Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Coming Out

I've hesitated to go internet public with this topic for a while now, because I don't think the internet is the best venue to debate hot topics.  However, the more I've prayed about and researched this topic, the more I've realized that it's important for me to express my thoughts publicly.

I'm in support of gay marriage.

Years ago, my position on this topic was much softer.  I believed the "act" of homosexuality was a sin, but I didn't feel it was right for the government to put restrictions on those who called themselves homosexuals.  And the only reason I believed homosexuality was wrong was because I had heard this in a general sense from the church.  I hadn't researched the topic, and I hadn't gone out in search of opposing viewpoints to inform myself.  I just took it with a grain of salt and let it be.

In college, some experiences broadened my horizons (cliche, right?).  Specifically, I had a dorm roommate who was gay, closely followed by two friends who came out together with their gender identity.  I was suddenly faced with a very real version of this hypothetical situation.

I started to have discussions about this with people I respected for their faith and morality.  On the surface, I found there were people I believed to be good, faithful, well studied Christians who believed that homosexuality was perfectly acceptable.  And, of course, I found plenty of the opposing viewpoint.

Recently, with the gender identity issue coming to the forefront of our politics, I've started to dig deeper.  I haven't found a clear answer, but I've found the source of the controversy.

The problem lies in the assumptions of our translations.  People who translate Hebrew or ancient Greek into modern languages rely heavily on context.  The rest of us tend to take the words at face value, so it's easy for us to assume an English word read in Leviticus (Hebrew) has the exact same meaning as the same English word read in Corinthians (Greek).

One of the more common assumed meanings (and one that has even made it into pop culture comedy) is the phrase "lay with" or the word "know."  We've all heard jokes that someone was "known in the Biblical sense," implying a sexual relationship.  But think of all the different ways the word "know" could be used!  It can imply a personal relationship, book knowledge, or a wise understanding.  In the same way, "lay with" isn't directly equated with sex in every instance of the word.

The translators take context not only from the verse they are translating, but also from other uses of the same Hebrew or Greek word throughout scripture.  They scour the Bible for every use of that word, and they try to find a common context between them.  True, a word may be associated with sex, but the context may imply something more like rape.  This is the case with Hebrew words used in scripture about homosexuality, specifically Leviticus 18:22.

Unfortunately, the context isn't as cut and dry as we would like it to be, so nobody can strictly argue one specific English translation of the verse without flaw.  One detailed breakdown of this verse came up with 7 possible meanings of Leviticus 18:22 based on the original Hebrew, only one of which narrows the issue down to a man having sex with a man.  Others include a man raping a man or a married man having sex with a man, which I would consider wrong regardless of gender.

The issue of rape is consistent with other scriptures involving homosexuality, specifically the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  This story is often referenced as an example of homosexuality being wicked.  However, this ignores a major part in the story: that the men of the town wanted to rape the angels who were staying with Lot.  Even worse, Lot offered up his daughters to be raped to protect the angels.  While homosexuality is involved, the clear element of rape may have been enough to condemn the cities, and supports the translation of homosexual rape in Leviticus 18:22.

The breakdown of this verse also points out the severity of Leviticus 18:22.  The word we tend to translate as "abomination" is now more commonly translated as "taboo," and is used similarly in laws about mixing fabrics, Jews associating too closely with non-Jews, and other "non-mixing" laws common to that day.  These customs were introduced early in Jewish history to solidify their identity, but these customs were not required of non-Jews, as Paul discussed in his letters and even argued about with Peter.

When it comes down to it, I believe that Leviticus 18:22 and other verses discussing homosexuality were intended to communicate the wickedness of rape and extra-marital sex, and foster the unique identity of early Hebrew culture.  I'll admit that the difficulty in translating scripture isn't an exact science, but that difficulty itself leads me to my final thought.

To assume that I know fully the meaning of writings in an ancient language that I do not speak, to assume that my understanding is the right understanding, to assume that the knowledge I've been given is the full authority of God is to overstep my boundaries.  We will never fully know the heart of God while living on the Earth.  The Pharisees thought they had all the answers, and Jesus called them guilty because of their assumption (John 9:41).

While the heart of God never changes, our understanding of it does.  It's more than we could ever comprehend, so we always learn more and more about it.  I believe we're in a generation to which God is revealing his love in acceptance.

We don't have to agree with each others' choices, and we don't have to become like others to understand them.  Jesus commanded us to love each other.  To refuse that love on the basis of an assumed translation of scripture crosses a line, and it's not a line I'm willing to cross.

I hope you'll stand with me today in loving an ostracized part of our community.  I hope you'll support the expansion of rights to the gay community.

Always moving forward,


Monday, March 18, 2013

My Crisis of Faith - part 2

Recently, I wrote about how I've resolved a crisis of faith.  Today, I want to write about one I'm still in the middle of.

In short, I don't know that I believe in Heaven.  At least not the way we talk about it in Church.

This crisis of faith started young.  I felt the conflict early on that while people preached that you should become a Christian to get to Heaven, being a Christian for the goal of getting to Heaven didn't seem like a Christian goal.  By the teachings of Jesus, I felt that good people only focused on bettering others.  That even improvements upon themselves were a means toward improving the situations of others.  And if people followed those goals completely, they wouldn't for a second think about the Heavenly payment they would get in return.

To a point, I felt like to talk about Heaven was to distance yourself from it.

For years, this was the lens through which I experienced the teachings of the Church.  At times, I even ignored scripture that discussed the rewards of doing good.  I pushed them out thinking "if I'm really going to do good, I won't care about that!  I can find other inspiration to do good."

Later in life, some writing from C.S. Lewis (and the expansion on his ideas by a friend) changed my perspective a bit.  I found that C.S. Lewis was adamant in the way he explains Heaven.  He clearly explains that Heaven is a place of perfect community with God, while Hell is a place of perfect absence from God.  He postulates further that only people who desire community with God desire Heaven.

Using this as a jumping-off point, C.S. Lewis writes entire chapters, even entire books, about his thoughts on Heaven.  Some of these thoughts allayed my earlier concerns, since apparently only good people desire Heaven in the first place.  I started to think that maybe being a good person was determined more by which rewards you desire, than the desire of a reward itself.  Maybe it was OK to seek Heaven as a goal, because by seeking it in the first place, you're demonstrating a desire to be near God.

But this new-found perspective on Heaven and Hell led to more questions.  In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes (through fiction) that Heaven and Earth may not be so separate.  He uses an old book, The Great Marriage, as the basis for his idea.  The Great Marriage speculated that Earth was a combining (or marriage) of Heaven and Hell.  That the 2 spiritual realms, one with God and one without, came together in one place, where anyone can experience life with God and life without God.  In the Great Divorce, Lewis tells a story about the separation (or divorce) of the two realms.  He tells the story of a man who discovers the ever-separating realms and the immense difference between the two.  Yet, in light of the differences, the worlds still seem so close.  In the final moments of the book, the realms separate themselves totally.

While this book details a separation of Heaven and Hell, I saw more clearly than ever the marriage of the two.  I started to see how people can experience "Heaven on Earth" in the moments when they are closest to God.  I found people that experience peace and joy in the midst of struggle because of their close community with God.  I began to follow the path of people traveling endlessly between the Earthly Heaven and Hell day after day, all the while trying to find the path to the Earthly Heaven in my own life.

This brings me to today.  There's one piece of the puzzle I know I struggle with today: Eternity.

I've learned over the years that God's timing is not my timing.  That God's time is even experienced differently than my time.  Whether it's the years it's taken Katie and I to start a family or the returning of Jesus, I'm left with nothing but questions.  I'm left wondering if God's meaning of eternity is what I expect it to mean.  I wonder if the "second coming" is a single, worldwide event or something each of us experiences individually.  I even wonder if the eternity in Heaven is promised to us is an afterlife, or if it somehow manifests itself into our Earthly lives.

I guess I could settle to say that I don't know what Heaven is or how I will experience it.  And maybe that's healthy, since un-defining my expectations takes away the box I always try to fit God into.  But one thing I know for sure is that I will never stop learning about God and what He has in store for me.  Maybe He can teach me a little more about Heaven in the coming weeks.

Always moving forward,


Monday, March 11, 2013

My Crisis of Faith

I'm one of those guys who grew up going to church.  Actually, let me rephrase that.  I grew up in the Church.  It's a subtle difference, I know, but I think there was something more than my weekly attendance to sing songs and hear the preacher preach.  There was a lifestyle of faith in my home, and it stuck with me.

There's something about growing up in the Church that makes you approach things a little different than people outside the Church, those who came into it later in life.  It's not that either one is better or worse, just different.  I think the biggest difference is how each one views and reacts to their own original crisis of faith.  Maybe this is me being ignorant to the struggles of others, but this is how I see it.

Someone who decided to join the Church later in life has grown up with assumptions about what the Church is, and what it means to be part of the Church.  When they decide to join, it's usually the result of some struggle that makes them face their priorities.  Somehow, the idea of being in the Church becomes greater than the idea of being outside of it.  Sure, this internal struggle has many facets and in practice is much more complex than this, but at its core this is the transformation that brings someone to the Church.

People who grew up in the Church see things from a whole different angle.  For many years, people like me hold an assumption that church is something you do, that being a part of the Church is something you are.  But somewhere in the teenage years, you start to question those assumptions.  It comes to you as a crisis, but it's really the struggle of every young person to build their own faith.

So what's the big difference?  I believe it's a subtle, yet infinitely important distinction.  One faces the choice to become a part of something, the other faces the choice to not be a part of something.  At least that's how I saw it when I was younger.

I was used to having a preacher or youth minister show me the difference between right and wrong.  I had grown accustomed to being part of not only a faith-based group, but a social group as well.  I had somewhere I considered a safe place, and it seemed to protect me from the outside world and from myself.  Questioning my faith felt like pulling the rug out from under me, leaving me to topple to the floor without that net of support.

For years after my crisis of faith began, I focused on filling that void.  Finding a new voice to guide me, a new group of friends to support me.  I tried to replace what I thought I had lost.  And though I filled many of those gaps, I started to realize that I was missing the point.  Yes, a community is important in growing your faith, but it's secondary to finding and defining your own faith.

There was one point in 2006 that changed me, but I didn't identify the change for years.  It was 1 thing said by 1 guy, whose name I can't remember, and who I didn't spend much time with.  Honestly, I don't even remember the exact words, but I remember the message.

We were having a college ministry planning meeting, something a little bit informal to let the students and leaders decide on the direction of the ministry during the coming year.  We were discussing the idea of going around our neighborhood and mowing lawns as a way to love our neighbors.  It was a cool idea, and everyone started making their own contributions of how to make the project as meaningful as possible.  The discussion started to be taken in a specific direction, in which we would plan to chat with the resident about the Gospel while we did their yard work.

It was this person's response to our plan that caught me off guard.  He said we were using the favor of mowing a lawn as a way to manipulate people into listening to us.  That we were serving people with an agenda.  He asked us why we couldn't mow lawns just to show love to our neighbors, to serve others as Jesus would, and why would we poison that by making our agenda more important than their needs?

His message rolled around in my head for months, even years.  I had lived with the assumption that "good Christians" told people about Jesus all the time.  That if you really believed, you would "share the Gospel" at every opportunity.  Yet, I knew that street preachers and bullhorn prophets were missing the mark.  I knew that the guys who stood on sidewalks and tried to reel in passers by to show them the error in their ways somehow weren't spreading the Gospel as Jesus intended.

This conflict unsettled me at first, but I finally realized that it put meaning to the feelings I couldn't define.

Now, if you hear me "preach" about anything, most likely you'll hear some paraphrase of Matthew 22:37-40.  You'll hear my explanation that Jesus's biggest sermons focus on who we are and the consequences of our actions rather than listing out rules for us to follow.  You'll hear me say that the only thing Jesus ever commanded during his earthly ministry was that we love God and love each other

God has given me opportunities to learn this lesson in practice.  Once, it was a repeat of the lawn mowing idea from 2006.  3 of us went around looking for lawns to mow.  At the first we barely talked to the resident, and we moved on after about half an hour of yard work.  At the second house, we met Mama Chris.

Mama Chris was an old woman lived by herself in a small house in a rough part of town.  She barely kept her house livable, giving us the opportunity to not only mow the lawn, but move some junk out of the house also.  The more we saw, the more we wanted to help, and she was following us, pointing us toward boxes to move and where to move them.  She was thrilled not only to have a helping hand, but also to have company in the house.  She sat us down, offered us all a glass of water and a snack, and we heard all about her life.

What we couldn't have known that morning is the immense blessing we would get from this woman.  All morning she had a smile on her face.  All morning she shared stories about her family.  We heard about her mission work to Haiti before it was called Haiti.  We saw her picture on a plaque from her church, thanking her for the great ways in which she served the people around her.  We heard her decades of wisdom, about how to help others, how to be a good steward of your resources, and how a handkerchief's fanciness is determined by the thickness of the lace border around it.

What started as a morning meant to serve others ended up being a huge service to me.  I was reminded what a true servant's heart looks like.  I got to see firsthand, that if you choose to love others in the name of Jesus, you don't have to say word about Jesus for Him to make his presence there.  And sometimes you don't have to say a word to preach the Gospel.

I won't sit here and tell you that I have everything figured out.  I don't think that will ever happen during my lifetime.  For now, I can only try to keep living The Greatest Command as I make my way through my next crisis of faith.

Always moving forward,


Monday, March 4, 2013

Run On

Since about February 2009, I've called myself a runner.  Well, maybe I didn't use that word at the time, but looking back, that's when I became a runner.

This is an odd term, mostly because "running" is an ambiguous term.  Consider the first running boom in the late 70's into the early 80's.  People didn't go for a run then.  Instead, they went for a jog.  The competitive runners, whether on their school track team or just a talented enthusiast, probably "ran," but for some reason the rest of the world didn't identify them.  There was a separation between the competitively successful runners and everyone else.

In the current running boom, there have been lengthy discussions about these terms, and the general consensus is that we're all runners.  Of course, now we have the "elite" classification to identify the uber competitive.

I used to have some trouble taking on this "runner" identity.  I fell into the sport and enjoyed it, but there's one thing most runners talk about that can be the great divider: speed.  I'm a good middle-to-back-of-the-pack runner, and at some distances I've even pushed toward the front of the pack, but I've never been faster than that.

That first year, I ran a couple 5k's and started training for my first half marathon, so I started to feel more a part of the "runner" identity.  My second year of running, I finished 3 half marathons and got a PR (personal record for a particular distance or type of race) that held up for almost 2 whole years.  Somewhere in there, it clicked.  I don't know if it was the 10-12 mile training runs, the feeling of crossing a difficult finish line, or the set of finisher's medals that were collecting on my wall, but it happened.  I finally embraced my identity as a runner.

After 2 years of running, I even felt comfortable enough to take some time off.  The first 2 months was mandatory recovery from a surgery, then another 1-2 months were just for relaxation, but I still knew I was a runner.  It wasn't long before I was back training for my 4th half marathon, then my first full marathon later that year, and I've been in and out of racing seasons ever since.

So far, every racing season has been a learning experience.

For one, I've learned I love racing in the Fall and Winter.  The Summer weather makes it tough to get my training started, but with the weather getting cooler by the week, my runs become not only faster and more comfortable, but more fun also.

I've also gained a love for trail running.  While road running can bring you some scenery, a smooth surface, and is good for pacing, trail running is just exciting.  Even when I run on a familiar trail, I get anxious to see what's around the bend, or wonder whose footfalls I hear coming toward me.  You never know exactly how many miles you have left before you get back to your car, and you always see something you've never noticed before.

But most of all, I've learned that running is hard.  When I was new to the sport, I used to hope for the day when running became easier.  I would think that if only I could train up to 10 miles, a 5 mile run would feel easy.  If only I could work down to a 9 minute mile, a 10 minute mile would feel easy.

To be honest, I was only part wrong on that, but I can say now that running never gets truly easy.  Sure, cutting back your distance keeps you from having to push back your wall, and slowing down drops your heart rate a few BPM's.  But the hardest part of running is the endurance.  It's not just a physical endurance, it's a mental endurance.

You have to be able to meet every step with a certain expectancy that gets you excited for what might come next.  You have to be able to tell yourself "I know I can make it to that next telephone pole," then when you've made it, say it again about the telephone pole after that.  You have to be able to lace up your shoes on days when you would rather just stay on the couch watching Duck Dynasty.  True, there's a part of running that gets easier after time, but year after year, run after run, I find myself thinking "why not just turn around now?"  This is the hardest part of running, and it doesn't get easier.

Sometimes I can make my runs more fun.  I take the dog out, or try a new route around an unfamiliar neighborhood.  Sometimes I just play games in my head, thinking about the cars that pass me, and how the drivers must think I'm crazy for wearing shorts in cold weather.  Sometimes I have to find outside motivation by thinking of a struggling friend, or remembering to start my Charity Miles app.

But a lot of my runs are spent in serene reflection, even prayer.  I think through everything that's going on in my life, whether it's family sickness, my wife's stress over grad school, or all of the good I've been able to experience in my life.  I let myself be pulled into a mindset of quiet and calm by the metronome created by the tapping of my feet, and I finally feel like I've pulled away from the chaos of the world back into the reality of my own life.  This is where I hear my prayers answered, where a new perspective brings the struggles of life into better focus.  This is when I remember why I love being a runner.

Because it's not all about fitness for me, and it's sure not some quest for bragging rights.  Running is my discipline.  It's the physical manifestation of my ever-moving journey through life.  It's the matching of all of my worldly flaws against the solitude of connection with my Creator.  When I choose to run,

"... [I] throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And [I] run with perseverance the race marked out for [me]."  (Hebrews 12:1)

If I made that choice every time I considered it, I would be a much better man.  But for now, I can only remember that the last step is in the past, and I can only move forward by focusing on the next step.

Always moving forward,