Tuesday, October 31, 2006

October 31: Is there More to this Day than Halloween?

Tonight as I sit and write, parents are walking their children around a mall, or church parking lot, or to neighbors houses in the effort to fill their Halloween bags with candy. As I contemplate the meaning of October 31, non-profit organizations all over the country are raking in the money by hosting haunted houses and scaring the living daylights out of people who, ironically enough, are paying big money to have the daylights scared out of them.

As is usually the case on October 31, churches are taking advantage of the season by sponsoring “trunk or treat” outreach projects, or taking their youth through a “judgment house.” I find it strange that at this time of year, the church pays so much attention to a holiday that has nothing to do with its history and heritage, and so little attention to the historical event that continues to define us to this day. 489 years ago today, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed a 95-point statement of concern to the door of a church in Wittenburg Germany. This single gesture ignited a movement that resulted in the recovery of the Biblical Gospel, the empowerment of the laity, the uncovering of the true church, and probably most important, the escape from something more terrifying than anything our imaginations could invent on Halloween.

Luther had a word for this terror. He called it Anfectung. Although there is no English word that corresponds exactly to the German phrase, we know that Luther was expressing the deepest kind of darkness that one experiences when his worst moments of terror, depression, doubt and despair combine. Born in 1483, young Luther aspired to practice law, but in 1505 after a near-death experience, he fled to a monastery, and would spend the next decade struggling with doubt about the condition of his own soul.

Living under the constant fear of God’s judgment caused Luther to confess with regularity the slightest offense to his spiritual guide Johann von Staupitz. Staupitz, who served as the chaplain of the University of Wittenburg where Luther taught Theology, eventually grew tired of Luther’s perpetual appeals for forgiveness and said to him “God is not mad at you. You are mad at God.”

Eventually, Luther would come to agree with Staupitz’ assessment. Indeed, Luther admitted later on that he in fact hated God, and came to realize shortly afterward that this hatred was but one part of a fallen will that sought to rebel against the Creator. Ironically, it was through his assignment teaching Psalms and Galatians that Luther finally began to develop a different picture of God. He discovered that Jesus, in dying on the cross, took our iniquity on Himself, and subsequently, the penalty for such iniquity. In short, Christ took our anfectung, that terror of God's wrath which the human soul rightly dreads.

But it was a prior trip to Rome coupled with his studies in the Scriptures that brought Martin Luther to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church was not interested in taking away anfectung, but instead profiting from it! Luther had traveled to Rome because he wanted to see Roman Catholicism at its best. What he found was a cultic center of ecclesiastical power that disappointed him greatly.

This selling of “indulgences,” or offerings by which one could supposedly free himself and others from purgatory, found its way to Wittenburg in 1517 by way of the charismatic Johann Tetzel. Commissioned by the Pope himself to finance the building of St. Peter’s Bascillica in Rome, Tetzel stood in the square of the city and with confidence offered his hearers the opportunity to free themselves and their relatives from purgatory, from damnation . . .from anfectung. His words, while eloquent, stirred anger in Luther:

As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!

At the end of that same month, October 31, 1517, Luther responded to Tetzel’s message with his 95 theses, and the course was set for an ecclesiastical tidal wave that would eventually be called the Protestant Reformation. Lasting more than three generations, this ecclesiological shift has given us the Scriptures in the language of the people, a theologically informed laity, freedom of religion, and most importantly, the recovery of the Biblical Gospel. Though it was not his original intent to separate from Rome, Luther’s subsequent studies brought him to the conclusion that Roman Catholicism proclaimed a false Gospel.

Likewise, Protestants today rightly deny the existence of a priestly class. We rightfully challenge the legitimacy of a papal office, and contend that the existence of the papacy itself only illustrates the soteriological and ecclesiological confusion that is propogated when church councils and tradition are seen to carry authority equal to the Scriptures themselves. We rightfully declare that salvation comes not by the imposed sacramental “works” of the church, but instead by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone! Modern Protestantism owes its affirmation of sola Scriptura, sola Christo, sola fide, sola gratia, and sola Deo Gloria to the legacy left us by Martin Luther.

But such theological axioms by themselves aren’t much of a legacy, unless they demonstrate efficacy in removing the anfectung from which Luther so desperately wanted deliverance. The dread Luther felt prior to his conversion was legitimate, warranted, and deserved. Human beings are born separated from God, become actual transgressors from the moment we are volitionally able to choose, and are as a result the enemies of our Creator. Being the enemy of the One who just gave you the last breath you took is certainly a position in which one should rightfully feel dread. But as Luther discovered, through the substitutionary death of Christ, God has become “both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21)

While the masses are taking in the latest in the “Saw” trilogy, watching old “Nightmare on Elm Street” flicks and growing sick from eating too much candy, followers of Christ should recognize that for the church, October 31 represents much more than fear. To the contrary, this day represents the beginning of a young Monk’s discovery that God, by himself, without human effort, takes away sin, and the appropriate fear of God’s judgment that accompanies such sin.

Halloween is known by our culture as a time to be filled with fear, with dread . . .with anfectung. But the legacy left us by men like Luther and those who followed serve to remind us every October 31 that God has not given us a spirit of fear! Most on this night will celebrate with “trick or treat.” I’m thanking God for the recovery of the Gospel that made my conversion, and the removal of fear, possible

Friday, October 20, 2006

Homophobia: What I learned from Tyra Banks, and Shirley Phelps

When I sit down to watch television, my usual fare includes bulletts, buildings blowing up, car chases, and the like. Suffice it to say that while channel-surfing last night, putting down the remote to watch the Tyra Banks show felt a little weird, and this morning, I'm still seeking to shake off the excessive estrogen.

Nonetheless, the subject of "hate" permeated the show, and the contents were not only intriguing, but surprisingly educational. As I went to bed last night, I did so having come to the conclusion that everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE on that show was a homophobe!

The commercial teaser that caught my eye was of a funeral protest conducted by the infamous Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka Kansas. The Phelps family and their congregation are known worldwide for their "God hates fags" epithets, as well as their loud eccentric behavior, and their recent attempts to disturb the mourning families of fallen soldiers via their loud and arrogant protests.

But the show didn't begin with the Phelps'. Tyra's first guest was Kevin Aviance, the man referred to as "one of New York's most influential transvestite, drag, and transgendered performers." Aviance made headlines in June of this year after he became the victim of violence at the hands of between four and seven men, who beat him severely, robbed him, and broke his jaw simply because he was gay. Aviance is a charismatic stage presence, and a talented performer, even if in pumps while performing. His recent experience as a victim of violence prompted subsequent discussion on the show of how hate fuels such violence. And of course, his emotional words were followed by an even more emotionally charged conversation between Banks and members of the Phelps family.

Overall, the show was about as insightful as spending time in a chat room. But as it went off the air last night, I came to the realization that there really is such a thing as homophobia, and that homophobia has more than one side to it. Speaking to the persecuted church of the first century, Peter lays out instructions for how they were to proclaim their faith in the face of "other-than-Biblical" worldviews and lifestyles:

"But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame." (1 Peter 3:15-16, NASB)

Two things are necessary in order for this Biblical command to be obeyed: A strong conviction of the truth (which Tyra Banks sorely lacks), and a strong sense of humility in speaking that truth (which the Phelps family sorely lacks).

The very etymology of the term "homophobia" indicates that it does not mean what many in the prevailing culture think it means. When referencing the homosexual community, the term simply means that we are "afraid" of them, that we avoid them . . . .and maybe even hate them. Such things can rightly be defined as homophobia.

When men like Aviance, created in the image and likeness of God, are beaten and abused, the church should be the first to condemn such sinful action, and press for prosecution of the perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law.

Conversely, feigning "love" for homosexuals while being afraid to speak the truth to them regarding the destructive nature of their behavior demonstrates an ultimate lack of love, and is therefore another form of homophobia. When followers of Christ are called "homophobes" simply because they state that homosexual behavior is sinful, such action not only demonstrates a reticence by our culture to consider what God has to say on the subject, but also the colossal ignorance of a culture that doesn't even know what the word means. In short, Banks exhibits homophobia by her fear of the truth, and the Phelps family is a family of homophobes because while they speak the truth, they do not do so in reverence, and in the good conscience of Christlike behavior. As Charles Spurgeon said over a century ago, anyone who can talk of hell without tears in his or her eyes is not fit to proclaim the Gospel.

The Phelps are very sure of themselves when they state that God hates America, and that Katrina, September 11, and the casualties of the Iraq war are instruments of God's judgment on us because of our acceptance of things like the gay lifestyle. Such statements sound a lot like Amos, Isaiah, and others who correctly interpreted Old Testament historical events as God's judgment on the nation of Israel. But two very distinct differences are worthy of note here: Our nation is not Israel, and the Phelps are not Old Testament prophets!

Present-day believers living under the New Covenant have what Peter calls a "more sure word of prophecy" (2 Peter 1:19) than those before us who were compelled to wait on God to raise up a prophet. As a result, we can only know what God has clearly revealed in His Word. While part of that perspicuous revelation includes the sinfulness of homosexual behavior, we have no reason whatsoever to believe that recent tragic events are the result of God's judgment. We simply don't know why God sent Hurricane Katrina, why He allowed September 11 to happen, or why He allows continued violence in Iraq that results in the death of thousands of our brave soldiers. Statements of epistemological certainty concerning events like these are presumptuous at best, and blasphemous at worst.

Such statements are the result of a homophobic hatred of the homosexual community that is not conducive to our obedience to Scripture, or to their repentance and belief in Jesus Christ. But the other side of homophobia was also expressed last night. While Tyra Banks was rightfully confronting the Phelps, she was simultaneously affirming Aviance's destructive lifestyle.

Such an approach fails to see that there is a difference between "acceptance" of all people created in God's image, and "affirmation" of a lifestyle that will only serve to further marr that image. Contrary to the ignorant meanderings of secular culture, and many churches within mainline and emergent circles, God could not have been any more clear regarding His view of homosexual behavior. To be sure, the truth must be spoken with reverence and humility. But genuine reverence and humility are only present when they coincide with the truth. And the truth is that homosexuality, while sinful, isn't the real issue. It is a symptom of a sinful nature that can only be cured by the blood of Jesus.

Where should we go to find the kind of balance needed to avoid the above extremes? As always, Jesus. In John 4 we see the epitome of this kind of balanced approach. Had Jesus taken the approach of the Westboro Baptist Church, he would have likely greeted the woman at the well like this:

"Hello you harlot! I'm God and you are going to burn in hell if you don't repent!"

While these words would have been true, Jesus demonstrates in this encounter that He isn't merely interested in exposing people to the truth, He also wants to draw them to such truth. So, rather than speak without regard for reverence or humility, He begins the conversation by asking her for something to drink. He came to her where she was, struck up a conversation with her, and broke every Jewish social norm in the process, because He cares more about souls than perception.

Contrast this approach with a statement made last night by one of the Phelps daughters, who said she had no desire to make friends with unbelievers. Or why don't we make this a bit more personal: What would you think if you saw your pastor sitting at a bar talking with a homosexual couple? How would you perceive your pastor were you to encounter him on a street corner sitting on the sidewalk talking to crack-addicts? If we want to speak the truth (and we should) the first step in that process is to meet people where they are . . .to love them enough to be their friend, even if this new friend never comes to faith in Christ, and never repents.

Pehaps, in retrospect of last night's program, this is why so many believers don't make friends with unbelievers: Those unbelievers might never become believers. They might die without Christ and leave us with the horrifying realization that a good friend has gone to hell. That's hard stuff! Sure, its easier if we just keep our distance. But that isn't our calling.

But Jesus doesn't make friends just for the sake of making friends. Before this initial conversation is over, we hear this phrase:

"Go call your husband and come here."

She responds, likely with her eyes to the ground; ""I have no husband."

And Jesus then begins to speak the truth. We can't be afraid to love them, nor must we fear telling them the truth.

Kevin Aviance, and the thousands of men and women like him, are human beings created in the image and likeness of God. Like the rest of us, they were born dead in their trespasses and sins, and this sinful nature has manifest itself in their lives via homosexuality. The only answer to this dilemma is that which answers all other dilemmas; the message of the cross and resurrection spoken with conviction, humility, and love. Anything less is just plain homophobic!