Monday, April 27, 2015

Come and See! Go and Tell!


On this Holy Myrrh-Bearers' Sunday I've been in Linthicum, MD, visiting Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church.  Archpriest Fr. Gregory Matthewes-Green asked me to preach.  This is what I said:

The Gospel Reading is from the Evangelist Mark 15:43-16:8

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Christ is risen!  [He is risen indeed!]  Kristo amefufuka! [Kweli amefufuka!]



Death is always the end of the story, isn’t it?  Look at how our culture struggles so with death, the denial, the institutionalized partition created by our hospitals, our nursing homes, our funeral homes, all of which keep us separated from the reality of what death does, of what death is.  Our media is obsessed with death.  We can watch a thousand deaths a day on TV, online, and all those games as the entertainment industry by overkill seeks to make death somehow manageable by anesthetizing our minds and hearts to death’s reality.  But it doesn’t work.  The reality of death.  The fear of death.  The terror of death.  Our world has no answer.  We plank over the chasm with platitudes, or distractions, or addictions.  As St. Paul rightly says, death is the last great enemy.


A group of women made their way in the darkness of dawn to the cold dark tomb where Jesus’ body lay.  These women had known Jesus, they had heard him teach, they had seen the miracles, lepers restored, blind given sight, paralytics walking, a dead son restored to his widowed mother, and even just last week, (was it only just last week?) Jesus had called the dead Lazarus from his tomb after being dead four days.  But after an absolutely tumultuous week, Jesus had been seized in the middle of the night, taken off to a secret trial, handed over to the Romans, who treated him like any other outlaw.  They crucified him, as if he were a thief, as if he were a murderer.  And these women, horrified, watched him suffer and then die.  They watched and wept as that rich man from Arimathea took down his body from the cross.  They gathered around and helped as his body was washed and quickly wrapped and carried to a nearby tomb, because the sun was setting and it was almost Sabbath.  They saw where they laid his lifeless body.  They watched as the men rolled a big stone across the entrance.  They stumbled home in the darkness, drained, empty, numb.  They had thought that Jesus might be the one who would save Israel.  But the story had come to a terrible end.  That is what death does.


Every culture has its ways of coping with death.  Somehow, the rituals help soften the blow.  We have our viewings and visitations, our funerals, our graveside prayers or scattering of ashes.  For these women, they were doing what they had done so many times before when a loved one had died or a friend was bereaved.  They stepped in for the family and took care of the body.  They prepared the body for burial.  For Jews, there was no embalming; the custom was to bury the dead on the day they died. This involved washing the body, anointing the body with spices to offset the stench of decay, and of wrapping the body in a shroud.  The body would be taken on a bier to a tomb and left on a slab.  The tomb was then closed.  The body would decompose and after some months, members of the family would return, open the tomb, and collect the bones and place them in a small box, an ossuary, which they would then place in a niche in the tomb.  This would offer some closure.  And the tomb would be ready to be used again. 


And so these women had a job to finish.  And so after the Sabbath, before dawn, while it was still cool, they gathered by the city gate.  They knew where the tomb was.  They came with their spices.  They came because the story was over, and this is the only way they knew to cope.    They had followed Jesus from when he was in Galilee.  They came with him to Jerusalem.  They followed him as he carried the cross.  They had gone with him as far as they could go.  But now death had ended his story.  They came to say goodbye to Jesus. Today we would call it grief work.


We all know what happened next.  It is not a long walk from the gates of Jerusalem to Joseph’s tomb where Jesus’ body lay.  The practical soul among them was already fretting about how to move the stone from the front of the tomb.  And as they followed the path around the bend and the tomb came into sight, they caught their breath and stood, stunned.  No one ever expects an angel.  And angels are always having to tell people things like, ‘Don’t be afraid!’  ‘Don’t be alarmed!’ this angel says.  Easy enough for an angel to say, but for a small group of women who have just stumbled upon the end of the old age and the beginning of the new, terror is understandable.


An angel is one thing, but it’s what he says that absolutely undoes them.  ‘You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here.  See the place where they laid him.’ (Mark 16:6)  Excuse me, but I’m sorry, this just doesn’t happen.  Death is always the end of the story.  There are no categories for this, not for these women, not for us.  OK, even so, we’ve sort of gotten used to this idea that Jesus has risen from the dead.  That’s why Pascha is such a big deal, and rightly so.  But it’s what the angel says next to these women that I want to leave you with.  He says, ‘But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.  There you will see him, just as he told you.’ (Mark 16:7) 


Just a couple of obvious things.  First, notice that this is a commission.  The angel says ‘Come and see,’ and then he says, ‘Go and tell,’ specifically go and tell the disciples what you have heard from me – that Jesus is risen from the dead – go and tell what you have seen with your own eyes – namely that the tomb is empty.  No greater charge has ever been given.


Secondly, notice to whom this commission is given.  The angel did not appear to Peter, or to any of the other disciples.  The angel did not make this announcement to Pilate, or the chief priests, nor did he call a special meeting of the Sanhedrin.  He didn’t appear in Herod’s court or in Rome before the emperor.  No, this is a couple of women.  They have no legal standing as witnesses.  They are not movers and shakers.  They wield no power or influence in the halls of the mighty.  With all due respect to the women here, God chooses political, cultural, societal nobodies to be the ones entrusted with the most important message ever given to anyone.  I don’t think they had ever been to college, much less seminary.  Jesus had said on a number of occasions that wherever he was in charge, the first would be last and the last would be first.  Well, this is what that looks like.



            Lastly, I just want to point out that nothing has changed.  The tomb is still empty. And in spite of the studied blindness of our cultures, Death is not the end of the story.  Instead with the resurrection of Jesus, an entirely new story has begun.  And it’s a story that has involved many people over many years.  But now if you look down on the page, we’ve come to that part in Jesus’ story that’s about you, and about me.  That’s your name I see written here, and your parish!  Our lives are being touched and transformed as the good news comes even to us.  We, too, are hearing with our own ears, seeing with our own eyes, experiencing in our own hearts what the risen Jesus can do.  But just like with the women, the myrrh-bearing women, it doesn’t stop with them – it doesn’t stop with us.  Instead the angel says to us, ‘Come and see! Go and tell!’  We, too, have the same commission.  ‘Go and tell’ all these people in our families, in our neighborhood, in our schools, in our places of work, all these people who live their lives in the valley of the shadow of death, tell them Jesus is risen, death is defeated, we need no longer be afraid, we need no longer be enslaved.  We, too, stand at the end of the old age and the beginning of the new.  Death’s reign of terror has come to an end for us.  Jesus has become the first-fruits of everyone he will raise from the dead.  And just as he says to Martha, He says to you right now: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in Me, though he may die, shall live.  And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.  Do you believe this?’ (John 11:25-26)  Did Martha believe this?  Did the women believe this?  Do you believe this? 


Mark’s gospel ends with this:  And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ (Mark 16:8)  There is more speculation than you can shake a stick at as to whether or not the original ending of Mark’s gospel got lost, and if it did, how might it have ended.  But for our sake, I’m glad it ends this way.  I think I would have done the same thing if it had been me.  And we do know from the other gospels that they in fact came face to face with the risen Jesus, that they did recover from their shock, that they did tell the disciples (who at first refused to believe them).  They went on to be among those praying in the upper room, among those filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, among those who were part of the first churches.  But it started with ‘Come and see’ and ‘Go and tell.’  These women were right there at the dawn of the Kingdom of the risen Jesus.  ‘Come and see,’ the angel said.  ‘Go and tell,’ he commissioned them.  The first apostles.  The first missionaries.


The same call is on my life – Come and see!  Go and tell!  And the same call is on your life, too.  Everything changes when we meet the risen Jesus.  And if we are still running around like everybody else in our culture, then it must mean that we haven’t met him yet.  We honor these women today because in them we see what it means to be not just an apostle, and not just a missionary.  We see in them what it means to be a Christian, right here and right now.  Come and see! says the angel at the tomb.  Go and tell!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Easter Again and Again


Happy Easter to all my Protestant and Catholic friends!  It was lovely seeing all the church parking lots full this past Sunday morning, and the beautiful Easter flowers bedecking crosses, and cute as can be little girls in their beautiful Easter dresses and the accompanying little boys looking dutifully uncomfortable in their new trousers, shirts and jackets.  Of course, I was on my way to celebrate Palm Sunday.

My two girls in 1993 in Easter dresses made by their mom.

Eastern and Western Churches are a week apart in their celebrations of Easter this year.  We just finished our Lent on Friday night, and with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, Orthodox Christians turn the liturgical corner into something even more profound – a series of Holy Week services that build on each other and open the doors for us to become part of the story of our Lord’s passion and resurrection.  As a member of our choir and a Reader, I’ll be there for almost every service.  And then there was our parish work day this past Saturday, and finding a time to confess with my priest and all the hard internal work that must go on with that – I mention all this because it’s not just me walking the pathway of repentance through Lent and now Holy Week, but all my fellow-parishioners are on their own similar journey.  In such company, I feel I have only begun to know Christ and to live a life worthy of His call and love.

The Reader Joseph (aka me) reading the Epistle during our Ukrainian Orthodox Church
Metropolitan Antony's recent visit to our parish. 

Holy Week and Pascha (what we Orthodox call ‘Easter’) is God’s answer to the soul-crushing black hole at the core of human existence: sin, evil and death.  The secular world is almost comical in its inability to grasp the Christian content of these days, seeking instead to distract engagement with what Christ is doing this week by absurd images of bunnies and chicks and promoting the chocolate-laden Easter basket as a substitute to the real drama happening on the cross and in the tomb and in our souls.  When I faced my first round of Holy Week services some years ago, my first thought was ‘Overkill’.  But I have since better understood both what’s going on with them and how to use them.  With my mind on hyperdrive most of the time, these services force me to slow down.  Standing for two hours through a ‘Service of the Bridegroom’ which I will do tonight and tomorrow night gives me the chance to enter into that which we are singing and chanting and praying about.  Owning the hymns and prayers transforms an event that some might consider as insufferably boring into one that is powerfully alive.

Christ the Bridegroom icon, detail

So pray for me and my fellow Orthodox Christians.  Western Easter is now in the rearview mirror.  But our own liturgical-year journey is reaching its apex.  In particular, pray that I would take advantage of the opportunity afforded by these services to enter into the repentance and reconciliation and new life to which they point.

Dome and Pantocrator of Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church in Colorado Springs, CO

Oh and while all this is going on, I am still a missionary candidate with OCMC, still praying that God would open the way for me to return to Kenya where I can continue to serve Him and His Church on the faculties of Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary and St. Paul’s University.  Since last I wrote, I have received several major gifts from unexpected sources which took me completely by surprise.  To date I can account for about 80% of what I need.  Including ministry expenses I still need to raise about $700/month in support (which comes out to about $17,000 over two years).  I have been invited to visit at least three churches and maybe four later on in April and May.  Pray that God would move His people to become the means of my ministry in Kenya.

Seminarians Breaking Bread at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary in Nairobi

Some of you have made monthly pledges.  Now is the time to start sending them in!  Others of you may want to become a financial supporter of this ministry.  If you want to join my support team, you can start right now by going to the www.OCMC.org website and clicking on the ‘Support’ button at the bottom of my page: http://www.ocmc.org/about/view_missionary.aspx?MissionaryId=41
Or if you email me, I’ll be glad to send you a support envelope that you can mail in to OCMC: jwblack@ocmc.org .  Also, if you know of any other persons, friends or family members who may be interested in supporting a mission such as mine, then please let me know and I’ll be happy to share some information with them!

In order to be on the ground in Kenya and ready to teach for the fall semester, I really need to depart from the States no later than July, which means my support needs to be in by June.  Would you pray and ask God if He wants you to be part of His team that makes this happen?  This last $17,000 is proving to be the hardest, because I do not know who else to ask at this point.  So pray with me that God would somehow enable me to meet this goal, and that I could finally go. 



Jesus Himself said, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’ (Luke 10:2)  Here I am.  Send me.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Fasten Seatbelt Sign Is Illuminated: When Totalitarian World-Views Collide


Let me try to state the issue as clearly as I can.  Fully 90% of American Christians believe that homosexual acts are fundamentally against God’s intended purpose for humanity.  Sex is intended for the covenant relationship between a man and a woman for the primary purpose of bringing children into the world.  A homosexual relationship is a symptom of a greater disorder and brokenness, and as such is one of a number of behaviors, attitudes and postures that the Bible describes as ‘sin’.  ‘Sin’ is described by many as ‘missing the mark’, the mark being what we men and women were created to know and be and enjoy.  Homosexuality is one of many behaviors and attitudes that Christians understand as ‘immoral’ and therefore sinful.  Sin settles for something less than God’s good, and one’s choice to sin cuts us off from God’s good and thus increasingly from God and one another.  The ultimate sin is idolatry.  Idolatry seeks to replace the God who is perceived to be in the way of what one wants with a ‘god’ more amenable to one’s desires.  The result is moral chaos; the boundaries of morality begin to shift and shift again until the field of play is transformed into something else altogether.


On the other side, for the first time in our history a majority of Americans have rejected Christian morality as having any authority in their lives or any relevance to their culture.  Furthermore, a majority of Americans now believe there is nothing wrong whatsoever with homosexual acts or with being ‘gay’ or being LBTG along with a growing list of additional capital letters, each one standing for a sexual practice that the former majority culture deemed perverse.  A thirty-plus year effort has succeeded in redefining homosexuality from being a moral issue to being a civil rights issue.  Agreeing with the homosexual lobby, American courts have, over the past 20 years, struck down every law criminalizing homosexual behavior and have increasingly sided with homosexual plaintiffs seeking redress for practices perceived as discriminatory.  Having achieved the same legal status as African Americans and women in terms of validating the right of homosexuals to be free of discrimination in the workplace, marketplace and public arena, the homosexual lobby has become increasingly strident in their attempts to dismantle the old Christian morality that is widely perceived as being the driving force behind the previous marginalization of the homosexual community.  So when a baker couple in Oregon refused to make a cake for a homosexual wedding, the offended homosexual couple took the small business to court and won.  The bakery was ordered to pay a fine of up to $150,000 for refusing service to this homosexual couple. [http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/oregon-bakery-pay-gay-couple-refused-cake-article-1.2103577].  With a skillful use of the courts, a sympathetic media and a powerful strategy of public shaming any person, institution or organization seen as in the way of its agenda (‘outrage’ is the operative word), the homosexual movement (and its powerful allies in media, education, business, entertainment and government) has engineered and benefited from the most rapid change in American public morality in the history of the republic.


Increasingly, the homosexual community is attacking/taking the offense against groups it perceives as stigmatizing it or demeaning it or otherwise suggesting that homosexual morality is somehow deficient.  Groups such as the Boy Scouts, university religious groups, not to mention Christian businesses whose owners and/or employees may feel morally compromised if they are perceived as accommodating homosexual marriage or condoning homosexual behavior, for example—all of these groups and more have felt the wrath of hostile litigation and the shaming tactics employed by the new cultural elite.


Since 1980, the word ‘sin’ has gone out of favor in the eyes of the majority culture, perceived as being judgmental.  By redefining morality through the lens of the anti-discrimination movements of the past, a new binary morality has emerged in the homosexual activist community.  One is in the right if one is for inclusiveness (i.e. accepting and including us as homosexuals); one is a bigot and a hater if one is not.  The old morality is dismissed because it discriminates (specifically, it discriminates against us homosexuals); unsurprisingly, therefore, the old morality has become the problem.


In some corners of  the fragmented Christian perspective, there have been attempts to accommodate the homosexual agenda by accepting the validity of homosexual relationships and allowing for the ordination of practicing homosexuals into Christian ministry (The Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches come to mind). Most recently, the Presbyterian Church (USA) changed their definition of marriage to allow same-sex relationships to be included.  However noble the intentions of the leaders of these American churches, the effect has been an abandonment of traditional and historic Christian morals in favor of the morals of the homosexual agenda.  In other words, even in many Christian circles, there has been an inability to comprehend that there is such a thing as a Christian morality.  Many in these churches have accepted uncritically the homosexual agenda’s assertion that any form of passing judgment is wrong (unless, of course, the object of one's judging is another’s bigotry).  These Christians have accepted the majority culture’s perspective that causing offense is the worst ‘sin’ one could commit, and that non-judgmental accommodation to the wider culture is the true Christian stance.  But from the standpoint of traditional and historic Christianity, moral standards are not decided by local preference or convenience; morality is accommodation to God’s own revealed character.  Now have Christians made a hash of attempting to force Sinai covenant (OT) morality on Christians when Jesus (and the NT) sets the Christian community in a different and even more profound direction?  Absolutely.  But Christian exegetical mistakes in this direction in no way eclipse the real issue that the fountain of Christian morality is Jesus Himself and that to choose a different moral path than that of Jesus is to take one outside the boundaries of the Christian community, historically understood.


The essence of the conflict now upon us is that of colliding totalitarian world-views.  Boiled down, it can be stated thusly.  An aspect of the Christian world view considers homosexual behavior (among many other behaviors such as greed, idolatry, theft, hatred, sloth, murder, fornication, adultery, etc) to be immoral.  Given that this behavior is at the heart of homosexual identity, such a stance is, by definition, offensive to members of the homosexual community.  On the other hand, an aspect of the emerging world-view of the homosexual community considers any activity, speech or behavior that puts down, discriminates against or hinders the homosexual community in any way (or is perceived by an individual or the community as doing so) is labeled as bigotry and the individuals involved as ‘haters’.  From the perspective of the homosexual community, this is, morally, the worst thing that anybody could do.  The moral force of this position has to do with its identity with the Civil Rights movement and the movement for equal rights for women.  Identifying the struggle of homosexuals with that of African Americans and women has been a key strategy of the homosexual agenda.  Homosexual activism against any threat to that equality, real or perceived, has become the engine driving the various outrage campaigns that are serving to expand homosexual rights ever further into American culture, business, media and education.


These two world-views are presently colliding, and the train wreck is playing out in slow motion across the landscape of American public life.  While it was brilliant strategy on the part of the homosexual community to redefine their agenda away from the realm of morality into the arena of civil rights, it is a complete irony that the original civil rights movements were driven, not by secular values and outrage, but by Christian morality applied in the public square.  Having appropriated the language of the civil rights movements, the homosexual agenda has vacated their meaning (and their history) of any Christian moral agenda.  Moreover, having gained a hearing in the American public square by a skillful use of the moral philosophy of relativism (no religion/philosophy/morality is better than the other), the new culture is refusing to extend to other minority perspectives with which it disagrees (most pointedly the moral perspective held by conservative Christians) the same respect it has demanded from everyone else.  In any other context this would be identified simply as hypocrisy.  But because the homosexual agenda believes it has the right to set the moral agenda for our emerging secular culture, consistency is apparently expendable if it conflicts with the ultimate goals of the movement.


The goals of the homosexual community and that of the Christian community are diametrically opposed.  Both are working towards a vision of society that the other finds an abomination.  In the past, the Christian community controlled the levers of power in America.  Christian morality (however imperfectly) informed the laws of the land.  Christian behavior was enforced in public if not in private.  Changes in existing  law and practice deemed wrong (such as slavery and civil rights) were made from arguments based in Christian morality.  This was considered by American citizens to be normative – the way things should be. 


But in the short span of thirty years, this Christian cultural hegemony is all but gone.  Even this week, politicians, business leaders, cultural icons and even the NCAA are all lining up to condemn a law passed by the Indiana state legislature intended to ensure religious liberty.  The fear is that people, in the name of religion, will discriminate against homosexuals (like refuse to make their wedding cakes just because they are homosexual, and worse).  Even the possibility of such discrimination has provoked such media and cultural outrage that this story has been the lead on almost all the major news outlets I read and watch this week. 


The great problem, of course, is that most American Christian churches as a matter of faith discriminate against homosexuality, just as they do against every other form of immorality.  For these Christians, people who engage in such behavior have replaced God’s standards with their own.  They have willfully chosen to separate themselves from God’s purpose for His creation, and desperately need to turn back (repent) and be reconciled with their Maker and His purpose for their lives.  They are, by definition, unbelievers.  They are to be loved, but their rebellious behavior is not something that can be accepted or accommodated, much less condoned, in the church.  However much the other side in this argument wishes to reframe the debate in terms of civil rights, it does not change the fact that for most Christians the issue remains one of morality.


As one might imagine, it is profoundly offensive for members of the homosexual community to have their behavior and orientation, if not their identity, labeled as immoral.  And it is just as offensive and shocking for Christians to have their morality labeled as ‘hateful’ and ‘bigoted’.  Unfortunately for Christians, they are currently on the wrong side of the present cultural shift.  And just as the former Christian majority saw no problems in using the power of government and culture to promote and enforce its moral vision, it should not surprise the now Christian minority if an alien world view uses the same levers of coercion to impose its version of morality on the nation.  This means that Christians will be forced to choose either to accommodate the new morality or face the legal, social and economic consequences.  This is already happening.


I don’t pretend to know the future of Christianity in America, but the current trajectory does not bode well, at least for the way things have been.  At the very least, the cozy relationship between Christianity and government, business and media is receding into history.  And the new masters of our culture are hell-bent on extirpating Christianity and it’s anti-homosexual morality as a meaningful influence.  It has been shocking enough to see Christians targeted in places like Kenya, Iraq, Syria and Egypt by a Muslim totalitarian world view.  What is completely unexpected is that in such a ‘Christian nation’, Christians are being isolated and targeted by a new emerging secular totalitarian world view, one that has already demonstrated its willingness to use the courts and the media, as well as their corporate and governmental allies to punish their enemies and bully their opponents until they toe the new line.  Christians in America are not used to being treated as a despised minority.  Suffering has not ever been equated with following Christ in this country.  This may be about to change.



UPDATE:
My friend Robert H. has written very helpfully:

[The] only distinction I would make is that in our tradition we wouldn't frame it quite this way regarding [the role of sex]: 'Sex is intended for the covenant relationship between a man and a woman for the primary purpose of bringing children into the world.'

I think the consensus Orthodox position is that there is no single 'primary purpose' to sex in marriage; it's not just for procreation but first and foremost the expression of the relationship itself = love (an icon of God Who is love) and that the bearing of children is the natural fruit of that love.  So both love and procreation are deeply valued, the latter begotten of the former (my construct).  And for those of us not blessed with children in our marriage, the New Covenantal dimensions of love can be fully expressed and the propagation of love still happen, just not quite the same way as having [children].  Orthodoxy is always unsettled when there is a 'goal' or 'end' to something which we call a Mystery! The RC Church and the [other churches in the] West to a degree, tended to make the bearing of children the 'engine' and abiding love something of the caboose on the train, which could even be uncoupled from the engine at times...

Given that I bring only brokenness to any discussion on marriage, I'm grateful for the chance to be better instructed.


Monday, March 30, 2015

When the Evil One Has His Way [a lament]


When the evil one has his way:

Forgiveness is never given.
Deceit is preferred to the truth.
The other is treated with contempt.
Fear keeps the other quiet.
Listening stops.
Brokenness is preferred.
Pride blinds one from seeing reality.
Words become weapons.
Power and dominance are maintained at the expense of others.
Repentance is something necessary for the other.
One refuses to admit the need for help.
One is quick to see the other’s faults.
One keeps score of the other’s perceived transgressions.
The other is shamed and dehumanized by calling him/her names.
Friends are forced to choose sides.
Gossip determines how people relate to the one portrayed as in the wrong.
Friends are quick to believe one side of the story of a broken relationship without seeking to discover if it is true.
Anger and contempt hide behind public propriety and religious piety.
Accommodation is preferred to the feared pain of stopping the cycle of dysfunction.
Arguments are won at the other’s expense.
One insists on being right.
Unresolved conflict between husband and wife leads to many being hurt—children, grandchildren, relatives and friends all suffer.
We become a trophy, not of God’s grace, but of the enemy’s strategy.
Brokenness defines our lives, despite whatever happy talk one uses to cover it.
One’s posture of victimhood ensures the evil one will continue to have his way.
One becomes obsessed with justifying one’s actions.
Humility becomes impossible.
Love becomes calculated.
Peace is distraction.
Hypocrisy is preferred to self-examination.
The other is always at fault.
Self-preservation (financial, professional, social, medical) becomes the goal.
Pretense gives the impression of wholeness.
Hell is preferred to heaven.

There are two ways out of this desert, both hard.
The first is death.
The second is repentance and reconciliation.

God have mercy on me.  I am only just beginning to repent.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Freefall


I have been told that skydiving is an awesome, exhilarating sport.  After one takes care to obtain the proper equipment, and then ensures that the proper equipment actually works, one boards an airplane that takes off and climbs to some dizzying height.  The door opens and one leaps into the freedom of freefall.  The vast vistas, the rush of wind.  One exults in the rush, the speed, the drama.  From way up, though one is plunging faster and faster, the lack of perspective gives the appearance of floating.  Just about everyone who makes the leap enjoys this sensation of freefall.  But at a certain point, reality intrudes, and a decision is made to avoid the consequences of allowing gravity to pull one unimpeded towards an unpleasant meeting with the uprushing earth.  One pulls the cord.  A parachute deploys.  Descent slows from a plummet to a float.  With legs bent to absorb the shock, we touch down and hope our ride isn’t too far away.


Full disclosure.  I’ve never jumped from a plane. Or a balloon. I have, in a moment of sheer insanity, jumped off a gazillion feet high diving platform at an outdoor pool near my cousins’ house in Louisville, KY.  At some point during that fateful morning, I concluded that such a jump was a good idea.  However when I started climbing the stairs and then the very long ladder to the top, and kept getting higher and higher, I began to have second thoughts.  Peer pressure and teenaged stupidity took me to the top of the platform.  The view was awesome.  The pool looked like a tiny rectangle of blue with tiny figures looking up, waving their arms and shouting things I could not hear.  The urge to freak out was overwhelming.  I don’t know how long I stood on top of that platform looking down at that swimming pool – time screeched to a crawl.  Eventually the embarrassment of taking too long overruled whatever shred of common sense I had left.  I walked to the edge.  Closed my eyes.  Stepped off.


It took a surprisingly long time to fall what seemed to me at least 100 feet.  I remember thinking that the whistling noise one heard when Wile E Coyote invariably fell from the top of an impossibly high canyon when one of his pursuits of the road runner went inevitably awry – that’s the sound I heard, the wind shrieking in my ears.  But in less time than it takes to read this sentence, I smacked the water hard, as one is wont to do from this sort of height.  I can only thank God that I had the presence of mind to keep my legs together.  It’s sort of surprising that they allowed young people like me to leap off of diving towers like that.  It sort of surprises me that anyone thought it would be a good idea to build such a diving tower anywhere, much less at a swimming pool open to the public.  But as has been said about baseball fields in corn patches, if you build it, they – idiots like me – will come.


With a mixture of trepidation and astonishment, I have watched, in my lifetime, the arbiters of this American culture that I call home, board the moral equivalent of an airplane, ascend to the awesome, dizzying heights of moral ‘freedom’, all the while explaining with increasing vehemence just how hateful those people are for presuming to tell us how to live our lives.  Our culture is airborne now, circling higher and higher.  Many on board are intoxicated by the freedom of living without restraints, in this case, without seatbelts and, more significantly, parachutes.  The side door is flung open, and one by one all of the passengers hurl themselves into the absolute freedom of moral freefall.


During my lifetime, here has been a real revolution in American morality in general, and in sexual morality in particular.  Sex between young people during high school or college has become expected.  Living together before making a long term commitment to one another has become the norm.  Masturbation seems all but universal.  Access to pornography, once restricted to a risky visit to the bad side of town, is now one click away on one’s computer or phone or tablet 24/7 at a location of one’s choosing.  Adultery elicits a yawn from the wider culture (unless the perpetrator is a minister or a politician, thus making the real offense to be hypocrisy).  Homosexuality has gone from being a criminalized offense to being celebrated by the media, affirmed by the wider culture.  The more liberal Christian denominations, always about 15 years behind the cultural curve, are lining up to demonstrate their bona fides by saying ‘yes’ to ‘gay’ clergy, ‘yes’ to homosexual marriage, and no to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.


The philosophical justification behind this increasing climate change in morality has been relativism.  Relativism, of course, had been a stream of philosophical discussion since the 19th century. It was being discussed in the humanities classes I took in college.  Indeed, relativism was already being used as a justification for the avant-garde morality of some of my peers and instructors, who viewed themselves as the heirs of the cultural breakthroughs of the 1960s.  The majority in the wider culture, however, dismissed this tiny intellectual elite as moral reprobates, while continuing to send their children to be educated in their institutions of higher learning.  But what the majority culture failed to comprehend was just how corrosive an acid relativism would prove to the strands that held 20th century American morality together.


The acid of relativism is the simple idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth, but that right and wrong are relative, depending on the situation, the circumstances and the context.  This means that no one is in a position to judge another person as being ‘wrong’.  Starting with the universities and the arts and media communities, this acid began eating away at the seemingly impregnable fortresses of cultural morality in America.  For most of our nation’s history, and even further back into its colonial past, there had been consensus on what was right and what was wrong when it came to sexual morality.  It was assumed by nearly everyone that marriage between a man and a woman constituted the right context for sexual relations and for raising children.  There were, of course, plenty of individuals who made decisions to behave outside these boundaries.  But the fact that there were hypocrites (people who acknowledged the norms but flaunted them) or counter-cultural deviants did not change the reality of what the wider culture’s considered to be ‘normal’ sexual behavior.  Words such as ‘adultery’, ‘fornication’ and ‘sodomy’, among others, described behaviors that fell outside what was considered normal and conducive to healthy relationships and thus healthy society.  And just as aberrant sexual behavior did not alter that there was a normative context for sex, just because there were marriages that failed did not alter the fact that there was a normative context in which to raise children and regulate sexual relations.  The clincher for American morality was that this wasn’t just society’s norm, it was also the morality prescribed by God himself in the Christian religion of the majority, both Protestant and Catholic.  Since the majority of Americans were Christians, adopting God’s morality as their own made perfect sense.  The Bible provided a blueprint for relationships in general, and for sexual morality in particular.  And if God himself has shown us how we are to live and relate to one another, ignoring his commands would be akin to us deciding we were going to ignore the natural law of gravity.  Trouble would result accordingly. This was the world into which I was born and the moral context in which I grew up.


America today is a very different place, morally, than the world in which I became an adult, much less the America of the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries.  The rapidity of these fundamental changes in sexual morality has been breathtaking.  But what is perhaps most astonishing is the speed in which the Christian morality that defined four hundred years of the American social contract has simply collapsed.  The supporters of moral libertarianism have seemingly won a stunning come-from-behind victory.  The present rash of court decisions in favor of gay marriage and against discrimination are simply a victory lap for the culture’s purveyors of the new morality.  But what they and almost every other person on the current cultural bandwagon are not comprehending is that while relativism is extraordinarily effective at demolishing foundations of culture, it is by definition incapable of sustaining the coherent positive morality necessary to maintain a viable substitute.  In other words, we have witnessed the moment when our culture has leaped out of the plane.  In the name of freedom and the validity of everyone’s (except the ruling) morality, we have succeeded in throwing off every restraint controlling sexual morality (with the exception of a few, which won’t last long).  We are witnessing the giddy feelings that accompany the thrill of freefall.  Those driving these changes and celebrating the overthrow of the Christian underpinnings of our culture think that they have set themselves and our culture free to be ourselves.  But what they do not fathom is that the culture cannot survive the corrosion of its foundations.  As William Butler Yeats observed:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned,
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(‘The Second Coming’, 1919)

Just this past week, multimillionaire gay fashion designers Dolce and Gabbana gave an interview to an Italian fashion magazine that set off a firestorm in the upper echelons of our emerging culture:

‘We oppose gay adoptions,’ they say, ‘The only family is the traditional one. No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.’ He said, ‘You are born to a mother and a father – or at least that’s how it should be.  I call children of chemistry, synthetic children.  Rent uterus, semen chosen from a catalogue.’  Stefano Gabbana added, ‘The family is not a fad.  In it there is a supernatural sense of belonging.’  In an interview in 2006, Gabbana revealed in another Italian magazine that he had approached a woman to be the mother of his baby but said he struggled with the idea.  ‘I am opposed to the idea of a child growing up with two gay parents,’ he said.  ‘A child needs a mother and a father.  I could not imagine my childhood without my mother.  I also believe that it is cruel to take a baby away from it’s mother.’ (http://m.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-31907007)


Elton John, the father of two no doubt extremely well-adjusted children he acquired through the services of a laboratory, blew his hairpiece: On Sunday he wrote on Instagram: ‘How dare you refer to my beautiful children as “synthetic”.’  ‘And shame on you for wagging your judgmental little fingers at IVF – a miracle that has allowed legions of loving people, both straight and gay, to fulfill their dream of having children.  Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions.’ Elton says he’s never going to wear Dolce & Gabbana again.  Because they are bastard people. And it’s not just Elton John.  Courtney Love Cobain tweeted, ‘Just rounded up all my Dolce & Gabanna pieces.  I want to burn them. I’m just beyond words and emotions.  Boycott! senseless bigotry.’

Dreher, with some restraint, comments:  

‘So let me get this straight: Courtney Love is shocked beyond the ability to feel or articulate anything because two Italian gay guys say that children need a mother and a father?  And she’s prepared to burn – yes, burn – her extremely expensive D&G attire? Gosh, I wonder what she did with her John Galliano Frocks after the alcoholic courturier ranted in public about his mad crush on Hitler?  Granted, sympathizing with Nazism is not as bad as supporting the traditional family.’

This is what freefall looks like.  After undoing all the restraints, it’s all lovely.  But what if one discovers that the person over there wants to do it a different way, a way that you find offensive.  How does one stop them?  Mr. John and Ms. Love, for all their self-righteous fuming, have no moral ground on which to stand to criticize D&G’s support of the traditional family, or against anyone else’s behavior, for that matter.  The same critique they have leveled against the former American cultural majority can now be leveled against them.  Relativism reveals this attempt at moral imperialism as hypocrisy.  All that’s left is outrage.  And outrage is a response that has become all too familiar in this age of social media. But while outrage may impress and motivate the first time or two it’s wielded as a weapon by the twitterati, it wears like a designer dress that’s been seen one time too many.  One can only affect nuclear outrage so many times before it begins to seem a wee bit out of proportion.



A life without restraints sounds so appealing.  A life without troubling guilt.  A life where I can be the person I want to be.  A life free from someone else passing judgment on me.  A life without the spectre of consequences.  The great problem with the cul de sac turned into by our culture is that it works only if I am the only person on the planet.  If another person living the same free life makes choices that discomfit me or other people, who is anybody to judge?  There is no moral ground on which to make such judgments.  The gay couple who sues the Christian baker for denying their request that she bake for their wedding reception even though she feels it violates her sense of morality is making just such a moral non sequitor.  Insisting that the members of the wider culture accept one’s own choices without passing judgment while refusing to extend the same acceptance to another minority for the choices she is making is simply hypocrisy, and their subsequent media and legal actions are harassment pure and simple.  There is no moral case to be made.  It’s intimidation by outrage and lawsuit, which is another way of saying these men are bullies.

The wind is whistling in our ears as we experience our new found freedom from morality.  We are reaping our elite’s carefully cultivated garden of relativity.  The 360 vistas of moral liberty are as stunning as we were told they would be.  But nobody talked about the uprushing earth in our late-night dorm room talks.  Nor does anybody seem to have any idea what to do about whatever unpleasant consequences this might portend.  Now that they have what they think they want, ‘consequences’ are the last thing anyone in this crowd wants to think about.  None of the media talking heads, none of the bloggers, none of the article writers, none of the tweeters wants to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for the new day by forecasting anything but sunny springtime weather.  Like modern day Marie Antoinettes, the new lords of our American culture want desperately to have their cake and eat it too.


I wish I were just an observer, watching as our culture leaps out of the plane and experiences the inexorable reality of gravity, falling into the void of our new relativistic presuppositions.  But it’s my culture, too, along with everyone else.  Having won the culture wars and vanquished the long-time Christian consensus that defined our society for so long, our new masters are taking us all with them.  I just don’t think any of them have thought through… the consequences.