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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Biblical Definition of Marriage, Part 1: Introduction

Comments made by Dan Cathy, President of Chick-Fil-A, recently brought the debate over gay marriage back to the forefront.  Again.  As usual, most people split into one of two camps: those in support of legalizing same-sex marriage, and those in support of "the biblical definition of marriage," including restricting legal marriage to those who fit that definition.

The term "biblical definition of marriage" is bandied about with great authority, but every time I hear it, I also hear the voice of Inigo Montoya saying, "You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means."

In popular usage, the "biblical definition of marriage" appears to be shorthand for "marriage between one man and one woman."  That's the definition that some want included in a constitutional amendment addressing the issue.  However there are some who also include the submission of wives to their husbands, the restriction of women to the traditional roles of homemaker and mother, as well as an absolute prohibition of divorce in the "biblical definition of marriage."  In a land of majority two-income households, where more women are graduating from college than men, and where roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, I can't see a whole lot of public support for those aspects of the "biblical definition of marriage."

So what is the actual biblical definition of marriage?

Sadly, when I went to my concordance and looked up "definition of marriage," nothing came up in the entire bible.  Of course the answer's not that easy.  So this can't be answered in a single post, even one of my marathon-length ones.  But it's important.  The issue at stake, as Dan Cathy puts it, is whether or not we're "shak[ing] our fist at [God] and say[ing], 'We know better than you what constitutes a marriage.'"  The issue, simply put, is whether or not we are redefining marriage in direct opposition to how God has defined it.  Therefore, this is the beginning of an ongoing series in which I'm going to explore the bible and see what it really says about marriage.  I don't expect these posts to settle the question once and for all, but I do hope that those of you who read them will think about your own assumptions, and be willing to think critically about what you believe and why.

My intention is not to attack or ridicule those who are earnestly trying to live according to biblical principles.  I myself am a faithful Christian trying to live according to biblical principles.  I'm doing this primarily because I believe there is a lack of knowledge and understanding about the bible, especially among those who use it to justify their own political positions.  Perhaps I'm about to join those ranks, but I'm tired of having a vocal minority define for the world what my faith is.  If we're going to use the bible to defend our positions, let's take a look and see what the bible actually says about those positions.

I welcome you to join the discussion in the comments section.  As always, please keep it civil.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

What Communion is All About

Look at the word.  COMMUNION.  It suggests community, something that brings people together around a common event.

But communion is one of those things that tends to separate more Christians than it unites.  Should it be restricted to members of one's own denomination or congregation, or open to all baptized Christians?  Should baptism itself be a prerequisite?  Should communion be celebrated with leavened bread or unleavened?  Grape juice or wine?  Individual cups or common chalice?  Should it be brought to people as they sit in their seats, served to kneeling parishioners from behind an altar rail, or handed out from the center aisle assembly-line style?  Should it be reserved for those who have a proper understanding of what it means?

It's easy to get caught up in the debate; after all, partaking of the body of Christ is not something to be done lightly or casually.  But all these questions serve to break down the body of Christ, rather than help knit it together.

This morning I was reminded of what communion is really all about by none other than my own not-yet-communing four-year-old son.  For once I wasn't preaching, and I had given my husband the morning off by taking both kids with me to church.  They both went up for the children's sermon, where they were treated to an object lesson about how communion is supposed to be a welcoming experience.  The pastor talked about how some people were allergic to wheat, and so couldn't share the communion bread, which wasn't very welcoming to them.  He passed out a bag of gluten-free crackers and invited each child to eat one, while he explained how some of those crackers were put on the altar alongside the bread, and available for anyone who couldn't eat wheat so they could still share in the Lord's Supper.  He also talked about grape juice being available in the same way, but by then he had lost the kids' attention, as they were busily and happily munching on their crackers.

Of course my son had to ham it up.  When it was his turn to reach into a bag and take a cracker, he did so with a huge smile on his face and, before the pastor (and, more importantly, the pastor's microphone) got out of range, he took a bite and said, "Mmmmm, yummy!"  Of course this was picked up and broadcast over the sound system.  But given all the other things he could have said into the microphone (we've recently begun distinguishing between 'grown-up words' and 'words Spencer can say'), I just laughed along with everyone else.

The smile never left his face, and he asked his sister next to him if her cracker was yummy, too.  She nodded that indeed it was, as crumbs decorated her lips and chin.  The sermon ended, and the kids came back to join me in the pew.  As Spencer approached I noticed that he still had a piece of cracker in his hand.  This kid has already established that he is one of the world's slowest eaters.  But before I could tell him to hurry up and finish his cracker, he reached his hand out to me, cracker pinched between his thumb and forefinger, and he said, "Here Mama.  I saved this for you."

You could have knocked me over with a feather.  I noticed several women nearby grinning with their eyes shining, and I realized that their expressions probably mirrored my own.  I said to him, "The pastor gave that to you.  Don't you want to eat it?"  He replied, "I saved it for you.  Eat it, it's yummy!"

What could I do?  I took the bit of cracker and ate it.  I gave him a big hug and thanked him, and tried not to cry.  It was definitely one of those moments when you forget all the temper-tantrums and the time-outs and the messes, and you're just so grateful and proud to be Mama.

It wasn't communion per se; the words of institution weren't said, and there was no prayer or ritual.  It was a gift shared among a group, and even as Spencer relished its goodness, he wanted to share it with someone who wasn't there to receive a portion of her own.

Does Spencer understand the Lutheran understanding of the 'real presence of Christ' as distinct from the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation as distinct from the Calvinist understanding of eucharistic symbolism?  Most assuredly not.  But does it matter?  Did the disciples have to pass that test on the night in which Jesus was betrayed?

Spencer received a gift, and he enjoyed and appreciated it, and he knew it was too good to keep to himself, so he shared it.  If that's not what communion is about, then what is?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Good vs. Evil

I really didn't want to go here.  I really didn't want to get into the whole Chick-Fil-A thing.  I really wanted to just join Jen Hatmaker in her wonderful-sounding basement, and wait for this whole thing to blow over.

But I can't.  Because I'm tired of all the vitriol and venomous accusations.  And I'm particularly tired of one side (pick whichever one you want--both are equally guilty) assigning motives to the actions of the other.

Chick-Fil-A uses some of its profits to support organizations that oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage.  Personally, I disagree with the aims of those organizations; given the fact that we do not live in a theocracy (nor do I want to, even as a faithful Christian), I cannot see any legitimate reason to deny same-sex couples that right.  The Jim Henson Company also disagrees with the aims of those organizations, and they decided to end their partnership with Chick-Fil-A and donate the proceeds they'd enjoyed from that partnership to GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).

All of that is fine.  Chick-Fil-A can use their profits as they see fit, and so can the Jim Henson Company.  And both can choose to partner with whomever they want for whatever reasons they want.  Or not to partner.  They have that right.

But the owners of Chick-Fil-A have been described as hateful, evil bigots who only want to deny rights to those who don't believe as they do, and are trying to use their money to establish theocratic rule in this country.  I don't think that's fair, and it certainly isn't supported by facts.

Yes, they hold to a 'biblical' definition of marriage (though that claim itself is dubious, given the fact that there are many definitions of marriage in the bible, many of which are not considered acceptable in this day and age.  But that's a whole other post.)  Yes, they support organizations that work to make their accepted definition of marriage the only legal definition of marriage.  But that's not all they support.

Let's look first at the partnership with the Jim Henson Company.  The Jim Henson Company has never masqueraded as a biblically conservative company.  As they proudly stated on their Facebook page, "The Jim Henson Company has celebrated and embraced diversity and inclusiveness for over fifty years."  Their commitment to diversity and inclusiveness was not hidden from Chick-Fil-A, yet Chick-Fil-A still chose to enter into a business partnership with them.  Yes, they stood to benefit financially, but if they were willing to compromise their principles for the sake of profits, then they'd be open on Sundays, so I dismiss that as their primary motivation.  Basically, despite the difference in politics, Chick-Fil-A wanted to be affiliated with the values that the Jim Henson Company stood for.  How does that fit in with their image as hateful, evil bigots out to mold the world into their own narrow conservative image?

I also know that they donate a sizable amount of money to the Public Broadcasting Service.  How do I know this?  Because between the shows my kids watch on PBS they are subjected to a few non-commercial commercials for Chick-Fil-A (as well as Earth's Best Baby Food--since when are there commercials on PBS??!!).  If you haven't watched the children's programming on PBS recently, let me assure you that it's not advocating conservative Christian values to the sippy-cup set.  Those shows advocate the same diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance that the Jim Henson Company does.  Yet Chick-Fil-A believes enough in their mission to give them lots of money, despite their different politics.

Chick-Fil-A also funds college scholarships, foster homes, summer camp programs, youth leadership programs domestically and abroad, as well as marriage preparation, enrichment, and crisis intervention programs.

I don't agree with everything they choose to do with their profits, but they're clearly not the hate-mongering bigots they're accused of being.

Neither the right nor the left are all good or all evil.  Can we please stop assigning motives that make it easier to dehumanize each other?  If you don't like how Chick-Fil-A spends their money, they by all means exercise your right to boycott.  But don't demonize them, or the people who support them.  They don't deserve it, any more than you do.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Are We Really a Colorblind Society?

My husband has always said that if I ever came home from preaching and announced that my children's sermon went really well, he'd want to know who I was and what I'd done with his wife.  I'm horrible at children's sermons.  Really.  Really.  Horrible.

But I came home from preaching this past Sunday, and announced that my children's sermon went really well.  As promised, he demanded to know who I was and what I'd done with Karen.

I was using the day's passage from Ephesians as my inspiration: Ephesians 2:11-22, to be exact.  It's basically talking about how those who were outside the covenant have been brought in because of Christ, and that all who have been brought together in Christ are now one, with all former hostilities replaced by peace and reconciliation.  A nice passage on unity and equality before God.

I called the kids up to the chancel area where they took their usual seats on the step I fell off of a few weeks ago (yes, it was embarrassing), and then I stood facing them.  I called the assisting minister over to stand next to me, and I asked the kids to name everything they noticed that was different between Gary and me.  They had a bit of an advantage because in deference to the high heat and humidity--and lack of air conditioning--I'd used my pastoral authority to place a temporary ban on albs, so the only 'uniform' in sight was my tabbed clerical blouse.  They noticed that I was wearing a black shirt and his was blue, and they noticed that I was a girl and he was a boy.  They noticed our different shoes, different hair, and even though we both wore glasses, they noticed that our glasses were different styles (that's some pretty decent observation!).

Next I called our two acolytes to come and stand in front of the kids, and asked them what differences they saw between those two, or between any of the four of us.  I was the only girl, the acolytes were younger than me and Gary, they had different hair, and I was the shortest one standing (yes, both acolytes were taller than me).  But none of the kids called out the biggest difference between the two acolytes, the whole reason I'd dragged them (without warning them first) into this demonstration.

No one observed that one had black skin and one had white skin.

I finally named that difference once the kids had run out of observations, then asked what all four of us had in common.  When they couldn't come up with anything, that's when I launched into my lesson about how we're all beloved children of God and all those differences they'd observed don't matter, and that we're all one family in Christ.  Then I prayed a little prayer thanking God for the diversity he'd created, asking for help in seeing everyone as our brothers and sisters, then I sent then back to their seats and went on with my 'real' sermon.

But I was troubled by the fact that no one called out skin color as a difference.  Was it that they truly didn't recognize it as a difference?  Or was it that none of them dared say it, because such a recognition is politically incorrect and socially unacceptable these days?

As much as there's a part of me that wants to believe the former, I can't quite convince myself of that.  In the context of the conversation, there were no value judgments being made.  They were observant enough to notice that the frames of Gary's glasses were metal wire, and mine were black plastic.  Every other conceivable difference was observed.  I just don't believe that the fact that one had the white skin of his northern European ancestors and the other had the black skin of his African birth (yes, he and his family just came to the US about two years ago) escaped those powers of observation.

So that leaves me with the belief that they noticed, but didn't want to say it.  And it wasn't just a bunch of white kids not wanting to point out the sole black kid in their midst; one of the things I really like about this church is that it is fairly diverse.  On that particular morning both acolytes had younger siblings who had come up for the children's sermon, plus there were a couple of other black kids not related to the acolyte, and a few of Asian and Latino heritage.  Caucasian was still the majority, but barely.

Why wouldn't these kids acknowledge racial differences, even in a nonjudgmental, strictly observational way?

I understand that prejudice is taught, and that young children don't respond to racial differences any more than they respond to differences in eye color unless (until) they see others responding differently.  But they do notice.  One woman in my congregation was telling me about her son--when he was much younger--playing in the sandbox with an African American neighbor.  He saw that the boy's skin was much darker than his own, and examined his own feet and legs to see if the sand was turning his skin brown, too.  He wasn't concerned; just curious.  I also understand that frequently when people talk about racial differences, it isn't in a strictly nonjudgmental, observational way.

But is it a good idea to make the subject entirely taboo?

I have trouble believing that pretending something doesn't exist is the way to honor the diversity God created.  Hair, eyes, and skin come in all colors.  People have different experiences and cultural traditions, and sometimes skin color plays a part in those experiences and traditions.  Pretending those differences don't exist and pretending we're all the same dilutes the richness of this creation, and robs us of the opportunity to better understand one another.  Because if we can't ask questions, we're left to make up our own answers, and that can lead to worse prejudices, or at least awkward misunderstandings.

I was never a big fan of Seinfeld, but there was one episode in which Elaine spent the entire show trying to figure out if her new boyfriend was black.  It wasn't that she didn't want to date a black guy; she just wanted to know this part of his story.  She examined every possible 'clue' she could find, and talked about it with all her friends, with one of them (usually George) looking very uncomfortable and declaring, "I don't think we should be talking about this."  The one thing she didn't do was ask her boyfriend.  Here's how it ended.

I would like to live in a society in which race doesn't matter, and I think we can get there (though I also think we still have a long way to go).  But right now we're living in a society in which we pretend race doesn't exist, and I don't think that's a good idea at all.

I'd be very interested to know your thoughts on this.  All opinions are welcome, but as always, please keep it civil.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

How Long Should a Sermon Be?

As has become common for me since I returned to New England, I've been pretty busy doing pulpit supply this summer.  Last week and this week I covered for my own pastor in Chelmsford while he was on vacation with his family.  And it just happened to work out that the two sermons I preached were on opposite ends of the spectrum time-wise.

Last week's sermon very well might be the longest sermon I've ever preached.  If it doesn't hold the record, then it's definitely in the top three.  My word count was 2,462, which took me a little over twenty minutes to preach.  By comparison, this morning's sermon was only 1,165 words, and we were opening our hymnals to the hymn of the day after about eight minutes.  Which sermon had the better length?

I've been thinking about this a lot (ever since last week's sermon, actually), and I think the answer is that last week's sermon length was best for last week's sermon, and this week's sermon length was best for this week's sermon.  My formative Lutheran experience was in a predominately African-American ELCA congregation (yes, a few of them do exist), and the pastor was your classic black preacher, only he happened to have white skin.  His philosophy for preaching and worship was that you preach till you're done, and you worship till you're done.  Since he was my mentor, his philosophy has shaped my approach to worship and preaching.

However, serving in predominately white rural or suburban congregations, I've discovered that 'worship till you're done' isn't a wildly popular concept in most churches.  Generally speaking, they expect 50 minutes to an hour.  Some of them will let me go for an hour and ten minutes, but not a minute longer.  They'll reluctantly accept a service that goes for an hour and twenty minutes if there's something like a baptism, confirmation, or some other special event going on, but they'll also wonder why we didn't cut out some of the readings and prayers to make room for the extra stuff if it goes that long.  Compare this to what happened at Resurrection, my formative congregation; that was the only place where I could show up twenty minutes late and still not miss the Kyrie (the Kyrie is one of the first parts of the service, for anyone reading this who is not familiar with Lutheran liturgy).  They posted that their service ran from 10 to 11 AM, but it really ran to 11:30 pretty much every week.  Finally they decided to change their sign to reflect reality, and stated that they worshiped from 10 to 11:30 AM.  That's when the service started going until noon.  They currently advertise that they worship from 10 to 12.  I'm preaching there in a few weeks, and I'll just tell my husband that I'll be home at some point in the afternoon, because I'm expecting that we'll just worship till we're done.

So I've adjusted my worship planning and leadership to accommodate the stricter schedule, but I haven't changed my preaching.  I preach till I'm done.  Since I'm primarily a manuscript preacher the length is fairly well-defined; you don't have to worry about me being 'caught up in the Spirit' and preaching extemporaneously for ninety minutes.  (I attended a service where that happened once--it exceeded even my ability to just go with it, and I left right after the sermon, even though the service wasn't over.  We'd worshiped for ninety minutes before the sermon even started, and after three hours with no end in sight, I was done.)

This week's sermon was pretty affirming, with no difficult topics, and I could get my point across in relatively few words.  Last week's sermon dealt with prophecy and divorce, and required me to go into more depth.  So I did.  I was glad that this week's sermon was on a lighter topic, because I don't like to double-barrel a congregation two weeks in a row; the fact that this week's sermon was unusually short was coincidence.  Most of my sermons average twelve to fifteen minutes.

So what is the optimum length of a sermon?  A sermon should be exactly how long it needs to be.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Prodigal Blogger Returns!

OK, so I suck at blogging.  My posts are too long and my frequency too sporadic.

Part of my problem is that brevity has never been my gift.  I prefer to write long essays and books, not blurbs.  That doesn't translate too well to blogging.  I'm also working too hard at being insightful and profound.  I've never really been comfortable posting about the mundane events of my life, because I really can't convince myself that anybody cares.

But I've decided something: I don't care if you care.  This blog is called 'Karen's Take on Life, the Universe, and Everything,' and that's what I'm going to write about.  The 'Home' page at will occasionally sprout some (hopefully) insightful posts on religion and spirituality, which may also be posted here, but I'm going to start writing whatever strikes me and not worry so much about whether or not there might be an audience for it.

Thank you, those of you who have stuck around waiting for me to post something new.  I realize I'm related to most of you, and you probably only still subscribe because you haven't gotten around to cleaning up your dormant subscriptions yet, but whatever the reason, thanks.

I'm back now, so let's see where this goes, shall we?