Though Christmas is a religious holiday, secularists should appreciate its great contribution to Western Civilization: the lesson that all men are equal in their fundamental human dignity.
Though Christmas is a religious holiday, secularists should appreciate its great contribution to Western Civilization: the lesson that all men are equal in their fundamental human dignity.
Christmas isn’t tasteful, isn’t simple, isn’t clean, isn’t elegant. Give me the tacky and the exuberant and the wild, to represent the impossibly boisterous fact that God has intruded in this world.
A thousand miles of pain I’m sure
Led you to the threshold
Of my heart’s screen door
To tell me what it is I’m dying for
Like a cold cold rain
To lead me to the rope again
But someone is standing in my place…
These words are a stanza from John Mark McMillan’s Carbon Ribs. More famously the author of the Christian culture standard How He Loves, JMM writes lyrics which hold their own as poetry. (Look up Ten Thousand sometime.) His lyrics are so good they don’t need the music, but the music is just about sublime sometimes. The words punch me in the gut and bring tears to my eyes; the music puts me in another place.
I experienced actual worship through music for the first time, almost the only time, at a JMM concert. We were outdoors on the lawn of a church. It was June, and all around us the sky was full of darkening clouds and distant lightning. But there was literally a circle of clear sky over our heads. The storm never reached us.
As JMM sang praise and love to his Savior. What allowed me to worship wasn’t the weather, but the music shared together in praise of Someone else. For once the music was not just for my listening pleasure.
I want to think about someone standing in my place.
It’s all about love. Jesus said:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. John 13:34
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15: 12, 13
Not luck and lollipops, not a panacea, not a magic gesture which makes everyone happy in the chick flick or the Disney. Not fair-weather love. Love which I can know is genuine because it costs.
Love is love when it costs the lover to love. What can the cost be? It can be self-determination, self-interest, turf…my time, my schedule, my priorities…my things, my personal space, my comfort…my goals, my dreams, my plans…my self-esteem, my truth, my pride…my safety. My life.
Jesus gave up every one of these things. He gave up all self-interest in a way no one else ever has. He never, not one time in his life, made a choice because it was what He wanted, because it made him comfortable, or because he preferred it. He always chose what His Father wanted, every time, every minute of his life.
It is the literal truth that He went to his death in my place, and in yours. He rejected the credit, the adulation and the power, all he had every right to claim. He truly deserves all the glory, honor, love and obedience that there is. Instead he chose loneliness, ridicule, rejection, humiliation, torture, and excruciating death.
That humiliation is what I have earned. That death I deserve.. I must let this sink in and really believe it, or I let it become a catchphrase with no real meaning. I deserve the grotesque punishment he received. Me.
Cause I’m a dead man now
With a ghost who lives
Within the confines of
These carbon ribs
Remember facing something overwhelming. That awful thing looms over your every minute and you can’t forget it. You want with all your might to go back to your careless mundane everyday life; you’ll be so thankful if you can ever be there again. Or you’re going to have major surgery and you’re imagining all possible ways that something could go wrong. You’re imagining dying. You can’t forget your anxiety til it’s over.
Then someone knocks on your door. You open it and it’s an acquaintance you haven’t thought much about for weeks. He tells you that he will undergo the surgery in your place. In fact, he’ll take your cancer from you and put in in his own body, and then he’ll have the surgery for you. And he’ll make certain you never have cancer again. He can do all this.
Imagine your reaction.
Imagine you’ve committed terrible crimes. You’re repulsed by what you’ve done to fellow human beings. You’re horrified that what you’ve done can’t be undone. Your guilt is real; any hopes for your future, all your comfort with yourself, all gone. You are tried, convicted and sentenced. The sentence is death, right now, and you deserve it. You’re led up the stairs to face the noose.
Then someone knocks on the door. The door is opened and it’s that acquaintance again. He walks decidedly to the stairs and climbs up to the platform. He looks you in the eyes, gently but firmly pushes you aside and stands in your place. He puts the rope around his neck and falls through the trap. He is executed.
Yes, he can do this too, though He has committed no crime; because He has committed no offense. Your crime is recompensed. Justice is satisfied. You are redeemed to live free and without guilt.
All of these hypotheticals are true; I am guilty enough to die. I have callously offended God and his invaluable human creations. Self-cancer is eating away at me. I cannot save myself in either case. But that Someone is able to do all the rescuing, and He did.
And one day when I’m free
I will sit
A cripple at your table
And I sit beside you
What makes a marriage a marriage? We need to define it before we re-define it. What is distinct about it? What makes marriage…marriage?
I think we misunderstand it, and that is pure tragedy.
Man and woman were made in the image of God. They were created beings who were able to relate to God; sentient and self-aware; in His image because they possessed spirits. Out of all that God created, man is the only being who is able to commune with God.
God called this creation something special. Together they were His joy, His most cherished creation. We were created for this relationship with God, and cultivating this relationship with God is man’s responsibility and his privilege.
God created man. Then woman was made from man. Note that she was not created a separate being or species. They are two manifestations of the same created being. She was made from him. So intrinsically was she created to be the one who completed him. They are inseparable.
Genesis 2: 23-25:
The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
The fundamental creation was the man and the woman in exclusive, intimate relationship. We call that marriage. Marriage is primal in two ways in terms of human societal significance: it was first or primary; and it was the original creation from which all else followed.
In sexual intimacy between a man and wife, that which was once complete in one being, then separated into two, joins again into one. One flesh, one union.
Either marriage is created by God, or it’s a human construct. Either the church is created by God, or it’s a human construct. Either the nation is created by God, or it’s a human construct. As such, either God is sovereign over them, or there is no authority over them except whoever exerts and maintains power over them.
The Breaking of It
Marriage has been understood everywhere, by everyone, at all times. Heterosexual marriage is what has been understood as marriage. Even where other sexual relationships are tolerated, monogamous marriage is the standard to which all other relationships are compared, and no society in human history has ever defined non-heterosexual unions as marriage.
Marriage growing from the root of the special sexual relationship is more primal than any law; its violation more basic, fundamental and outrageous. Cultures everywhere know this without regard to their knowledge of Judeo- Christian culture.
Socially and historically, its violation is often perceived as more egregious than murder.
When comparing codes of law across world civilizations, there are very few laws which are truly universal. The one law which is common to every culture is a man’s exclusive relationship with his woman.
In some cultures, this is understood as the man’s ownership of his woman. It is not an egalitarian rule: a man may have multiple women, wives or concubines but the women are regarded as in exclusive relationship with the one man. I’m not defending; only explaining.
And in some primitive societies, it is lawful to kill in order to protect this relationship, and it is lawful to avenge its violation by killing. Murder then is considered a virtue under the circumstance of protection of one’s woman—one’s exclusive “ownership” of the relationship with one’s woman. That relationship is understood to be the foundation upon which that man’s family or clan is built. If he loses her, he loses all.
Everyone everywhere always understood the meaning and importance of marriage. Til the enlightened new age, now.
But What Is It?
We often say that the family is the structure supporting civilization. And it’s so, but let’s look deeper.
God designed marriage first. It was the first human society or institution. It is before and underlying all codes of law ever invented. It is fundamental to everything else. This is God’s design.
Not only is the family the tiny society upon which all other social structures are built (such as communities, clans, and governing bodies small and large);
…and that the husband and wife couple are at the foundation of, and are the beginning of that family;
…but that the exclusive sexual relationship which is the signal defining feature of that relationship is the foundation of ALL of it.
There are many kinds of human relationships. Many of them can be intense, close and beneficial. But there is only one human relationship in which two people become immersed in one another, intertwined, and complementary to one another. In this relationship, two people become one. This is the male-female marriage relationship created by God.
And this union is strong enough to create other people, socialize them, and teach them to create more families, thus continuing a civilization, with its culture and heritage.
The male-female exclusive faithful sexual relationship lies below the foundation of every culture and society. It is utterly unique.
What makes that relationship so special? That our society has begun to seriously question its specialness is foreboding.
There is only one valid physical way that two people attain that complementarity, that intertwining, that immersion, that real union. It is the “one flesh” union which confirms and consummates that unique union. One male and one female in the physical act made obvious by our complementary anatomies. It is an utterly unique sexual relationship, this “becoming one flesh”. It is only that specific physical union which signifies marriage in the eyes of God and those who honor Him.
Jesus is quoted in Mark 10: 6-9: But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
Two singular people combine and become not a union of two, but a union of one which is greater than the combination of two. One becomes greater than two.
There is only one sexual act which causes two to become one. In the wedded heterosexual union, there is a union which is not only physical; it is emotional, spiritual, and volitional. Two hearts find expression of affection and intimacy which is so intense it defies description. Two wills choose to give selves entirely to the other in mutual trust. And, in the case of two people who understand that their relationship is created in the mind of God, and express their joy in each other and Him, there is spiritual union.
What is Sex?
Our modern world has come to believe that the essence of sexual union is the orgasm. We define sex as the achievement of orgasm, and the person we are committed to experiencing that orgasm is…me, the self.
Any variety of relationship can unite in a variety of sexual acts where each one reaches satisfaction. Several different anatomical configurations are on the menu, and sometimes inanimate objects are needed. All loving sexual practices are equal, right?
There are problems with this belief. Orgasm can be achieved in many ways with any assortment of partners or alone. (Can one achieve oneness by himself?) One may achieve an orgasm for oneself without any care for the partner, at the expense of the partner, or by using another human being. Sex can be a cold, selfish, sterile act, and often is.
And a loving heterosexual couple may enjoy their oneness without both of them reaching orgasm.
And one may legitimately question whether some sexual practices can be selfless and loving.
So can orgasm be what sex is?
Isn’t sex supposed to be intrinsically meaningful? Is it not an expression of the joy of unique relationship? Then we must look for its meaning elsewhere than the orgasm.
Sexual intimacy as the result of a covenant between a man, a woman and God in a permanent relationship intended to (at least potentially) create family and continue a heritage, sexual intimacy which validates and gives to the other selflessly, sexual intimacy as a powerful expression of emotional, spiritual and volitional oneness, sexual intimacy as physically designed by our Creator…is an entirely unique thing.
Song of Songs 2:16: My beloved is mine and I am his…
For the best testimony on behalf of the unique experience of marital love, read The Song Of Solomon. It has never been surpassed.
We seek after the sublime and transcendent sexual experience. But it is not a result of the orgasm. The oneness is achieved in the will and finds expression in the act.
This is what happens in married sex: the two shall be one flesh. God knew what he was talking about when he described the relationship this way. Jesus, confirming Genesis, said:
“But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall be one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. “What therefore God has joined together let no man separate.” Mark 10: 6-8.
The power of a faithful, committed, selfless, affectionate sexual relationship to create a transcendent and meaningful bond between two people of opposite sex is a mystery, a miracle. Those who are privileged to experience it know that they are blessed. But our world does not understand it, and that is a wide-ranging tragedy.
Marriage is consummated by sex; sex , as designed by its Creator, defines marriage. Marriage is the context God has designed for that relationship.
Our world, across societies and cultures, across the centuries, everywhere and always, is created with the committed heterosexual union woven intrinsically and seamlessly into its fiber. It is in our world’s DNA.
Hebrews 13: 4: Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.
No matter what you call other unions, they aren’t marriage. They do not consummate the union. They aren’t even having sex.
I am saying that any other arrangement is not legitimately marriage because they cannot consummate their union. Just as heterosexual marriage is not equivalent to any other grouping which calls itself marriage, heterosexual married sex is not equivalent to any other sexual practice.
We have already un-defined sex. When we UN-define marriage, we are at the point of the dissolution of everything. It’s in the fabric of the universe. If we deem other relationships equivalent to marriage, we are reaching the point of the dissolution of everything.
The Real Forgotten?
Understand that no matter what our society prefers or legislates, real marriage as God created it is untouched; marriage will not be altered by our attempts to ape it, abuse it or to alter it cafeteria-style to suit ourselves.
But society’s perception of marriage matters because if it is undefined, its enormous grace and helpfulness, the variety of familial special relationships it creates…disappear. Future generations will be unable to reap the benefits of an institution of which they know nothing.
The Erasing of It
Gay marriage is a watershed issue. It is dividing the population in terms of public opinion. It is dividing the church between the faithful and the preferential-cultural.
To judge by the rhetoric surrounding the conservation of traditional marriage, even the evangelical church does not understand the true value of marriage. Redefining marriage is absurd and disastrous, but its defenders do not seem to understand why.
We must base our persuasion solely on God’s truth, whether it is believed or not, whether it is deemed offensive or not. Arguments from practicality and from behaviorism may be valid, but they do not convince, and they aren’t the real reasons.
As Christians, we must talk about what marriage is, what sex is, and what they mean. Because no one else knows.
The people of the world don’t really have a chance of understanding the significance of sex, or even of the sexual experience. They are blind and unconnected to its spiritual attributes, and hardly able to comprehend its true meaning and power. They talk about it as though it’s merely a physical rush accompanied by a transient emotional high.
And that’s how we find ourselves fighting the belief that all kinds of sex are equal, that all kinds of “marriages” are equal.
When we forget what marriage is and what it means, as we clearly have, we misunderstand the differences between male and female. We lose the distinction between men and women. And the family disappears.
We lose everything.
Because everything is built upon the male-female distinction and relationship.
We lose marriage completely when we define it out of existence.
We lose the concept of family, and we lose all family relationships.
We lose the significance and the enjoyment of sex.
The Disappearance of It
When marriage by definition is the recognition by God and society of the permanent exclusive commitment between a man and a woman consummated by sexual union as designed and sanctioned by God;
and we re-define it to mean:
the state’s recognition of a semi-exclusive (relative) commitment between any two people of any sexes, defined by non-normative sexual practice,
yet unconsummated by God’s design for sexual union;
when both and all cases are recognized as having equal validity as marriage; we lose marriage.
There is no more marriage. There are only couples of any variety seeking temporary approval and validity from the state.
The logical, inevitable outcome of the legal re-definition of marriage to include gay marriage is that the state is now sanctioning a contractual relationship based on the self-report of an intense emotional state of a couple. Once that is the case, there is no reason why those criteria cannot be applied to any relationship involving any number of any types of persons.
And then that which is sanctioned by the state and society has become a legal contract between any number of persons who wish to enter into that contract for any reasons of their own.
Do you see how we are moving, step-by-step, away from a religious commitment based on a faith promise recognized legally by the state? The state then is in the business of recognizing legal relationship contracts…the state is the solemnizer, the legitimizer, the approver… because the method for solemnizing and (making official) is now only legal.
The state will then cease to recognize religiously solemnized marriages. Recognizing faith based marriage will be outside of the state’s scope.
The real effect, and perhaps the real purpose, of the marriage equality movement is to separate any connection of a religious nature from the societal and state sanctioned approval of marriage.
Thus making religious marriages second class, unsanctioned and “illegal.” Am I cynical enough to believe that was the plan in some activists’ minds from the start? You bet I am.
Marriage, irrelevant and superfluous, dries up and scatters in the wind. It is forgotten. What happens then? Imagine a bit into the future, when all the change agents have had their way with our society and taught us their lessons. What will their utopia look like?
When we knock out the frame of the house, the structure soon collapses. What happens to the family when it only exists as a copy of an outmoded form which has lost its purpose? Then family no longer means husband-wife-and their children.
We lose family relationships. Everyone becomes an individual arbitrarily connected to people of his choice. Familial roles like fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts become more tenuous and arbitrary.
We lose the concept of permanent commitment.
We lose any understanding of what sex is, what it means, what it is for, how to enjoy it. It loses its significance and becomes a recreational activity. And disconnected from meaning, it becomes dull and pointless, merely a pressure valve to let off steam.
Ironically to some, it might be the seriously religious, the fundamentalist Christian monogamous married couples, who keep the treasure of authentic sexual intimacy safe for a waiting future, while the hordes sweep civilization’s memory of it away and replace it with a crass caricature. Like a handful of Irish monks who kept safe the secrets of literacy, culture and faith for the revival of western civilization.
This passage from Mark 6 demonstrates the everyday mundane but also the awesomely sublime qualities of Jesus’ love:
Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. ~ Mark 6
There are many remarkable things about this account. But I am struck by this: why didn’t he keep walking and meet them on the other side? Jesus, walking across the sea as though about to pass them, gets into the boat with his disciples.
He was already walking across that lake with no problem. But he decided to get into that boat and join his friends in getting across the slow way, the hard way, the way we get across a lake.
He is the Creator of the wind and the waves, buoyancy, water displacement, gravity, as well as the fragility of our human bodies.
He is called: King of Kings and Lord of Lords; Prince of Peace; The Word of Life; Alpha and Omega; True God; Author and Perfecter of Our Faith; and The Way, The Truth, and The Life. But he chose to share in this difficult experience with his disciples, his dear friends.
Just as he who is God submitted to being born a helpless baby to a poor family. As he submitted to a life of humility and trial. He came to be one of us, and to experience the tragedy, the difficulty, the futility, the poverty, the sadness, just as we do.
Rome’s emperor was Caesar Augustus (The Grand, The Majestic) and held the civilized world in Rome’s powerful grip. Say what you will about the accomplishments of Ancient Rome; there was certainly a cost to their ambition.
Jesus chose to be passive in the midst of this culture. He chose the place. He chose the moment in history. He chose the instrument, Rome. He let them kill him.
It was the most humiliating death available at the hands of one of the most aggressively brutal and perverse worldly authorities possible.
And so Jesus getting into a boat is no small thing. He came here to get into the boat with us.
4″Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.
5″I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.
6″If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them in the fire…”
When we encounter this passage, we tend to dissect and parse. There are many questions. Is my salvation secure or can I lose it? Who are the branches which are burned? How do we “remain” or “abide”? What do WE have to do? How do we work this? Am I DOING the right things?
All these approaches focus on our actions. We examine this passage like engineers, and then apply it like lawyers.
For an excellent and comprehensive exposition of this passage, read this. It avoids the engineering problem and yet answers all the questions.
But allow me to share my little perspective. When meditating on a passage, I like to re-imagine the scene in the truest original context that I can, letting the Holy Word speak for itself. It’s also important to see a given passage in the proper context of the entire length of the scene, examining what came before the passage and where it leads.
Here we are joining Jesus and his disciples in the middle of a long conversation. They are in the Upper Room during the Last Supper. Jesus knows that very soon He will be arrested, tortured and killed.
He is not at this point giving a lecture on the requirements for becoming born again, or a treatise on the doctrine of eternal salvation. Earlier in the same discourse, he has told them who is his true disciple.
John 14: 23: Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.”
Simple and easy to understand. These are the ones who belong to me. This is how you can tell. These are terms of relationship, not legality.
Having established this, he moves on. Jesus is speaking to his most intimate disciples, his dear friends. He is sitting with a small group of his companions, men who do belong to him, who have given all to follow him. He explains what sort of relationship they can expect to experience even as he leaves them.
They are words of commission, but also words of comfort for dear friends.
“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”
It’s not the entrance exam; it’s the job description. Far from being a warning, this metaphor is meant to be a picture of loving reassurance to those who belong to Him.
He is the vine and you are one of his branches. What privilege. What intimacy—what devoted care. He is in you and you are in him. He gives his life to you. Because he is alive, you grow and bear fruit.
You belong to Me. I love you so much and so perfectly. I know who you really are, and I want to be as close to you as a Vine to its branches. I want to care for you and keep you alive forever. I want to share my being with you. I want you to be with Me, sharing all the eternal glories and treasures My Father has in store.
Who can discriminate the vine from the branch? They are all one.
The branches of the vine do not need to strive to take care of themselves, find food and water, work, or decide what to do. They simply abide in the vine, allowing the life of the vine to nourish them, make them grow, cause them to bear fruit. They only have to abide, remain, and be filled with His life.
In order to understand this passage better, I imagine a vine whose branches are sentient. In fact, these branches have free will!
The branches can choose one of two attitudes.
They can humbly recognize that they are but limbs of a greater body, that their life is not their own, that they belong to the Vine; they can glory in the intimacy and grace that they enjoy as part of the Vine, they can praise and glorify the Vine, their Source.
Or they can chafe against their place, refuse the nourishment and life force coming through them from the Vine, and decide to determine their own course.
I want to feed myself. I want to work. I want to be a tree.
They can rebel, but if they do that, they die, wither, and end up in the fire. They have borne no fruit and so the Gardener has cut them out and discarded them. Apart from me you can do nothing, as apart from the vine, a branch withers and dies.
Notice also that the branches which revel in the life flowing through them cannot help but bear fruit; fruit is inevitable and intrinsic to the Vine. If you are a humble branch in a thriving vine, fruit will grow. You will bear fruit.
Your will bear fruit entirely because of Him.
We belong to a God who cares nothing for credit. It is starkly obvious that all glory and honor truly belongs to Him. There is only the credit which He has all right to, and we who deserve no applause whatsoever in simply bearing what he has grown. We eagerly reflect all praise upon Him.
We can work away pettily at making sure we get credit for our poor tiny bits of self-interested effort, or we can be free and worship Him who is All in All.
I find this scene very touching and encouraging.