02 April 2014

world vision's commitment to homosexual marriage

On Monday, March 24, 2014, the World Vision U.S. board made public its decision to no longer require their employees to restrict their sexual activity to heterosexual marriages.  On Wednesday, March 26, 2014, the World Vision U.S. board publicly reversed this decision.

This week has been filled with reaction, accusation, name-calling, praise-heaping, and questions about the impact of it all.  My voice is not necessarily worth any more than the next persons.  Still, I offer my own perspective on what has happened - though, not from the standpoint of orthodoxy and heresy, but of the entire debacle that has been generated by the World Vision board.  I strongly believe that what we are witnessing is of no small significance for our culture and the church.

That World Vision will allow for the hiring of same-sex marriage was announced on March 24.  That was the position of the board, and that is the commitment of the board.  Don't miss that - the World Vision U.S. board has revealed something that we cannot miss.  Those who were disturbed by this initial decision ought to be even more concerned about the rapidity of its reversal.  Having reviewed both statements, and the interviews that were conducted around each, I find it all-too-convenient that this story worked its way out so well.  In other words, there is more going on behind-the-scenes than is being played out in the public sphere.

The initial statement in favor of hiring same-sex couples spoke of the need for the church to move past our judgmental attitudes, to discount this notion of a slippery-slope, and to open up the gospel in the name of church unity.  After all, Richard Sterns (the president of World Vision U.S.) declared this to be a "very narrow policy change."  The Christianity Today article on the decision placed this issue alongside "divorce/remarriage, baptism, and female pastors" as those items which can only be dealt with in local congregations and denominations (as though they have no further impact, even though same-sex marriage does have a larger impact, though it is also relegated to congregations and denominations).  On that Monday the position of World Vision was that helping the needy was of utmost importance for the Christian faith, not all of this doctrinal baggage.

What was produced in less than 48 hours of this decision was a statement that not only retracted the hiring decision, but which seemed to aim for (and hit) just about every phrase and talking-point that would make the conservative evangelical happy.  Suddenly, it became important for the World Vision U.S. board to gain the insight of other evangelical leaders, there was a sudden appeal to "the fundamental Christian beliefs" and "the authority of Scripture," and feeding hungry children was now placed in the realm of the outworking of orthodoxy.  What is more, whereas on Monday it was important for World Vision to defer these minor positions to the local churches, by Wednesday it was vital for World Vision to work in meaningful partnership with those denominations.

I suspect that there are many who will see this and be unsettled by the whole lot of it.  But I also suspect that there are few who will be willing to make a public stand against this hypocrisy.  Christians have been led to believe that whatever mold is placed upon them by the larger culture is binding to their commitment to the faith.  Those who opposed World Vision's decision are being lectured to forgive them and still send in your support, for they have done the right thing.  (Also, the voices are condemning those who would withhold food from starving children because of an archaic commitment to an outdated ideal of marriage, as though World Vision is the only means by which Christians can help those in need.  Overreaching rhetoric indeed.)

These are not appropriate reactions to last week's behavior by the World Vision U.S. board.  Such a dynamic turn around should indicate that one-of-two-things is happening: either, 1) the World Vision board is functioning so poorly that they would so hastily make a decision like this without consideration of its larger impact (a position which they all-but claim in their recant), or 2) the greater intention here is to advance equality for same-sex marriage through their organization, and this was a first-step in that direction.  Even though their retraction all-but-admitted the first, I firmly believe that what is happening is in the latter possibility.

Call it a lead-line, or a testing-of-the-waters, or whatever you will.  Regardless of the specific term, this is the decision that was made when there was no pressure, either of time or external perspective, according to World Vision themselves, to make a decision.  This means, when they had all the time in the world to pray, discuss, reflect and investigate, they believed that accepting same-sex marriage relationships was the best course for their ministry in the name of "church unity" (I'm still rubbing my eyes over that claim).  Only when the heat was turned on and, more specifically, the dollars started to diminish that World Vision suddenly returned to the good-little-evangelicals.

Those in the same-sex-marriage camp have nothing to worry about in regards to World Vision.  I believe they have demonstrated their commitment to the issue of inclusion, and have only reversed its public decision to enlarge the theological tent.  In our culture, one of two things will inevitably happen with World Vision: either 1) they will allow this storm to pass over and reinstitute a hiring policy that includes those in homosexual relationships, and/or 2) they will have helped the larger agenda of same-sex marriage take a step forward in the desensitization of this issue, thereby allowing for the full-support of their future (slightly-less-noisy) decision of inclusivity.

Even though they haven't shown their hand, we can make a good and informed guess as to which cards they are holding.  This didn't take much to figure, since they have show that they have a tell in where their commitment lies.  After all Sterns said (in the Wednesday article), "I think every Christian organization will continue to deal with this sensitive issue ... The board will continue to talk about this issue for many board meetings to come ..."  Fear not, ye who support homosexual marriage!

Our culture is one of politics and media; it is about making a good show.  Initially, I thought that World Vision was making a good show out of their all-too-quick-and-convenient reversal.  Upon further reflection I see that it is more accurate to say that both decisions have been calculated to a goal of a more inclusive evangelicalism that can be more accepting of 'alternative lifestyles' as well as more accepting of those who would rather appeal to cheap concepts of grace and love instead of the firm demands of Scripture.  Still, some will say that they've repented and we should forgive them.  I don't see a repentance, and I don't agree with the pop-level understanding of forgiveness, which is a giant "my-bad-take-back-do-over" that has no ramifications or consequences.  That's not genuine forgiveness.

Those that disagree with my position will simply begin throwing the stones of intolerance, simple-mindedness, he's-got-no-understanding-how-complex-an-issue-this-is, and this guy is so pathetic he is willing to starve children for the sake of his narrow-minded and legalistic religion.  I need not respond to these sentiments, for they are simply dodges to keep us away from a genuine dialogue of these issues.  I have made my case and have evaluated the World Vision position(s) fairly (my taking issue with them does not make my critique unfair).  Their statements are riddled with contradictions and opposing worldviews, and that ought to be cause for concern.  I believe that evangelicals who are already disturbed with last week's events should find other ministries with whom they can partner.  And I believe that evangelicals who are not already disturbed with last week's events should become greatly disturbed by the not-too-subtle erosion that is occurring.

Time will tell what will come of all of this.  We are called to know the times and the seasons as the swirl around us, not so that we can sway as reeds in the wind, but so that we can more firmly stand in the truth that we have made central to our lives.  The kingdom of God is near, and that calls us for a certain type of lifestyle - one that, sadly, is going away all-too-quickly in the name of popularity and convenience.

24 March 2014

the other 325

I have a problem with Lent.  Although I like the idea of the Lenten season, especially in the final days leading up to Ash Wednesday, there is a distinct dislike that eventually meets me along the way.  Having reflected on this annual process I have determined that there is one distinct theological reason for the love-hate pattern of Lent that inevitably leads me here - Lent is hard.

I'm not one to compare myself to others in the area of spirituality, but I would tend to think that I am no more or less devoted than the next poor soul trying to meander through this forty days.  That I admit that Lent is a difficult season does not necessarily make me any more spiritually lazy than the next person.  I'm simply point out what seems to be the biggest obstacle between the person I am today and the person that I might be once I have died to self - namely, that this sort of death is hard.

It seems that every year that I journey through Lent I discover something about the season itself, along with the discoveries that come through the discipline.  These past few days I have come to realize that my problem is not simply with the forty days of Lent, but rather with the three-hundred-twenty-five days that exist outside of Lent.  Because, if I am allowing myself to be honest (which is a necessary virtue for Lenten fasting), then I must admit that it is the days surrounding Lent that make these forty days so hard.

Because in those three-hundred-twenty-five days I believe that I can do whatever I want - eat what I like, become increasingly relaxed in my prayers, focus my mind on other endeavors.  Lent challenges all of that, and I have discovered that I do not like to be pushed in that way.  The sad truth is that I would rather indulge as many desires as I can, pray whenever it is convenient and self-centered, and not have to be constantly bothered with the life of the kingdom of God.  And that makes me a rather pathetic case.

Of course, I could choose to ignore Lent and its disciplines.  That would be choosing a happy and easy road, and I live in a culture that exists on those two ideals.  In fact, many people from within evangelicalism would support me in this - if it is too hard or too depressing, then simply don't do it.  After all, we are told, getting to know God shouldn't be that strenuous.

[One of the objections to observing Lent, of course, is found in the assertion that it is not prescribed in Scripture - that it is an invention of the church.  This is a poor excuse (and I have always rejected it, even in my early years when I didn't know what to do with Lent) for two reasons: first, it is a hubris that says that we can learn nothing from the wisdom of the church fathers and tradition; second, God clearly thinks that seasonal remembrance is beneficial, for he prescribed his own liturgical schedule to his people, even if one of them wasn't specifically named Lent.]

But Lent is a season that exposes all of this faulty thinking.  If I have come to the realization that I am self-serving, indulging and self-centered in my refusal to walk a path that calls me to embody the story of Jesus, then it seems that getting to know God might actually be that strenuous.  In fact, I must now admit that drawing near to God must be hard, for it is antithetical to everything that I would choose to be on my own.  Prone to wander, Lord I feel it - Prone to leave the God I love.

Perhaps I don't have a problem with Lent.  Maybe Lent has a problem with me.  It is in the other three-hundred-twenty-five that I find myself more open to drifting away, lest I have come to embrace the story of Jesus in a way that allows the Holy Spirit to guide me.

For what it's worth, Lent is a difficult season.  In perspective, it is a forty day period out of a year, and although it may seem like it's taking forever, looking back upon it the other three-hundred-twenty-five, it doesn't seem like it was that bad at all.  Therein lies a metaphor for this life, in which we struggle for a short while that will not be able to compare to the glory which shall be revealed unto us.

05 March 2014

peace and war: an ash wednesday thought

We are a people at war.  This is what I gather, to some degree, every time I hear the news - and it doesn't matter what the source, the world is at war in some way, shape or form right now.  Globally, there are nations in turmoil, some facing the threat of invasion and others living through the horrors of internal and tribal war.  In this own country there seems to be a war between those who claim a different set of moral principles, at times becoming hotter than others.  My city is also filled with all sorts of violence toward one another, mostly over things of no intrinsic value but rather the whims of popularity and self-gratification.

Once I start to look I see that the world's warring isn't simply something to consider for a few moments before moving on with my day.  A serious examination shows that every layer between the theoretical concept of evil and my own sense of safety is stripped away by the ongoing violence that surrounds me.  Of course, it is much easier to place blame on theological problems of evil, and thus keep it a relative distance from me.  But the truth about evil is this - no matter how hard I might try, the war will be brought to my own doorstep and, if given the opportunity, make me a casualty.

I can look at the saber-rattling nations, the corrupt politicians, the thugs and gangs, and everyone else between generic theory and personal experience, with the intent of keeping evil at an arm's length from me.  But this will never work - not in the long run.  And it should become readily apparent to those with eyes to see and ears to hear that there is a much bigger problem than all of these external layers of our lives and the acts of war they wage.  The problem is that the war has already come to me.  In fact, the war began in the human heart - a collective of which I am a natural part.

The theoretical problem of evil might be helpful in a philosophical-theological way, but it often presented in such a way as to overlook the most fundamental problem of sin and evil - namely, that I embody evil at war with God.  This might sound rather harsh to some, but a problem must be properly diagnosed before treatment can be prescribed, and this is the reality of my situation.

It appears that the heart's war against god is quite serious, for evil can win the battlefield of the heart.  I believe that the only force in all creation which can stop the power of god is the human heart, so the stakes are nothing short than my very life.  In other words, this internal war is not simply a theory, or the beginnings of a five-step program.  It is life and death in very real terms.

And it is from this war - ongoing within every human heart - that every other war and violence originates.  We are in conflict with one another because we are in conflict with our creator (and thus do not know what to do with ourselves, our world, or our lives).  When Jesus told us that we would be blessed as peacemakers we quickly assumed that our interpersonal human relationships were the sole context of his beatitude.  But Jesus said that those who make peace will be called children of God.  Might he have first meant that we would wage peace in our own hearts, quieting the battle between our own evil and our creator, before we were able to wage peace with others?  When we consider the whole of the gospel message, there can be no doubt that this is the right direction.

Today is marked on the church calendar as a reminder of this reality - that our world is at war, that we are at war, and that the end result of all of this is death.  It is a death we have earned for ourselves because we considered equality with God as something to be grasped.  Only when we come to this truth, and face the ashes of our lives once examined in the fire of the divine presence, can we ever hope to grab hold of the life and peace that is now offered to a broken humanity.

Ours is a world at war.  That war begins and ends within the human heart, which is the only thing that Jesus came to remedy, even with all of the problems that he could have addressed - political, religious, economic, societal, military, etc.  He believed that the most radical change when peacemaking could be made within the human heart, for that would in turn carry the new life of the kingdom into all the world.  What would happen if those who claimed to be disciples of Jesus became seriously engaged in this battle, first for themselves and then to the aid of others?

Today is a day of emptiness.  It is a day of dust and ashes, for the effects of the war we have waged against our creator.  It is a day to be solemn and quiet, and to act as though everything is not alright with the world . . . or ourselves.  The journey that will follow will put all of this back together once again, ushering in a new life and a new spirit to once again ignite new hearts.  That is where peace can be found in the midst of countless wars and battles that threaten to overcome us.  And we will be children of God.

17 February 2014

wisdom and presidents

The day I write this is known as President's Day. It was originally a day set aside for national remembrance of George Washington's birthday.  Over time, other presidents were also added to the commemoration (most notably Lincoln and Jefferson), so that it eventually became known as a commemoration of all of the United States' Presidents.  This is unfortunate on one level, because we lose a connection with the magnanimous character and American spirit of George Washington in the name of honoring all of our leaders in equality.  On the other hand, I see why we would want to honor all of our presidents, so the change is understandable.

In either event, the day is almost completely lost on modern Americans, either from most of us not having a holiday, and those that do probably aren't reflecting on our nation or its leadership any more than those who are sitting behind their desks in an otherwise normal routine.  But the day is still on the calendar, and there is enough of a disruption to our society that we notice - no mail, certain offices are closed, no school, etc.  So, in good American fashion, we look at our current leadership and we facetiously smirk and say, "Oh yeah, President's Day ... Woo-hoo!"  In other words, our modern culture carries quite a disdain for the current state of affairs, believing somewhere in our hearts that this is not the nation it was once intended to be.

The fact is that it truly is not the nation is was intended to be.  Whether you believe that we have gone too far right or too far left, just about everybody is looking for something better than the current state of affairs.  And looking to our national leadership simply isn't cutting it right now.  This may be the country we call home, but it fails to show the signs of a culture that reflects the faith and values that so many of us hold deeply.  Mostly, this is a worldview problem - there are competing values and ideologies fighting it out on our national (and even worldwide) stage.  Sometimes the church is pulled into these ideological battles, and often the people of God act in the same way as the world - only with more spiritualized goals.

If the church feels out-of-place in this culture, then perhaps we are getting it right.  If the gospel is antithetical to the ways of the world, then why is the greatest aim of the church so often to participate in culture, or to blend in with what our larger society deems as acceptable or exciting or cool?  We now have a cultural opportunity to proclaim the gospel in a way which will make it stand out from all of the other options and worldviews that surround us.  There is a higher wisdom that leads us to the truth that cannot be pushed out.  The apostle Paul spoke of this: "We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.  No, we declare God's wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began" (1 Corinthians 2:6-7).

You don't have to look far to see great damage being done to the concepts of truth, morality and justice in our culture.  What becomes disheartening - what makes us smirk at the notion of commemorating our Presidents - is that so much of this damage is being perpetuated from within our nation's leadership itself.  And, the American people are having an ideological set of goods forced upon them, even when we are smart enough to know that it's not worth purchasing.

Although this may appear to be a message about a certain type of politics, it isn't.  Yes, it is a political post in the sense that it does not shrink back from the fact that our national culture has gone absolutely haywire on so many levels.  It is a post about the fact that people are hurting because those at the top are willing to perpetuate their own comforts at the expense of others, and the Bible has more than a few words about that behavior.  This is a commentary on the opportunity for the church to move in the wisdom of God rather than becoming caught up in the wisdom of this age, fighting the rulers of this age, for they are already on their way to coming to nothing, says Paul.

So, when the greatest minds of our age see the greatest plans of our age collapse into the greatest disappointments of our age to result in the greatest catastrophe of our age, what wisdom will people have to hold?

He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.

04 February 2014

gateway spirituality

Recently I have had an encounter with the practice of yoga, which has become an increasingly 'controversial' issue among Christians.  The primary dismissive response to concerns for yoga is typically found in the phrase, "Well, it's just stretching."  Despite that a number of Christian thinkers, Catholic leaders, and even yoga proponents all speak of the practice as being spiritually powerful and influential in the life of the individual, many churchgoers are quick to assume that such thoughts are simply reactive.  (Or, that they themselves are immune from such dangers - for one reason or another ... that's a frightening spiritual place to be.)

At this point I am not so much interested in the ins and outs of the practice of yoga.  These issues have been covered extensively elsewhere, and the argument here will readily assume the dangers of the practice.  My concern is the increasingly wide acceptance and practice of yoga among Christians and young people.  There are a good number of churches that host or sponsor a Christian yoga, many schools and preschools have yoga time as part of the curriculum, and even among the most popular workout fads there is an element of yoga built in.

Let me first address the widespread inclusion of yoga as a health fad.  It appears as though everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of yoga in their particular exercise niche.  One particular exercise DVD advertises "power yoga" as a means of increasing sales.  Having viewed some (certainly not all) of these, I would be willing to concede that much of what is labelled yoga in the multimillion dollar health and exercise industry is not actually a yoga practice.  Now, this probably won't become the stuff of class-action lawsuits over false-advertising, but it demonstrates the increasingly wide definitions that are being imposed on some of these practices.

In regards to yoga being taught to children, it is a sad commentary on our nation when we are not allowed to make references to God in our schools because of a pseudo-understnading of separating church and state, but that a practice which is intrinsically bound to the transcendental meditation of Hinduism is opened and encouraged by administrators.  Therein lies a political issue that could be explored as well.  Even in religious schools the practice of yoga has found a home, which raises concerns about the ability for young students to properly discern spiritual practices.

As far as church-sponsored yoga is concerned, there is perhaps no greater underscoring of our contemporary Christianity's lack of understanding of this practice.  We are inviting into our churches, and thereby endorsing, practices which are contrary to the admonitions and perspectives of biblical faith.  We have become so "open" about issues such as these while simultaneously confounded at the lack of dynamic faith and spirituality in our congregations, as though the spiritual realm only connects where we find it convenient to do so.

With each of these issues I hope to, in broad strokes, demonstrate one simple correlation - namely, that yoga is a gateway practice for much deeper and disturbing spiritualities.  I have conceded that not everything that is labelled yoga is actually such, but the inverse is also true in that much of what is said to be a harmless non-yoga is in fact a path leading to serious spirituality (not necessarily the type of spirituality you went looking for, however).  It is as though yoga is the legalized-marjiuana of the spiritual world - it is something that you are allowed to play around with, even marveling at its supposed benefits, though it can quickly and easily guide you into more serious and dangerous entities.

It is easy to point to our schools and say that these children simply lack the spiritual discernment to understand what is and is not healthy spiritual practice to make their own decisions about yoga.  But the same is said to be true of adults as well, for we are all susceptible to spiritualities that might masquerade as an angel of light but are something much worse.  That yoga has become a point-of-advertising, or an add-on routine to our exercises has not reduced its potential for spiritual, emotional and physical danger.  Our dismissiveness does not diminish the danger.  Rather, our lack of concern only makes us more easily drawn away from the true light of the world.

To help understand this point, you might consider Sharon Beekman's work, Enticed by the Light.

These gateways are important to recognize, for what we might consider to be a harmless practice of yoga can quickly become something different.  Probably, the vast majority of people who have enjoyed a round or two of some sort of health and exercise 'yoga' have not had any problems, nor have they caused themselves any problems.  In fact, with the amount of devotion our culture gives to spiritual or physical endeavors probably means that most people haven't been overly devoted to mind, spirit or body in any stated direction.  (This is an issue for another discussion altogether.)  Yet, sometimes we find that a harmless activity has been an unchecked part of our lives for so long that we missed out on their true effects until the damage has been done.  This is what happened with me and junk food, which many people are more readily willing to recognize than the "rather casual" matter of spiritual health.

Gateways can be rather interesting and dangerous, but not always for the right reasons.  Be cautious.