Friday, April 20, 2018

It Could Lead to Dancing--Adventists and Sex

I know it's an old joke: Why don't Adventists have sex standing up? Because it could lead to dancing. It was the height of humor when I was a preteen. Oh, the uproarious irony--that your church might be more concerned over dancing than sex.

It isn't funny anymore. I'm not a preteen, and the older I get, the more concerned I am that the joke is true. As a church, we might be off-priority when we talk about dancing. But we're much worse about sex. And it's because of what we're not saying, rather than what we are.

The Adventist church knows things about humanity that the rest of Christianity doesn't, which means we know things about sexuality they don't. We could be leading a revolution in thought. Instead, we're following the mainstream, right into philosophical perdition, and lousy sex.

Sex and death

This quarter, I'm teaching a class on Adventist beliefs, and I just taught the one about Wholism. I told my students that human beings are bodies filled with God's breath of life. It takes both to make a living being. That means that the entire package that is us--thoughts, feelings, limbs, senses, and hungers--is God's creation, the one he called "good" in Genesis.

The alternative view, the one that gets top billing in the Christian world, of course comes from the Greek dualism in which Christianity was born. Dualism says that the physical and spiritual realities are opposites, in competition. Human beings are immortal souls (Plato's idea) confined in physical bodies that limit us. It was the Greeks, not the Hebrews, who said you have to suppress the body to give the advantage to the spiritual, or intellectual life. You don't find Jesus or Paul teaching this, but they (especially Paul) did use some of this imagery familiar to the Gentile converts.

Of course, Christianity took after Plato. Struggling to defend the faith to a world that scoffed at the idea that you would want your body back, once free of it, Justin Martyr mixed the immortal soul with Paul's preaching of the resurrection. And most Christians believe a hybrid today.

All but us.

Well, sort of.

In bed with Plato

I'm convinced we only half believe in wholism. We believe in the half that applies to death. In fact, that's what we call it--"the state of the dead."

But it ought to be also the state of the living. This is our failing--we haven't thought through and applied this to how we live. Instead, we adopted what every other, Greek-hybrid Christian said about sensuality, and joy, and purity. We have followed them right into bed with Plato.

We can do better. We know better.

Because, if the body is part of God's good creation, then so is sex. So is everything that gives us joy through our senses. Food, beauty, sensuality--God gives those to us as gifts, not as temptations. And the limits he puts on them are only safeguards, so that we don't harm ourselves or others, and kill the joy. The limits serve the joy, not the other way around.

In fact, a broad reading of the Bible suggests the main concern, with sex and sin, is relationships. Adultery and divorce get the biggest press time, consanguinity and other "defilement"-labelled issues trail far behind.

Christianity, of course, with its vestigial dualism, has this reversed. It glorifies the limits (and tries to invent more of them), rather than the sexuality they protect. It makes the means into the goal. The word "purity" has turned into code, either for a self-centered view of one's sexuality, or worse, as an excuse to control the dress and behavior of others.*

There is a reason the secular world caricatures Christians as priggish and patriarchal. A caricature, by definition, is an exaggeration of what's already there.

My (proposed) Adventist sexual revolution

The punchline, of course, is that we have something so much better to offer. Adventists, specifically, who believe in the state of the dead, could revolutionize this. We can--if we decide we believe, and start to teach, the state of the living.

We don't have to follow either the Platonic (yes, irony) Christian mainstream, or the sex-jaded secular world. Both of them, it turns out, denigrate sex. Because both of them have assigned it only to the body. Both have taken the human soul out of it.

What if, instead, we tell our kids that sex is about the whole person?  It's spiritual, just like every other human joy, the way God intended it to be? What if we admit that sexuality isn't something God gives us as a wedding gift, that it's a part of all of us, and we need honest and healthy ways to relate to it?

What if we started studying Song of Songs the way we do the sanctuary system? If we could embrace the depth, and beauty, and spirituality--the whole-person intimacy of a Christian marriage?

What if we told the world, not that they should have less sex, but that sex should be more?  What if we brought more beauty, more dignity, more love into the conversation?

Well, a lot of things could happen.

For one, we might feel less embarrassed by the biblical imagery that compares God's love for us to a romance. We might inspire our youth to have great, lifelong romance, instead of trying to scare them away from cheap sex. We might have a powerful point of contact with a culture already looking for meaning in their relationships. And we might, finally, find more joy in our own lives.

Maybe, just maybe, Adventists might learn to dance.

*Personally, I think we should never use the word when talking to our teens again.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Adventists, Politics, and Guns

I know I'm late to the conversation. It's been almost a week since the Valentine's day shooting at a school in Florida. But I, like everyone else, need to say something. We need to talk, because the lives of seventeen families were ripped apart, and every student in that school and community has found themselves living in a darker, more terrifying world.

And the question is--the question always is--what can we do? Can we--and should we--control the guns? Can we control the people, and how? Is there a way to cure or prevent whatever turns people into killers? And in a society in which kids can turn into killers, can we even play by the same rules anymore?

And this is where it goes bad. Because at this part of the conversation we stop talking to each other. We even stop talking to the actual problems. Somewhere in here, the train of thought jumps the rails, and the conversation turns into a meme slug-fest, and we all get to accuse one another of "politicizing this tragedy."

My church is particularly handicapped here. For very good reasons, we don't tell our members what to vote, or what party to listen to. I'm glad for that, but it means that our members end up listening to other Christian groups who don't have that scruple. Most often, it's the right wing, sometimes it's the left.

But it's always bad, because politics mistaken for faith is a horror all its own.* When the power-mongering voices whispering in our ear make us believe they have us by the conscience, there is no greater form of slavery.

So what can we do? What can Adventists, specifically, do about tragedies like this? This is what I think:

1. Grieve--There's a lot of emotion in these conversations, for good reason. The feelings are all valid--sorrow, anger, fear, bewilderment. We need a chance to feel them before we use them, or let someone else harness them, for an agenda. Grieve for the lives lost, and the countless other lives changed. Feel anger for the loss of safety and innocence. The victims of this shooting deserve to be mourned as themselves.

2. Pray--Yes, social media is jaded with the sending of "thoughts and prayers" after a tragedy. But prayer is much deeper than our own well of feelings. It is our link to the God who actually has answers. Pray for comfort, and pray for a solution. If we're going to struggle through this web of emotions and politics, and do something productive, we need help.

3. Resist the memes--I know, they work. I've read a hundred snarky memes for every thoughtful article I've click on and read. If what we want is evangelism, or just a way to vent our own feelings, snark is the way to go. But I want something better. These horrors are not partisan. These problems belong to all of us. We cannot change the world with snark. Instead of trading memes, we have to talk to real people. If we owe anything to the innocent children killed in Florida, it's this. We owe them the respect of actually trying.

Resist the political parties and the lobbies whispering in your ear. Resist the urge to share something just because it's clever. Refuse to be someone's enemy just because they're wrong. We need those people, too.

4. Be present where you are.-- I'll never forget the day, in my own teens, when my best friend's mother followed me as I was leaving to say, "I noticed you've been having a hard time lately. I care about you." She gave me a jar of homemade applesauce. It was a small thing, except to me.

Maybe legislation will help us. Maybe it won't, or maybe it won't yet. Work for what you want, but don't forget to be present where you are. Care about the people around you. Take the time to be curious, and to say something.

No, a jar of applesauce won't cure a sociopath. But a community that notices, and cares, can make a difference for most everyone else. I've realized lately that I'm failing here. I'm not curious, because I don't have time. I don't say anything, because I'm self-conscious. I need to do better.

I am an Adventist. I know the only whole solution to violence is the Second Advent, and I pray it happens soon. I also know that "soon" is not defined, and it isn't an excuse to ignore the problems here and now.

So what do I think Adventists should do about politics and guns? Simply, I hope we will live our faith.

Vote, because it's our duty as citizens, but vote your conscience, and not a party line you've been fed, even if it came in Christian language.

I hope that we will think and speak responsibly about guns, violence, and personal freedoms. That we won't be lured in by the conversation-squashing charm of snark. That we will be able to consider the problem for itself, and not because of its political implications.

And I hope we will be a force for good in our own homes and communities. I hope we care, not simply enough to argue with one another, but enough to love others.

*To be convinced of this, I recommend CS Lewis, and his article on a Christian political party in God in the Dock.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Gospel of Broken Hopes

Have you ever read something in your Bible that you knew wasn't true? Yes, I know this is an Adventist home--we're supposed to believe the whole Bible. And I do--except the stuff that's wrong.  Like this:

"And hope does not disappoint us . . ." Romans 5:5

I ran across that once, about ten years ago, when I was struggling with hope. To be exact, I was struggling not to hope. You see, we'd had our medical miracle first child, and since I wasn't getting any younger, I'd gone back to try for a sibling for her. It was supposed to be easy, since now we knew just which fertility treatment we needed. Except that it wasn't. Month after month, cycle after expensive and exhausting cycle, we came up with no viable embryos.

I was in another cycle, driving 45 minutes each morning to have my blood drawn, and it was spring in Pennsylvania. The sun was pouring back into a world of grays and blacks and cold, and the numbers weren't looking too bad, either. I could feel myself hoping, and I was fighting it.

And then I read this verse. It might not have been enough by itself, but then the green things started growing again--vines on the power poles, buds on the trees. And I knew I was lost. I was going to hope in spite of myself, and I held that verse as insurance for the consequences.

My hope disappointed me.

And I'm sure it's done the same to you, too, because it happens to all of us. Hope disappoints. We get sucker-punched. We get lumps of pain tied up in shiny red bows of anticipation. And just because Paul writes those words, "hope does not disappoint us," doesn't change our reality.

Hope is an unreliable friend. Not the kind that forgets your birthday, but the kind that sometimes cuts the ground out from under you. Happy young couples head to the hospital with diapers and baby clothes in their bags, and come back with empty arms. We practice, we audition, interview, try out, and find we didn't make the cut. We love, and we discover we aren't loved in return.

And we need hope. We can't simply write it off as not worth the trouble. It's written into our DNA, it comes as natural as our breath. It gets us out of bed in the morning, and gives meaning to our struggles. We wade through the slog because we're looking forward to something ahead.  We have to hope. And we're often disappointed.

So what do we do?

First, we go back to Paul, and figure out what he really meant.

I knew, when I read the verse that spring, that I was cheating. I'd pulled a single phrase out of a long and tangled line of reason, and hung onto it. I knew he meant a certain hope, probably something spiritual, and completely unrelated to my fertility. Something technically better, but not what I wanted.  Did it have any good news for me?

And since I'm stubborn that way, I beat my head against the verse (often needed with Paul) until I found something.

The hope that Paul means is the hope of salvation. It was pretty clear to see in the context, but it didn't make me any happier. In fact, it felt like biting into a chocolate chip cookie and finding it was carob. Sure, you can say it's better for me. It is, but it isn't what I wanted. The football is a pretty good gift, but not to the kid who wanted a Red Rider BB gun.

It took a little more unpacking to be reconciled. But verse 4 helped:

"Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope." That's what comes just before the "hope doesn't disappoint" bit. It's a strange food chain of virtues, because hope is sitting at the top. Why is hope the goal? Why not character?

I could understand, in fact, if he started with hope. As in "hope disappoints us, which leads to suffering . .. and so on to character." But God doesn't want our character the most. He wants us to hope instead. He intends to fulfill those hopes himself. It's his character, not ours, that saves us.

Christianity isn't Buddhism with a Cross. Paul isn't teaching us to be stoics and stop wanting things. Stop hoping. He's pointing us to the only hope that can make us happy. It's not chocolate, but it isn't carob, either. It's eternity.

Salvation isn't just about saving us from our sins. It's about saving us from the world that hurts us, that crushes our hopes. It's about bringing us to the perfect world we were meant for all along, the one where all the things we really wanted, the stuff we expect those hoped-for things well give us, are there. Family, love, meaning, accomplishment, value, joy. The forms of these things we spend our money and tears working for here on earth are only shadows of what God intends to give us.

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness.

It turn out that all those other hopes really are less than this one. Since the twins I did eventually have are right now wrecking my house for Sabbath, I can testify that our joys here are always mixed with some pain. I love my children. But I'm looking forward sharing eternity with them even more, and seeing what family was meant to be.

So all those broken hopes are not lost, just waiting for the resurrection. And those brightly-wrapped lumps of pain serve a purpose right now. They drive us to the one hope that cannot let us down.

"And hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts..."