Love and Marriage… and Singleness too

Hey friends…

Okay, so it’s been absolutely BANANAS in the Arndt household.  We’re in the middle of trying to buy a house.  Enough said.  In the next couple weeks I hope to resume my regular blogging by writing about what we’re continuing to cover in the Sermon on the Mount as well as talk about some of the things I’m really hopeful for as we move in to Year 2 at Bloom… and may I say, OH HOW WE LOVE BLOOM!  Gosh this past year’s been fun.

Anyway, we wound up losing the audio from 9/19’s sermon at Bloom, which caused a small (and I mean small) uproar with our listening community.  One guy in particular, who doesn’t attend Bloom but does listen, wanted to know what I had said.  So I wrote him an email in reply, and when I had sent it realized that the notes from that night would actually make a decent blog post.  So, for those of you who weren’t there, and for those that were, here’s the summary (thanks Jamal for prompting the email!!):

So I basically worked through Matt 5:31-32 in tandem with Matt 19:3-12… Jesus’ classic articulation of marriage and divorce.  I tried to draw attention to these salient points:

1) Jesus brushes the question about the “lawful” circumstances of marriage aside by appealing to the “deeper will” of the Creator, which was that the “one flesh union” would be, as the Catholic church teaches, “indissoluble”, and that conversations about what is “lawful” when it comes to divorce only thinly disguise what Pope John Paull II has called “a systematic defection from the Creator’s will.”  That is, monogamy for life.

2) Following from that, Jesus seems to think in Matt 19 that the real reason that marriages fail is not any of the reasons most people today give: “We fell out of love”, “We had irreconcilable differences”, “We realized we were incompatible”, and the like. Rather, he states rather tersely that the reason marriages fail is that people’s hearts get hard… (“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives on account of the hardness of your heart“).  That expression, “hardness of heart”, has two levels of meaning: obviously first they get hard towards each other, but secondly they get “hard” in the sense that they grow cold to the Creator’s will, which is that marriages would succeed, despite all the inevitable ups and downs of married life.

3) I also tried to draw attention to the fact that Jesus seems to think that marriage is not for everyone (this was the point that got the most response, especially out of our heavily singled crowd).  When the disciples say to him, “In that case, it is better not to be married!”, Jesus doesn’t reply by saying, “Oh no no no, marriage is great and everyone should do it!”  Rather, he says, “You’re right.  But some have been given the call to be married, and those who have should accept.”  This is basically similar to what Paul says in 1 Co 7.  “Each has his own gift from God…”

So marriage is a high calling

And so is singleness

Both have an indispensable place in the church

My concluding points from all of this reflection were these…

1) Being single is not evidence of some kind of pathology, which is exactly the way we treat it in the modern church.  “Married” is the normal mode of sexual life, and “single” is abnormal.  So we create “singles ministries” in the hopes of “ministering to the special needs” of single people.  This is exactly backwards from the early church, which understood that singleness was the “normal” mode of life for God’s new people in Christ, since, unlike Judaism, the religion didn’t grow by procreation but by witness and conversion.  You’ve heard it said, “God has no grandchildren”.  And that’s right.  So if you’re single, I said, EMBRACE THE MOMENT.  God may call you to be married, but you ought to carpe diem and give yourself over to the purposes of God in the very rich and marvelous way that Paul commends in 1 Co 7.

2) If you do desire marriage, it’s okay.  But if you do it, for God’s sake embrace a sort of pragmatics about it.  In other words, there’s something to be said for doing away with fairy-tale notions of “God is calling us to be together” when it’s entirely clear to everyone involved in your life that you’re headed for a train wreck of a marriage.

Questions to ask of a person you’re interested in include:

– Is he/she a Christian?

– Do we get along easily and naturally?

– Does he/she have good character?

– Will he/she make a good parent?

– What do I think of his/her family?

That pragmatism keeps us from bad thinking.  Moreover, it will help us when times get rough.  I’ve seen quite a few Christian couples think that God was calling them to be together and then later concluding they must have “missed God” when their marriage got tough, and then they bail.  That’s poor thinking.  I’M NOT SAYING GOD DOESN’T CALL PEOPLE TO BE MARRIED.  I think he does.  But I think the path to discovering and confirming that is a pragmatic one.  In much the same way that God “calls” certain people to ministry… that may be true, but that calling needs to be tested through a whole bunch of pragmatic means, to see if it’s “really real.”  Make sense?

For married people, I gave the following admonitions:

1) Managing the condition of your heart is of utmost importance.  This likely means praying a lot.  As Jesus says that marriages fail on account of the “hardness of our hearts”, keeping our souls malleable before God is incredibly important.

2) Worry about yourself.  Truth is, our influence of our spouses is something that often happens incidentally and indirectly.  Seems to me that couples that try to “change” each other usually fail, and wind up embittering each other.  “Take the plank out of your own eye” is actually really good advice.  Manage yourself.  Assume you probably can’t change the other person, except with love.  And be the kind of person that it’s a delight to be married to.  That will go a long way towards making your marriage happy.

3) Keep your marriage “public”.  Nothing bespoils marriages more than trouble taking place in private.  Odds are other people are going through or have gone through exactly what you are going through.  You’re not as unique as you think.  So if you keep your marriage transparent and accountable to other people, you stand a really good chance of having easily avoidable problems not going to seed and becoming HUGE problems later on.  Having transparent relationships with other people “normalizes” the ups and downs of marriage.

And finally, my last point was a word of encouragement to those who have been through divorce… that the Christian gospel, if it is “about” anything, is “about” redemption… that to me means that new life and hope and possibility are always available, even if our marriages failed BECAUSE OF US.  God mends what is broken and doesn’t hold our failures over our heads.



Towards a redeemed sexual ethos…

This fall at Bloom we’re wrestling with the Sermon on the Mount… Jesus’ classic articulation of what life among those who have been captured and conditioned by the now-available ‘Kingdom of the Heavens’ looks like.  This past weekend we dealt with his teaching in Matthew 5:27ff.: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery’, but I say to you that anyone who looks upon a woman to desire her has already committed adultery in her in his heart…”

Among the many words used by the New Testament writers for “hell”, the one used most commonly by Jesus in Matthew (and in particular in the SoM) is “Gehenna”.  The imagery for anyone familiar with Jerusalem in the 1st century would have been hard to miss.  Gehenna comes from the Aramaic ‘gehinnom’ which referred to a desolate, smoldering area just outside the south of Jerusalem used for dumping refuse…  An apt image I think for the current state of our culture: a living sexual ‘Gehenna’.

Jesus, of course, is good.  His desire is to lead humanity up out of the hell by reconnecting them with the Creator’s gracious call.  He does not accuse.  He invites and calls.  And so he points out for us why and how this “sexual hell” comes into being by saying that (1) disordered desires (“looks upon to desire”) and (2) sexual objectification (“commits adultery in his heart”) are largely responsible.  Think about it…  In the absence of disordered, autonomous desires and sexual objectification, some of the greatest sexual “evils” of our world would simply disappear: rape, child molestation, adultery, sex trafficking, prostitution, pornography… all trade on the twin forces of disordered desires and sexual objectification.  If those two things went away, so would a good deal of the sexual “hell” of our world.

And so among the redeemed, Jesus desires to swallow up “Gehenna” with a new vision for human sexuality… a vision that brings the Creator’s will for humanity into being… he desires to unearth in our midst an “ethos” of redeemed sexuality that re-dignifies us and makes our sexuality safe and meaningful again.

But this is no automatic process.  It is a journey.  This weekend I suggested five “journeys” we need to make personally and communally to begin to give rise to this ethos:

  1. From autonomous desire to chastened desire.  Our culture enshrines “desire” as automatically right.  In a way, then, we set up desire as the ultimate moral tribunal.  The people of God understand desire differently.  We see desire as a potential force for good that goes awry when it is disconnected from a moral and spiritual framework to give it stability, meaning, and coherence.  That means that we don’t believe in “autonomy”.  Rather, we believe in “chastity”; that is, in desires (sexual and otherwise) “ordered” to what is right and good and true and beautiful.
  2. From “objectifying” mental habits and language to “subjectifying” mental habits and language.  Without realizing it, we are often the victims of long-ingrained habits of looking at other people as “sex objects”, reducing them to their “sexual selves.”  In this way, we’re all impoverished, for this not only reduces the total truth of who we are (and obscures other forms of beauty which are not explicitly sexual), but it also introduces predation, competitiveness, fear, and insecurity among us.  The people of God can and should do better.  We refuse to reduce and objectify.  Instead, we treat people as “Image-bearers” with the dignity that belongs to them as such.  We remember that “objectification” is at bottom the sin that stoked the fires of Auschwitz.  We swear off such habits as “from hell.”
  3. From “consuming beauty” to “protecting and preserving beauty.” I remember struggling with issues of lust in college, for I often found it hard appreciate the beauty of the opposite sex without feeling the urge to objectify.  Then one day I realized, “God makes what is beautiful.  It is good and right for me to appreciate beauty without ‘consuming’ it mentally.”  That is to say, beauty is sacred.  So to desecrate it by “consuming” it is simply out of bounds.  In the same way that the Native Americans “loved” the land enough not to destroy (c0nsume) it, so when we learn to appreciate beauty as a gracious gift of the Creator we will then begin to admire the physical beauty of men and women without feeling the need to consume.  This realization cut lust at the root for me.
  4. From sex-in-isolation to sex-in-context and sex-as-calling-and-sacrament.  Sex was never meant to be merely a “thing in itself.”  Rather, sex was always intended to serve the greater design of the Creator.  To abstract sex, therefore, from the Creator’s plan is BY DEFINITION to reduce and objectify.  That is, to degrade.  Sex is ennobled, dignified, and chastened when it is fixed within the bonds of marriage, family, and sacrament…  When sex is understood this way, the journey out of hell begins.
  5. From indifference to resistance. We Christians have a “dog in the fight” of truth-telling and justice.  Bonhoeffer famously said that “peace cannot exist in the absence of the truth.”  It is beyond question that the sexual insanity of our culture is fostered in large part through a media juggernaut that’s simply trying to make a quick buck.  Therefore, it has a stake in presenting “sex” as context-less and community-less and value-less as possible, which is by definition to lie about it.  Christians should resist this, because as Wendell Berry put it so well, “Trying to draw the line where we are trying to draw it, between carelessness (which is what our culture presents as “okay”) and brutality, is like insisting that falling is flying–until you hit the ground–and then trying to outlaw hitting the ground” (Berry 141).  When sex is presented in the arts as un-moored from it’s total context and meaning, we can be sure that brutality is soon to follow.  As Christians who profess to believe in something called “social justice”, which means in part helping to undercut the systems of violence and brutality and exploitation that ruin our world, we need to find creative ways to resist…

This list is by no means exhaustive.  You could probably add some “journeys” of your own.  But I think these are at least some of the crucial journeys we need to make in order to destroy the living sexual nightmare of our world and give rise to a more wholesome, more humane, more human, more dignifying, more beautiful sexual ethos…

(You can have a listen to the whole message from this past weekend here.)

Wendell Berry on Sexual ‘Freedom’

At Bloom this weekend I’m preaching on Mt 5:27ff., Jesus’ classic teaching on the disordered desire of the heart for the sexual “other” that lies at the heart of adultery…  Truthfully, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the task (I just finished reading Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body last week, in which he discusses this passage at length), but I find comfort in remembering that the great Wendell Berry is always comfortably available to supply needed words to weighty topics.  Here’s a sample of Berry’s reflections on sexual freedom that may (or may not) make it into this weekend’s message.  Enjoy.

Seeking to “free” sexual love from its old communal restraints, we have “freed” it also from its meaning, its responsibility, and its exultation.  And we have made it more dangerous.  “Sexual liberation” is as much a fraud and as great a failure as the “peaceful atom.”  We are now living in a sexual atmosphere so polluted and embittered that women must look on virtually any man as a potential assailant, and a man must look on virtually any woman as a potential accuser.  The idea that this situation can be corrected by the courts and the police only compounds the disorder and the danger.  And in the midst of this acid rainfall of predation and recrimination, we presume to teach our young people that sex can be made “safe”–by the use, inevitably, of purchased drugs and devices.  What a lie!  Sex was never safe, and it is less safe now than it has ever been.

What we are actually teaching the young is an illusion of thoughtless freedom and purchasable safety, which encourages them to tamper prematurely, disrespectfully, and dangerously with a great power.  Just as the public economy encourages people to spend money and waste the world, so the public sexual code encourages people to be spendthrifts and squanderers of sex.  The basis of true community and household economy, on the other hand, is thrift.  The basis of community sexuality is respect for everything that is involved–and respect, here as everywhere, implies discipline.  By their common principles of extravagance and undisciplined freedom, our public economy and our public sexuality are exploiting and spending moral capital built up by centuries of community life–exactly as industrial agriculture has been exploiting and spending the natural capital built up over thousands of years in the soil.

…Starting with economic brutality, we have arrived at sexual brutality.  Those who affirm the one and deplore the other will have to explain how we might logically have arrived anywhere else.

Thanks Wendell.

The Crisis of “Relevance”

I have never met anyone from this group.  I know nothing about them, but this picture to me said it all.  “Judaism your way.”  My first reaction was, “Really?”  My second reaction was, “But that’s exactly what Judaism is not, right?”  My third reaction was, “Crud, if the crisis of ‘relevance’ has hit Judaism, the world may really be coming to an end after all” (which may or may not be a bad thing).

Seems to me that this sort of domestication is exactly what has gotten the American church in trouble and is constantly beguiling us.  I confess I have no idea what to make of this kind of thinking.  Of course I understand the motive – we want to clear away the clutter so that people can reconnect with some kind of religion (because we apparently think that religion, like vegetables, is a good thing).  Okay, that makes sense.  But isn’t there a point you reach where you’re defeating the purpose of your own existence?  I mean, “Judaism your way” is really not Judaism at all, right?  Why not just watch Oprah, take yoga, and then smoke a little weed here and there with friends to achieve the ever-so-sought-after “balance” we all need.  Seems like Judaism was always about a call to not to self-express, but to join up with a people who were called to change the world…  so what in the world is “Judaism your way”?  Isn’t that kind of like having being an American sundae with a Jewish cherry on top?

The irony is that, from my vantage point, the attempt to “market” faith like this as a sort of least-common-denominator, we’re-here-for-you group therapy experience is ultimately self-defeating.  If people are going to “give religion a try”, don’t you think they want something that’s going to introduce them into an experience that’s different from what they already know and believe?  Something that leads them up and out of life as they know it?  Just imagine walking into a mosque and having the imam up there (wearing a cool shirt from Express and some square-rimmed glasses) saying, “We’re providing Islam YOUR WAY!” and then having a really cool band rip some tunes from U2 for an “opener”.  How weird would that be?

One wonders if part of the reason Islam continues to gain a following worldwide is precisely this steadfast refusal to accommodate culturally.  Christianity (and apparently now, Judaism) could learn a thing or two.  If I’m going to join a mosque, give me the pure, unadulterated version of Islam.  If I’m going to convert to Judaism, hack off a piece of my flesh and tell me what and what not to eat.  If I’m going to become a Christian, give me a tall, stiff drink of “take up your cross” and let me slurp it down till I’m punch-drunk and totally disoriented.  Anything less is an insult to me and to the religion itself.

At least that’s my view.