Friday, December 23, 2016

There Are No Goalposts

First, let me apologize for the lack of posts. Both Ty and I have been extra busy with other projects. That doesn't mean we've forgotten about this one. For my part I have been doing a lot of thinking about how love, as the central theme of scripture, plays out through everything. Including how we treat ourselves.

Honor/Shame and Success/Failure

In the ancient world (and in many other cultures today) the functional value system was based on accruing honor and avoiding shame. Doing or saying things that are honorable brings honor upon the person who did or said them and upon their family or tribe. Likewise, doing things that were shameful brought shame upon both the individual and the group. 

The West has moved more towards a success/failure value system that is also more individualistic in its application. Saying or doing something that appears successful brings a sense of pride to the individual while failing brings a sense of shame. The success or failure can extend to the family, but doesn't usually go past that (especially not with the lasting force experienced in honor/shame societies). 

What both of these value systems have in common is that they categorize actions and words as reflecting the value and worth of an individual or group. You become more worthy and more valuable if you do the things that are honorable or successful. You lose value and worth if you do things that are shameful or fail. You become honorable or shameful, successful or a failure. 

Love and Success

The first time I came across the idea of disinterested love I rejected it. I was reading On Job by Gustavo Gutierrez and he developed the idea of Job having a disinterested love of God. That is Job didn't love God because of his interest in success or honor or health, but rather loved God without interest in what God could do for him, just because. My professor asked us this question: "Would you still love God if there were no promise of heaven?" Of course not, I thought, why would I? The whole idea of a disinterested love seemed like what they make you talk about in school because they have to talk about something, sort of an intellectual Zen koan akin to asking whether a tree makes a sound when it falls and no one is around to hear it. 

Fast forward several years and I started looking at the idea of disinterested love in more detail, this time as it relates to my wife. It was in one of the many, many conversations that we have had about our relationship and we got to the point where we were wondering why we loved each other. It's not that we doubted that we loved each other, we were just thinking about why. Did I love her because she's pretty, funny, kind, thoughtful, graceful, and generous? What would happen if I found someone prettier, funnier, kinder, more thoughtful, graceful, and generous than her? Would I love that person instead? No. Of course not! And that meant that those weren't the real reasons why I love her. 

I don't love my wife because of her success or her honor. I don't love her less when she fails or does something shameful. I realized that I have a disinterested love for my wife (that's some romance for you, folks; I'll sell the greeting cards and make a fortune!). Now, that's not to say that I don't sometimes equate love and success. When I'm tired or emotional I can, in the moment, feel less love if she has done something that contradicts my ideas of success or I'll feel more love if she does something that agrees with my ideas of success. But those are fleeting feelings and not the real reason why I love her. The real reason is far more simple and complicated than that. 

Love and Value

I love my wife because she is herself. Not because she does anything for me or in spite of what she does that I don't like. But I don't have the same feelings for everyone, so how can it not be because my wife is intrinsically better than everyone else?  They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so maybe my wife is just better to me than anyone else (she's not, but that doesn't make me love her less). I love her, and the more that I get to know who that person is, the more the feeling of love grows, not because she's becoming more successful, but because I'm better able to see her inherent worth and value.

We have subtly flipped the order on so many things so that they seem right. Love and value are connected, but we have flipped it so that love is earned through value instead of love being a response to value. We have said: "I love you because..." rather than "Because I love you..." and the order makes all the difference. My wife's beauty, humor, kindness, thoughtfulness, grace, and generosity are ways I can appreciate her value, not why she has value.

We all want to feel loved, that is to have our worth and value celebrated by someone else (Note that this is a very simple definition of love. I'll expand on this idea more in another post, including differentiating between romantic love and platonic love). But when we make love the reward for having enough worth and value we force ourselves to earn the love we so desperately want. We try to be more honorable, more successful so that we can feel the love that we think should be given as a reward, or if that doesn't work, we can try to make others into shameful failures so we have value by comparison.

Moving the Goalposts

There's a common logical fallacy called moving the goalposts. Basically it's when you change the rules of the game to suit how you're playing it rather than changing what you're doing to comply with the rules. If an argument is about the price of peanut butter and you feel like you're losing your side, you can just move the goalposts to an argument about the deliciousness of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead (it might be time for me to eat lunch). 

This happens in relationships with people too. We base our worth and value on being smart, but then we find someone who is smarter so we move the goalposts: "Sure, she's smarter than me, but I'm nicer." When we base our worth and value on a comparison we will, inevitably, lose. The smartest person in the world won't always be. The prettiest person won't stay that way. 

Moving the goalposts from honor/shame to success/failure or from one definition of success to another doesn't address the underlying problem: our value can't be created or destroyed by what we do. 

But wait, you say, bad people do bad things and good people do good things. That's in the bible!

You're right, to a point. Jesus talked about good trees bearing good fruit and bad trees bearing bad fruit. I'm not disagreeing with that. Rather what I'm saying is that piling a bunch of fruit underneath a tree doesn't tell you anything about that tree. You can't hang grapes on a vine and make it into a grapevine. The point Jesus was making when he talked about bad fruit was that it was a way of identifying people who claim to be doing good but are lying. 

Love Your Enemies

Doing good things does not make you, or anyone, more worthy of love. Jesus told us to love everyone, our neighbors (even the people we don't want as neighbors), even our enemies. Love should not be contingent upon performance. Moving the goalposts is pointless because there are no goalposts. No matter how much honor you accrue, no matter how much success you have, no matter how much shame you feel, no matter how many times you fail, there is no more or less worthiness for love and belonging. 

Sure, when someone is doing good it's easier to love them. When someone is nice it's natural to be nice in return. We like to reciprocate good for good (and bad for bad). But that's not, ultimately, what makes a person worthy of love. 

Instead of trying to get enough honor or success to be worthy of love, we should work on knowing ourselves and allowing ourselves to be known by others. Working on creating healthy boundaries, expressing needs, seeing our own worth and the worth of others. The bible says that every single human is made in the image of God and is worthy of love and belonging. All of us. 

You can't earn your worth because you already have it. You can't lose your worth because it is who you are. You can only hide your worth and ignore the worth of others. Or, you could recognize your worth and the worth of others. There are no goalposts. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Taking the Lord's Name in Vain

"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold guiltless anyone who takes his name in vain" (Ex. 20:7 NET Bible).

The Ten Commandments include, as the third commandment, a prohibition against taking the name of the Lord in vain. Most often I've heard this applied as a law against swearing by saying, "Oh my God" or "Jesus Christ!"

The Name of the Lord

The first misunderstanding about this commandment is about the name of the Lord. Ironically, this misunderstanding arose because the Jewish people were trying to obey this commandment. 

The name of the Lord is Yahweh (or YHWH or יהוה‎‎), not "God" or "the Lord." But, because the Jewish people wanted to be careful to never take the name of Yahweh in vain, they avoided saying his name at all. When reading the Hebrew scriptures (even today) Jewish people don't pronounce the name of Yahweh but instead substitute the word for "lord" which is Adonai. As that substitution continued it affected the Jewish and Christian people of the first century so that the Greek word for "lord" became synonymous with the Hebrew word for "lord" and was used to proclaim that Jesus is Yahweh (i.e. Jesus is Lord). 

Most modern English translations of the Old Testament will indicate where the word Yahweh is being translated as "lord" by using all capital letters (i.e. LORD). But the New Testament writers were so accustomed to knowing the difference between lord and LORD through context that they didn't differentiate the words in any way. 

The name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Father of Jesus is Yahweh. It is the name of Yahweh that should not be taken in vain.

Taking the Name of Yahweh

In the ancient world a name held much more significance than modern people tend to give it. The name of a god or a king was tied strongly to their authority and rule, but also to the allegiance of the person swearing by that name. The Hebrew people were commanded to swear oaths only by the name of Yahweh (Deut. 6:11). 

To take the name of Yahweh, in vain or otherwise, is to claim allegiance to Yahweh and alignment with his teaching. So a vain oath could be either one without allegiance to the oath or to Yahweh. It would have been taking the name of Yahweh in vain to swear an oath by his name while having no intent to keep the oath, it would have also been taking the name of Yahweh in vain to swear an oath that contradicted the values of Yahweh. 

For the ancient world there was a dearth of hard evidence. Most information was passed along orally and so trust had to be rooted in the person. If someone was unknown or the trust couldn't be established by the person alone, they could swear an oath upon something with unquestioned trustworthiness. For the Hebrew people that was Yahweh. 

The Purpose of Oaths

All throughout Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) he contrasts the old law with his new teaching. "You have heard it was said... but I say to you..."

This contrast isn't to undermine the law, but to show how the law was meant to shape the hearts of people. Rules didn't produce a good life, only being good people could do that. Jesus wanted to show how loving God and loving neighbors is an extension of the old law. He wanted to show the purpose of the law in how people were to be changed. 

So, when Jesus taught about oaths, he was addressing the purpose of not taking the name of Yahweh in vain. 
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, do not take oaths at all—not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 35 not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 36 Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one (Matt. 5:33-37 NET Bible).
 Oaths aren't what prove our trustworthiness, being trustworthy is. Swearing by Yahweh isn't the guarantee of our oath, keeping our promise is. Oaths were meant to be an external sign of an internal reality: that Yahweh's people do what they say they'll do and they take responsibility for their actions.

Dragging Yahweh's Name through the Mud

The heart of the bible is love: loving God and loving our neighbors. God's identity is love. Yet many people who wear the name of Christ are hateful. They hate people of different religions. They hate members of the LGBT community. They hate people with different political views. They hate people from different countries or ethnicities. And they do all of that under the name of Christ who is love. 

Far more than a prohibition against saying "oh my god," the third commandment teaches us to respect the power of Yahweh's name and the meaning of that name as a symbol of love, justice, and peace. Jesus teaches us that we don't get to co-opt Yahweh's identity by using his name, we have to show the love, justice, and peace of Yahweh in our actions as well as with our words. 

Tying the names of Yahweh and Christ to misogyny, to racism, to xenophobia, and to homophobia takes their names in vain. Hiding personal hatred behind the names of Yahweh and Christ avoids the personal responsibility and transformation that Jesus called his followers to. 

If you choose to identify by the name of Christ, you are taking his reputation and adding your actions to it. Jesus' reputation was of love, of acceptance, of welcoming the sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and lepers. Jesus was known for his love, for his justice, and for his peace. If you wear his name you should be known for the same things. If you don't want to be known for love, then don't wear the name of Christ. If you don't want to stand up for justice, then don't take the name of Yahweh. If you cannot stop hating and being unjust, at least do so in your own name and stop taking the name of Yahweh in vain.  

Monday, April 25, 2016

Acts, The Good News, and Gender Identity

This is a repost from Please comment there or on Facebook

Acts is, in many ways, the story of God's kingdom expanding into all the world. Jesus' final words to his apostles were, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth." (Acts 1:8 NET). We see that theme progress throughout the book as the apostles spread the good news in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), persecution scattering the young church throughout Judea (8:1-3) and Samaria (8:4-25), and, through Paul, all across the Roman Empire (9-28).
But to see the words of Jesus and the events in Acts as a purely geographical movement misses something critical in the story.

Philip and the Ethiopian

After Philip spread the good news to Samaria but before Paul is introduced in the story we see Philip sent by the Holy Spirit to have an encounter with an Ethiopian (8:26-40). This was no normal Ethiopian. First he was a God-fearer, that class of people who were not Jewish by birth but still worshiped Yahweh. Second, he was the treasurer for the queen of Ethiopia who had made a trip to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. But the most scandalous, most shocking thing about him was his lack of gender.
He was a eunuch.
We don't know the circumstance that led to his castration. We do know that in the ancient world eunuch were used as servants to women in high positions. It's possible that he was castrated as a child to give him a chance to obtain work, perhaps because of the poverty of his parents.
We also know that the Mosaic law prohibited eunuchs from being a part of the congregation of Israel (Deut. 23:1) making the Ethiopian treasurer that much more scandalous. The holy irony of the reading that the Ethiopian was struggling to understand, Isaiah 53, is that just three chapters later Isaiah prophesied that God would welcome the foreigner and the eunuch (Isa. 56:3-7).

Gender Identity

Today there are debates raging in state legislatures, school boardrooms, college campuses, and church offices about how to treat those who are transgendered. Specifically, the debate is about restroom requirements and who is allowed to use what room to relieve themselves. There is fear that abusers will hurt children. There is fear that perverts will spy on the vulnerable. There is fear that privacy and decency will be lost.
There is fear of another sort that is being ignored in many debates: the fear of the transgendered among us.
I don't know if it is right or wrong, good or bad for a person to be born with one set of sex organs and to feel as if they should have the other. I don't know if it was right or wrong, good or bad for an Ethiopian boy to be castrated so he could get a job. But I do know that the Ethiopian boy overcame a great deal of fear, not to become the treasurer of a powerful nation, but to walk into the temple in Jerusalem.
The temple was segregated by both race and gender. The inner court was only for Jewish men. The next court only for Jewish women. The outer court, the one where Jesus taught and where the first Christians met, was for the rest, the leftovers, the Gentiles and ungendered, for those deemed unworthy to step any closer to the mercy seat of God. That Ethiopian treasurer stepped into the temple, bought a scroll from the Hebrew scriptures, and desperately wanted to understand how he could fit into God's world.
Imagine the fear of a transgendered person who might dare to walk into your church. Imagine the great hope and great terror that must war within them. For reasons most of us will never know they cannot accept the sex of their birth. If it were so easy they would not risk bullying, beatings, mocking, and even death to live as a different gender. Beyond that they have stepped into a place that, historically, has been the forefront of hatred and oppression against them. Imagine the knots in their guts. Imagine the rapidity of their heartbeat. Imagine the desperate, reckless hope that they must have to dare such a thing. Hope that they might finally find a respite from bullying, from beating, from mocking, and even from death. Hope that the love that Jesus spoke of might be evident in the people who wear his name.
Imagine what they will find in response to that terror and that hope when they dare to walk into your church.

Good News

Acts is the story of God's kingdom expansion, not just geographically, but ethnically and socially. Acts tells us of the shocking, scandalous inclusion in God's kingdom of the hated Samaritans. It tells of the deep racial divide that made the inclusion of the Gentiles a constant struggle for the Jewish Christians. And it tells us of God fulfilling his prophecy through Isaiah and making a place within the kingdom for an Ethiopian treasurer.
This is what the Lord says,
“Promote justice! Do what is right!
For I am ready to deliver you;
I am ready to vindicate you openly.
The people who do this will be blessed,
the people who commit themselves to obedience,
who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
who refrain from doing anything that is wrong.
No foreigner who becomes a follower of the Lord should say,
‘The Lord will certainly exclude me from his people.’
The eunuch should not say,
‘Look, I am like a dried-up tree.’”
For this is what the Lord says:
“For the eunuchs who observe my Sabbaths
and choose what pleases me
and are faithful to my covenant,
I will set up within my temple and my walls a monument
that will be better than sons and daughters.
I will set up a permanent monument for them that will remain.
As for foreigners who become followers of the Lord and serve him,
who love the name of the Lord and want to be his servants—
all who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
and who are faithful to my covenant—
I will bring them to my holy mountain;
I will make them happy in the temple where people pray to me.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar,
for my temple will be known as a temple where all nations may pray.”
(Isa. 56:1-7)
I don't know if it was right or wrong, good or bad for an Ethiopian boy to be castrated so he could get a job. But he was and God welcomed him into the kingdom, despite the scandal.
I don't know if it is right or wrong, good or bad for people to be transgendered. But they are. Will you welcome them, despite the scandal?