...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Take a pass

We were at a wedding in Omaha over the weekend, and while it was a beautiful ceremony, the reception ended up being extremely long, so we weren't able to make it back Saturday night. The Advent Experiment has been delayed to next weeek and I look forward to reporting on the results.

Today I'm in the office writing up my text summary for my final undergrad class, and I feel I must offer this public service announcement. If you ever get the chance to read A New Religious America by Diana Eck, pass it right up. If you receive it as a gift, request the receipt. If you have to read it for a class, DROP. THE. CLASS.

And now, back to summarizing.


The Advent Experiment

I know Thanksgiving weekend isn't even over, but I'm doing something different with the youth for the Advent season. First, we're actually going to do Advent. We're not going to spend the month of December doing nothing in particular until the week before Christmas, when all of a sudden we remember that the whole Jesus-birthday thing is just around the corner. Starting this weekend, we're going to spend every Sunday doing the readings, saying the prayers, lighting the candles and generally avoiding even the semblance of what we've been doing. Second, I'm treating this as kind of an experiment - an anti-fun experiment, if you will. I've been feeling more and more strongly lately that I need to cut the "fun stuff" out of the program and focus on spiritual disciplines, teaching and developing a true community with the youth. Our power was cut this morning in the office, so I went to Border's for to kill an hour until it came back on. I picked up this book "The Younger Evangelicals" by Webber, and read through the chapter on the changing dynamics of youth ministry. It basically talked about all the things I've been thinking about, all the changes I think need to be made - which I took as a confirmation that I'm taking this in the right direction.

So I need your prayers. I need to see some sign from the kids and from God that this is the right direction to take this program. I'm not sure what that sign will be and I know there are some kids who will absolutely hate it, but the status quo isn't good enough anymore. I also need your prayers about how the leadership at my church will react to it. I have a youth devotional blog for the kids and had a link to a guided prayer site run by a group of *gasp* Jesuits! The senior pastor was checking out the blog, clicked on the link and didn't like the fact that there is a link on the bottom of the page that says "pray with the Pope." There is a strong anti-Catholic vibe that kind of permeates our denomination, and even though the kind of stuff I would like to do harkens back to the true historic practice of early Christians (and is more Orthodox than anything), I'm sure the distinction will be lost on some. Needless to say, some feathers might get fairly ruffled, so please pray for peace and for strength & wisdom for me to deal with the situation.

And with that, have a happy Thanksgiving!


The Argument From Harm II

Back in my original post about a debate over on Pontifications regarding homosexuality, the poster "1,000 times" actually found my little blog and left some comments on my reflections. Since this is a very important issue for Christians today, I though it best to reply to those comments on the main page. 1,000 times posted a section from this article referencing Romans 1:26, which I have not had time to fully review yet. The article is quoted below in italics, and 1,000's comments in plain text. (I would encourage any readers to go back to the original posts to read the comments in their entirety, since I will only be replying to specific sections here.)

Well, according to this article, in re Romans I:

"Well, all I’d like to say at this point is that we have several commentaries on these words dating from the centuries between the writing of this text and the preaching of St John Chrysostom at the end of the fourth century. None of them read the passage as referring to lesbianism. Both St Augustine and Clement of Alexandria interpreted it straightforwardly as meaning women having anal intercourse with members of the other sex."

In and of itself, this does not mean that the verse only refers to deviant heterosexual activity. Clearly "that which is unnatural" or "that which is against nature" leaves open the distinct possibility that lesbianism is included in this verse, regardless of whether specific author saw it or not. Given the fact that the following verse clearly refers to male homosexual activity and that Paul uses the formulation "abandoned the natural function", which parallels "exchanged the natural function" in verse 26, we have to be open to this verse referring to female homosexual activity and not just "unnatural" heterosexual intercourse.

"It has been perfectly normal for long stretches of time to read this passage in the Catholic Church without seeing St Paul as saying anything to do with lesbianism. This means that no Catholic is under any obligation to read this passage as having something to do with lesbianism."

I'm not Catholic, but even I can see this is a non-starter. If the Pope says this verse refers to lesbianism, then a Catholic is indeed obligated to read this verse in that fashion. He/she may choose to disobey the Pope on this matter, but in so doing, they have separated themselves from the Roman Catholic understanding of this verse.

"Furthermore, it is a perfectly respectable position for a Catholic to take that there is no reference to lesbianism in Holy Scripture, given that the only candidate for a reference is one whose ‘obvious meaning’ was taken, for several hundred years, to be something quite else.So if there have been a variety of interpretations of this passage, even among the most respected Bible scholars (and now saints!), doesn't that say that this verse doesn't necessarily condemn sexual behavior between women?"

Yes, it may be possible that St Paul was not referring to lesbianism here. I think it unlikely, but it is possible. However, that does not mean that Scripture is silent on the issue. The New Testament clearly defines marriage as being between a man and a woman (1 Cor 7:2, 1 Tim 3:2) and teaches that sexual love can only be expressed within its confines. Marriage is strictly defined and is not a category of relationships, thus, any sexual expression outside of marriage is wrong. Since, by definition, 2 men and 2 women cannot be married, sexual activity between them can only be construed as sinful. Let me illustrate in a different sphere. To my knowledge, Scripture is silent on the issue of oral sex, and yet, this silence is not taken to mean that oral sex between a spouse and a non-spouse is anything but adultery. Even if there is no verse that explicitly references lesbianism, their is still a system in place from which to reason on these topics.

"And if that's true, then nowhere in the Bible is sexual behavior between women condemned. So why do women have to obey a non-existant command, one that basically eviscerates their entire lives? Nobody else is required to be celibate for life, except gay people."

Are you honestly arguing that the Bible affirms female homosexual relationships, but condemns male homosexuality? This is another problem with your argument - why would God be inconsistent in this manner? If male gay sex is wrong, why would female gay sex be right? What is the ontological difference between them?

"We think that it's not "homosexuality" that is condemned by the Bible, but the exploitative homosexual relationships...The Timothy and Corinthians verses use a word that was never translated as 'homosexuality' until 1946...Nobody knows the actual meaning of the word, because it doesn't exist before the author's use of it in these passages. An obscure word whose exact meaning is unknown is a very bad basis for condemnation of anything, wouldn't you agree?"

I agree that this word should be translated "homosexual" since the idea (life-long sexual/romantic attraction to members of the same sex) and the term, were not developed until the 19th century. There cannot be a direct translation like that. However, the meaning is not as obscure as you think. Paul uses the formulation "arsenokoites", which is actually a combination of words from the Septuagint version of Leviticus 18:22. "Arseno" refers to mankind (if I remember corectly) and "koites" means laying together, hence the word may be better translated as "engagers in homosexual acts" rather than just "homosexual." Given that Paul uses language directly from Leviticus, I think we can safely assume there is some continuity of teaching on this matter and thus cannot simply reject the Levitical Law on this specific topic based on Christians not adhering to other parts. Additionally, I think the meaning of the word is relatively clear when seen in this context, and so we can safely make moral judgments based upon it.

"I agree about the teaching on marriage, though: the Bible gives instructions based on heterosexual unions. But these can't be used to say anything about homosexual unions, can they?"

I'm not sure why you would make that assumption. As I pointed out above, marriage is not a category of relationships, but is itself a strictly defined relationship. There may be many different types of friendships, business contracts, etc, that all fall under those general categories, but marriage is not such a general category. It is singularly defined, just as father, son, brother, uncle, etc, each has a singular definition. So yes, instructions about heterosexual unions say much about homosexual ones; they preclude them.

"Anyway, polygamy was certainly permitted all throughout the Old Testament, and some of the Bible's greatest heros from that period had numerous wives. Adultery had a differnt meaning, also. I'm trying to point out that the institution of 'marriage' has indeed been quite fluid over the centuries."

You are correct. But can you show me one instance where the Bible mentions any marriage between people of the same sex? I don't think you can. Even in cases of polygamy, the women were married to the man and not to each other. I think it would be a stretch, especially in light of NT teaching, to assume that the instituation of marriage is so fluid as to include homosexual unions.

"And my main point here is to wonder why God would punish homosexuality so severely, when the condemnations are few and far between, the basis for condemnation unclear and weak in my opinion, and almost everybody agrees at this point that homoesexual orientation is unchosen. It just doesn't make any sense - and the information above about Romans confirms that, IMO."

What punishment are you referring to? Is it the temporal "punishment" of singleness & celibacy, or the eternal punishment talked about by Paul?

"The issue is that human beings have a deep desire for partnership, and that desire expresses itself in marriage. 95% of Americans marry at some point in their lives; I think that demonstrates that it's a basic sort of instinct. I know hetersexual couples who don't plan to have children, yet still got married. You just can't deny this basic urge to people for their entire lives; imagine this for yourself, if you can."

I agree that people have a deep desire for partnership - it is a part of being human. I have never denied the humanity of homosexuals in this regard and would oppose anyone who did. However, I think we are talking about 2 separate issues that, in my mind, can't necessarily be combined. There is the legal issue of whether or not the state should recognize gay marriage and the spiritual issue, which actually breaks down into the individual and the corporate. How should the individual homosexual live his life based on biblical teaching, conscience, prayer, etc? And should the chuch recognize or bless homosexual unions?

Legally, there is nothing preventing homosexuals from finding a partner, committing themselves to each other and spending the rest of their lives together. Yes, there are some additional legal hoops to jump through regarding wills, visitation rights, etc, but those are all surmountable. No one is denying any gay person the right to find a life-partner and fulfill that profound desire for partnership & love. Things are indeed different on the spiritual front, but I think we should decide how to proceed first - do we focuse on the legal or the spiritual? I would prefer the spiritual, but am willing to tackle both, so I leave it up to you to decide where we go from here.

Sanding musings

During nearly 10 hours of floor sanding, performed with the assistance of the much appreciated father-in-law, my mind tended to wander. Apart from repeatedly cursing the person who put multiple coats of lead paint on my floor, and then repenting of said cursing, and then praying that I could get all the boards evenly sanded and then praying I didn't sand through the floor, I thought about a few different things.

First, I reviewed the Law & Order episode I blogged on last week and realized that if I were a gay person, I would actually be quite mad about that show. The gay "spouse" refused to testify because Jack had gotten the gay marriages overturned and accused Jack of "undermining everything that I am" or something similar. But what did that marriage say about "all that he is"? If the marriages were valid, then he was an adulterer and until the defense lawyer made claims to spousal privilege, he hadn't really thought twice about testifying against his spouse once it became clear the cops might accuse him of being an accessory. Apparently "everything that he is" is a selfish adulterer looking out for number one while seeking the right to marry just because he likes the idea of it and not because he is actually committed to treating it with honor and respect. What does that say about gays?

Second, I thought about the ministry I'm in. We had a ministry leaders lunch - which we have usually about once a month - for the volunteers who head our various ministries; music, drama, greeter/ushers, hospital visitation, etc. Our senior pastor gave a short speech about his vision for our church and what makes us different from other churches in the area. Long story short, he said a few people who had been at an "intro to *** community church" class had said they came from other churches because of a lack of preaching from the word, in-depth worship and that kind of thing - stuff mature Christians are concerned with. The senior pastor told them, basically, if you're looking to "receive" here go someplace else - our ministry is meant for the unreached. If you're looking to "give" here, to help others on their way to Christ, then by all means stay. The wife and I talked about this later that night and came to the conclusion that this kind of thing can only happen in a once-saved-always-saved culture. Getting people into heaven through a profession of faith in Christ is the main task. After that, they're locked in and any depth of spiritual growth or maturity is just icing on the cake. This runs pretty contrary to my view of things - spiritual growth and maturity must necessarily follow any conversion. Christ did not say "go therefore, and make converts of all the nations," He said to make disciples. Are we succeeding in the great commission if all we do is win people to Christ without helping them towards discipleship?

Third, how am I doing in regards to the above? I sometimes have a crisis of confidence in my ministry - whether or not I'm doing a good job, whether or not I'm making a difference with these kids, whether or not I'm influencing their eternal residence. I spend a lot of time on living the Christian life, but I don't present the Gospel a lot because I assume most of these kids are already Christian. Some of them invite friends, but we're not really growing too much. I see good signs in a lot of the kids, but I still struggle with measuring success - and what even constitutes success? I would love a nice, easy definition, but I suspect that there isn't one.


This probably isn't going to help....

Knowing, as we do, the territoriality of the Muslim faith - I have specifically in mind here reports that there were many more recruits while we were fighting in Najaf because Muslims were opposed to our proximity to the shrines - why would you let a photographer take this picture? Seeing a bunch of solders lounging around in a mosque with their boots on and anti-tank weapons set casually on the floor probably isn't going to be the best PR. I know its just a little thing in a sea of much, much larger things, but it still seems pretty stupid to me.


Law & Order tackles gay marriage

The wife & I greatly prefer Criminal Intent, but we occasionally watch the original Law & Order with its "ripped from the headlines" episodes. I'm not sure if last night's episode really falls into the headlines category, but it did touch on more than a few current events. For those who didn't see it, here is the basic premise:

Wife of governor is killed at a fundraiser luncheon. Police discover that governor is unethically favoring one company for government contracts. Police find out that the owner of said company is gay and is blackmailing his brother-in-law who has cooked the books for said company. Police talk to owner's boyfriend, find out he is sleeping with the governor. Boyfriend tells police company owner admitted to killing the wife because she was going to go public with the gay affair and the governor would have to resign and the company owner would lose his lucrative government contracts. District attorney tries to get boyfriend to testify, but the couple had gotten married in a small town in up-state New York and conversation falls under marital privilege. DA gets all the marriages overturned but spouse/boyfriend refuses to testify because of it. Company owner cops a plea and goes to jail.

All in all, it wasn't a bad episode. However, I did have some problems with it. First, the assistant DA's are set against each other as to how to proceed with the case. The younger, female ADA (Serena) basically gives up on the case after learning the couple got married, while the older, male ADA (Jack) is willing to challenge the marriages in order to get the conviction. Serena opposes Jack's challenge to the marriages because she thinks it will "set gay rights back 20 years" and thinks that limiting the marital privilege to heterosexual couples is based solely on prejudice and being "captive to the religious right." She even accuses Jack of letting the "nuns get into his head." The implications are quite obvious: no right-thinking individual could ever be opposed to gay marriage on strictly rational grounds. Such opposition could only spring from prejudice & ignorance based on homophobia and religious indoctrination. The show seemed to portray Serena's attitude in a positive light and easily took for granted that the gay marriages should be considered valid. Serena also questioned Jack's negative assessment of the governor's moral sense - a man married for 19 years with 2 children who had an affair. Serena seemed to think there was nothing really wrong with this since he was just being "true to himself" and Jack's view was not adequately explored. At one point they also compared the gay-marriage campaign to the civil rights movement of the 60's.

The second thing I disliked had more to do with characterization than the plot itself. Jack is normally very rigid on the law, and while he is aggressive, he respects legal dictates and understands that the system will sometimes allow a criminal to go free in order to protect the rights of the rest of us. But in this episode, he is portayed as coldly opportunistic, looking for every underhanded trick he can think of to get this gay man convicted. Serena's stance that the gay marriages shouldn't be challenged is favored, while Jack is accused of homophobia and ignorance. While he ultimately succeeds in getting the marriages overturned, the boyfriend/spouse refuses to testify stating that "we will not be treated like second-class citizens." This statement goes unchallenged and the show took zero time to explore the reasons why people are opposed to gay marriage, for both religious and non-religious reasons.

I realize this is not a political show and isn't meant to be a forum for social debate, but this was so subtely biased that I'm afraid this is the kind of stuff that will inform many people's thoughts. For an issue like this, we can't allow the debate to rely on facile arguments & prejudice of any kind.



To preface this, I was in the Army Reserves for 7 years and was deployed 3 times; once voluntarily and twice involuntarily. I was a counterintelligence agent and did strategic intel work, including counter-terrorism analysis and tactical intel work in Bosnia as a team sergeant for a "Force Protection Team." My moral views on war and being in the army have shifted considerably since then, but I can identify with the soldiers currently deployed (to a limited extent, having never been in combat) and my experience does give me a different perspective on what is happening in the world today.

As I mentioned earlier, I was unable to vote for a variety of reasons, but I probably would have cast for Bush. That vote, however, would have been geared towards life issues and little else. I believe the war in Iraq was a miscalculation that is going to present problems for the US for years to come. The war has spurred Iran & North Korea's nuclear weapons programs since that is the only conceivable deterrent to the US. North Korea effectively holds Seoul hostage with conventional weapons - nuclear weapons is the icing on the cake allowing it to threaten Japan, as well. If Iran acquires or manufactures nuclear weapons, Israel is the obvious target. Those are but 2 of the numerous reasons I was opposed to this war, which included both moral & strategic/political concerns.

Now, comes the report from the Lancet, a British medical journal, that their research has concluded that the "excess deaths" in the 17 months after the war is in excess of 98,000 at a conservative estimate. The Lancet's exact findings:

The risk of death was estimated to be 2·5-fold (95% CI 1·6–4·2) higher after the invasion when compared with the preinvasion period. Two-thirds of all violent deaths were reported in one cluster in the city of Falluja. If we exclude the Falluja data, the risk of death is 1·5-fold (1·1–2·3) higher after the invasion. We estimate that 98000 more deaths than expected (8000–194000) happened after the invasion outside of Falluja and far more if the outlier Falluja cluster is included. The major causes of death before the invasion were myocardial infarction, cerebrovascular accidents, and other chronic disorders whereas after the invasion violence was the primary cause of death. Violent deaths were widespread, reported in 15 of 33 clusters, and were mainly attributed to coalition forces. Most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children. The risk of death from violence in the period after the invasion was 58 times higher (95% CI 8·1–419) than in the period before the war.*

98,000+ deaths, which is over 6 times the count of Iraq Body Count, which as of right now, has the death toll between 14,219 and 16,352. I was thinking about this last night - 100,000 or more people dead, many killed without warning by air strikes they never saw coming. I wondered how I would feel, if I were over there and a friend or a family member were killed by coalition forces. Of course, it must be pointed out that the death toll under Saddam was much higher though spread out over a longer period, but does it make a difference to the surviving spouses, parents, siblings or children who killed their loved ones? I would hope it would, but in their shoes I don't know what I would think. Right now, safe in my office, I think all the deaths under Saddam would have felt meaningless - no hope for change, no hope for the future, no hope for a better tomorrow in spite of the present pain. But now, with Saddam gone and Iraq moving towards democracy and freedom in fits & starts, I wonder if those 100,000 deaths feel the same. Is there a sense that those deaths, while tragic and painful, happened on the edge of a brighter future and in that way, were not meaningless or bereft of hope? I don't know how I would feel if I was an Iraqi and lost a family member like that, but I have to think (and pray) that hope permeates these tragedies and feeds the as yet tiny flames of a free future. Even if that is the case, is there any guilt in those deaths? Will we have a price to pay as a nation for extinguishing those innocent lives, even in the name of freedom?

Unfortunately, I think there is a strong possibility that we will, if only because we have masked these deaths with flippant slogans and wrong thinking. Take this from a "voting guide" by John Mark Reynolds:

[Bush] wants to bring liberty to Iraq. This is difficult, but if his plan works, terrorism will end forever.

No, liberty in Iraq will not end terrorism forever. Aside from the insurgency, which is not, strictly speaking, terrorism, I don't think a free Iraq will make a significant change in the level of global terrorism. Groups in Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Africa and elsewhere are unaffected by the Iraq war. Jemaah Islamiyah knows we will not invade Indonesia, even though they slaughter hundreds, if not thousands, of Christians every year. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Abu Sayyaf know we will not invade the Philippines no matter how many hostages they take or bombs they detonate on the island of Mindanao. A free Iraq might make a difference in Palestinian terrorism, since Saddam did fund suicide bombers but that funding has already been cut off. (Arafat's coma and possible death will hopefully have a much larger impact.) What does this type of lie - that liberty in Iraq will end terrorism - say about our attitude towards those 100,000 dead? It seems to me that being unrealistic about the purpose of their deaths, dishonors and trivializes them. Maybe I'm wrong, but it feels like it empties them of that hope since our plan for what will happen is nothing but wishful thinking.

So what do we do? What should we think? How do we mourn these deaths? Should it change our actions on the ground? Should we be willing to put more of our own in harm's way to prevent the deaths of innocents on this scale?

* The Lancet believes the majority of deaths among women & children were due to air strikes. Their method is this:
A cluster sample survey was undertaken throughout Iraq during September, 2004. 33 clusters of 30 households each were interviewed about household composition, births, and deaths since January, 2002. In those households reporting deaths, the date, cause, and circumstances of violent deaths were recorded. We assessed the relative risk of death associated with the 2003 invasion and occupation by comparing mortality in the 17·8 months after the invasion with the 14·6-month period preceding it.



From dictionary.com:

ho·mo·pho·bi·a     n.
1) Fear of or contempt for lesbians and gay men.
2) Behavior based on such a feeling.

From Jeff Sharlet of the Revealer:

"Homophobia is a cross-party persuasion, but last night it figured most often in the votes of Republicans. A topic discussed more and more frequently as the pundits came to realize that their predictions had been wildly wrong was 'values' -- that is, in this election like no other, gay marriage. Let’s make that simpler, get to the root of the matter: gay sex."

When did making a moral decision about sexual activity or legally enforceable contracts become an issue of fear or contempt? Why is my evaluation of the biblical texts on homosexuality a fear-based decision, when my evaulation of the biblical texts on adultery a morality-based decision? Why have we let "homophobia" become so broadly defined as to include rational moral judgments?


Do you ever...?

As I am quite sick of hearing about 1) the election, especially since I never got my absentee ballot from Arizona and am thus disenfranchised yet again (the same thing happened in 2000 when I was in Bosnia) and 2) the Episcopal/Druid liturgy debate (which I've been following mainly by way of Pontifications), I've decided to ask a serious question, especially for anyone ever involved in a ministerial leadership position.

Do you ever wake up the day after a sermon/Bible study/discussion and just ask yourself "what the hell was I thinking?" or "how did that happen?" Something happened or came up that, at the time, seemed like a good idea or topic, but after you've had a chance to think about it, you realize it may have been a mistake, that some people might be offended or upset if they heard about it since they didn't hear the whole conversation in context. I bring this up because on Sunday, I split the youth group up by gender - my wife took the girls to talk about modesty, boundaries in dating, etc, and I took the guys to talk about porn & masturbation. Ahh, the wonderful differences between the sexes! I didn't plan to just talk about porn & masturbation; I was also going to talk about boundaries in dating and respecting women by not treating them as objects, but that didn't happen. Reality crept in.

Every guy in that room, including several 11 year olds, had already seen porn- not surpising since statistically, one of the largest consumers of online porn is the 12-17 year old age group. Most had seen it while at school - either a friend brought something or they saw it online on a school computer. And while I didn't press the issue, it was clear that more than a few probably continued to view porn on a regular basis, so the conversation tended to stay focused on that. I talked about the effects of porn on the way we view women, violence towards women, sex & relationships, how it prevents us from having healthy relationships and desensitizes us to feeling real love & sexual pleasure. I also talked about how, like a drug, we need ever more explicit materials to get the same stimulation, which can lead to pretty sick stuff. This is where things got bad. I'm not really sure how it came up - whether someone asked a question or not - but somehow we started talking about that sick stuff. Stuff like child porn or porn dealing with urine or feces - the really warped, disgusting extreme that people are, unfortunately, drawn into through their porn addictions. I tried to emphasize that these people started off just looking at pictures - of some actress they found attractive or some "men's magazine" - but eventually went off the deep end. We didn't spend too much time on it, but it was definitely part of the conversation and probably the part kids will remember most. One parent, thankfully a very understanding parent, came in to talk to me about it. Having struggled with porn himself, he didn't mind what we talked about and thought it was good that it came up since it was something that shocked the kids and showed them in an extremely clear way how porn can change us. So far, no other parents have called or emailed, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they won't. Even now, though, I think the discussion was a good one - kids are rarely presented with the consequences of this kind of thing. In a culture that trivializes sex & pornography, the prevailing opinion seems to be that porn isn't all that bad, if not good for you. But its a blight on our nation and a cancer eating away at the men, especially the young men, of our society. Our kids have to see where it leads - the potenial depravity in all of us.