Looking Backwards

It’s hard not to be glad 2016 is almost over. To paraphrase a line from a favorite old movie, I could draw a year out of a hat, blindfolded, and get a better one. And thus many of us are quite content to watch 2016 in its death throes.

It was an . . . interesting year, to be sure. I don’t think anyone woke up on January 1st and thought we’d be where we are now, personally, nationally, or globally. For me personally, I began 2016 with hopes of becoming the youth minister at my current church — which I did, for all of two months. I never expected to be the senior minister (and frequently said so to the friends who told me I was going to be “promoted”). Our church saw new souls saved and added other members, and praise God for it!

But . . . that rest of the year, though.

This is arguably the most surprised I’ve ever been that a presidential candidate 1) won the election and 2) didn’t get shot in the process. Our country is still feeling the aftermath of one of the most contentious, uncivilized elections in history. That combines with strings of shootings with a diverse group of victims and results in a divided land. Whether you attribute such things to media coverage or to “real” problems, 2016 revealed some of the worst aspects of our fellow Americans (and ourselves).

The Church hasn’t fared much better these past twelve months. United Methodists narrowly avoided schism by (in essence) kicking the can down the road a few more years, all because clergy and laity in a few areas didn’t want to follow their own rules anymore. Celebrity pastors fell amid the latest waves of scandal. The marriage debate continued to sunder ecclesial bodies, and the opening of a replica of Noah’s Ark brought to the forefront not-so-pleasant discussions on origins, the historicity of Genesis, and the complex relationship between science and theism. New surveys came out declaring mine and subsequent generations the most atheistic on record, and other studies proved we are truly in a post-Christendom world.

Meanwhile, people got sick. Some died. We had an epidemic or two.

People were born. Some got married. I was asked how many kids I had five times.

Friends were made. Friends failed to remain friends.

I gave up a return to grad school to remain a pastor. I learned how difficult — and how rewarding — ministry can truly be.

I killed spiders, fought other bugs, and trapped many, many mice. (Seriously, I’m looking for a house to rent at this point.)

I bought a lot of books and read most of them.

Our Bible study still hasn’t finished Revelation, but we have enjoyed a lot of food and fellowship.

Yes, 2016 was an interesting year. It’s not a year any of us are likely to forget, try as we might. But should we try? It wasn’t all bad. Even the horrors exposed problems we can fix and be better than we were before. We can’t erase the past simply because it makes us uncomfortable. We must embrace it, and for the same reason.

A blessed 2017 to everyone! I’ll see you next year.

O Be Careful Little Eyes

It occurred to me today that while I’ve tangentially mentioned the topic of pornography, I’ve never focused on it for more than a few sentences at a time. I think that’s partly because it’s a rather taboo topic in most circles, and it’s partly because it’s quite easy for me to assume an “everyone knows this is wrong” attitude about it. But the fact of the matter is, porn exists, people consume it, and it destroys them.

I do mean “destroy,” too. A plethora of studies have come out detailing the horrifying damage pornography does to its consumers. Brains are rewired in a pathology identical to drug addiction. Men experience porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED), unable to engage in intercourse with a flesh-and-blood woman because their erection is dependent upon the stimuli offered by images. Partners view each other as objects instead of equals, mirroring the degraded humanity on display on the screen. Worse, people begin to see themselves that way, as things to be consumed upon lusts instead of people to be loved. Real sex has been replaced by fake sex along every step of the way.

Professionally-produced porn also gives rise to amateur pornographers. People record their exploits in the bedroom. Teenagers exchange naked pictures of themselves to an alarming degree. Indeed, “Trade nudes?” is now a fixed feature of the dating scene. (Whence modesty? Sigh.) But the proliferation and consumption of pornography has shown what we now consider acceptable — and not only acceptable, but also required. Think of how many suffer varying degrees of body dysmorphia, whether obsessing over how they don’t look like the porn stars or who have full-blown body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). People fail to realize no one can maintain a perfect look; with the advent of image editing software, it’s further safe to say that even the performers who look like that don’t really look like that. Yes, on every level, pornography is a lie, but it’s an attractive falsehood for so very many.

This being a theology blog, we need to crack open the heart of porn and see what it truly does on the spiritual level. First, etymology time (because, hey, I’m a linguist) .We all know the “-graphy” part, so let’s look at “porno-.” This comes from the family of Greek words conveying sexual immorality in its various guises: porneiaPorneia is sometimes taken to denote specific sins such as adultery or fornication, but it’s really more of an umbrella term. Biblically speaking, anything violating the sexual ethic of the Leviticus Holiness Code (chs. 17-26) is dubbed porneia: incest, adultery, bestiality, intercourse during a woman’s period, sex with someone and their close relative, same-sex intercourse, prostitution, and fornication (with these being explicit in the text and others being included by implication). Any of these acts is porneia, is immoral and prohibited. Recording any of these (and others) creates pornography. So why would it be acceptable to watch others sin for your own pleasure?

To willfully steep your soul in the sins of others is bad enough. But no one watches porn for the excellent writing and superior cinematography. Porn is a channel, a conduit for lust and myriad other sins. Combine that with its addictive nature, and you have a recipe for programming yourself to sin. Christ frees us from bondage; don’t run back to your dark chains.

Porn forges more chains than addiction and lust, however. Sin becomes habitual — and then it becomes a craving. You desire sin, deliberately want to violate the will of God. It alters your worldview, changing people into sex objects instead of beloved children of God. But studies show habitual porn consumption leads to harder, darker porn. The cycle of objectification intensifies both on-screen and off until a real person somewhere screams in agony, being treated as a subhuman tool for perverted pleasure. And people buy such filth.

I think that’s the one thing that bothers me most about porn: there’s a market for it.

As time progresses and consumption increases, the soul shrinks inside of you in horror at what it’s done. It has to. Souls were made for eternal life and goodness, not for absorbing sin and twisting it into a perceived good.

So what can we do?

First, let’s admit pornography is sinful, morally wrong. Remember: it is a package of lies designed to incite sin by selling the sins of others. In this way, the only difference between prostitution and pornography is the camera: someone is getting paid to have sex either way.

Next, recognize the importance of a Christian anthropology. Those people in the video? The ones walking down the sidewalk? The one in the mirror? All are made in the image of God. Each bears the stamp of the divine. You cannot treat the divine image as an object for your consumption. Think of Christ dying for them. Think of God’s deep and abiding love for them. Recognize their equality with you and afford them love and respect.

Third, bear in mind the effects of prolonged exposure to porn: PIED, emotional/mental/spiritual trauma, addiction pathology, etc. It is damaging on every level, and that damage doesn’t disappear just because you enjoy what hurts you.

Lastly, if you’re caught in a porn addiction, seek help. Install filters like Covenant Eyes or K9 on your computer to block sites. Seek counseling or therapy. Join a support group. Get an accountability partner to keep you on track. Get involved at your church. Pray.

And seek Jesus above all else.

Additional information on the dangers of pornography can be found at Fight the New Drug.

Single Pastor Life

I admit I’m a rather curious figure in Protestant circles, and doubly so for evangelical Christians in the rural Bible Belt of the South/Appalachia. Before I took a pulpit, a standard question of introduction people posed to me was “So, are you married?” Now that people know me as the minister of that church beside the funeral home, the question has morphed into “How many kids do you have?” Spot the difference? There’s a fundamental assumption being made, an inherent correlation between ordination status and marital status. “You are clergy; ergo, you are married.” One exchange with another local pastor (younger than me) ran something like this:

“So, how many kids do you have?”
“None. Not being married, I didn’t think it a good idea.”
His eyes widen as he literally takes a step back from me. “You’re . . . not married?”
“Nope.”
Now looking at me like I had the plague: “But you’re the pastor? The senior minister?”
“Yup. I know I’m a rarity.”
“Well, yeah, but . . . I mean, when I was a youth pastor, I wasn’t married, but before I got my own church, I made sure I got a wife!”

I think I took it calmly, all things considered. Especially since this wasn’t the first time I’d had this conversation with someone. Somehow I don’t think it’ll be my last, either.

After all, my friend’s (and he is a friend) thinking is the common logic of most evangelical churches. Marriage is a qualification, a prerequisite, for ministry. Some churches take the “husband of one wife” criterion to a legalistic extreme along these lines. Many job openings for ministry positions list “married” as a job requirement. I couldn’t even apply to those. Of some I did apply for back in the day, I received emails saying, “Hey, we love your resume, you seem like a great fit, send us a family photo.” I never heard from any of them again after sending them a picture containing only myself. I watched more than a few interviewers find excuses to cut things short after I responded in the negative when asked “Are you married,” a question perfectly legal and acceptable in church hiring practices. (Corporate world, eat your heart out.)

But if finding a church willing to take a risk on a single minister was hard, let me tell you, doing the job while unwed is even harder. Every “president” needs a first lady, so to speak, and the jobs normally assigned to the long-suffering preacher’s wife must still be done — in this case mostly by me. The church is short a guaranteed volunteer, I recruit members and deacons to accompany me on visits, I routinely fail to get things made in time for potlucks, people with marriage problems are wary about speaking with me because I wouldn’t understand since I’m a bachelor . . . the list goes on. Then, after a 70-ish hour workweek, I come home to manage my household by my onesie (savvy?), doing all cooking/cleaning/administrative tasks myself.

It ain’t easy.

Now, let’s be realistic. Marriage isn’t a panacea. I don’t get out of my share of chores because I have someone else to help with them. She may work long hours, too, and let’s avoid the gender roles argument by saying one of us will have to cook but it could still be me. (I enjoy cooking, though, so there’s that, too.) No one can magically fill every need in a church or a home simply by virtue of being the preacher’s wife. It’s also both unfair and rather reprehensible to view a spouse in terms of utility, so let’s abandon that line of thought altogether.

Regardless, things aren’t horrible. I get things done, and my domicile has the reputation of always smelling like Pine-Sol (even if I don’t get to clean as much as I’d like). My church does something every church should do, and that’s make singles feel included (or at least I think we do). No one has ever disparaged my singleness, and I know of several members who have defended it to others. I’m still included socially outside of the church, and I’m friends with couples who don’t mind my third-wheeling (or who are too polite to say otherwise). This is my home, and that doesn’t change just because it’s currently single-occupancy and we can’t talk about Mrs. Preacher’s casseroles.

How about it, fellow unicorns? Is your absent wedding band a help or hindrance in your own ministry contexts?