The Top Regret of the Dying

There’s an article circulating on Facebook titled “The Top Regrets of the Dying,” written by a nurse named Bronnie Ware, who for many years worked in palliative care.  Ware writes about her experiences working with people in the last three to twelve weeks of their lives and of their sharing with her the most pressing regrets of their life.  The number one voiced regret of her patients was:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Living a life true to oneself is something we all grapple with at one time or another.  But for those who happen to be both Christian and gay, the struggle to live authentically can be an all encompassing one and a life-long endeavor.  The following sentiment from one Christian gay man I mentored is fairly indicative of what many gay believers experience before they come to terms with being gay and ultimately integrate their rich Christian faith with their sexuality:

 “My life had been a long and strenuous process of self-denial, a long and ultimately unrewarding pattern of placating my way through life, of going through the motions, of following somebody else’s chart to someone else’s destination, and of forgetting almost completely, or repressing the memory of, such validating life experiences as would have helped me identify myself and rejoice in my own identity.  It led me up the road to what appeared to be success — because my chosen way of fighting what I felt to be my illegitimacy was to create a life of measurable legitimacy — but what actually was a lifelong charade up to that point.  I recognized myself as a triumphantly successful, soul-sick wretch, the proverbial empty shell.  I was trying my utmost to live a life that was never mine to live to begin with.” 

GROWING UP GAY

The story of how a young man who happens to be gay becomes a mature and responsible adult male is often not like other boy-to-man stories.  Our society most often aborts or derails the gay man’s development early, either directly by oppression and ostracism, or indirectly through self-hatred and self-limitation that constant oppression and ostracism so successfully incubate and nurture.  Not all gay men even begin the journey; some live whole lives in hiding, either from themselves, from the church, from the larger society or all three.  Still others turn to suicide.

In many cases the emergence of the “different” self, is followed so closely, so immediately and so diligently by the campaign of voluntary and involuntary concealment that the identity of gay men in our society is almost by its own nature cloaked in disguises from the very beginning.  From the earliest of the closeted gay man’s experiences, his mechanisms for concealment become paramount in his arsenal for growth.

He begins by concealing parts of himself from himself.  The duplicity eventually rewards him with lowered self-esteem for his deceit.  He becomes depressed because of his low self-esteem.  The depression intensifies the need for concealment, since he associates his self-esteem with the hidden truth about himself.  Further concealment continues the cycle.

TRYING TO CHANGE

We now know that efforts to change one’s sexual orientation fail.  People who have experimented with homosexual behavior (as many heterosexual people do) can turn away from it.  Homosexuals, like heterosexuals, can become celibate.  Or they can marry against their desires and have children.  But research on efforts to help people do a 180 degree U-turn with their sexual orientation — their feelings and fantasies — reveals that no such treatment is effective.  Many a person has tried hoping upon hope to escape their culture’s contempt without succeeding.

Christian ex-gay organizations have had a go at this too offering support to those seeking to leave their orientation.  But many — including more than thirteen such organizations affiliated with Exodus International — have been abandoned by their ex ex-gay founders.  Countless former ex-gay ministry leaders, including myself, confess that they counseled hundreds of people who tried to change their sexual orientation and none of them changed.  The bottom line is it doesn’t work.

Many gay and lesbian Christians have felt “called” to heterosexuality, but after years of effort, prayer, laying on of hands, Christian counseling, and searing guilt, have found only misery and in many cases lost faith.  While there is no scientific evidence that reparative or conversion therapy is effective in changing a person’s sexual orientation, there is much evidence that this type of therapy can be destructive.

FAST FORWARD

What happens to gay Christians who continue to repress and suppress their orientation?  Many join the ranks of those who lament: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

One leader of an international Christian ministry received a touching letter from an 85 year old professor emeritus of a well-known evangelical college telling him how very much he would like to have a mate after all these years of sublimating and denying his homosexuality.  But he wrote that he knew that would now be impossible.  He wished he’d had the courage to live a life true to himself, not the life others expected of him.

Another story involves a conversation with another older man who decided early on, based on what he had been taught by other Christians, that homosexuality was out of the question.  He consequently suppressed and denied his sexuality, got married, and fathered and raised two children.  He did everything he thought society and the Church expected of him.  His children are now grown, living lives of their own, and he has since retired.  But he recently sat down with a colleague and poured his heart out in remorse explaining that now in his senior years his homosexuality has come back to haunt him with a vengeance, and he deeply regrets that he spent his life denying and suppressing it.  He considers it the most costly mistake of his life.  Sadly these stories are not unique of the many who continue to repress and suppress their orientation.

SUMMARY

You don’t have to wait until you’re on your death bed to appreciate that aging is God’s way of telling you that you don’t have time to waste.  It’s an opportunity to ask:  What am I tethered to that’s not good for me?   What can I move past and move forward into?   Growing old is a privilege, for not everyone gets to do it.  Aging then is a gift.   I am now, probably for the first time in my life, the person I have always wanted to be — though I am sometimes taken aback by that older person that lives in my mirror (who looks like my dad!).

Jesus himself taught: “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly”  (John 10:10).   Yet philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once remarked, “Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water.”  He meant it, of course, as a critique of the church of his day for diminishing, trivializing and otherwise squandering the extraordinary gift that had been given it and pinching God into a straightjacket of exclusionary judgmentalisms.   It may be applicable as well to churches that have driven from its doors literally millions of gay men and women who would have accepted Christ.

But then, the same critique might be made of individual Christian lives as well. Isn’t abundant life a wondrous miracle?  And don’t you think it’s out there all of the time, everywhere if we only had the eyes to see it?  I think Shakespeare got it right when he said: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”  The reverse is also true:  Be false to yourself and you will be false to everyone.  “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me” need not be among the regrets you grieve over toward the end of the life God has given you.  As Mark Twain rightly said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.”  And those twenty years will pass by awfully fast.

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Is There A Christian Case For Same-Sex Marriage?

I was not going to blog about this since the video of Michele Bachmann’s Iowa town hall meeting this week has already gone viral.  But I decided it raises some important points to consider, especially for people of faith.

For the field of presidential hopefuls, same sex marriage is proving to be an awkward and complicated topic as attitudes change and more states legalize gay unions.  During Wednesday’s town hall, Jane Schmidt, a student at Waverly High School, in Waverly, Iowa, asked Michele Bachmann, “Why can’t same-sex couples get married?”  Bachmann said, “They can get married, [if] they abide by the same laws as everyone else. They can marry a man, if they’re a woman, and can marry a woman if they’re man.”

Sounds simple enough.  But how might you feel if you were told that your only church-sanctioned or societal options for meeting your sexual intimacy needs would be to either:  (1) remain in lifelong sexual abstinence, (2) convert to the opposite sexual orientation, or (3) marry someone of the gender to which you are not sexually attracted?  These are the options Bachmann and many other people of faith propose for gay and lesbian people.

Gay marriage has become the most important domestic social issue facing 21st century Americans, particularly Americans of faith.  It’s also an issue that is tearing many faith-based communities apart.  But is there a Christian case for same sex marriage?

It seems much of the Christian objection to what some call the “gay lifestyle” rests on our sensible objection to promiscuity.  But if marriage was something to which heterosexuals were restricted, what do you imagine their “lifestyle” would look like?  How would you like some minister to come along and determine that YOU qualify for celibacy?

We can readily extrapolate four values that the Apostle Paul thought constitute marriage.  They were fidelity, mutuality, truthfulness, and permanence.  Notably, nowhere in any of Paul’s letters do we find child production as a rationale for marriage.   (See related exegetical posts elsewhere on this blog on Romans 1, Romans 2, and Leviticus 18.  Links to all previously published posts may be accessed from the “Index” page.)

Few human institutions claim to be as traditional as marriage.  Yet even fewer have undergone more traceable metamorphoses.  Imagine how you’d like concubinage, or a woman’s loss of property to her husband once married; levirate marriage; a husband’s unquestioned right to philander; marital indissolubility in the face of spousal or child abuse.  All of these were once part of marriage’s bedrock tradition.

The fourth gospel offers us a speech of Jesus at the last Supper that alerts us to expect that further revelation from God would emerge as we grew ready to receive it.  Indeed that has been the case.  So much has that been the case that historical theologians estimate that three-quarters of the classical heresies were not the radical liberal adventures of current fable — they were stubborn conservative efforts to maintain “traditional” ways of thinking in the face of fresh revelation.   Howard Hendricks, longtime professor at Dallas Seminary, was fond of saying to his students, “They should charge admission to this place so that visitors can see how people used to live 50 years ago!”

While we all make many mistakes, perhaps nowhere is this inclination toward human error more apparent than in the history of biblical interpretation.  For 2,000 years, Christians have read the inspired biblical text convinced that they will discover within its pages the certainty and authority of infallible truth.  Yet on a host of issues, the consensus of opinion about how the Bible should be understood has changed over the years.   As a result, many whose views were at one time considered heretical have now found themselves reinstated among the orthodox, and vice versa.  One would think the frequency and seriousness of the Church’s misjudgments would have produced a greater degree of caution and humility.  On the contrary, reckless rigidity and arrogant intolerance seem as endemic as ever, and nowhere is this more evident than in the sectors of the Church that pride themselves on being “biblical.”

Those who insisted that slavery is God-ordained, that women and blacks should not be allowed to vote, that interracial marriage is wrong, that women should neither preach or teach, to cite only a few examples, were all convinced they had the Bible on their side and that their understanding of the Bible was self-evidently correct.  They all also had substantial support from many other like-minded Christians.  But most of us now know that what they were touting was their presumptions of what the Bible teaches, not the truth of Scripture, and hurting innumerable innocent people in their error.  Perhaps then, the warning of Jesus about the danger  of trying to conduct eye-surgery on someone else when you are unknowingly the victim of poor vision yourself, would be a helpful one to remember as the Church slowly but assuredly comes to realize that “its déjà vu all over again” with the issue of homosexuality and same sex marriage.

If it is true that we are saved by faith in what Christ has done then the antigay message touted by Bachmann and others cannot be true.  Whether we are straight or gay is irrelevant to God’s redemptive work in our lives.  It is the fact of responding to Christ that is the all-important thing.

The wish of most of the gay Christians I know is to have their pairings solemnized and made permanent within the confines of holy matrimony.  That is a conservative development.  What we have in this community is a group of men and women who have voluntarily withdrawn from the chaotic Friday night meat-market scene in order to construct a permanent relationship based on mutual love.

So wherein lies the problem here?  What would it take for you to rethink this issue and realize that for most of us, now in middle age, dislike of homosexuality came with the territory; our reasons for opposing it had more to do with our own cultural backgrounds than with any biblical argumentation?

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Christmas: A Jewish Holiday?

Every year as December unfolds our world gets caught up in all that it believes makes the celebration of Christmas special.  Gifts are purchased, cards are written, decorations are hung, and parties are attended.  Yet these things are not what the holiday is about.

As a Jew growing up, I thought Christmas (like Jesus) was “a Gentile thing.”  It was not until years later that I came to understand the birth of Christ was the fulfillment of a promise God had given to the Jewish people through the Hebrew prophets centuries earlier.  In fact, as we follow the progressive revelation of Scripture, we discover that the primary point of the New Testament is that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah of the Old Testament.

THE PATRIARCHAL PROMISE

Christmas is about the culmination of God’s love, first promised centuries ago to a faithful man named Abraham, who at God’s instruction departed a city called Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan (Gen 11:31).  This is about the equivalent of God asking you to take a hike from Philadelphia to Minneapolis.  God promised Abraham many wonderful things, including:

“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you … and in you shall all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:2, 3)

Through Abraham, God promised to manifest His love to all humanity.  Although there is not much detail about the promise given at this early stage of the story, the promise revealed a hint of what would ultimately become the great Incarnation: God himself becoming man in the person of the Messiah.

The Lord established a covenant with Abraham, making him the progenitor of the Jewish people:

“The Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, I am God Almighty.  Walk before me and be blameless and I will establish my covenant between me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly.” (Gen 17:1-2)

The Scriptures make it clear that both Abraham and his wife Sarah were beyond the point of being able to bear children.  Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah 89, when God promised that Sarah would have a son within a year (Gen 18:10).  This would be the “sign” that God would keep his covenant with Abraham and make a great nation from him.  God also promised that Abraham’s descendants would become as numerous as the sand of the sea and the stars of the sky.  So great in number, said God, that they could not be counted.  (Gen 22:17; 32:12)

A year later this “sign” took place in the birth of Isaac, through whom the Jewish people came.  It was the sign needed to authenticate the covenant.  This was a miraculous birth.

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised.  Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.  Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. (Gen 21:1-3)

As God had established his covenant with Abraham, He then confirmed his covenant with Isaac. 

“I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant and with his descendants after him.” (Gen 17:19)

The blessing of Abraham became the inheritance of Isaac.  God then gave the promise to Isaac’s son, Jacob (Gen 28:13-14) and so the great promise continued to unfold: In tracing his ancestry, we discover the Messiah would come through the seed of Abraham (Gen 12:3), the son of Isaac (Gen 26:4) and the son of Jacob (Gen 28:14).

THE COVENANT WITH DAVID

Later God revealed that of Jacob’s twelve sons, the Messiah would come from Jacob’s son, Judah (Gen 49:10) and ultimately, from Judah’s descendant, King David (1 Sam 13:14).  To David, God said:

“Your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” (2 Sam 7:16)

Long after David was dead, that promise lived on and took on greater specificity.  The Hebrew prophet Isaiah declared:

A shoot [or descendant] will come up from the stump of Jesse [David’s father]; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. (Isa 11:1)

The picture given is of tree that has been cut down, leaving only a dead stump.  A single shoot remains growing low, near to the ground, but will eventually bear fruit.

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us. (Isa 9:6a) 

This verse, set to music by George Frideric Handel, now a fixture of every Christmas season and one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music, was penned by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah 600 years before the birth of Christ.  The verse emphasizes the humanity of the Messiah who would one day set foot onto the stage of human history.  Isaiah sees a son given by God and being born into the human world.  The phrase “unto us a son is given” in the Hebrew Old Testament emphasizes a unique gift of God.  Then in the second half of the verse, the deity of the Messiah is emphasized as this Son is given four names, two of which can only be applicable to God:

And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isa 9:6b)

The next verse further identifies him as the descendant of David, confirms that his house, kingdom and throne will be maintained eternally by the everlasting Son, and gives a description of his reign, which will be characterized by peace and justice:

Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.  He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.  The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.  (Isa 9:7)

The Lord created an entirely new nation, the nation of Israel, to bring to the world the reality of the one true God, His word and His love.  That love appeared on the first Christmas night in the form of a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger (Luke 2:7).  Divine love is the message the angels shared with the shepherds who were “keeping watch over their flock by night.”  “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:8, 10-11).

Though gradual in its unfolding, yet clear and bold are the main outlines of the description given us through Moses and the Hebrew prophets of the Jewish Redeemer that God promised to send.

The great hope of the Hebrew Scriptures was not that a Messiah would come.  The great hope of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God would come. “Oh God, that you would tear the heavens and come down!” (Isa 64:1)  “Get up into a high mountain and say, Behold your God!” (Isa 40:9)

Nearly 2,000 years ago a Jewish child was born contrary to the laws of nature.  His was an obscure birth in an obscure village of Palestine.  With little fanfare or formality, Jesus Christ was born that first Christmas.  It was hardly an event to capture the headlines.  After all, what greatness might you expect from a child whose delivery room was the stable, whose first bassinet was a feeding trough, and whose first visitors were field hands and foreigners.  And yet that birth carries such profound significance, it would henceforth mark the dividing point of human history, forever separating B.C. from A.D.

If Christmas isn’t a Jewish holiday, then it ought to be.  If Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, as promised by God and the fulfillment of the prophecies of our Hebrew Bible, then Jews should be able to join in with others in celebrating the birth of the greatest Jew that ever lived.

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Are The Biblical Texts Reliable?

Someone asked: Alex, you seem like a reasonably intelligent person.  How can you believe that the Bible, written by men, is “the word of God” and that after thousands of years of copying we could still have an accurate translation of it today?

These were some of the same questions I had to wrestle with, as an agnostic 30 years ago, when a colleague told me he was a Christian and asked if I knew that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah of Israel.  This prompted me to study the Bible for the first time — not because I believed a word of it — but specifically to gather enough evidence to prove him wrong.  I wondered how anyone of such intelligence could believe what I regarded as utter foolishness.  But I was to discover that the Bible is unlike any other book that has ever been written.

CREDENTIALS

The Bible covers a period of approximately 1,600 years (from 1500 B.C. to 100 A.D.) and was written by more than 40 different people from all walks of life.  Some were priests,  prophets and kings.  Others were simple farmers and fisherman.  Some, like Moses and the Apostle Paul, were highly educated.  Others had no formal education at all.

More than 3,000 times, these men claimed that what they wrote came directly from God (e.g., Moses: Ex 5:1; 7:17; 24:4.  Isaiah: Isa 28:16; 43:1; 44:24.  Jeremiah: Jer 9:23; 14:15; 31:31.  Paul: 1 Cor 7:10.  Peter: 2 Pet 1:16-21.  John: 1 John 4:6.)   As impossible as these facts seem, the record speaks for itself.  Jesus stated that the Old Testament is God’s Word (Matt 5:17; Luke 24:44; John 10:35).  He confirmed the authorships of Moses, King David, and the prophets Isaiah and Daniel.  In Luke 4:25-27, he confirmed the divine miracles recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures and concerning Old Testament revelation said:

“I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”  (Matthew 5:18) 

In other words, Jesus affirmed the inspiration, inerrancy and accuracy of the Hebrew Scriptures.  He taught the authority, reliability, unity, sufficiency, historicity, revelation, infallibility and indestructibility of the Old Testament.

PROPHECY

One way to prove the Bible’s accuracy and authenticity is to analyze the Hebrew Scriptures’ prophecies.  Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfillment is one of the most compelling evidences of the Christian faith and as a Jewish man, this evidence was central to my own eventual acceptance of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah.  The number of events foretold by the prophets is enormous, and the events themselves are so specific they could only have been known and revealed by God.  Author Mark Hitchcock said the following about the accuracy and reliability of the Bible in his book, The Amazing Claims of Bible Prophecy:

“Unlike the self-proclaimed prophets of yesterday and today, like Nostradamus, Edward Cayce, or Jeanne Dixon, Jesus and the biblical prophets did not peddle vague and general predictions that could be adjusted to any situation.  The prophecies recorded in the Bible are detailed and intricately interwoven…  More than one-fourth of the Bible was prophetic at the time it was written.  The Bible is a book of prophecy. It contains about 1,000 prophecies, about 500 of which have already been fulfilled down to the minutest detail.  With this kind of proven track record — 500 prophecies fulfilled with 100 percent accuracy — we can believe with confidence that the remaining five hundred yet-to-be-fulfilled prophecies will also come to pass at the appointed time…  Prophecy is the most credible proof of the uniqueness and divine inspiration of the Bible.  Its importance can hardly be overstated…  Fulfilled prophecy also demonstrates that the Bible’s content is not man-made but rather has its origins outside our own time-space continuum.”

Twenty five Jewish writers proclaimed prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures detailing the life and ministry of the Messiah.  Jesus is the only person in the history of civilization to have explicit details of his ancestry, birth, life, ministry, character, death, burial and resurrection prewritten at least 500 years before he was born.  Of the Hebrew Scriptures’ hundreds of prophetic references concerning the first coming of the Messiah, each was fulfilled uniquely and specifically by Christ and they establish a solid confirmation of his credentials as the Messiah.

PRESERVATION

The Dead Sea scrolls provide evidence of the Bible’s extraordinary preservation.  During the period from 1947 to 1956, hundreds of manuscripts were discovered in clay jars in caves near the Dead Sea in Israel.  These scrolls have come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls and are hailed as the outstanding archeological discovery of the 20th century.   Among the manuscripts found was a complete scroll of the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Up to that time, skeptics had said we could not have an accurate translation of the Bible due to the thousands of years of copying.  They believed that changes from the originals must have occurred over these many years.  However, the scroll of Isaiah, to cite just one example, was discovered in its entirety, dates from 125 B.C. to 100 B.C., and contains the same Isaiah text that we possess in our Bibles today.

The Dead Sea Scrolls prove that the copyists of biblical manuscripts took great care in going about their work.  These copyists knew they were duplicating God’s Word, so they went to incredible lengths to prevent error from creeping into their work.  Fact is, the God who had the power and sovereign control to inspire the Scriptures in the first place has exercised His power and sovereign control in the preservation of Scriptures.   By examining how Christ viewed the Old Testament, we see that he clearly had full confidence that the Scriptures he used had been faithfully preserved through the centuries.

The same can be said about the inspiration and inerrancy of the New Testament, which was written after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  There are more New Testament manuscripts copied with greater accuracy and earlier dating than for any secular classic from antiquity.  By comparing the manuscript support for the Bible with manuscript support for other ancient documents and books, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that no other ancient piece of literature can stand up to the Bible.  Manuscript support for the Bible is unparalleled.   No other book is even a close second to the Bible on either the number or early dating of the copies.  The average secular work from antiquity survives on only a handful of manuscripts; the New Testament boasts thousands.

SUMMARY

Each of these points could probably have a series of posts devoted to them, but neither space nor time allows for a fuller discussion here.   Suffice it to say, the Bible is unique in its history, message, universality, influence, fulfilled prophecies, preservation and  testimony throughout history.  It stands alone as the most unique book of all time and the only volume that a child and scholar may find equal delight in.

Salmon P. Chase, who served as U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Abraham Lincoln and as the sixth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, said the following about the Bible:

“There came a time in my life when I doubted the divinity of the Scriptures, and I resolved as a lawyer and a judge I would try the book as I would try anything in the courtroom, taking evidence for and against.  It was a long, serious and profound study: and using the same principles of evidence in this religious matter as I always do in secular matters, I have come to the decision that the Bible is a supernatural book, that it has come from God, and that the only safety for the human race is to follow its teachings.” 

Studying this same Bible almost two centuries after Salmon P. Chase, I ultimately came to the same decision, though I sought earnestly to disprove its credibility.  In fact, I concluded that if one actually takes the time and trouble to conscientiously and honestly examine the available evidence, it would require more faith to remain a non-believer than to accept that the biblical texts are credible and reliable.

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How Does That Make You Feel?

Someone asked: Alex, on your blog you identify yourself as a gay believer in Christ.  When people use words like “unnatural”, “perverse”, “abominable”, “destructive”,  “deceptive” and “vile” to describe homosexuality, how does that make you feel?   Your thoughts would be appreciated.

This question or some variation of it seems to come up often.  Personally, I’ve  had to learn that I cannot take responsibility for other people’s ignorance or blindness.  An analogy might be how black people have had to learn to live in a culture and society where so many have been erroneously taught that light-skinned people are superior to dark-skinned people.   Fact is the Jewish community has problems with me because I’m a Jew who believes that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.  (Yet if Jesus is indeed the Jewish Messiah as prophesied by the Hebrew prophets, then the most Jewish thing one could do is to  follow him.)  Many Christians are not happy with me because I’m unapologetically gay, without secrecy or shame.  (Yet if the few biblical passages that generally get appealed to in this debate are in actuality addressing issues other than homosexuality per se, then it’s those who doggedly cling to their antigay doctrine who have bought into bad theology.)  And the secular gay community dismisses me as insane for my continued association with what they perceive to be a homophobic religion.  (Yet if I am called by the Creator of the  universe to walk with him in personal and intimate relationship, then being faithful to that call certainly takes priority over the secular gay community’s or anyone else’s lack of knowledge or misunderstanding of who God is).  As Jesus reminded his disciples:

“Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.  For truly I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16).

So I’ve learned that the ignorance and blindness of other people are their issues, not mine. I can sow seeds and seek to educate people who are teachable and open to allowing the Holy Spirit to move and grow them.  But Jesus wisely instructed his disciples: If people do not receive you, shake the dust off your feet and move on — and we are to forgive them for they know not what they do. 

I know who I am.  More  importantly, I know who I am in Christ.  If it is true that we are saved by faith in what Christ has done, then the antigay message cannot be true.  Whether we are straight or gay is irrelevant to God’s redemptive work in our lives.  It is the fact of our responding to Christ that is the all-important thing.   And as a Jewish believer in Christ, I learned a long time ago that truth is never determined by a majority vote.

Perhaps the bottom line is that God has given me a ministry of being a “dot connector”.   Specifically, I help gay people connect the dots to be able to integrate a theologically sound, committed Christian faith with their sexuality.   I help Jewish people connect the dots to be able to see that that Jesus is their Jewish Messiah, and I help Gentile believers connect the dots to be able to see the rich Jewish roots of their faith.   Jesus was a dot connector too.  In fact, Christ was the ultimate dot connector.   Furthermore, I see many people out there who are struggling to connect the dots as well as many others who insist that the dots are not meant to be connected.   But I suppose that when God gives you a ministry like this, He also gives you the thick skin to go with it.

That said, I have also heard the cry of Christian gay people with less thick skin.  I have heard the cry of those who have lost hope, those who have become seriously disillusioned, those who have felt depressed and hopeless and who, as it were, are struggling to connect the dots.

Numerous studies have revealed that gay youth have a significantly higher rate of suicide attempts than do heterosexual youth.  The Suicide Prevention Resource Center synthesized these studies and estimated that between 30% and 40% of gay youth, depending on age and sex, have attempted suicide.

More sobering still, the majority of gay teens who attempt suicide have had church involvement.  Why?  Because these young people are strongly affected by the negative attitudes of their churches on homosexuality and the resulting poor self-esteem, depression and fear can be a fatal blow to a fragile identity.  The Church is not without culpability.  Gay people continue to be victims of persecution and discrimination from the Church — the one place on this earth where grace, love and fairness ought to be the theme of life for them.  Parents who do not accept the sexuality of their children also play a significant role as they fail to understand the power of the messages that make their gay children feel unsafe and unaccepted.

We in the church have done little to help their plight.   We’ve only added to their burden.  The suffering that gay people have endured at the hands of the Church is incalculable.  The general and deliberate ignorance of sound biblical exegesis to rightly divide the word of truth is the cause of the lion’s share of the unsympathetic treatment gay people continue to endure.  The Church has driven from its doors literally millions of men and women who would have accepted Christ.  They drove away people who would have entered the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus gave a severe warning of the dangers of adopting a Pharisaic attitude in our ministry to and treatment of others.  In Matthew 23, he warned:

“Woe to you Pharisees, you hypocrites! … You load men’s backs with burdens that are impossible to bear and do not lift a finger to help them … Woe to you Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven to men’s faces.  You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.  Woe to you blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

The Apostle Paul admonishes: “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”   Jesus said with what measure we judge, we will be judged.   He said in the final judgment, he would make decisions based on how people treated “the least of these my brethren.”   Too often we forget that when we’re speaking of gay people, we are talking about God’s children and about a God who will hold us accountable for the way we treat each and every one of them.

Adolescence is a very difficult stage for anyone to go through.   Gay people have the added difficulty of coping with this ignorance and the intolerance, discrimination and rejection that often accompanies it.   My friend Mary Lou Wallner tells the story of how it took her lesbian daughter’s suicide to make her search out a better understanding of homosexuality than what she’d been taught.   Devastated by her daughter Anna’s “coming out”, she’d insisted that she change.  After Anna’s suicide, Mary Lou learned that it was she, herself, who had to change.  She and her husband now have a ministry, teach-ministries.org, focused on consequences of homophobia.

Perhaps it might be more frutiful to turn the question around.  How does this make you feel?   One clergyperson suggested that what it means to be a religious person is to be terrified of the possibility that you’re going to harm someone else.  The clear commandment is this: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

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Leviticus 18: What Was The Abomination?

[I shared some of the following in an earlier post.  However, since readers have expressed interest in this particular passage, it is now expanded and reposted with a more easily identifiable title.]

In light of all the commotion over homosexuality, one would think the Bible has a lot to say on the subject.  It does not.  There are only five or six verses in the entire Bible that have been interpreted as addressing or condemning homosexuality.  These verses, often referred to as the “clobber passages”, because they are frequently used to clobber or censure gay men and women today, are verses taken out of their contexts to proof-text the Bible’s alleged anti-homosexual stance.  One of them is Leviticus 18:22:

“You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is  an abomination.”

The passage is repeated in Leviticus 20:13

“If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

STARTING POINT

I am continually reminded that one never arrives at truth by asking of the Bible, “What does it mean?”  The reason is that’s the wrong starting point. You’re really asking, what does it mean to us today, individually?”  And that’s why we end up with thousands of different answers.  Exegesis always asks, “What DID it mean?”  There’s a vast difference in those questions as a starting points.  Unless we have some idea of what the text meant THEN, we’re left to only guess at what it might mean for us NOW.

Exegesis requires that if we wish to interpret the Bible responsibly, we must seek to draw out FROM the text what it originally meant to the author and to the original intended audience, without reading INTO it the many traditional interpretations that may have grown up around it.   The reader today must somehow try to enter the world of the biblical writer and seek to understand what the writer was saying.  In contrast to this, what far too many do instead is what some theologians refer to as “frontloading”, that is to say, they read their own personal, political and prejudicial beliefs back into the Bible, instead of reading out from the Bible what the original writers were saying.  This process of reading one’s own ideas into interpretation of the Bible is called “eisegesis”.   Exegesis and eisegesis are conflicting approaches to interpreting the Bible.  Exegesis is about reading out from the Bible what the original writers were saying.  Eisegesis is about reading one’s own ideas or prejudices back into the Bible.  But exegesis does not allow us to tear a passage from its context to replace it in another age for convenience.

ARCHEOLOGY CAN HELP

As a result of the many archeological discoveries of the 20th century, our ability to do sound exegesis has increased exponentially.  In fact, today we know more about the Bible than any previous time in history, including even in later biblical times.  Case in point: Up until the early 20th century, we knew little about the Canaanites.   We knew little about their religion, their culture or their way of life.  For the most part, our only witness to the Canaanites was the texts of the Old Testament.  But in 1929, all of that that changed substantially with the discovery of what is called the “Ras Shamra” texts.  (Ras Shamra is a place on the northern coast of Syria, where the remains of the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit have been unearthed.)  From 1929 to the present, literally thousands of texts and materials have been found.  The real treasure was not the buildings or jewelry, but large quantities of writings showing how ancient Canaanite city-life worked and revealing a wealth of information that has been invaluable in our understanding of Canaanite religion and culture.  The discovery of these texts is considered by many second only to the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and they’ve had a profound effect on biblical studies.  How do these discoveries help us to interpret the biblical texts?

PAGANISM AND IDOLATRY

One of the most prominent and pervasive themes weaving its way through virtually every book of the Bible is that of paganism and the constant call to turn from it.  We find a continuous call to turn from the worshiping of the false or pagan gods of the day and to turn instead to the one true living God, Yahweh.  In connection with the call to turn from worshiping pagan gods is the admonition to turn from participating in a myriad of pagan rituals or practices.  Both the Old and New Testaments spend page after page condemning these pagan cult practices.  But most of us have no idea what these practices were.  They’re now extinct and therefore totally foreign to our contemporary thinking.  As a result, statements like those found, for example, in Leviticus 18:22, may appear clear on the surface, but their application and context are not.

Chapter 17 through 26 of Leviticus is referred to as “The Holiness Code”.  It is designed to provide a standard of behavior and way of living that will distinguish the Israelites from the Canaanites whose land they have now been given by God.  It is for this reason that Leviticus chapter 18 begins with a strict caution to avoid retaining the idolatries of Egypt (from where the Israelites had come), and of receiving the idolatries of Canaan (to where they were now going). This statement, according to the Matthew Henry Commentary, sums up the whole chapter of Leviticus 18.

But what were these idolatries of Egypt and Canaan that the Isarelites were to avoid retaining?  What strange practices or rituals did they include?  Well, for starters we discover in the Old Testament that the Canaanites burned their children alive in honor to their pagan gods, they practiced snake worship, they performed sexual intercourse with animals, and a host of other gross and detestable practices.

FERTILITY CULT PROSTITUTION

Why did they do such bizarre things?  What was the motivation behind them?  FERTILITY!   Fertility was highly prized in Ancient times in ways that are completely foreign to our modern thinking. Fact is in many ways their lives literally depended on it.  As a result of the great value placed on fertility, Canaanite religion was replete with practices believed to appease the fertility gods of the day and thereby win them the blessing of fertility: fertility of the land in the form of rains to ensure and boost crop production, fertility in the way of life through pregnancy and birth, fertility for the reproduction of their livestock, and so on.  Israel’s survival hinged on fertility and Baal was a god of fertility.  This meant that Baal was the power behind the rain and the dew.  And with rainfall levels unreliable, famine was always a real possibility.

As Bible commentaries reveal, Canaanite culture also depended on pagan cult prostitution as a way of promoting fertility.  Says the IVP Bible Background Commentary:

“The Canaanite culture utilized cult prostitution as a way of promoting fertility.  Devotees … would visit the shrine and use the services of the [male and female] cult prostitutes prior to planting their fields or during other important seasons … In this way they gave honor to the gods … in an attempt to ensure fertility and prosperity for their fields and herds.”

In the New International Biblical Commentary: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, to cite another example, authors Harris, Brown and Moore, state the following:

“… in order to ensure fertility of people, animals and crops, a person would engage in sexual intercourse with a cult prostitute, male or female, at the local Baal shrine. The purpose was to inspire [the Canaanite god] Baal to act likewise on the person’s behalf and thus to ensure fertility in all areas of life.”

THE TEXT

As you can hopefully begin to see, sometimes we encounter things in the Bible that require some background and clarification in order to understand the text.  If you read your Bible long enough and attentively enough, questions are going to arise that notes on the bottom of the page don’t satisfy.  But now equipped with a bit of background on the text, let’s go back look at the Leviticus passage again, but this time in context:

Leviticus 18:21-23

21  Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.
22  Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.
23 Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion.

If we look at the passage in context, considering both what comes immediately before and after the passage, we notice the prohibition here in Leviticus 18:22, against engaging in sex with a cult prostitute, is sandwiched right between two other forbidden pagan cult rituals: one in verse 21 against child sacrifice to the Canaanite god Molech, and another in verse 23 against women having sexual relations with animals.  Both rituals as illustrated were practiced by the Canaanites and Egyptians in their fertility worship.  Why did women have sex with animals?  This too was believed to increase their fertility.  In the New Bible Commentary, scholar Christopher Wright says the following with reference to Leviticus 18:

“Genital-anal intercourse between men, and both male and female intercourse with animals, are all known to have been part of pagan worship in Egypt, Canaan and elsewhere.”

So if we refrain from ripping the passage from its context and instead read the passage in context, we begin to see that the Holiness Code of Leviticus prohibits these acts for RELIGIOUS reasons, not MORAL ones.  The concern is to keep Israel distinct from their idolatrous neighbors.   God’s covenant with his people required that the Israelites serve no other god but Yahweh.  If Israel is thought to be bound to God in an exclusive covenant relationship, then Israel can be said to commit adultery (or “play the harlot”) whenever they look to powers other than Yahweh for sustenance, comfort or protection.  “Playing the harlot”, as the English translations tend to put it, became a common idiom for the Israelites worshipping of other gods.   Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we find time and again that Israel frequented places of idol worship.   “On every high hill and under every green tree you sprawled and played the harlot,” says God through the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 2:20).   Over and over, we see that the Israelites did not only borrow from the Canaanite pagan ways of worshipping idols and false pagan gods, but constantly relapsed into them.

If we don’t catch the fact that male-to-male pagan rite prostitution was a common practice in Bible times for the purpose of promoting and ensuring fertility, we will completely miss the point of the biblical condemnation and misconstrue verses like Leviticus 18:22 to forbid any and all same-sex behavior.  As F.F. Bruce, biblical scholar and one of the founders of the modern evangelical understanding of the Bible, aptly put it:

“It is not enough to say, ‘the Bible says’ without at the same time considering to whom the Bible says it, and in what circumstances.”

ABOMINATION

As to the claim that homosexuality is an abomination it should be noted that the term “abomination” is abominably misunderstood.   The Hebrew word “toevah” (translated in the English as “abomination”) functions in a very precise way in priestly literature.  It generally, if not always, means a practice that is unacceptable because it is one of the cult practices of the pagan religions surrounding God’s people. The thing may be innocuous in itself, but in order for Israel’s faithful to be safeguarded, even otherwise innocent practices were forbidden.   It may also be something that is intrinsically evil.  But the key is that it is part and parcel of the cult practice of the pagan religions.  Remember that the next time someone tells you that this or that is an abomination to God.  An “abomination” (toevah) is a pagan cult practice often utilized to seek fertility.

Clearly, a simple blog post does not afford a thorough discussion of this or the few other passages that have been interpreted as addressing or condemning homosexuality.  But I hope I’ve offered enough to chew on.  As G.K. Chesterton fittingly said, “The purpose of an open mind is the same as that of an open mouth, to close it again on something solid.”

See also the following related posts on this blog:

Exegesis: Not for the Faint in Heart
Romans 1: What Was Paul Ranting About?
Romans 2: Paul’s Bait and Switch
Why No One in the Biblical World Had a Word for Homosexuality

Refer to the “Archives” page for other posts.

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Is It the End of the Ex-Gay Movement As We Know It?

This was the question asked by Warren Throckmorton on his blog yesterday following last week’s acknowledgment by John Smid, the former executive director of Love in Action, the country’s oldest and largest ex-gay ministry, that “I’ve never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual”.  Smid also acknowledged that despite his many years of being heterosexually married, “I would consider myself homosexual and yet in a marriage with a woman.”  He loves his wife and has no plans to leave her, but wrote, “This doesn’t change the fact that I am who I am and she is who she is.”

Throckmorton says,  “As one who was once associated with the ex-gay movement, I look at the trends and wonder if we are nearing the end of the ex-gay movement as we know (knew) it.”  He adds,  “If it is, I feel fine” about it.

In another article in the Daily Beast, Michelle Goldberg calls John Smid’s about-face, “just the latest blow to those who believe sexual orientation can be altered.”  Goldberg says,  “Smid’s disclosures may not bring the end of the ex-gay movement, but it is one of many indicators of decline.  Unquestionably one of the biggest hits was the revelation that former NARTH board member George Rekers had taken a European vacation with a young ‘rent boy’ hired from a gay escort service.  Then the case of Kyle Murphy revealed that Rekers scientific work on preventing homosexuality was built on significantly distorted research.”

It’s deja vu all over again as this was not the first time the “ex-gay” case has been based on significantly distorted research.   Not that long ago, a widely reported study was published by psychiatrist Dr Robert L. Spitzer announcing that  “Homosexuals Can Change!”   Newspapers across the county carried the story.

I personally had responded to an ad Dr. Spitzer placed eliciting testimonies from people who had been involved in  “ex-gay” ministry when this study was conducted.  I underwent a preliminary phone interview with one of Dr. Spitzer’s associates where it was determined that my background was exactly what they were looking for for participation in the study.   Then during my telephone interview with Dr. Spitzer, he disqualified me from participating in his study after learning that I did not believe reparative therapy worked.  Dr. Spitzer explained he was  “looking to  speak with people who believe that gays can change.”  If others who answered his ad were disqualified from participating on the same grounds, one need not be a rocket scientist to figure out how Dr. Spitzer reached the conclusion he did.

Both the media and his peers blasted the study charging that Spitzer misrepresented his research and distorted his findings.  The American Psychiatric Association (APA) denounced the study at their annual meeting and noted the research was based on a scientifically insignificant sample of 200, the study was not submitted for peer review — a fundamental prerequisite for the credibility of any study — and Spitzer interviewed his subjects by telephone for 45 minutes, hardly a basis for reliable data.   The 200 “ex-gays” Spitzer reported on were also recruited from Exodus and other “ex-gay” and “reparative therapy” ministries, groups known for believing that simply labeling oneself as heterosexual constitutes progress in the right direction regardless of whether one’s sexual orientation has actually changed.

Spitzer did acknowledge that the number of homosexuals who could become heterosexual was likely to be “pretty low.”  He also noted “the difficulty finding subjects [over a period of 16 months] suggest[ed] the likelihood that the substantial changes reported by our subjects are relatively uncommon in all individuals who make a change effort.”  Spitzer did not practice “reparative therapy” himself, said his findings “should not be misused to justify coercive treatment” and stood by his 1973 support of the APA’s decision to drop homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Spitzer was instrumental in getting the APA to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973.  While some alleged this was done for political reasons, fact is the APA removed homosexuality from their list of psychiatric disorders for scientific reasons.   In order for a mental condition to be classified as a psychiatric disorder, the requirement was it had to meet a two-pronged set of criteria set by a scientific committee, in consultation with experts in the field, for the revision of the whole DSM.  Additionally to satisfactorily meet the two-pronged set of criteria, it had to meet both and not just one.  The two-pronged set of criteria that had to be met to be classified as a mental illness or disorder was: (1) in full blown manifestation, it had to be distressing to the individual, and (2) in full-blown manifestation, it had to be invariably associated with social dysfunction.

Since they concluded that homosexuality clearly did not meet this two-pronged set of criteria as do actual psychiatric disorders such as alcoholism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, et al. —  it was appropriately removed from the DSM.  Had homosexuality been retained in the DSM, it would have stood out as a sore thumb as the only category not meeting the two-pronged standard set by the scientific committee for the revision of the whole DSM.

Throckmorton also noted on his blog yesterday that Exodus, the international umbrella organization of “ex-gay” ministries, has not only continually moved away from the language of orientation change but most recently and without comment removed reparative therapy books authored by Joseph Nicolosi from their online bookstore.  Nicolosi is a founding member and advisor to NARTH, which promotes change therapy intended to reorient gay people and is the same organization former board member George Rekers resigned from following the revelation that he had taken a European vacation with a young “rent boy” hired from a gay escort service.

All this also comes right on the heels of the new study published in Edification, a journal from the evangelical Society for Christian Psychology reporting that “sexual behavior changes but not sexual orientation.”  According to the published study, after an
average of 16 years in mixed-orientation marriage, the same-sex oriented spouse is still same-sex oriented.  On the basis of self-reports, there’s no shift toward heterosexual orientation on the part of the same-sex oriented spouse despite there being some participation in sex acts within the marriage.

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