We Aspire to a Beautiful Mystery

Our culture has lost a sense of reverence and by that I don’t mean putting on starched shirts and ties for the men and white gloves and hats for the women, sitting in prayerful silence or singing solemn hymns in a building with stained-glass windows. Nothing wrong with anything in that picture but that’s not what I am getting at with the word reverence.

By reverence I mean a state of wonder in the presence of a mystery. And one of the great mysteries of this world is the way men and women together bear the image of God, what Solomon calls “the way of a man with a woman.”

There is something indefinable about the male human that uniquely reveals the image of God and there is something indefinable about the female human that uniquely discloses the image of God and when they are joined we behold the divine likeness.

Nothing else in creation short of Jesus Christ reveals the divine image like the woman and the man together.

We see that this one flesh capacity is knit into the fabric of creation, into men and into women. One of the things that only these two can do together that reveals their likeness to the divine community is the begetting of new life in partnership with God.

The mystery is so beautiful when contemplated that it ought to drop us to our knees in awe, and it stills does. Weddings remain great celebrations full of hope and new life even amid bad statistics. Reverence for the mystery is why we adorn our weddings with things of natural beauty, perhaps all the more when we do so in simplicity.

Jesus reverenced this mystery when he chose to reveal his supernatural ability for the first time in the gospels by turning ordinary water into wine at a wedding. Jesus says that when the man leaves his family and clings to his wife that the two persons become one flesh, echoing earlier Mosaic wisdom.

Paul takes up this one-flesh theme and tells us that the self-sacrificial love of Christ for his church is best illuminated by the mystery of iconographic union that exists between a man and a woman. We can observe aspects of this one-flesh reality but some of what we sense is intuitive and inexplicable as with all things of great beauty and goodness.

Reverence for this bond is present in the beginning of creation and is sustained right through to the end of God’s story with men and women, where all heaven and earth gather together for a promised grand wedding reception that never ends.

Humanity has aspired to live this one-flesh mystery for millennia but we are not terribly good at it. We tried arrangements of more than one man and one woman and found them wanting…but it took centuries to discern the error of our way, away from what was intended in creation.

God’s intention is revealed in creation—one man and one woman who become one flesh as they mutually lay down their lives one for the other—yet we live in a fallen world to which the contemporary church across all of its unfortunate divisions accommodates itself every day, just as Christ tells us Moses made accommodations for the children of Israel.

We have accepted the nation’s divorce culture in the church for decades and have never petitioned the courts en masse to overturn our divorce laws, a system that makes divorce our society’s greatest destructive opposition to marriage, and the hardest burden for our children. Lord, have mercy.

We have swallowed a contraceptive mentality that makes children incidental to marriage even though the life-granting command to the first man and woman was: “Be fruitful and multiply.” While Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me,” we Christians have too often turned the gift of children away. Not all couples can or will have children but all Christian couples can welcome them. Lord, have mercy.

Pornography is a strong acid on marital integrity but the churches have thrown up relatively few roadblocks to, nor widely protested, sex trafficking or the objectification of women that many Christian men participate in via the internet. Lord, have mercy.

Do we see a lot of energy directed at these detours from God’s created intention? We should but, for the most part, we don’t.

Do we oppose them in the same way we object to same-sex marriage? The answer is clearly no.

Heterosexuals redefined marriage decades ago and the churches were full partners in that redefinition. The court’s recent decision is in step with prevailing sexual culture, a sexually-broken culture as much shaped by Christians as anyone else. Heterosexuals are as broken as homosexuals.

When Christians begin to understand our role in the sexual confusion and brokenness of our culture and in the subsequent redefinition of marriage—as we must before we can move forward or show a different path—we begin to have empathy and exhibit grace toward those whose sexual brokenness looks different than ours.

Over and over again, in conversation with those who do not yet know or trust Christ, and with those who try to be his disciples, when I respond about same-sex attraction and same-sex marriage by first repenting with humility for the church’s role in deepening cultural confusion about marriage and sexuality, I find that folks are willing to listen and ponder. I find vivid interest in the beautiful mystery of the woman and the man together that I opened this letter with, the sacred bond to which the human family of all races and creed has for ages bowed with reverence.

Many heterosexuals experience guilt—that they heap on themselves, even unconsciously—over their divorces, extra-marital sex, pre-marital sex, pornography, lust, sexual abuse, etc. And humans do not remain healthy with bottled up guilt. We act out and often do more harm.

I have met Christian parents who encourage their kids to delay marriage, knowing they are likely sleeping or living together, because they want them to achieve certain vocational or economic goals. Christians tend to be far more concerned about the sexual purity of our girls than of our boys. I could go on.

Creation sexuality at times takes a back seat among us. These unspoken and unexamined practices are a different kind of don’t ask, don’t tell. We are guilty of brokenness, whether we acknowledge it or not. We must all ponder where we need to repent.

One of the ways we cope with our collected and collective guilt is to project our bad conscience onto folks who sin differently than we do, sins that we are self-assured we don’t participate in. This is unconscious of course but it is also hypocritical and those in the culture who disagree with us about traditional marriage see our hypocrisy. They are not blind and it undermines our credibility.

Some Christians are angry or saddened and some have lost their peace since the Supreme Court decision, and while such feelings are understandable, good pastoral care puts the feet of the anxious, saddened, and angry firmly on the foundation of the loving kindness of God in Jesus Christ. The pastoral task is to move ourselves off the sandy, shifting ground of false securities.

Too many Christians have made an idol of American culture as they perceive it and that idol is shattered and they are shaken. But this judicial decision is not the end of the world and they will understand that better when their trust in Jesus Christ becomes greater than their anxieties about possible futures.

Sacramental one-flesh unions will continue to thrive because they are part of the fabric of creation and central to the story of God with humanity until the end of time, as are children. As Jesus says always, “Do not be afraid.”

This is not to say that there are not real problems with the court’s decision and future negative consequences. The church now has the opportunity in the face of opposition to begin to better demonstrate a firm commitment to creation sexuality at the same time that we display a genuine love that is unconditional towards all.

Being personally offended by the decision, being driven by fear and anxiety and anger and sadness, is a sign that some part of our soul is clouded by reliance on securities other than Jesus Christ. Readiness to live out sacrificial love in matrimony, in our families, and in our communities—even if legal hardships now come, something that is not certain at this point despite growing tensions—is the answer.

The American College of Pediatricians voiced their objection to the ruling as they discern from the sociological evidence that children need a male and a female shaper in their life in order to be healthy integrated adults, as only male and female together reflect the full image of God in mankind.

Children have a human right to be raised by a father and mother and they want to know their birth parents, even when their original parents cannot (for a myriad of reasons) raise them. Not every child gets to be raised by a stable male and female, much less their birth parents, but we ought to ensure as often as possible that they have both kinds of shaping relationships.

There are other reasonable objections, like having nine unelected justices alter our common life in such an incredible sweeping fashion but it’s not the first time they have done so and it will not be the last. Our system is not perfect and it’s anyway not necessary to raise all of that here.

Christians are no more required to accept the court’s new definition of marriage than we accept their definition of when life begins. The church has a unique word of charity to speak and we should not get caught up in the world’s divisive and destructive rhetoric. Some would have the church at odds with her neighbors and the culture, reacting to events with angst and slogans instead of responding with humility and wisdom. Media and social media are also inadequate grounds on which to wrestle with these issues. We begin best at home and in our local communities.

Entering the world of men and woman broken by failed marriages or by sex addiction or broken by greed or lust or broken by drugs or alcohol or broken by pride or ego or anger does transform the way you approach everything. You do not have to be a pastor to enter into empathetic relationships with others that seek their good—their forgiveness, healing, and transformation—by the identity Christ bestows on all persons even before they turn to him. But pastoral work has altered the way I see all of these issues and how I respond to this ruling.

My response is shaped by a pastoral vocation and for many years before this judicial decision by the patient work of listening to those under my care: young people who identify as gay that are my companions on the journey with Christ, young people who want to marry and raise children in a church and culture that reverences the mystery revealed in one-flesh unions, and folks who want to cast aside all manner of brokenness for the identity that Christ alone bestows.

And here I want to especially strengthen our young people who find themselves challenged by their peers: you are not a bigot or unloving when you hold to one man-one woman as the sacred model and type of trinitarian love. You are also not compromising your faith when you have relationships of solidarity with gay friends. Jesus does not shun, he befriends. Jesus serves before he offers wisdom. Jesus loves us before we love him. Jesus challenges everything about us.

Yes, you will find yourself on the cross with Christ, rejected by peers on both sides of the “issue”—especially when you hold in tension your commitment to sacramental matrimony with your acceptance of all persons—but your only obligation is to show you love God by loving your neighbor and that means everyone, even if some misunderstand you or treat you badly.

At a time when the world has just begun after millennia of racial hatred and slavery to accept the sacred difference of human ethnicity as a beautiful gift that is to be respected—that race should never divide us from one another as humans or disadvantage one race or privilege another—and even as growing numbers affirm the sacred quality of human life from conception to natural death, we now seem to be denying the sacred gift of sexual difference that makes males male and females female, of the great created privilege of being a male and being a female, and of the beautiful mystery that occurs only when female and male come together and new life (more often than not) is begotten from that union.

We live in denial of our embodied existence and the great gift of the sex we were granted. The church can help us reverence created sexuality again. We do this in part by suffering with those who suffer.

The churches have not nearly done the work required to make our sexual ethics workable in the contemporary world. We have often made an idol of the married couple and the nuclear family (yes, you can do that) and we have not as consistently insisted that singleness is as holy a vocation as the marital state.

We can make a cult of our marriages and families, isolating ourselves from the world and even other Christians, when God intends our marriages and families to be “little churches,” bastions of hospitality and charity and service, by which he expands his kingdom on earth to those around us.

We have lost all sight of the sacred choice to remain celibate, and of the unique gifts single persons bring to families and communities. We need to work far harder in our churches to welcome and celebrate celibacy and to make deep friendship and connection possible for those who choose to remain single by adopting them into our families, communities, and churches as full participants in our life together, inviting them into our homes and families and social gatherings, placing them in positions of leadership, and at times playing down our “married-ness” in order to be with them in their singleness. This requires sacrificial awareness and is holy work.

Gay men and women are likewise embraced by Jesus Christ and his body needs to embrace them. Jesus has been tempted in every way as we have—straight or gay—yet without sin. This is the reason he is the great advocate for us all in the face of our accuser.

As the body of Christ we can learn to listen to our friends and family members who identify as gay or transgender, hear their stories, and let the Spirit guide our hearts and minds as we walk in faithfulness with them through their often difficult, lonely, and ostracized lives. As those who sin, we need to drop the stones in our hands and join Christ in not condemning. We also need wisdom to resist sin and denial in our lives before we can help those we walk with resist sin and denial in their lives. Yet resist sin we must. It takes nothing less than the compassion, patience, firmness, and charity of Jesus.

We must learn to love God and each other as God loves us in Jesus Christ—unconditionally. This is where Jesus starts with everyone. This is therefore where his disciples start with anyone. He is the one in whom we are all made one.

And in the name of Jesus Christ we welcome everyone to the table at Holy Redeemer. It is at his table prepared for us in the presence of our enemies that we bring all of our brokenness and are made whole by his self-offering for us.

We do not approach the table of the Eucharist made well already but draw near in constant need of divine mercy and forgiveness. Our equality at the table is as sinners cleansed and transfigured by the incarnate love of Christ, on our way to being what the Father intended from the beginning, even as their Spirit assures us that we are held forever in their embrace and accepted.

What is offered at the table is nothing less than Jesus Christ, love itself, and he always and only gives life. No matter where we find ourselves or others today, Jesus Christ is our perfection. For it is Christ that invites us: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

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