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Dec. 17th, 2013

First World Problems

I was winding my way through the dark parking structure, with a long line of cars behind me. Suddenly, the car in front of me stopped, and I jammed on the brakes, while shooting a glance in my rearview mirror. Thankfully, the car behind me stopped in time, and so did each vehicle in the Conga line that snaked its way back down to the previous level. I breathed deeply to quiet my heart rate, and continued inching forward, scanning from side to side for an empty space to park in.

I was at the hospital to visit a member of my congregation who had suffered another heart attack – one of many he’s had over the years. Each time he goes in to the hospital, his doctors tell him he needs to change the way he eats, and each time he ignores their advice. But I go in to visit him anyway. I listen to his stories, I catch him up on church news, and I anoint him with oil and pray for his healing. That’s what I do – I’m his pastor.

When I finally slipped my minivan into a spot just a couple of feet wider than its chassis, and put the shift into Park, I heaved a sigh of relief, and whipped out my cellphone. I called up the Facebook app, and thumbed in a new status update: “I hate parking garages.”

Almost immediately, a friend commented: “First world problems.” And I knew that would be the last comment I received on that particular post.

“First world problems.” I felt ashamed of myself for even daring to vent my frustration. What a whiner I must be! Don’t I have any sense of perspective? The comment shamed me but also made me angry at the same time. I didn’t understand my reaction, so I filed it away, and focused on ministering to the elderly man I had come to visit.

Since that day, I’ve seen the comment a hundred times on facebook, or as a hashtag on Twitter. #firstworldproblems! And it’s bugged me every time, though it’s taken me over a year to figure out why.

When I say, “first world problems!” to a friend, it allows me in one act to do two simultaneous, though contradictory things: it allows me to assert my own moral superiority through refusing to show compassion to someone else. More than that, it allows me to ignore the specific difficulty someone I personally know is experiencing in favor of a generalized, vague recognition of unstated difficulties that someone I am entirely unconnected with may possibly be suffering, somewhere in some other country. It is an act of breathtaking cynicism, disguised as moral rectitude. It is a comment of diabolical genius.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I have been to India and to Africa, and spent weeks getting to know people whose lives and problems are very different from mine. I have sat with children suffering from tuberculosis, and marveled at their ability to maintain good cheer in the midst of their suffering. I have been humbled by the generosity of people who have shared their best with me while we sat in a low-ceilinged hut dug out of hard clay, in a single-roomed home about the size of my office back in the States. I am grateful for the perspective that identifying with the poor and the marginalized has brought me over the years. I believe that the God of compassion has allowed me those moments to bring me to my knees. And those experiences have inspired me to reach out to many in my own city whose suffering eclipses my own. It is good to be humbled. But forgive me for pointing out the obvious, there’s a difference between being humbled by God and being humiliated by a friend.

John put it clearly: “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20) It is true that we in the Western world are prone to whining about problems that, in the grand scheme of things, are not all that significant. But they are still real problems, and to the person experiencing them, they feel big. It is also true that when you are on the receiving end of those complaints, the urge to smack the complainer upside the head is quite strong. Let me suggest an alternate line of approach.

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) The “law of Christ” Paul speaks of in this passage is the law of love – and love is fulfilled, he says, by bearing one another’s burdens. But what if your friend is a silly whiner? Paul continues: “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (6:3) Apparently, the desire towards self-righteousness is not new to the Facebook age. They struggled with it in Paul’s time, as well. The problem with making your friend feel like nothing because of their whining is that we tend to lose sight of the fact that we are nothing, too. We put others in their place, at least in part, due to a desire to assign ourselves a superior place. Here’s a better idea: we should stop comparing ourselves to others entirely, and allow God to be both our judge and theirs. In the mean time, we can show them compassion. Which, actually, is the advice Paul gives as the passage continues: “But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.” (6:4) Quit comparing yourself with others, and using others’ shame as a way of boosting your own self-esteem. When it comes to judgment, focus on yourself. Paul concludes the thought: “For each will have to bear his own load.” (6:5) This seems like it contradicts verse 2, but “burdens” and “load” are very different references in the Greek. A “burden” is something that is impossible for one person to carry alone, while a “load” is a common backpack.

If a friend of yours starts whining on Facebook, resist the urge to smack them down. Instead, tell them you love them and that you’re praying for them. Perhaps there will come a day when they will be there for you.

Apr. 11th, 2013

JOY and Taking Pictures of Our Food

Saw this image a week or so ago, and for some reason it has stuck with me. I laughed, of course. But there was more to it than that. Why DO people post so many pictures of their food?

I think it's because the joys of life are not complete until they are shared with others. You see a good movie, you want to tell someone. She says "yes," and the secret feels like it will burn through you until you make it public. And when you eat a good meal, the meal itself is only partway through the joy. There is joy in anticipation, there is joy in participation, and then there is joy in communication. The joy hasn't reached its fulness until it's been shared.

So, yeah - it might be a little weird that your friends take pictures of their breakfast and put them up for all the world to see. And you might think, "who cares what you ate?" But it comes from a deep, genuine part of what it means to be human. And responding with grace, commenting, "oh, that looks so good!" might just make your friend's joy complete.

Feb. 11th, 2013

Why Benedict XVI's Resignation - and Successor - Matters to All Christians

When the news crossed my iPad screen this morning, I was floored. Pope Benedict XVI is resigning at the end of this month! I knew this was a fairly unprecedented event, and quickly learned that indeed, the last time a Pope resigned of his own free will, the Protestant Reformation had not yet taken place! In a 24-hour news cycle, lots of trivial stuff gets floated across our screens as "news," but this - this was the real deal. NEWS, indeed.

And in many ways, Good News. I use the capital letters advisedly. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict XVI, is preparing to peacefully and humbly relinquish one of the most powerful offices on the face of the earth. He will step off his throne - a very Gospel-oriented thing to do.

As a committed non-Catholic, I do not look to the Pope as my spiritual leader. But in the eight years that he has been Pope, I have deeply respected the life, spirituality, and ministry of Benedict XVI. He ascended to the Papacy at a difficult time, when the Catholic Church was reeling from sexual abuse scandals that had claimed the attention of people all over the world. Benedict took this very seriously, and began to clean house with integrity and honor. In a world of deteriorating moral standards, the Pope stood with compassion but firmness for Biblical morality. In a relativistic world of vague spirituality, the Pope looked for and acknowledged whatever Truth could be found wherever he could find it, but held strongly to the absolute Truth revealed in Jesus Christ. He reached out to non-Catholics, strengthened the Catholic Church, and paid special attention to the Church growing in the two-thirds world, to a degree that would be shocking to many. Benedict XVI has been a good Pope.

And so, I pray that he finishes out his race with the dignity, honor, and integrity with which he has run until now. And I pray fervently for whomever will serve as his successor. Because even though I'm not a Catholic, the choice of the next Pope will impact me, my family, and all Christians in the world, even those of us who do not look to Rome as our spiritual head.

The Pope - whomever is Pope - will be the spiritual leader for over a billion Christians. And he will be the most visible spokesperson for the Christian Church worldwide. When the Pope speaks, people will listen - even if it's just to criticize. When the Pope acts, people will see it - even if they reject his actions. If the next Pope is a man who loves Jesus Christ, who leads the Catholic Church with a steady hand, who is not unduly swayed by the opinions of men but clings to the truth of Scripture, who does not accommodate to the pressures of the world, it will be a blessing to all Christians everywhere. But if the next Pope is corrupted by power or luxury, is moved to abandon Scripture in favor of the prevailing cultural winds of the West, is a coward or a weak leader, or is morally infirm, it will be to the detriment of all Christians everywhere. 

In my own denomination, The Christian & Missionary Alliance, our leader - also named Benedict - will be stepping down this year after serving as eight years as the head of the C&MA. He came into office in the same year as Benedict XVI, and he will leave office in the same year as Benedict XVI. He has served well in his role, too, emphasizing the importance of healthy pastors and healthy churches, not unlike what Benedict XVI has done. I am praying for the next President of the C&MA, because his integrity, his vision, and his priorities will help shape the direction and success of the churches and pastors closest to me, the communities we minister in, and the church I serve as well. May the Lord show mercy to the C&MA, and give us an excellent successor to Gary Benedict. But I recognize that the impact of Benedict XVI's successor will resonate even farther and deeper around the world.

I remember when I was a kid, about as old as my daughter is now, when Pope Paul VI died, and a conclave of Bishops was called to appoint his successor. I remember watching the news, and each night seeing the black smoke come from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, signifying that no Pope had yet been chosen. I remember when John Paul I was selected Pope, and then his death 33 days later, triggering the second conclave of the year. The result of that conclave was the selection of Pope John Paul II, the second longest-serving Pope in history, and an amazing man of faith and integrity. I was only six years old, but watching the white smoke come from that chimney across the ocean, hearing the "habemas Papam" declared, feeling that something monumental had happened.

I will watch that chimney a month from now, with a greater understanding of the Pope's role in the world, but also with a greater understanding of a God who steers the fortunes of the world. And I will gather with my fellow C&MA pastors and delegates in Tampa in June, to help select our new President, trusting that it is God who desires most that all men might be saved.

So, pray for Benedict XVI - and for Gary Benedict. Praise God for the integrity and the witness of men in positions of such influence who by Grace are not in love with that power. And pray like crazy for whomever will be the next Pope, and the next President of the Alliance.

Edited to correct my bone-headed error on the date of The Great Schism. An earlier version of this entry said that the last time a Pope resigned, the Great Schism had not taken place. Of course, the Great Schism was in 1054! Oops.

Oct. 18th, 2012

A Binder Full of Weird: Romney and Obama on Empowering Women

I’ve been puzzling over the reaction to Mitt Romney’s admittedly hilarious turn of phrase in Tuesday night’s debate, saying that when he was looking for candidates to fill leadership positions in his administration in Massachusetts, women’s groups “brought us whole binders full of women.” When he said that, my wife laughed, and I laughed too as I saw some funny internet memes that were created almost immediately. It was an awkwardly funny line, and well worth teasing.

What has puzzled me though is that people seem to think that Romney’s answer to the question given in the town hall style debate is somehow an anti-women approach. The more I think about Romney’s answer versus Obama’s reply, the more I think the opposite is true.

Governor Romney began by pointing out what he did to empower women leaders during his administration in Massachusetts. He noticed that there were not enough women among the candidates he was reviewing, he saw this as a problem, he sought out recommendations from people who would know, and he appointed a large number of qualified women to positions of influence. He then talked about policies that would give women in the workforce the flexibility they want to balance work and home life, and finished by talking about how growing the economy will create higher paying jobs for everyone, including women.

The President talked about his mother’s struggle as a single mom, and then pointed out that he signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extends the statute of limitations on lawsuits alleging unfair pay discrimination.

What strikes me about their responses is this: Romney’s answer was proactive – what can be done to empower women in the workplace? – while Obama’s was reactive – what can be done when women have been discriminated against? Romney’s response was employer-focused – what should employers do to resolve the situation? – while Obama’s put the burden on the employee – you should sue. Romney’s approach took seriously the hopes that all the women I know want to live out – the desire to have a stable, loving family as well as meaningful and productive work, for which they are paid what they deserve. The President’s answer did a fine job of connecting with the struggles of single moms, but Romney’s answer connected with women of all stripes, as well as pointing out that women are not a special interest group. What helps women is also what helps all of us – a strong economy in which good jobs are being created every day.

Obama’s answer wasn’t bad, but Romney’s was better. Better for women, and better for America. Even if he garbled the delivery, the content was strong. Advantage: Romney.

On the Irony of the "A Pox On Both Their Houses" Approach to Voting

Some of my dear, amazing, Christian friends are deciding not to vote in this upcoming Presidential election. Others of them have decided to vote for a third-party candidate, as a way of expressing their disaffection with the current political process. I love and respect these friends, and wish them well. But I wonder if their decision is borne more out of frustration than reasoned thought, as it seems ironically opposite of their values in other areas of their lives.

My friends start by making a devastating and clear-sighted observation. They see that way too many Christians believe that the political world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and that their side is clearly the good guys, while the other side is clearly the bad guys. This Manichean view of the world is often expressed in statements like, “no true Christian could vote for Obama – he supports abortion!” or, “no true Christian could vote for Romney – he doesn’t care for the poor!” Good guys. Bad guys. And my guys are the good guys.

My friends look at this and rightly cry foul. They recognize that people of good will may disagree on the relative priority they put on various issues, may come from different political philosophies, or may not believe that a President can truly change the particular issue at hand, and so may make different prudential choices with their vote. Voting for one party or the other doesn’t make one a Christian nor disqualify one from being a Christian. Voting Democrat can be an expression of sincerely-held, Biblical faith, just as voting Republican can. My friends look at the simplistic rejection of faithful Christians – brothers and sisters! – and see it as poisonous, idolatrous fruit. And they are right.

My friends further look at the two major party candidates and see that they have both lied, stretched the truth, made arguments that exceed the facts, spun the facts to favor their point of view, argued something as fact when it was really opinion, made misstatements and refused to correct them, and committed all sorts of other types of untruth. Both candidates have blind spots. My friends point out that neither candidate is pure, and they are right.

And my friends are frustrated at the absence of good candidates, and throw up their hands and say, “well, if they are just both liars, then I won’t vote for either of them. A pox on both their houses!” One friend recently wrote that he didn’t care anymore who wins the election. Many other friends have declared on Facebook that they were unfriending anyone who posted political posts until the election is over. Sadly, other of my friends have started calling into question the Christianity of anyone willing to advocate for either Obama or Romney!

What bothers me, beyond the relational turmoil this reveals, is: Doesn't this approach also buy into the same simplistic, Manichean, “good guys vs. bad guys” view of the world that they were critiquing earlier? They rightly see such dualism as naïve, but then they say that, if neither candidate is purely good, they must both be bad. This strikes me as keenly ironic, and all the more so when you consider what amazingly sensitive, creative, and thoughtful friends I have.

My friends are champions of art and beauty. They are sad when Christians reject the art world because of its messiness and sin. They believe in constructive engagement with a fallen world. They believe that partial and provisional redemption is possible and valuable. They don’t believe in a wholesale abandoning of culture, and instead look to find and affirm with Paul in Philippians 4:8 whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise – not just between cultural works, but within them.

It strikes me as ironic that my friends passionately believe in cultural engagement, even when it gets messy, but then when politics gets messy, they counsel disengagement! Isn’t politics a cultural product? Yes, it’s messy. No, the people involved are not perfect. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, in the Gulag Archipelago, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” My friends believe this in every area of human endeavor, and refuse to disengage from any aspect of culture as a consequence, except for politics.

My friends point out that politics has the potential to become an idol – and point out rightly that this potential has become actual in the lives of far too many Christians. But so can art, which has been literally idolized more than anything else, and money, and family, and church, and the list is endless.

I love and respect my friends, and am amazed and thankful for their intelligence, creativity, and honor. They are great people, and I am grateful for the relationships we have. If my friends decide to vote for Barack Obama, I will love them just the same. If they decide not to vote, or to vote for a third-party candidate in protest, my respect for them will not change. But I will find their decision at least a little bit ironic. And I will continue to advocate for the policies I believe will best lead to human flourishing, even in the middle of a fallen world, and I will continue to argue for flawed candidates when I believe they will do the best job of preserving human dignity and establishing justice. And if my friends unfriend me on Facebook as a result, I’ll look forward to hearing from them again after the election. After all, they’re not bad guys. 

Jul. 10th, 2012

In memory of Martha (Reynolds) Fisher

I first met Martha Reynolds when she was a chemistry professor at Colgate University and I was a student at nearby Hamilton College. I was a part of Hamilton’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group, and we had some contact and did occasional joint events with Colgate’s Christian Fellowship. Neither Hamilton nor Colgate had an InterVarsity Staff Worker, so a few strong student leaders were holding CCF together, with the help of local pastor Putter Cox and two key faculty members, Martha and an economics professor named Ernie.

When I graduated from Hamilton and joined IV Staff serving Hamilton and Colgate, Martha, Ernie, and Putter partnered with me in mentoring students. Martha led small group Bible studies for women, volunteered at retreats, and was an enthusiastic and warm presence at our large group meetings. She opened her home to students, fed them, and encouraged them in numerous ways. She spoke on the joy of being a Christian in the sciences, on being a woman in the sciences. Her enthusiasm was contagious.

I remember a meeting where Wayne Farley, an amazing Christian guitarist who is a close friend of Putter’s, came to play for students and share from the Scriptures. As he spoke, Wayne casually mentioned that he had been working at memorizing the entire book of Proverbs, and that it had yielded immense spiritual benefits. This was one of the last meetings of the spring semester. When we regathered at the beginning of the fall semester, I learned that Martha had undertaken this discipline, and that a number of female students, on campus during the summer, had joined her. They had just about finished memorizing the whole book, in just that one summer! That was the way it was around Martha. She would shrug off suggestions that she was a spiritual leader, but when you looked at her life, you saw the young women around her following her example, and growing deeply in Jesus as she invested in them.

One thing that Martha and I have in common is a love of singing, and especially singing hymns. One year at the Urbana Missions Convention, I was sitting right behind Martha, up in the nosebleed section of the giant Assembly Hall, as the Urbana band led 20,000 of us in worship. As we sang “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” I noticed that they had somewhat modernized the lyrics to one of the verses. Instead of “Here I raise my Ebenezer / Hither by Thy help I'm come / 
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure / Safely to arrive at home,” the slides on the Jumbotron read, “Hitherto thy love has blessed me
/ Thou has brought me to this place
/ And I know thy hand will bring me
/ Safely home by thy good grace.” I skrinched my nose at those lyrics, and instead belted out the words I grew up on. To my surprise, I wasn’t singing them alone – Martha was belting them out, as well! When she heard me singing the old lyrics, she looked back and gave me one of Martha’s trademark warm smiles. All was right with the world – Martha and I were on the same team.

I was delighted when Martha met Tom Fisher, and witnessing their wedding was pure joy. God, through a respectful and courtly love, had brought two wonderful people together. And for nine years, they have modeled love for one another and trust in our Heavenly Father, through some of the toughest times a couple can face. Day by day, Jesus was a fount of blessing for them. Day by day, they raised a fresh Ebeneezer. They proclaimed their trust – God had brought them that far, He would bring them the rest of the way.

Last week, Martha Fisher, by God’s good pleasure, arrived safely at home. This was not evidence that God had stopped blessing Martha. Rather, it was the final blessing He could bestow to her on earth. Her ultimate healing. The opportunity for her to finally see her Lord face to face. The proof of the veracity of the Scriptures that she memorized, and the destiny toward which her quiet leadership always pointed, are now finally hers. I will miss her keenly: her warmth, her welcome, her smile, and her vibrant intellect. Lord help me, I know I’ll get to join her there, and we’ll belt out the old hymns as we praise Jesus together, raising yet another Ebeneezer, and all will be right with the world again.

Martha's Obituary

May. 14th, 2012

On Christian Involvement in Civil Society

One additional issue I want to address, in connection with my examination of the gay marriage question, and this takes us out of the purely civil dimension and crosses into the religious. I believe that all citizens ought to cast their ballots, and engage in civil dialogue, based on what they believe to be right and wrong, regardless of how they came to those conclusions. But they should not be surprised if, in engaging in the public square, the arguments that influenced their conclusions do not, of necessity move everyone. It is wise for Christians, for example, to cultivate truthful arguments that will persuade non-Christians to agree with their conclusions. This is how political coalitions are made, and how desired ends are achieved, in a pluralistic, democratic society. Those coalitions will certainly be fragile, since the partners arrived at their conclusions by different routes, but it is not shameful that coalitions are temporary, and achieved limited ends.

I’d like to suggest that for the Christian, and especially the Christian citizen of the United States, the purpose of government is to establish justice and to secure liberty in our society, though with the recognition that those ends will only be partially and provisionally achieved in this age, due to the fallen state of humanity. For the United States citizen, the Constitution defines the concepts of justice and liberty. For the Christian, Scripture defines them. Though the Christian comes to his or her understanding of justice and liberty by a different route than the non-Christian, it is still incumbent on the Christian to actively pursue the establishment of justice and liberty, as he or she understands it, through his or her public activity, within the limits set by the Constitution. The Christian citizen may or may not be successful, but success is not the measure demanded by Scripture – faithfulness is.

But some might ask, why should the Christian bother with political activity at all? Shouldn’t the Christian concentrate his efforts on evangelistic persuasion, and leave politics to the world? Reasonable Christians may disagree, but I would argue that we must be involved in politics, out of a motivation of love.

Christians believe that, ultimately, God’s way is the best way. A society based on God’s principles will be a more just, happier, freer society than one based on any other plan. Now, Christians disagree on exactly what God’s principles might be, but put that aside for a moment. If we love those outside of Christ, we should seek to establish the most just, freest society we can. What template do we have for such a society, outside of the Scriptures?

I am not saying that we will be successful, or that all Christians will even agree on what particular Scriptures will give rise to what particular policies. But even given that huge caveat, shouldn’t Christians pursue a just and free society, as best as we know how? And won’t our vision for that society be informed primarily by the Bible?

We cannot build such a society alone – we will need coalitions, and that will entail finding non-religious arguments for our conclusions – and we will not build such a society perfectly – we are not capable of that. But out of love for our fellow citizens, we must be active in that task, mustn’t we?

On Gay Marriage in a Civil Society

If last week’s announcement by President Obama that his position on “same-sex marriage” had “evolved” proves anything, it is that the so-called “culture wars” are not being driven solely by social conservatives. The contention that social conservatives want to “impose their morality on everyone else” is a hollow claim, or at the very least one that can be justly directed at social revisionists as well.

As an evangelical Christian who is also a social conservative, I find it ironic to read internet arguments by young evangelicals who in one breath claim that the teachings of Jesus against greed require Christians to vote for higher taxes on the rich, and in the next assert that we must allow the definition of marriage to be changed, because we mustn’t impose our personal religious values on anyone else. Greed, for all that the Bible preaches against it, is something that people do in the privacy of their own hearts. Is it really the job of the secular State to cure it? The definition of marriage, on the other hand, has profound civil ramifications.

That being said, the question of whether or not men ought to have the right to marry men, and women to marry women, is a matter that engenders deep feelings in people on every side. I approach the question with a strong desire for all people to find true happiness in life, and with a profound recognition of my own moral imperfections and intellectual limitations. I do not always live as I believe I ought to, and I do not understand all things fully.

I also recognize that the question has many facets, not least of which are the civil, religious, and personal dimensions, and that different arguments and considerations must be used depending on what exactly one is arguing. In this piece, I will only seek to address part of the civil dimensions of the question.

Basic to my thinking are the following issues:
  • Marriage, defined as the lifelong exclusive covenantal union between one man and one woman, is a societal unit that precedes the State, and that precedes religion. It is not created by any Constitution, and it did not come into being because of the teachings of any faith. Governments recognize and regulate it, holy books explain its origins, but marriage pre-existed the earliest writers in either sphere.
  • Marriage thus defined is a basic unit of virtually every society known to humanity, on every continent, going back through history as far as records exist.
  • One might counter that the definition of marriage is precisely what’s at issue here, and that beginning as I have prejudices the question, but the fact remains that whatever you call it, in every society ever known, “the lifelong exclusive covenantal union between one man and one woman” is a concept that has a name, and enjoys a recognized and privileged place in that society.

Whatever else may come later, it is impossible for any relationship between two people of the same sex to match the traditional definition of marriage. This is beyond argument.

What is really at issue are the questions of whether: 1) a committed relationship between two people of the same sex ought to be recognized by the State as the equivalent of marriage; 2) whether it ought to be referred to by the same word; and 3) whether such a relationship ought to automatically be given the same rights and privileges accorded to marriage by the State. These three questions are distinct, and though they are related, arguments for one of the questions ought not to be confused for arguments for another.

For example, social conservatives for a long time scratched their heads when asked about their opinion on “gay marriage,” because such a thing seemed definitionally impossible. One might as well be asked one’s opinion on square circles, or meaty vegetables. Social conservatives heard it as an inquiry into the second question, when perhaps it was intended as an inquiry into the third, or the first. This kind of confusion helps the social revisionists, but hurts society. We must be clear about what we’re talking about, if we are to make good decisions together.

Very quickly, I would strongly argue against using the same word to refer to both marriage and same-sex unions. This might seem like the most trivial of the three questions, but it is the one I care most deeply about. Words have meaning. Admittedly, that meaning may change over time, but if there is something special about marriage – if there is something unique about the lifelong exclusive covenantal union between one man and one woman, which virtually every society that has ever existed on the face of this planet has recognized, then obliterating that meaning by conflating it with something else is unwise. I’ll be honest, I believe that if we change the meaning of the word “marriage” to include something other than the lifelong exclusive covenantal union between one man and one woman, soon enough a new term will be coined to refer to that concept. It’s too deeply ingrained and too useful an idea to be lost. But honestly, if that’s the case, why bother changing the word in the first place?

The reason why revisionists are so keen on changing the definition of the word marriage is, of course, because they do not believe there is anything unique or praiseworthy about the lifelong exclusive covenantal union between one man and one woman. And their arguments in favor of the first and third questions would be immeasurably helped if they won the debate on the second. People simply aren’t used to thinking clearly enough to differentiate between related questions.

On the first question, whether a committed relationship between two people of the same sex ought to be recognized by the State as the equivalent of marriage, one first has to answer the question of why the State has any interest whatsoever in recognizing marriages at all. So I put it to you – why should the State have any interest in what does or does not constitute a marriage?

The answer is clear – society has an interest in the production and maturation of its next generation of citizens, and for what it’s worth, a lifelong exclusive covenantal union between one man and one woman is by every measure the best, most efficient, healthiest context for accomplishing this. There is a huge complex of issues bundled together in this process, including education, socialization, property rights, physical health issues, and others. By some measures, and on some of these questions, studies show that children raised by homosexual partners approach the levels of mental, physical, and emotional health and maturity as children raised in stable marriages, but homosexual partnerships raising children is such a new phenomenon and sample sizes have been so small that these conclusions are only preliminary.

Regardless, children raised in the context of a lifelong exclusive covenantal union between one man and one woman, that is, in a stable marriage, is the time-tested, most effective, most reliable method of ensuring the stability and health of the next generation of citizens. For this reason above all, the State has an interest in promoting stable marriages.

In promoting stable marriages, the goal of the State is not to legislate morality, nor to confer approval on some pairings and disapproval on others. The State’s goal is to ensure the healthy continuation of a nation. Given the legitimate interest of the State in accomplishing this goal, and given the proven effectiveness of stable marriages to do so, the State has a legitimate interest in fostering stable marriages, in a way that it does not have an interest in fostering homosexual unions. Frankly, homosexual partnerships do not seem to further any legitimate State interest, and thus should likely not be an issue addressed by the State at all.

Which brings us to the third question, whether homosexual partnerships ought to automatically be given the same rights and privileges accorded to marriage by the State. The people of a democratic nation can give any group of people any privileges they choose to. I don’t believe the State has a compelling interest in making homosexual partnerships the equivalent in law of marriages, but if a State chose to define a category of legal contract that carried a certain bundle of rights and responsibilities – civil unions, as an example – I see no problem with that. Commonly-mentioned rights include hospital visitation, medical decision-making, life insurance beneficiaries, access to joint health insurance plans. Each of those are available individually for same-sex couples to take advantage of, but if a State decided that, for ease of reference and simplicity of record-keeping, those rights should be bundled into one type of legal relationship, that is the State’s prerogative and I see no issue with it.

But of course, that is not what gay rights activists want. This third question, having to do with rights and privileges, is the one that is commonly answered publicly by proponents of same-sex unions, because it is the question that arouses the least opposition in the general public. And by conflating the three questions, revisionists attempt to make people think that if you are okay with allowing for a legal category such as “civil unions,” it is only religious bias that prevents you from allowing it to have the same societal function as marriage, and from changing the word “marriage” to encompass it. Ultimately, moving the second question is the chief goal of revisionists. Their core problem with traditional marriage is that along with traditional marriage comes traditional morality. And what proponents of same-sex marriage want the most is for society as a whole to view homosexual activity as moral.

I fully understand that desire. But I’ll come back to the irony I addressed at the beginning of this piece. The same folks who argue that Christians must not vote in such a way as to enshrine our religiously-influenced morality into law are, at the same time, seeking to enshrine their sexual lifestyle-influenced morality into law. I do not begrudge them the right to try to do this. But I believe the hypocrisy of it should be pointed out clearly, and not fudged over.

NOTE: A related issue is addressed here: On Christian Involvement in Civil Society

Aug. 15th, 2011

First report - GABON 2011

“So, how was your trip?” My answer to that question could take anywhere from a minute and a half to a day and a half, depending on how much you want to hear. ☺ I’ll give you the five-minute reader’s version, and if you’d like more, you can come to Trinity Alliance Church’s September 18th morning service (10:30 a.m.) and see pictures and video, and hear from all of our team members. We’ll worship Gabonese style, and you’ll even get to taste one of our favorite Gabonese refreshments!

The most grueling part of the trip by far was the travel. A short hop to Dulles airport in Washington, D.C. led to an 8-hour-plus flight to Frankfurt, then another 8-hour-plus flight to Libreville, Gabon. We stayed in Libreville overnight, then hopped on a mini-bus for the 9-hour drive to the Bongolo hospital near Lebamba. As you might expect, the bus trip was the hardest, along roads of various stages of paving. Surprisingly, some of the paved roads were worse than the dirt ones. The first hour-and-a-half of paved roads from Libreville are so filled with potholes that vehicles often have to drive off the road on either side to find a safe route! By the side of the road are the carcasses of smashed vehicles that testify to the danger of the high speeds traveled on this winding path. Along the unpaved portion of the trip, the foliage is so clay-dust-covered that they are orange rather than green!

The way home was much the same, though we stopped in Philadelphia rather than DC, and had a day-long layover in Frankfort to debrief and sightsee. Suffice it to say, I don’t want to see the inside of an airplane again for a while!

The Hospital
The work that the doctors, nurses, and staff are doing at the Bongolo Hospital is nothing short of amazing. In the middle of the jungle, with resources stretched as tight as a drum, with power outages that happen regularly, these folks provide quality, compassionate medical care for people who desperately need it. Bongolo is so well known for the quality of its care that people from Libreville regularly risk the nine hour trip, bypassing the two hospitals in the capital city and two more (including the one founded by Albert Schweitzer!) in Lambarene that are much closer, just to get to Bongolo. They can’t perform every scan and test at Bongolo that they can in the bigger cities, but they will care for you like no one else, and it shows.

We got to witness surgeries at the Hospital, which was very moving. The doctors pray for each patient before operating. I was asked to lead in prayer before a spina bifida operation on a newborn girl. I was amazed to see the boldness and precision of the surgeons there, as well as their passion for teaching surgery in the surgical school at Bongolo. The next day, I got to visit the baby whose surgery I watched, and her little identical twin sister. Graciela de Dieu and Ivana de Dieu are both doing well.

The Work
Our team met up with a team of four college interns, and we did a variety of projects in the area of the hospital. We helped to fill in and level off the floor portion of the foundation of a new church being built just outside of town. That meant three days of shoveling dirt into a dump truck, and dumping it in the foundation. Back-breaking and endless, one day the team filled TWELVE dump trucks full of dirt!

On another day, we filled the dump truck with garbage from a hillside that hospital patients had used as a dumping ground. On yet another day, we helped lay the foundation for a new Sunday School building for the church that is built next to the hospital. One of my teammates and I used our artistic abilities to paint a new logo on the outside wall of the local high school, and to paint scripture quotes on the inner walls of the largest meeting room in the mission station, as an encouragement for the doctors and other international workers. The rest of the team also washed the walls of that high school, inside and out, which had never been cleaned in the more than dozen years since the school was built, and were covered with graffiti. We also got to do crafts with children in the pediatric ward at the hospital, and I drew portraits for kids and their families. Two of our team members spent their time repairing and stabilizing the hospital’s internet servers and network connections. They made it possible for the hospital’s network to be managed over the internet from the United States, rather than pulling surgeons away from their work (or families) to fix things.

We were struck by the fact that God can use a variety of gifts to benefit the work of His church, as well as good old-fashioned sweat.

The highlight of the trip for me was the opportunity to worship with a small congregation in the tiny village of Marembo. The church building was ramshackle by our standards, the people spoke languages I didn’t understand, we looked very different and had vastly different life experiences. But as we sang (and danced!) together, I was struck by the fact that we worship the same God, are filled with the same Spirit, are saved by the same Jesus, and read the same Bible. That encouraged me as I opened Genesis 42 to preach about how both Joseph and his brothers recognized the hand of God in their situations, but while the brothers thought God was punishing them for their sins, Joseph recognized that God was actually saving their lives – physically and spiritually. I encouraged the people of Marembo to look at the hard times in their lives not as God’s punishment – for all who are in Christ, Jesus has taken all of God’s punishment on our behalf – but as an opportunity for God to manifest His salvation in our lives. More than anything, the people of Marembo were stunned, as I showed pictures of my family, that my mother had trouble walking and needed a walker. “White people have health problems, too?” they asked. “This white woman has trouble walking, just like I do!” they cried. I assured them that the Christian life does not mean freedom from all problems, but that God meets us in our troubles, and brings His salvation in the midst of them.

Another key highlight was building our relationship with Renee Valach, the member of our church who is a doctor at Bongolo. Renee was so gracious, and spent a lot of time with us, and we were able to build into her life, and she into ours. What a wonderful woman she is, and we were delighted to support her there.

Perhaps the chief thing we were there to do, apart from the computer repairs, was to build our relationship with Bongolo and assess the possibility of future partnership trips with the hospital. The whole team came away convinced that this was not just possible, but necessary, and that the hospital could in fact use the assistance of people with a wide variety of skills and abilities, not just medical personnel.

Oh, there’s so much more I’d like to say! We did some evangelism, as well, and met some awesome people, and ate some challenging and delicious food. I have so many stories, and cannot possibly tell them all. Ask me questions on Facebook, and I’ll be happy to you’re your ears! Much more will be told on September 18th. For now, let me just say, thank you for praying for me and for the team. God answered your prayers, and your work – like ours – was not in vain.

In the grip of God’s grace,

Denes House

Jul. 21st, 2011

In Memoriam, Roger LeClerc

Roger LeClerc was the first person to give me a position of responsibility in the Christian Church.

Roger was the head usher, and to all of us kids, he was both amazing and scary. Amazing - he knew us all, loved us, and gave us candies! Scary - he had a grip like a python, and when you shook his hand, you knew it. I looked up to him, and realized from the care and pride with which he did his job that being an usher was an important task.

When I was a young teen, Roger allowed me to join the ushers. He trained me how to watch the congregation, to help people who needed help, how not to draw attention to myself and distract people, how to respectfully go forward to help collect the offering, and how to maintain a chain of integrity for the offering, from collection through counting and to depositing. He invested in me, and gave me a love for Christian service that continues to this day.

Today, I'm the pastor of a small church. Statistics show that kids leave the Church at an alarming rate as they pass through the ages of 16-22. It seems like the major factors in retaining kids in that age range is that they have meaningful relationships with older (non-parental) Christians in their churches, connected with meaningful responsibility. I don't know if Roger ever knew the statistics, but he lived out the solution in my life.

Thank you, Roger, for your influence on my life. May flights of angels usher you to your new home with our Lord Jesus Christ. I pray that as Jesus greets you at the gates of heaven, and the angels and saints are cheering you home, our Lord takes hold of your right hand. And that while He's saying, "Well done, my good and faithful servant - enter in to the joy of your reward!" He's also gripping your hand like a python.

Your brother in Christ,

Rev. Denes House
Trinity Alliance Church

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