, persistent longing-not simply for our wholeness but, more basically, for our friendship. This possibility lies at the core of our own deepest desires. It also lies at the core of our deepest fulfillment.”