Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ancient Wisdom

A few weeks ago in a 4-3 vote, California’s Supreme Court struck down a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, saying that sexual orientation, like race or gender, “does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights.” Two of the dissenting judges called this ruling an “an exercise in legal jujitsu” that will “create a constitutional right from whole cloth, defeat the people’s will and invalidate a statute otherwise immune from legislative interference.” The third dissenting justice said that while she personally supported the right to same-sex marriage, the majority should have deferred to the Legislature.

The key here is “new understanding of the meaning of marriage.” This ruling indeed declares a redefinition of marriage, which for millennia in all societies and cultures has been defined as the union of one man and one woman. Now, in their infinite “wisdom,” four judges have decided they have a better way to define it.

Dennis Prager, a Jewish commentator and author, suggests that this is a natural result of the “modern supplanting of wisdom with compassion as the supreme guide in forming society’s values and laws.” After all, why not exercise compassion and let people marry whomever they want?

Some have argued that this ruling represents nothing more than what courts did to end legal bans on interracial marriage in the mid-20th century. In that case the courts corrected a moral injustice perpetuated by the will of the majority. Isn’t this the same principle? But Prager notes a key difference in the two scenarios:

"No major religion – not Judaism, not Christianity, not Islam, not Buddhism – ever banned interracial marriage… American bans on interracial marriages were not supported by any major religious or moral system; those bans were immoral aberrations, no matter how many religious individuals may have supported them. Justices who overthrew bans on interracial marriages, therefore, had virtually every moral and religious value system since ancient times on their side. But justices who overthrow the ban on same-sex marriage have nothing other than their hubris and their notions of compassion on their side…Not a single religion or moral philosophical system – East or West – since antiquity ever defined marriage as between members of the same sex. (“California Decision Will Radically Change Society,” 5/20/08,

The fact is that laws are designed to channel peoples’ behavior. Murder is against the law so that people will be channeled away from murder. These behavioral rules emanate from a value system. And the value system emanates from… what? The answer is, “ancient wisdom.” And the ancient wisdom from which our laws emanate comes primarily, though not wholly, from the Judeo-Christian religious heritage.

This ruling and others like it declares that in our modern “wisdom” we have seen a moral light that no theologians, philosophers, religions or moral systems saw before. That is why this is about far more than “extending a right” to homosexuals, who indeed should be protected from unfair discrimination. This is about a significant social change the implications of which will be massive. I will talk about those next week.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Going Back

I was in Austin most of this week attending the Austin Graduate School of Theology’s Sermon Seminar. This seminar is special in that scholars lecture on preaching from different books of the Bible (this year: Amos, Hebrews, Genesis, and Galatians) and share as many resources and suggestions as they can to help preachers. I have been surprised by the nostalgia I feel this week and have identified some of the reasons for this (the nostalgia, not my surprise).

Austin Graduate School of Theology (when I attended it was called the Institute for Christian Studies) was the school I left the Houston business world for in 1987. I came with no more specific purpose than to learn more about the Christian faith and the scriptures and to satisfy a nagging curiosity about vocational ministry that I could not seem to shake. This school, in essence, gave me both a solid foundation of Christian understanding and a concrete sense of God’s call to full-time ministry. I have stayed in touch with Austin Grad as an enthusiastic alumnus, and it is gratifying to see the school’s new spacious campus on Guadalupe near Hwy 183, far from the parking nightmares of the U.T. campus to which it so long was subject for so long.

This is also the place where I met my sweetheart, the lovely and spirited former Angela Dulaney. A friend of mine arranged for us to run into each other at a Westover Hills congregation Singles ministry gathering, and I was immediately smitten; here was this petite brunette dynamo driving an aged Camaro with a 350 V-8 engine and a 357 Magnum revolver in her closet for protection. I should have realized how symbolic that was. Suffice it to say, I never knew what hit me. We courted while both working part-time at Houston’s restaurant as I finished my Bible degree and she began work on a Master’s, and got married in the summer of 1989.

1989 was an eventful year for my family, full of pain and promise. My brother graduated from Navy flight school, my younger sister graduated from college, I graduated from I.C.S., Angela and I got married, my older sister died, my grandfather died, my brother got married, and my father got remarried. Three graduations, three weddings, and two funerals. Memories of all this washed over me as I drove from my hotel to the campus and intentionally detoured through some of the old neighborhoods.

I think it’s good to go back. Memory and nostalgia are satisfying unless they preoccupy you unhealthily. When Alex and I went to New Orleans for my father’s 80th birthday a few weekends ago, I took her on a drive around Algiers and showed her places of fondness and significance for me from my childhood. We even stopped by the house of a childhood friend and visited his 86-year old mother, reminiscing and marveling at how fast life goes by. It was wonderful.

The Bible talks a lot about the power of remembering. Life without memory is neutered. As we remember both painful and happy times, we give them layers of depth and meaning. Many years ago I became intrigued by a quotation from T.S. Elliott: “We must not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.” Sometimes, backwards is forwards.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Bring Your Bibles"

Someone asked me recently why I so often remind and encourage people to bring their Bibles on Sunday. It’s a good question, especially since we have pew Bibles available. I’ll start with some small reasons and then move to what I see as deeper ones.

1. We have pew Bibles available in worship, but not always in our classrooms. We want people to participate in Bible classes. It’s easier to actually participate in a Bible class with a Bible than without one.

2. When you bring your personal Bible you can take notes in it, or use the message outline and then put it in your Bible for future reference. Also, you can refer to the Bible version you prefer and are used to, which may or may not be the one in our pews (TNIV or NIV).

But these are just practical reasons. There are deeper issues that resonate with me.

1. American Christian worship services increasingly ask people to be passive, to sit and receive. The unfortunate reasons for this is a subject for another essay, but the fact is that there is little opportunity for most people to do anything other than sit, sing, listen to/pray with the pray-ers, and listen to the preacher. I try to preach expositionally (as opposed to topically) about 75% of the time, which means preaching straight from a selected passage of the Bible. I like the idea of people following along in their Bibles, underlining certain words, making notes, i.e., actively engaging.

2. I wholeheartedly agree with noted British evangelical scholar John Stott, who said, “The Word of God grows people.” Christians grow spiritually when they are engaged with the Scriptures. A large and well-known community church in Chicago just completed a three-year study of their 20,000 members as well as other selected churches to find out what helps Christians grow towards maturity and what doesn’t. They found out what doesn’t: simply participating in church programs. And the most important thing that does? Daily Bible reading and reflection.

I want to promote daily Bible reading and reflection. Engagement with the scriptures is the meat of the Christian diet, if you will. There is certainly much more to the Christian life than the scriptures, but without them it is hard to be nourished fully. More and more Christians struggle spiritually because they have little regular engagement with the Bible. That is why I compose and make available West Houston’s daily Bible reading schedule, to help people make scripture reading and reflection a part of the rhythm of their life.

Presently there are dozens and dozens of Bibles, without names, in our Welcome Center that people have left inadvertently. This may be symbolic of our times. I recall an old saying, “A Bible that is falling apart usually belongs to someone who is not.”

Last but not least: I like the image of hundreds of people walking into the building on Sunday carrying their Bibles. It bespeaks a certain intentionality and seriousness about being the church (assuming it’s not just for show!).

I am going to be more purposeful in helping people engage with the scriptures while I preach. As I say each week, let’s open God’s Word together, open our hearts and minds, and listen to what God wants to teach us!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Capable of So Much More

“This. Book. Changed. My. Life. I am so encouraged by the humility of the authors and the straight-forward way they approach their subject. They have written on a very important subject that needs addressing and did an amazing job. Please read it!”

-- Cait Elizabeth, Rebelutionary, let us rise up, 4/15/08

Alex and Brett Harris are 19-year old twin brothers who are doing their best to foment a rebellion. Or rather, a “rebelution.” They are urging teenagers to join in an uprising against social norms created by “a media-saturated youth culture that constantly reinforces lower and lower expectations.” They began a website at and have authored a book called “Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations.” (The website is hugely popular and the book is selling like hot cakes). They take issue with the modern concept of adolescence, which holds that teenagers experience a period of “storm and stress” that can only be accommodated by lowering expectations for them until they come out of it. This theory sparked a cultural redefinition of the teen years in the first half of the 1900’s that persists today. The Harrises beg to differ.

“Like so many of the culture-shaping psychological studies of the 20th century, the theory of teenage storm and stress was inherently flawed, based primarily on observation of teen psychological patients – hardly a representative sample. No wonder we are taught that the teen years are inevitably filled with emotional turmoil, rebellion and angst….Of course, this new way of looking at the teen years didn’t create teenage rebellion, but it did normalize it.”

The Rebelution blog has been flooded with teenagers who say, in effect, “My parents (or other significant adults) have just assumed that I am going to be shallow and do stupid things as a teenager and have never challenged me to be different. So I meet their low standards. But I know I am capable of so much more. Thank you for challenging me.”

Think of the societal norms that are perpetuated in this way: “Teens will party and get drunk.” “Teens will experiment with sex.” “Teens and parents will continually bicker and argue.” We hear these so often that they become the equivalent of “the sun will rise in the east.”

Of course, the concept of doing hard things in order to form character and competence applies to adults as well. What are the societal norms that adults allow ourselves to view as inevitable patterns? Let me suggest a few: “We will carry large credit card balances that compromise our financial integrity in order to experience instant gratification.” “Marriage inevitably settles into a kind of negotiated mediocrity.” “There’s really no way to follow Jesus passionately unless you live in an inner-city or on a foreign mission field.”

The Harrises challenge teens in five ways: Do things 1) outside your comfort zone 2) beyond what is expected or required 3) too big to accomplish alone (thus requiring collaboration) 4) that don’t earn an immediate payoff 5) that challenge the cultural norm.

As serious Christians, they cite I Timothy 4:12 as an overarching principle, “Let no one despise your youth.”

It’s powerful stuff, and not just for teens. Feeling rebelutionary?