Building Intimacy.

The last few blogs have been making the point that sex is about much more than just sex. It’s about intimacy, about emotional and spiritual connection. It’s about respect and honoring and cherishing. It’s not so much about my needs, my urges, but about lovingly delighting my spouse.

Intimacy needs to begin well before marriage – during the engagement period, and probably earlier. Though, as I discussed previously, intimacy at this stage is mostly non-physical. Deep bonding occurs simply through very intimate conversation – sharing hopes, dreams, secrets. As the wedding approaches, it includes detailed discussion on how you think coning together sexually may play out. Kissing and cuddling sessions at this stage only divert you from real intimacy, returning your focus to the physical.

Last blog commented that intimacy is relevant also to the question of whether sex will be painful, at least at first. I argued that a full, holistic understanding of sex and intimacy makes that early pain much less likely.

Given this theme, I was interested to notice a podcast on Authentic Intimacy, with the title “Are You Having Sex, or Building Intimacy?”. You can find it at https://www.authenticintimacy.com/resources/13386/267?source=blog  I’ve mentioned Authentic Intimacy, and  co-founder Dr. Juli Slattery a few times before. From an uncertain start, I’ve come to deeply respect both her, and the ministry. Early in this podcast Dr. Slattery mentions the “hook up” culture in which we live. The culture that makes sex a transaction without any relational obligation. And she suggests that many a marriage is not far removed, the main difference being that marriage gives a veneer of moral correctness. But if it’s just sex, without sexual integrity (another phrase developed by this ministry) then it’s little better than a “hook up”. Ouch! There’s food for thought!

I want to say at this point that I’m not anti-sex. Perhaps I’ve been giving that impression with all this talk about intimacy being primary. Oh my, sex is such a good gift from God. Dynamic, varied, uninhibited, frequent sex is an incredible part of covenant marriage. But just remember that if your love life is goal-oriented, focused on the buzz, the release of sexual tension, it will be so much less fulfilling.

GMB


Does First Sex Hurt?

It seems to be a very long-standing belief that for women, sex will probably be uncomfortable, at least for a while. That’s understandable for a number of reasons. Certainly when you listen to the stories of women married during the eighties and nineties, a common thread is, “My girlfriends told me it would be painful at first.”

And for many, it apparently was, as this piece of advice continued to be propagated. Your hymen has traditionally been identified as the major culprit, though this is not the case nearly as often as you may have been taught. There is lots of information available, showing how in most cases you can minimize this as a cause of discomfort. So assuming you have paid due attention to your hymen, does first sex necessarily hurt?

There are many reasons why sex might be painful, at least to start with. (And for some women, ongoing, in which case, help from a sex therapist is highly recommended.) So I’m not going to make any promises that it won’t hurt. However, a bride doesn’t have to approach her wedding night assured that sex will be painful.

An obstacle that brides faced a decade or two ago was that they had been told to expect pain, so they were anxious, stacking the deck against being able to relax and enjoy. The pain became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the last blog I introduced two matters of even greater significance for first-time sex. Firstly, I said that when couples have honest, intimate conversations about their thoughts and ideas, their hopes and fears, their embarrassments or inhibitions concerning sex, they are already bonding. They are entering a deeper understanding of each other, a deeper trust and confidence. When they don’t know to do this, the cloud of uncertainty around sex is much thicker and darker. Some ideas on what to expect, what to bring, how your first time might play out are available from a good sex therapist, or a good book on the subject. So do the research and have the conversations!

The second, and even more important factor discussed last blog was a deepened understanding of the nature of sex. We’ve all been infected by a secular view that says sex is all about the coupling. According to that narrative, as soon as romance ignites, the partners are headed promptly towards one specific activity. Instead, keep in mind emotional, spiritual connection, letting arousal build gradually, choosing to tame the urges with care and gentleness. As mentioned previously, young, hormone-laced spouses are going to tumble quickly enough into physical connection, but at least coming prepared with a take-time-to-stop-and-be-amazed attitude can make a world of difference.

As I said, there are no guarantees, but coming prepared in these ways gives you a better than even chance that delight will far outweigh discomfort.

GMB 

Preparing for the wedding night.

Last blog surveyed some Biblical data that helps us understand that sexual behavior belongs within the covenant of marriage. And it noted that the Bible doesn’t give much guidance on just how much physical touch can there be before marriage, so we need some extra-Biblical information to help us out. The best the Bible gives us here is overall restraint, a “go slow” approach.

So far so good. But the blog also mentioned that “go slow” might raise problems of its own. Lots of go slow before marriage, then suddenly, no go slow, go very fast! Quite an abrupt change! So some people advise, don’t go too slow, but try not to go too fast either! Some hugging, kissing, caressing sessions might be in order, but make sure you put the brakes on right about there! Let me tell you why I think that is bad advice.

Marriage is about spiritual and emotional connection first and foremost, a connection that is confirmed and deepened by the delight of physical connection. Just about everything you’ve picked up from the culture around you says that sex is about the end game, getting physical. Sex is about, well, sex, so let’s get on with it! But that is the world’s distortion. Sure, when you’re young, married, and hormone-filled, you’ll get to physical connection pretty quickly. But you will fare best if your preparation for marriage promotes the understanding that the emotional, spiritual connection is basic. The buzz by itself, or even the buzz primarily, is preparation for a poor marriage. The kissing, caressing scenario is misleading as a preparation for your wedding night.

Any intimate behavior is bonding you to each other neurochemically. Did you know that deeply personal conversation is also intimate behavior, that will bond you even more deeply than pre-marital sexual activity? If you have honest, intimate conversations about your deepest hopes and dreams for family, for the home you will set up, your sexuality, and your thoughts about coming together sexually, this is bonding you more deeply than a pre-marital scenario of kissing, hugging and caressing. These conversations build trust, respect and a deeper understanding of the person you are about to marry. They lessen the “wedding night leap” far more effectively than any amount of cuddling.

Disciplining our own impulses and desires to let care for our spouse flourish is an essential skill for marriage. So disciplining sexual impulses, not only before marriage, but often after marriage as well, is a gift from God. But get this – the less pre-marital restraint, the more discipline is required at some point to apply the brakes! If you decide on a little less restraint before marriage, maybe it means that discipline-wise, you’re a tiger for punishment!

So the Bible’s “go slow” pattern might be sound after all. This is still not a detailed look at what appropriate pre-marital behavior might look like, but an objection has been examined, and, I think, found wanting.

Pop quiz! How does A Thousand Tears from Home illustrate the above discussion?

GMB

How much physical Intimacy Before Marriage? Part Two.

I started with that question last week, but then spent my word quota discussing ways of answering such questions. This blog doesn’t attempt a detailed answer – that would take many blogs. But it does lay a Biblical foundation for more specific answers.

The foundation is that throughout the Bible marriage is the context for sex and sexual behavior. Right from the beginning (Genesis 2) we see the very first marriage, where our first parents were naked, unembarrassed, and unselfconscious. The lovers in Song of Songs talk of their relationship as exclusive and lifelong – not temporary or unsecured. “My lover is mine and I am his.” (SS 2:16). Throughout the Song we find the refrain “Do not awaken love until the time is right.” In other words, don’t get the motor running until you’re ready to step on the accelerator!

In Chapter 8 of the Song, brothers speak of protecting their younger sister. Whether she is pre-teen and naïve, or developed and ready, they desire to protect her from sexual involvement before the day of her wedding.

A New Testament example is in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul discusses marriage. Among other things, he says it is better to marry that to burn with sexual passion, clearly implying that marriage is the place for sexual passion.

The clear thrust of Scripture is that marriage is the place for sexual expression.

But there’s still a fuzzy area. Does this mean that physical touching of any kind is out of scope until marriage? The Bible doesn’t spell out the details, so right here we need extra help. We need the experience of wise Christians we trust, and we need whatever extra-Biblical information we can find. And we need to respect those who come to different conclusions after checking out the evidence.

As mentioned above, I’m not going to tackle any of that kind of detail in this blog – maybe in a blog or two down the road. Suffice to say here that the Bible does point to the need for restraint and discipline. It’s telling us to go slow, not get too involved before the time is right.

But there’s a problem with the “go slow” answer. It’s the “zero to a hundred” problem. Restraint, restraint, restraint up until the wedding night, then suddenly, no restraint, go for it! That may seem like a big leap to take. So some argue for a significant level of physical involvement in the lead up to marriage, to lessen the wedding night leap.

Personally, I don’t think that is good advice. I think there’s a much better answer to the zero to a hundred problem. So stay tuned! I’ll be back with that next week.

Oh yes, if you’ve read A Thousand Tears from Home, you’re probably guessing where I’m going with this!

GMB

How Much Physical Intimacy Before Marriage? Part One

That’s another question the Purity Movement tried to answer – and the answer given was, Not Much! But like other answers it tried to give, this answer tended to be given as a rule to be followed, instead of a principle to be explored and Biblically understood.

Last week I used modesty of dress as an example of how I try to approach questions of romance and sexuality. I’d like to see if I can spell out that approach even more plainly.

1. The Purity model tried to give an answer to issues such as modesty and pre-marital intimacy, giving reasons that were often Biblical, and sometimes extra-Biblical (often without distinction, so that extra-Biblical opinions were presented as Biblical.) Even when the answer given, and the reasons for it, were sound, it was not infrequently applied in a shaming, condemning way. And there was an implied promise – just do as I say, and a wonderful, sex-filled marriage is assured.

2. The Sexual Integrity, or Sexual Discipleship model begins by advocating an authentic love relationship with God. Sexuality is part of our God-given identity, mutually illustrating and supporting our passion for Him. The model tries to avoid giving specific answers to the myriad questions, pointing us instead to God’s Word, and encouraging us to find our own answers based on that truth.

3.  The Purity model clearly has major faults, while the Sexual Discipleship model resonates deeply with my experience. However, I think there is often extra-Biblical material that is important as we consider these questions. And Biblical answers can require research, prayer and pondering. So it seems good to me to embrace a Sexual Discipleship model, while still presenting supporting information and giving guidance on Biblical principles.

Giving this guidance and information can easily betray my own opinion on a given question, so coming clean with my conclusion, and even advocating for it, seems like the right thing to do.

But wait, doesn’t that land me right back in the Purity model camp? It can, unless I’m very careful. So I try to avoid the old faults, firstly by making sure I’m offering my opinion, not imposing it. Secondly, I need to be clear how Biblically based is my conclusion. Some answers have a very clear Biblical mandate, while others explore hints and probabilities from Scripture where clear answers are not fully stated. I need to be clear when the information is extra-Biblical. For instance, relationship principles, or neurochemical findings on bonding may be reliable, but they don’t carry the weight of Scripture. And I need to make sure I don’t over-promise. Even if you get truckloads of the very best advice, you and your future spouse will have to carefully, prayerfully suss out sex and marriage for yourselves. Finally, if you’ve already blown it in major ways, there’s still a way back. We’re all sexually broken people on the journey of forgiveness and healing.

Well, I didn’t get back to my question did I? So this will have to be Part One, the teaser. Further comments on pre-marital intimacy next week.

GMB

A Little More on Christian Approaches to Romance

Last week I mentioned the Purity Covenant era of the eighties and nineties. Josh Harris became the most well-known voice of that culture, with his 1997 book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”. Josh was twenty-one years old when this book was published, an earnest, articulate young man with a passion for giving the best possible guidance to young people making the crossing into adulthood. As I said last week, the sick-with-testosterone period for me came long before 1997. For my peers and for me it was an era of practically no information, a culture of profound silence on sexual matters.

My initial response to “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” was almost entirely positive. Here at last was a voice, a voice declaring much that was sound and helpful. When I heard of Harris distancing himself from what he had written twenty years ago, I was surprised, wondering which Josh Harris I preferred – 1997, or 2017? I’ve discovered since that I like them both quite a lot. The saddest thing of course is that Josh has recently announced that he and his wife are separating, and then that he no longer considers himself a Christian.

What was wrong with “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”? Many things, but most profoundly, that it presented as a kind of rule book, without probing a deeper understanding of Godly sexuality. Rules without reasons is not the way of the Bible, though it tends to be the way of Christian history, and the way of all too much current preaching and teaching.

I deeply appreciate the teaching on sexuality that begins with a deep love for Jesus, growing a relationship with him that builds sexual integrity. My concern is that the swing away from rules and information on sexual matters leaves young people insufficiently informed. Yes, I know, we don’t want to swing back to a “rules and regulations” approach, but I think it contained nuggets of truth that mustn’t be lost.

An example is the matter of modesty of dress. I think there are more important examples, but this one will do to begin with. I understand how modesty was used in the bad old days to pressure and shame young women. I am deeply saddened by that. But I think modesty still needs a mention. It needs a mention because it doesn’t jump immediately off the pages of Scripture. The principal reason given in the past for modesty of dress was that guys will be unfairly stimulated by displays of legs, cleavages and the like. That is true, and it’s important information, but it isn’t the most important reason for modesty. The real reason for modesty is that a young woman is proud of her body, and glad about it, much too glad and proud to put it on display, or invite peeking, mental undressing, or teasing glances. She anticipates offering the beautiful gift of her body exclusively within the future safety of her married nest.

As above, although I sit very comfortably with a sexual integrity approach to romance and sexuality, there were issues raised by the older Purity orthodoxy that I think are still important. Misapplied back then, but still important. I will probably comment on more of these in coming blogs.

GMB


Christian Approaches to romance - The Development of an idea.

I’ve been reading and praying about Sexual Integrity, and Sexual Discipleship for a while now. Mostly as per Dr. Juli Slattery’s books, podcasts and blogs. I think she has become the primary spokesperson for a modern, refreshing, Biblical understanding of God’s economy for romance. I am impressed by the personal faith-base from which she speaks. She is teaching ideas that I have been expounding in counseling sessions and seminars for some years, so I am excited to recognize the personal giftings she brings to her teaching.

Part of Dr. Juli’s focus has been to evaluate the previous Christian romance orthodoxy, namely the Purity covenant era. I was out of the loop for much of the eighties and nineties, so have been late catching up with how young people were being taught at that time. It has been enlightening for me to read more of this movement, and its more destructive effects.

For me, the relevant era was the late fifties and early sixties. So that makes me quite the greybeard! At that time, we were basically told nothing. We knew sex was to be kept for marriage – I don’t remember anyone telling us that, but somehow we knew. It was also generally understood that some kissing and cuddling was to be expected, but no “petting” which basically meant breast fondling and/or undoing any buttons. (Zippers were just beginning to replace buttons at that time!) Apart from that, it seems we were expected to work things out for ourselves.

So for me, the Purity era, for all its faults, was at least an attempt to supply some guidance.

My novel A Thousand Tears from Home begins in the pre-Purity, “no discussion” era. Its characters encounter some elements of the Purity approach, and it contains many nuggets of Sexual Integrity truth. The latter are scattered throughout, but the discerning reader will notice them. Part of its appeal is that it represents the development of an idea.

I had an inspiration last week for another short book that discusses all this in more detail. Let’s see if that idea develops.

GMB

What is a christian?

I’ve talked about this before, but I want to give some background on why it’s an important question to me. I grew up in a strongly Christian home, attending Sunday School, then around teenage time graduated to Bible Class and Youth Group. There was a bunch of us. We thought of ourselves as Christians. We were baptized, we attended church and Bible Class regularly, we went each Easter to the Bible Class camp. Saturday evening we were usually at the church Youth Group, which was largely a social gathering – we were there to hang out and have fun. I guess there must have been some sort of “devotional”, but I have no memory of it.

And Jesus was spectacularly absent from our conversation. We were generally pleasant and easy to get along with, but I saw no evidence of an indwelling Holy Spirit among us, no fire, no passion. No aspirations to serve God in demanding ways. We didn’t “witness” as we knew we were supposed to do, in my case at least because there was so little inner reality to witness to. With rare exceptions, our adult leaders showed no concern at the blandness of our supposed Christian faith.

I said there was “so little” inner reality to my faith. But there was some. I felt very alone and confused, though I couldn’t have articulated even that until a long time afterward. By my first year at college the realization was beginning to dawn – the life I had lived as a Christian until then was very unsatisfying. I wanted no more of the emptiness of the life my “Christian” peers and I had been living.

It took many years for the inner substance of faith to grow. And it’s still growing. That’s what the Christian journey is about – an ever-deepening connection with Jesus. But my story has given me an abiding discomfort with sham, counterfeit faith. I fear that for myself, and I fear shallowness and emptiness becoming the norm in the church. I fear a culture of low expectations among church leadership, that communicates low expectations to the congregation.

Postscript.

I said last blog that I’m walking around in a minefield with these thoughts. You’ve probably realized that God is dealing with me, teaching me new things. And while that process goes on, these blogs have become somewhat bogged. So I promise a moratorium. I do have some different thoughts, some more to do with the themes of A Thousand Tears from Home. Let’s see what God prompts for next week. 

GMB 

The Christian Journey as a Demanding Calling.

Alright, so I described two basic insights on life as a Christian. Firstly that it is a demanding calling - demanding of us all we can give. And secondly that it is exuberant, filled with reassurance, joy, and inspiration. Last blog I described the church prayer meeting as part of the joy dimension, something you wouldn’t want to miss. Although a quick glance around suggests most churches haven’t discovered this yet – usually very few people attend.

This week I turn to the other dimension. And I pause, daunted. So much flows from this insight, yet every path we might take at this point turns out to be a minefield.

It’s okay if I stay on the strictly personal level. I personally find the Christian calling to be significant, purposeful, worth giving my life to. It’s different from joining the tennis club, or the bingo club, or honing my skills with video games. Those pursuits may form my character in some ways, but they aren’t ultimately satisfying. No, Christian faith is the only calling worth my total engagement.

Even thus far, there may be some red flags waving. Does it sound as though I am claiming perfect, total engagement with Jesus, 24/7? No, tain’t so. But it is my desire. I pray for that constantly. Oops, even that sounds perilously close to self-praise. Let’s just say I’m one of those who constantly seek a deeper experience of Jesus. And there are lots of us.

But you see, I can’t just stay at the personal level. I care about what I see among the saints around me. There are many aspects of church culture that do not serve us or our God well. Let’s just pick this aspect for now – our level of expectation that we will come together to experience God, and be prompted to outside-the-box exploits for him. Some churches experience the vibrant presence of the Holy Spirit during the singing and prayer part of the service, but for the most part it seems we are surprised when God shows up. I have the feeling that if someone talked about contemplating a daring step of faith, the rest of us would be surprised, doubtful. And we would regard that person as having extraordinary faith and daring. Nope, that’s just the way the Christian life is – trusting God big time.

I’ve blundered around the minefield for a bit. How am I doing? Maybe I’ll try describing the demanding Christian journey a little more in coming weeks,

GMB 

Corporate Prayer

A number of issues flow on from the insights I proposed in my last blog. The first one taps the joy dimension of Christian experience, having to do with corporate prayer. I’ll tackle others in coming weeks.

God’s people coming together to pray has been a subject close to my heart for some years now. The church prayer meeting. A meeting notoriously under-attended - which is not surprising, because until very recently, and going as far back as I can remember, it was deadly dull. How many times have I dozed off during the church prayer meeting?

Of old, the prayer meeting may have opened with a hymn, but apart from that it was all about intercession, asking God for things. Intercession is fine, with lots of Biblical precedent. But when we turn to the Psalms, or to significant portions of Isaiah, we get a quite different impression of coming together for prayer. It’s much more about praising God, giving thanks, listening, yes listening for his whisper, joyfully seeking his presence. Wow, that’s different! What saint of God wouldn’t want to do that?

By and large, prayer meetings are still announced as being “for” something. “All welcome to the pre-service prayer meeting, where we will pray for the service.” But the idea that it can at least begin by simply sitting together in God’s presence, opening our hearts to him, sharing our experiences of him, being inspired by what he has been saying to our fellow saints, is slowly, slowly gaining ground. Many churches will use the ACTS acronym (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication). I don’t much like this acronym, but at least it focuses most of our attention on God, before we come to what we want to ask of him.

And, yes, intercession still definitely features. But it occurs much more naturally, overflowing from hearts freshly Spirit-filled. God prompts from his heart to our hearts the people and issues he wants us to pray for. Prayer lists still have their place, often informing us of prayer needs we may be unaware of, but let’s be Spirit-led, not list-led.

The fact that I regularly faded out during the old prayer meeting regime undoubtedly reflected a lack of awareness and compassion for the issues and people listed for prayer. And the great majority of saints announced by their absence a similar lack. I’m so much more motivated by the joyful, vibrant approach beginning to make its mark. But so far as I can see, that mark has just barely touched a few leaders, and has yet to change the church’s culture of prayer in a perceptible way. When leaders catch the fire, there’s a chance the rest of the church will be set ablaze.

 By the way – don’t thank people for coming to the church prayer meeting. That’s the old regime. It’s like thanking a bride for coming to her own wedding! That’s the vibrant, joyful perspective!

 GMB

Two Insights on the Christian Journey

Last week I commented that I have been making observations on the Christian life, some of which may raise eyebrows, but without making a clear statement of where I’m coming from. So I may have sounded like a loose cannon, firing random shots. Not very appealing. So let’s see if I can explain myself a little better.

Insight One. The Christian life is a stern, demanding calling. Biblical grounding for this abounds. The first commandment – love the Lord God with heart and mind and soul and strength. Not much room for half- heartedness there. The rich young ruler who came to Jesus. A modern evangelical would probably have told him, “Sure! Welcome aboard.” Perhaps along with the hope that he might learn about stewardship somewhere along the way, but maybe not even that. And those who came to Jesus volunteering to be followers, only to be told, “I often don’t have a bed to sleep in. It’ll be under a hedgerow somewhere tonight. Is that the lifestyle you want?” Come on Jesus, you’re supposed to be hooking any converts you can get, not putting them off! “Take up your cross and follow me.” Pause for a moment and think how that invitation would have impacted First Century hearers.

A corollary of this insight – can you find one instance of a Biblical character being commended for some exploit of outstanding faith and courage? The centurion’s faith - “I’ve not found such faith in all Israel” - is about the one example I can think of. Generally, outrageous faith is treated as ordinary. Just the way it’s supposed to be. For example, Peter walks on the water to Jesus. Is he commended for this act of daring? Nope!  He’s chided for letting his faith slip. “Come on Peter! It’s me, remember?”

So far, Insight One might not sound very appealing. It probably sounds legalistic, hard, raising visions of the judgmental, joyless Pharisee. That’s why it must go hand in hand with ……

Insight Two. The Christian life is refreshing, appealing, exuberant. In Jesus’ story of the man who bought a field that contained hidden treasure, have you noticed that he tells us why the man bought the field? For joy. In fact, that story is not a lesson in ethical business practice – it’s a story about joy. Jesus promised that when he left, the Holy Spirit would come to live within believers. Wow! What could be more exuberant than having the Creator God living within as friend and comforter? Back in December, I posted a blog entitled “He Who Commands?” It pointed out that although Jesus is our authority, he doesn’t come to us as he who must be obeyed. He comes to us as friend, the one we follow out of joy.

I often tell my clients, “Jesus waits for you to wake up in the morning so he can bounce on the trampoline with you.

So, two insights to be embraced together. That is why in past references to the Christian journey, I have used words like “difficult, demanding, confusing”, right along with words like “exuberant, exciting, fulfilling”. I think that in the Narnia stories, Lewis does a good job of intertwining sternness with joy.

Trust the above makes my meaning clearer.

GMB

Am I Winsome?

Last week’s blog ended with the sentence, “What matters is whether you’re all in, extravagantly committed to the exultant, severe, demanding, fulfilling  journey of being a Jesus person.” Yes, I know, I’ve been saying this in various ways for a long time. Back in March I commented that this theme may be getting tiresome, and I think I’ve managed to avoid it at least some since then.

This week I wondered if I sound not only tiresome, but blaming, guilting. It happened like this. During the weekend I heard someone saying many of the things I’ve been saying. That the Christian life is purposeful, it’s demanding. More like joining the Marines than joining the local golf club.

You’d think I would have loved it. But I didn’t. It was an appeal to my head, not to my heart. I felt admonished, cajoled. I began praying, “Lord, how is it he was saying the things I have been saying, but he sounded so different?”

Oh! Oops! Oh! Did he sound different from me? Or do I also sound guilting, cajoling, blaming? I’ve been guilted for a good part of my life, so it would be upsetting to think I am still doing this myself.

This is what I have been musing and praying about. What do you think? Please let me know on the Facebook link. I think I at least need to describe more clearly what I mean as I talk about the Christian journey. That will be for next week.

GMB

Fatal Hypocrisy

I’ve been reading recently in the early chapters of the Book of Acts. Chapter Five begins strangely, with the story of early Christian believers Ananias and Saphira.

At that time, believers were selling property, and giving the proceeds to a common purse that supported the community of believers. The preceding verses tell of Barnabas who sold a field, and contributed its selling price. Others were doing the same with their houses and lands.

Enter Ananias and Saphira who sold a piece of property, then agreed between themselves to keep back part of the money, bringing only the balance to the common purse. Did they have a particular project that would need a little capital? We don’t know, but my guess is that they were hedging their bets, committing themselves to this new belief and way of life, but keeping some seed money just in case it didn’t work out.

Either way, keeping part of the money would have been fine if they had not pretended. It seems they wanted to be seen as just as generous as those around them, to be known as another couple who gave all they had. So when Peter asked them about it, they lied.

Peter’s supernatural knowledge that Ananias and Saphira were lying is noteworthy. He was already being recognized as a man through whom God was performing miracles, and here is a miracle of another sort.

But the curious thing is the penalty exacted for this hypocrisy. They were both struck dead. A little over the top? I can’t think of anything I’ve done that is quite the same, but I’m sure I’ve been guilty of cowardice and hypocrisy of at least the same order. Peter’s response to each was that they were lying not just to men, but to God. Yes, I’ve tried to fudge it with God before today. And God hasn’t struck me dead.

I’ve looked at a few commentaries, but the explanations don’t satisfy.

Here’s what I’ve come up with. It seems to me that this is just another example of God making it very clear, right from the get-go, that the Christian life is serious business. It doesn’t matter whether you have vaguely pleasant notions about God, whether you go to church occasionally, whether you’ve “accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior”. What matters is whether you’re all in, extravagantly committed to the exultant, severe, demanding, fulfilling  journey of being a Jesus person.

GMB

Is Faith Obscurantist?

Dr. Harold Sala’s column “Guidelines for Living”, May 21, brought to mind this quote from Augustine:-

Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.

The skeptic will leap on this immediately. See how these Christians will believe any silly thing, with no basis in fact, and call it “faith”!

Do Christians embrace rational thinking about a stable, structured universe? Of course. In significant ways, science grew out of Christianity. And Christians embrace principles of relationship, discovered at least in part by scientific enquiry. I work with those daily.

But Christians also embrace what Wordsworth called “intimations of immortality”, the things we apprehend, often without much comprehension. The things we can’t measure. (Do you think there will ever come a day when my delight at seeing a field of daffodils will be measurable? I surely hope not.)

And so in our relationship with God, we embrace something not completely understood, but enlivened by Holy Spirit promptings, we make the leap of faith. And find it fits. It increasingly clarifies our understanding of creation, of life, of relationships, of marriage, of the increasingly vexed questions a post-Christian world throws up.  And increasingly it deepens our love for the One who daily leads us on new adventures.

Nice one Augustine.

GMB

Attempts to Evade the Obvious

I have another matter brewing in my cranium, but it’s not quite ready. So for this week, just a brief reflection on the lengths to which people will go to avoid admitting that our world is a created world, and we are created beings.

Stephen Hawking opens his book A Brief History of Time with the story of a well-known scientist, possibly Bertrand Russell, who gave a public lecture on astronomy.  At the end of his lecture, a little old lady spoke up. She told him that his story was rubbish, that the world is really like a large plate, sitting on the back of a giant tortoise. The speaker asked her what the tortoise is standing on. After a moment’s thought she answered, “You’re very clever young man! But it’s turtles all the way down!”

But just a minute. Don’t laugh too loudly.

Two or three weeks ago I was chatting with a man at a wedding reception. The conversation turned to origins. He told me he used to be a young earth creationist. I didn’t quite catch why he had turned away from that position, but he moved to the idea of life on earth being seeded from an alien source. Life from outer space. He seemed to have done some reading and thinking on the issue, so I asked him about the origin of the alien life. He smiled apologetically and said, “Yes I know. But it’s the best we have, the explanation that best fits the data.”

Well, he’s not alone. Other keen minds have seriously proposed the same idea.

Turtles all the way down.

GMB

We Choose Our Experts According to Our Opinions.

Yes, we do.  Instead of the other way around.

We’re all subject to this habit. When an expert gives an opinion that differs from what I have believed, I will remain skeptical, disbelieving. But if the opinion is in line with my beliefs, I gladly, and perhaps uncritically, accept it.

Which is as it should be. I need to be appropriately incredulous.

But what if I’m wrong? It takes some courage to pursue and thoughtfully consider a contrary opinion. To begin with, I need some incentive to take it seriously. Perhaps I have external reasons for respecting this expert. Or perhaps I have a vested interest in showing his conclusions to be wrong, only to find in the end that it is I who am wrong and need to recant. Lew Wallace, Lee Strobel, and many others have walked that path in their attempts to expose Christian faith as rubbish, and have ended proclaiming Jesus as Lord.

Occasionally I have gone looking among authors espousing a humanist view of origins – origins of the earth, the universe, of life – looking for thoughtful critiques of young earth creationism. Those critiques are virtually non-existent. I find some creationism bashing, and some patronizing comment on how young people who have absorbed this “heresy” from their parents must be treated gently and with sympathy as they are slowly guided into more “orthodox” thinking. But finding such an author who has actually read and considered the best creationist literature is a difficult search.

To be honest, I’m not up to date in this area. Perhaps some honest critiques have appeared since I last looked. I have seen debate on the findings on Helium retention in Zircons, and some attempts to refute Robert Gentry’s work on Polonium 218 halos in primordial granites. It’s reassuring to see this kind of debate.

But most of us watch the experts from a distance, drawing our own lay conclusions. Let’s at least be aware of our inclination to choose our experts according to our opinions.

GMB

A Soft Answer Turns Away Wrath, Well, yes it does!

I’ve been thinking about last week’s post on Israel Folau’s comment made on social media. He said that drunks, homosexuals, adulterers and others are on their way to hell. The blog heading suggested Folau was not giving a “soft answer” to the people on his list. Perhaps my answer to him was not so soft either.

Oops.

After all, Israel was just giving a rather rough rendering of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. My impression was that his comment was made without much humility, and was not oriented towards building bridges. But I don’t really know that. And even if he was being inappropriately judgmental, he, and I, and those on his List are all in the same boat, all in need of grace and forgiveness.

I suggested that Folau was “shooting his mouth about other people’s sins”. Guess I was shooting my mouth about his sins. Oops. When will I learn?

I mentioned other Christian sports stars, “who really are growing as devout Christians.” Implying that Folau is not.

I guess my only excuse is that I’ve recently been reading about, and interacting with, people who tend to throw judgmental labels around, complacent in their own righteousness. Israel Folau sounded like one of them. Perhaps he is, or perhaps he is not.

Sorry Israel.

GMB

A Soft Answer Turns Away Wrath

Israel Folau is a brilliant Australian rugby player. Or at least he was. Recently he posted social media comments on “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters”, saying that all these are bound for hell. Rugby Australia was not amused, so it is probable that his days as a representative rugby player are numbered.

A category missing from Folau’s list was “those who shoot their mouth about other people’s sins.” Jesus had something to say about this when he commented, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5)

It’s true that Jesus did have some harsh things to say about some of those he met. But his verbal arrows were not directed at any on Folau’s list. No, those people were met with compassion.  Jesus’ anger was directed at the religious leaders, those satisfied with their own righteousness, and inclined to condemn others they deemed less righteous.

No sin can be taken lightly – Israel is right about that. As he falls more deeply in love with Jesus, humility will grow. He was described in the media as a “devout Christian”. Sad, because the mud of his immature rant will tend to stick on others, especially sports stars, who really are growing as devout Christians.

GMB

The Power of Logical Thinking

I was talking recently with a young man and the conversation veered toward the subject of abortion. He told me that he was pro-choice. I was a little surprised, but not too much. As we talked it became apparent that he hadn’t given the subject much thought, but adopted “pro-choice” because that was the attitude acceptable in his circle of friends. In fact, some of his comments didn’t sound very pro-choice at all, but I don’t think he’s going to give up the label any time soon.

The thing that really surprised me was his total inability to discuss the subject in a rational way. He would make a comment without having any sense of the proposition underlying it – it simply “felt” right, and that was that.

For example, he mentioned the case of a woman having an abortion because the child would seriously undermine the quality of her life. I asked about the case of a woman killing her abusive husband or boyfriend because his behavior seriously undermined the quality of her life. His answers didn’t address the question, but slid obliquely from place to place. But here’s the real problem – he didn’t seem to be deliberately evading an answer, but simply had no idea that he was missing the point. The notion of taking a principle posited in one situation and testing it against another situation was just beyond his experience.

This young man is no dummy. He’s been through the school system, and holds a respectable undergraduate degree. I know a little of his home background, which didn’t give him a good start. But clearly his education hasn’t taught him to think either.

In his novel 1984, Orwell coined the term “doublethink”, but this isn’t doublethink, this isn’t even halfthink. But it’s happening all around us in this post-truth world. For example at the Yale Law School (see Breakpoint 04/23/19). It’s just scary when you come across a face-to-face example.

 GMB

Anointed for Burial

Jesus accepts our service, even when we don’t get it quite right.

In ancient times, a body would be prepared for burial first by washing, and then anointing with aromatic spices. The purpose was to cover the odor of decaying flesh. For those who could afford it, the spices might be very expensive.

When Mary, Lazarus’ sister, anointed Jesus we’re told that the perfume she used was very expensive. A poignant outpouring of love and service, which Jesus associates with his burial. And he commended her highly – wherever the gospel is preached, this story will be told.

When Joseph and Nicodemus took Jesus’ body from the cross, the task of preparing him for burial would have been gruesome. His back was essentially torn off, his limbs dislocated, his side lacerated. What love, even awe, they must have brought to their task. The spices they used were aloe and myrrh, two of the costliest anointing perfumes. And the quantity was more than three times what was needed. What lavishness!

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome and others with them came to the tomb early on the first day of the week. They knew of the anointing by Joseph and Nicodemus, but apparently wanted to contribute their own act of love with the spices they brought.

We don’t read of Jesus thanking Joseph, Nicodemus, or any of the women, but his gratitude to them could hardly have been less than it was to Lazarus’ sister Mary. Yet none of them had it quite right. They were confused, distraught, grief-stricken, not knowing that the anointing they offered would become superfluous by Sunday. They gave all they could offer, and it was gladly accepted.

GMB