Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

A refrain spoken over the dead. A reminder for the living. We are but dust, and to dust we shall return.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. We close our eyes and abandon ourselves to God. These are the symbols of our humility, the reminder that our time here is short, and that we are not in control.

Ash and dust bring us into confrontation with our own mortality, our own sinfulness, and the fleeting nature of our lives here on earth. Ashes and dust are a reminder that our hope and faith must be in God alone, and not in what we can accomplish in our short time.

What, then, are we to do in the face of such confrontation with our own mortality? We must repent. In dust and ashes.

The ancients placed this symbol of death, these ashes, upon their heads as a sign of their repentance. Like worship, it was an external action that reflected an internal reality. Finally seeing the folly of their old ways, they repented in dust and ashes, hoping that the god to whom they prayed was a forgiving god. A gracious deity. A merciful Lord.

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As my friend Rachel said on Facebook this morning, Lent is the time when everyone is going to get back on the #yearofno bandwagon. (If you aren’t familiar with the #yearofno, you can find all the relevant posts here.) Whether or not any of that actually happens I don’t know, but Lent is an excellent opportunity to revisit your entitlements and indulgences, and your plan to learn to say “No” to them.

Many of us are giving things up for Lent, saying “No” to idle pleasures and innocent addictions so that we can draw nearer to God in this season. The intention of this is good, but as many others have been writing recently, we need to go deeper.

Lent is a season of repentance, and a season of repentance requires repentance before self-denial can mean anything. We cannot simply subtract an idol from our lives without first confessing, “I am an idol worshipper.” When we try self-denial without repentance, the idol simply goes off into arid places until it finds seven other idols more powerful than itself, and then brings them all back to fill your heart again, leaving you worse off than before. You cannot simply ignore an idol out of existence. You must destroy it with repentance.

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In his latest book, Futureville, author Skye Jethani argues that the way we envision the future deeply affects how we live in the present. Our lives are guided by our eschatology – the way we view the end of things and the (if there will be one) new beginning. Using the 1939 World’s Fair as the controlling metaphor, Jethani guides the reader through several different ways of viewing the future, and how those visions of the future (eschatologies) direct and shape our lives in the present.

There are, he argues, three general ways we envision the future coming about. He calls them Evolution, Evacuation, and Resurrection. Evolution is the belief in the inevitability of human progress to create an ever-improving world. This view, popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, is girded by the innovation of science and the capacity of human reason. It is championed by “Change the World” propaganda. In many ways, the Church has embraced the Evolution view in its many “crusades” and willingness to influence political power for Christian ends. The trouble with this worldview, however, is that it turns our culture into a battlefield. “With more power, we tell ourselves, we can muscle our agenda into existence and force others to submit to our vision of the future.” (58)

Evacuation is the belief that the whole world is going to be destroyed, and it’s the Christian’s job to get as many people into the escape pods of salvation as possible before the fire reigns down from heaven. Evacuation is about escape. “Central to evacuation is the belief that believers will be entirely spared from the pain and suffering awaiting the rest of humanity.” (64) In this view, Christians evangelize out of safe pockets of purity, where everything they consume carries a “Christian” label. This inevitably leads to a culture of disengagement and self-centeredness, where everything becomes about the safety and purity of the isolated community of faith.

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When it comes to sexual activity, what is moral and what is immoral? Where do we draw the boundaries? (We all draw the boundaries somewhere.) And, just as importantly, how do we decide? What are the principles that inform our sexual ethic?

The Cultural Sexual Ethic


While it would be nearly impossible to get everyone to agree on something, I think it’s realistic to speak generally about the sexual ethic of our non-religious culture. As I see it, there are four principles that inform the Cultural Sexual Ethic: Autonomy, Consent, Pleasure, and Justice. I’ll try to describe each of these briefly.

Autonomy is the belief that I have the right to make decisions for myself. My body belongs to me, and nobody can tell me what to do with it. I am, so to speak, my own master, free to do as I see fit.

Consent, when it comes to sexual activity, is the primary (only?) limiter of my autonomy. When others are involved in the sexual act, they must be willing participants. Sexual coercion is immoral because it violates the other’s autonomy. But as long as all parties are willing, anything goes. 


The four principles that guide the Cultural Sexual Ethic are Autonomy, Consent, Pleasure, and Justice.

Pleasure, or enjoyment, is basic to the sex act because that is the primary intended result. All parties are seeking to derive some kind of pleasure from the activity, whether physical, emotional, or both. Sexual preference and taste are important factors in achieving a pleasurable experience.

Justice, in this case, is the pursuit of fairness in sexual activity, particularly for those whose preferences or tastes have been shamed or criminalized in the wider culture.

If I could articulate the Cultural Sexual Ethic, I would say it like this: All humans are in charge of their own bodies and therefore have the legal right to pursue sexual pleasure by whatever means they desire, without shame or discrimination, insofar as all partners are willing participants. I’ve tried to state this as clearly and fairly as I can. My hope is that those who generally take this stance would agree, at least in part, with my statement.

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This morning I had the honor of preaching a sermon on the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, which can be found in Genesis 39. The sermon is part of the Everyday Virtue series at Grace Church, and I was able to draw on some material I had already written here at the blog. (See the posts Biblical Marriage and Gay Marriage for a fuller treatment of those particular subjects.)

The lesson that we learn from Joseph is that purity requires distance. Sexual temptation is not something that you’re able to resist when it’s up close and personal because you are designed to give into sexual desire. That’s the way that God has made you, for the good of humanity. You are supposed to indulge in up close and personal sexual activity. But it’s also supposed to be channeled toward that one person of the opposite sex with whom you have covenanted before God. You are not built to say “No.” That’s why you have to keep your distance from disordered and misdirected sexual desires. Purity says “No” in order to shout “Yes!”

There is also a lot in the message about the Christian Sexual Ethic, which I have defined this way: The Christian Sexual Ethic is for one man and one woman, upon covenanting with one another in the presence of God, to enjoy sexual union together, in the hope of bearing and raising children, and doing so exclusively with one another, and with pure hearts toward all people, for as long as both of them live. The ethic is built upon a foundation of the theology of creation (Gen. 1-2), the theology of the body (1 Cor. 6), and the theology of marriage (Eph. 5). This ethic stands in stark contrast to the sexual ethic of the West, which is built upon the principle of consent.

There’s a lot more in the message, and I hope you find it helpful and edifying!

 

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