Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.

inversions

Recorded in 2014, these songs are sort of a chronicle of my journey through a pastoral burn-out last winter. They deal with themes of mental-health, spiritual burn-out and depression, but also with the inexorable presence of God in the midst of darkness. Click the album art to download.

soundings

soundings
click image to download
"soundings" is a collection of songs I recorded in September/October of 2013. Dealing with themes of hope, ache, trust and spiritual loss, the songs on this album express various facets of my journey with God.

bridges

bridges
Click to download.
"Bridges" is a collection of original songs I wrote in the summer of 2011, during a soul-searching trip I took out to Alberta; a sort of long twilight in the dark night of the soul. I share it here in hopes these musical reflections on my own spiritual journey might be an encouragement to others: the sun does rise, blood-red but beautiful.

echoes

echoes
Prayers, poems and songs (2005-2009). Click to download
"echoes" is a collection of songs I wrote during my time studying at Briercrest Seminary (2004-2009). It's called "echoes" partly because these songs are "echoes" of times spent with God from my songwriting past, but also because there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.

Accidentals

This collection of mostly blues/rock/folk inspired songs was recorded in the spring and summer of 2015. I call it "accidentals" because all of the songs on this project were tunes I have had kicking around in my notebooks for many years but had never found a "home" for on previous albums. You can click the image to download the whole album.

blogs I follow

random reads

Book Reviews

Book Reviews
The Shallows, Nicholas Carr
In this very readable, very thought provoking analysis of electronic communciations technology and its impact on our brains and culture, Nicholas Carr brings together media theory (think Marshall McLuhan), history (think Gutenberg) and neuroscience (think discoveries in brain plasticity) to show how computer technology is shaping us in ways of which we are only dimly aware. He argues that such technologies reduce our capacity for deep, creative and sustained linear thought (or at least have the potential to do so) and predispose us to the fragmented, the cursive and the superficial. Worth the read.

Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf

Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit, Edith Humphrey
A fascinating and engaging introduction to spiritual theology-- or the theology of spirituality, as the case may be. This book is a very scholarly, devotional, christo-centric, ecumenical and trinitarian overview of what it means for Christians to live in the Spirit and with the Spirit within. Bracing and enlightening.

Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender

five smooth stones for pastoral work, Eugene Peterson

From Darkness to Light: How One Became a Christian in the Early Church, Anne Fields

Life in the Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell
Snell's Life in the Ancient Near East offers a social history of the ANE, tracing the earliest settlement of Mesopotamia, the development of agriculture, first cities, ancient economy and the emergence of empire. Bringing together a rich variety of data gleaned both from the archaeological record and extant historical texts, he tells the history of this cradle of civilization with a special eye for the "human" element - focusing on the forces and factors that would have directly affected the daily life of the various strata of society. Worth a read generally, but all the more for someone with a particular interest in the biblical stories that find their setting and draw their characters and themes from the same provenience.


The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Richard Davidson
Davidson's Old Testament theology of human sexuality is stunning in its achievement, challenging in its content, and edifying in its conclusions. Davidson addresses every-- and I do mean every-- Old Testament text that deals (even obliquely) with human sexuality, and, through detailed exegesis, careful synthesis, and deep interaction with the scholarly research, develops a detailed picture of the Old Testament's vision for redeemed human sexuality. 700 pages of Biblical scholarship at its best.


Eaarth, Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben's Eaarth, is a call for us to wake up smell the ecological coffee...while we can still brew it. Unlike his previous work, or any writing on ecology I've yet read, however, Eaarth does not argue that catastrophe is pending. Instead, he argues that catastrophe has arrived, and that our all talk about "going green to avert disaster," "and "saving the planet" is woefully obsolete. In ecological terms, the planet as we once knew it is gone, he argues, and rather than trying to "avert" disaster, we need to start figuring out how to live in the disaster that's happened. Key themes he identifies as important for life on planet Eaarth resonnated with me as profoundly Christian ways of being (disaster or no). We must stop assuming that "bigger" is better; we must acknowledge limits on economic and technological growth; we must get reacquainted with the land; we need eschew self-sufficency and nurture community.

Love Wins, Rob Bell
So fast and furious has the furor over this book been, that any review will inevitably feel redundant or tardy. Given the crowd on the band wagon by now, I actually had no intention of hopping on myself, but my kids got it for me for Father's Day. About 15 pages in, I realized that I could probably finish it in on good push, so I got it over with. My thoughts: probably the most over-hyped book I ever read; I loved it and found it frustratingly under-developed at the same time; while he raises some important issues, his handling of them reads like a yoda-meets-Tom-Wright account of salvation; nothing C. S. Lewis hasn't already said more clearly and more cleverly; I'm glad he wrote it, and I'm glad the Evangelical world has errupted over it the way it has, and I hope a much more spirited and generous and optimistic understanding of soteriology and eschatology will infuse the evangelical church's mission as a result.

Rediscovering Paul, David Capes et. al.
Rediscovering Paul is a hepful overview of Paul's life, times and theology. While at times I felt it might have gone deeper, or expressed its ideas more clearly, it provides some interesting and inspiring insights into the man behind the letters. Among these is its discussion of the communal aspect of first century letter writing, and the influence of one's community on one's personal sense of identity, and how those issues might have played out in Paul's writings. Another challenging issue that it tackles is the whole process of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world, especially as regards the role a scribe often played in shaping the text, smoothing out the langugae or providing stock phrases, etc.


Lavondyss, Robert Holdstock
If you've read George MacDonald's Lilith, then think of Lavondyss as sort of a Lilith-for-Non-Christians. It's the convoluted labyrinth of a story about a young girl called Tallis and her adventures in a magical wood that brings the Jungian archetypes buried deep in our subconscious to life. Dense with questions about Jungian psychology, and the spiritually-thin-places of the world, and death and myth and magic and story, it's pretty tough slugging at times, but thought provoking and challenging. At times I felt like I was reading the Narnia book C. S. Lewis might have written if he had pursued the "stab of northerness" in directions other than the Christian Faith where he found it eternally satisfied.

Jesus and Money, Ben Witherington III
My friend John Vlainic once ranked Ben Witheringon as one of the strongest Biblical scholars in the Wesleyan tradtion working today. This thin but powerful volume is evidence to support such an accolade. I opened it expecting (judging by the cover) either a how-to book on Christian finances, or (judging by the other books I've read on Christ and Money) a hodge-podge of Bible verses taken out of context and mushed together as proof texts about the tithe. I got neither; instead, Ben Witherington walks slowly, thoughtful and exegetically through the breadth of Biblical teaching, with special sensitivity to the cultural context of the various texts, the tension between Old and New Testament teaching on the topic, and the differences between modern and ancient economies. If I were to recommend one book to develop a biblical theology of money, it would be this one.

The Gravedigger File, Os Guinness
My first taste of Os Guinness, and, if you don't mind a mangled metaphor, it went down like a bracing pint of... well... Guinness. Grave Digger file is sort of a "Screwtape Letters" project on a church-wide scale. In concept, the book is a series of "training files" for an undercover agent attempting to undermine and ultimately sabotage the Western Church, delivered from the pen of a seasoned saboteur to a young agent recently assigned to Los Angeles. In plot, the young agent ultimately defects, and delivers the "Gravedigger File" into the hands of a Christian, urging him to alert the Church to the operation. It is bursting with "things that make you go hmmm..." and deserves a second, careful read with pen in hand, ready to mine it for its scintillating and eminently quotable lines.

Three Minute Theology 5.5: Everywhere a SIgn

Singleness and the Church (Part V)

The other day I saw an advert for The Purpose Driven Family, a study curriculum developed by Pastor Rick Warren at the famous Saddleback Church, and I was reminded all over again why I started this series on singleness. As a full disclaimer, I should say that I’ve never looked into The Purpose Driven Family curriculum beyond yesterday’s quick skim of the ad-copy, so I’m making these judgements based solely on the cover; but based on that cover, a campaign like The Purpose Driven Family illustrates the challenges of being a single person in the church that I’ve been trying to articulate in this series.

To understand what I mean, try to imagine yourself as a single Christian—a gay man who has chosen to walk the path of celibacy, perhaps—a single woman who has served Jesus all her life and never felt the need to marry, maybe—a divorcee who is trying to pickup the pieces in a way that honors Jesus, let’s say—a single mom whose boyfriend bailed when she got pregnant—a young adult who hasn’t yet found “Mr or Ms Right,” and isn’t so sure they ever will—a—well—you get the picture. Imagine living out one of the many permutations of the single life, as a Christian, and this particular Sunday your pastor announces that for the next 40 days your church is going to focus specifically (perhaps solely) on how to turn your marriage, your kids, or your nuclear family into a power-house for Jesus.

What response are you likely to have?

If you are like any of the single Christians I’ve known, you’ll probably just hold your breath and bear it for the next 40 days at church. Quite possibly you’ll check out mentally for those said 40 days. It’s not impossible you’ll decide to skip church altogether until the Purpose Driven Family thing is done.

Am I saying that the Bible has nothing to say about being a Christian mom, dad, kid, or member of a nuclear family?

No. It has all kinds of things to say about how the Gospel can intersect and transform your family life. Of course it does.

Am I saying the church should never talk about Christian family life, for fear of ostracizing the singles in their midst?

No again. Of course there is a time and a place to do so.

All I’m saying is that if and when a church does launch this kind of a family-focused ministry, it needs to address the fact that it may be unintentionally communicating to the single people in its community that they do not matter as much as married people, that it believes married life is the only “serious” way to follow Jesus, or that God is really just the great matchmaker in the sky whose ultimate goal is simply to pair everyone up with a compatible life-partner, 2.5 kids, and a white picket fence around the yard.

As far as I can tell, none of those things are true.

God’s goal is men and women who are following Jesus with all they got, on a shalom-oriented mission for him in the world, and living that out with every breath no matter what circumstances they find themselves in. Marriage is one way to achieve this goal, sure. But so is singleness. And a church that wants to challenge its married people to live on purpose for Jesus should think just as seriously about how to extend that same challenge, with equal weight, to its single people.

A while back I did some writing for our denomination on this topic, and I developed a small “discussion starter” questionnaire that church leaders might use, to think through if, how, and to what extent they actually affirm singleness as a meaningful path for following Jesus. I want this blog series to sound as practical note as possible, so I offer it here as a little thought-experiment in closing.

1. What percentage of our church households are singles?

2. Do we have any singles in meaningful positions of leadership?

3. Do our practices around Mother’s Day or Father’s Day exclude or alienate singles?

4. Do we have couple’s focused ministries, activities or events that explicitly or implicitly exclude singles?

5. In our discussions of outreach do we explicitly or implicitly specify “families” or “couples” as the preferred demographic?

6. In our vision/values/mission documents, do we explicitly or implicitly state our focus is on families?

7. Do we have singles-focused ministries that “isolate” singles from the broader church community?

8. In our teaching or preaching on Christian marriage, families or sexuality, do we include teaching that presents singleness as a legitimate expression of one’s sexuality and/or celebrates it as a meaningful path for discipleship?

9. In our hiring of or searching for pastoral staff, board members or other leaders, do we implicitly or explicitly communicate that single pastors will not be considered?

10. Do we have ceremonies of commissioning to service, or covenant friendships, or other creative ways of publicly acknowledging and affirming people’s choice to pursue singleness?

11. Do we have single mentors, single pastors, or other single Christian leaders who can help younger singles navigate the unique pressures that are part of a single celibate life?

12. Do we encourage informal and intentional connecting between singles and couples (e.g. do singles get invited over by families and/or couples)?

13. Do we provide Divorce Care, or similar grace-based, biblical ministries to help people deal with the grief and loss of a divorce?

Suffer the Singles to Come to Me (On Singleness and Celibacy, Part IV)

There’s a very famous passage in the Gospel of Matthew where the crowds are bringing their toddlers to Jesus and the disciples try to prevent them from doing so. If you’ve read it before you’ll know that Jesus becomes quite indignant with his disciples and tells them to “Suffer the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14, KJV), because “the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.”

It’s famous, of course, because the Lord is clearly validating children here in a way that would have been, at the very least, counter cultural to his original listeners, but resonates deeply with our culture, where (unlike the ancients) we tend to put children on a pedestal and idealize childhood. For us, there are probably fewer images more lovely than the one of the Lord tenderly blessing a handful of playful children—our children—as a quintessential expression of his ministry. Of course, we assume, as we drive our kids hither and thither from soccer practice to piano lessons to playgrounds and back, making no end of sacrifices for their well-being—of course Jesus cares as much about children as we do—of course he was willing to put as much on the line for them as we are.

And he is; don’t get me wrong.

Children will always have a special place in his heart—though not because of their perceived innocence and child-like wonderment (as we might assume)—but more because of their vulnerability, weakness, and (at least in his culture) their low status on the social totem pole. Nevertheless, Jesus clearly loves children, and enjoins his followers to do the same.

A while back I was reading Matthew 19, though, and I noticed for the first time that this passage comes immediately after Jesus’s radical teaching on divorce and remarriage in Matthew 19:1-12, where he tells us that God’s intention was that marriage should be a permanent, exclusive union between a man and a woman (19:9).

I noticed this, and for the first time it occurred to me to wonder why the disciples don’t want the children to be brought to Jesus for a blessing in 19:13.

What if it’s because they learned the lesson of Matthew 19:1-12 too well? What if Matthew 19:13-15 is Jesus’s step to correct a pendulum that had swung too far the other way?

What I mean is this: in Matthew 19:10, when they hear Jesus’s firm stance on the permanency of marriage, the disciples say, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife it is better not to marry.”

The logic here is not completely clear to me, but it seems they’ve added it up and have decided that if marriage “can’t be escaped," we ought not to jump into it in the first place.

And what’s stunning to me, is that in Matthew 19:11, Jesus doesn’t tell them they’re wrong. He simply says, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those for whom it has been given; and the one who can accept it should.”

If you read it very closely, Jesus seems to be agreeing with the disciple’s conclusion (that it’s better not to marry), but also wisely acknowledging that most can’t walk that path. So he offers marriage as a concession to those for whom “becoming a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom” is just too strenuous of a path. Paul is probably taking his cue from the Lord Jesus when he does a similar thing himself in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7.

There are probably other ways to take Matthew 19:11-12, but if this reading is correct, it would certainly explain the “let the little children come to me” fiasco in Matthew 19:13ff. Because if you were a disciple that day and you had heard Jesus say that marriage is a concession for those who can’t walk the path of celibacy, but if you can handle singleness you ought to … you could be excused, I think, if you figured that Jesus had actually, in that teaching, minimized the importance of family life altogether. And it would be at least understandable if, the next time you saw a bunch of families bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing, you tried to prevent it.

Surely the Jesus who said what he said about marriage in verse 11 and 12, would not want to be bothered with a bunch of children in verse 13, right?

Well: wrong (see verse 14-15), but I can understand why you’d think that.

Because the New Testament consistently and clearly discusses singleness with very high esteem—as an ideal way to serve the Lord—and it often talks about marriage as though it were a necessary concession for the “not yet” era of the Kingdom of God, a concession which will become obsolete once the “already” has come in all its fullness. There will be, after all, no marriage at the resurrection (Matthew 22:30), and those who can live into that reality already, on this side of the resurrection, Jesus seems to be saying, should do so.

(You might quote Ephesians 6, and say, doesn’t Ephesians 5:22-33 put as high a value on marriage as you possibly can, making it symbolic of the union between Christ and the church? But that verse actually proves too much, in a way. If marriage is a symbol of the union between Christ and his church, then at the eschaton, when that union is perfect and complete, marriage will have served its purpose and will no longer be needed.)

All this brings us back Matthew 19:13-15. Whatever else Jesus was doing by blessing those little children that day, he was certainly also preventing us from taking the above logic too far, too soon.

“Even though the institution of marriage has a shelf-life,” he seems to be saying, “and even though singleness is a good way to follow me, even so, till that day when the Kingdom has arrived in all its fullness, there is still a place, now, for married life, and families, and children. So let the little children come to me, and do not prevent them. For the Kingdom of God belongs to them (as much as it does to single people).”

On this reading Matthew 19:13-15 is not so much an unmitigated endorsement of all things children, and a summons to the church to focus on the family above all else. It is, instead, a boundary marker, preventing the church from swimming too far out, so to speak, into the sea of “singleness and celibacy.”

Put less metaphorically: Matthew 19:13-15 is there to bring marriage and family, up to, and on par with, singleness as a viable way of following Jesus. So that the church doesn’t fall into the trap of thinking that the singles are the red-ribbon-Christians and the marrieds are the “also-rans.”

If I’m on to anything here, I gotta say that this is not a problem than needs correcting in the modern North-American Church—the problem of elevating singleness and denigrating marriage, I mean. As I have argued in previous posts in this series, the modern North American church tends to elevate marriage as the ideal and barely even acknowledges that singleness is a thing (except as a problem to be “fixed” by marriage).

If Matthew 19:13-15 was there to correct the over-swing of the pendulum towards singleness, in Jesus's day, Matthew 19:11-12, is here to correct the over-swing of the pendulum to the other side, in our day.

But my point here is not to pit one of these two paths against the other, singleness or marriage; it’s just to illustrate that Jesus seems to think that both are necessary, and a church that really wanted to experience the life of the Kingdom would value, celebrate and encourage both.

Because God’s ultimate goal is not “married-Christians.” His ultimate goal is fully-devoted disciples. Marriage is one way to experience and live out one’s discipleship, of course; but so is singleness. And a church that really understood what it meant to bring their children—and their marriages—and their families—to Jesus, would make sure their single people were also there, receiving their blessing too, and discovering that the Kingdom of God belongs as much to them as it does anyone else who finds themselves at his side.

I Have Inscribed You, a song



I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands
I have etched you here on my side
And I wrote your name with the nails of the cross
On my hands and feet that they might never be lost
In the stripes of my back
With my arms stretched wide
I inscribed you, I inscribed you
I inscribed you on the palms of my hands

Look on the hands you have pierced
Fall at the feet whose heel you bruised
Touch the flesh that you tore in your sin and pride
See the blood that poured from his riven side
I was broken for you, it was poured out for you
It was offered to make all things new

I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands
I have etched you here on my side
And I wrote your name with the nails of the cross
On my hands and feet that they might never be lost
In the stripes of my back
With my arms stretched wide
I inscribed you, I inscribed you
I inscribed you on the palms of my hands

On Authority and the Spiritual Struggle (Luke 10:19)

Sacred Head Sore Wounded



O Sacred Head, sore wounded
Weighted down with grief
Crowned with thorns and bruised with
All our unbelief
But the cruel key that pierced you
And opened your side
Unlocked the mystery of heaven
And flung the doors of heaven wide

O Sacred Body broken
Lashed with all our sin
And those hands stretched open
Held salvation in
But the cruel key that locked them
And drove them to the cross
Unloosed the mystery of heaven
And offered back what we had lost

O Sacred Head sore wounded
Sacred body broken
Sacred blood and water, spilled for me

O Sacred Thirst unquenched
And parched with suffering
Mocked with vinegar
It thirsted there for me
But the cruel key that pierced you
And opened your side
Unlocked the mystery of heaven
And flung the doors of heaven wide

O Sacred Head sore wounded
Sacred body broken
Sacred blood and water, spilled for me
O Sacred Head sore wounded
Sacred body broken
Sacred blood and water, spilled for me

The Scruffy Little Puppy, a Parable for Children

Once upon a time there was a scruffy little puppy who lived in a pet store on the corner of a busy street in the city. Scruffy little puppy was not like any of the other puppies.

Sparky was fully of vim and vinegar and all the children who visited the pet store loved to play with him. But Scruffy Little Puppy had one lame paw and couldn’t run very well.

Sophie had a beautiful curly coat and wore a bow behind her ears. All the grown ups who came to the pet store said how lovely she was. But Scruffy Little Puppy’s coat was all ragged and tatty.

No one ever took any notice of Scruffy Little Puppy. No one loved him. And no one wanted him.

One day a man came to the pet store and told the Keeper that he wanted a playful puppy for his little boy, and he was prepared to pay fifteen dollars for one. The keeper pointed out Sparky, bouncing around with his ball in the shop window.

“That Puppy,” said the keeper, “is worth fifteen dollars for sure.”

Another day, a young lady came in. When she saw Sophie’s curly coat, she said she just had to have her, and the keeper should name his price. The keeper said that Sophie was worth ten dollars at least.

But no body ever came in asking how much Scruffy Little Puppy was worth. No one told the Keeper that they just had to have him. No one loved him. And no one wanted him.

One day a nice-looking young man came into the pet store. Scruffy Little Puppy didn’t look up from his basket, but he listened closely.

“I saw that puppy with the lame paw in the window,” the man was saying to the keeper. “I think I might like to have a dog like that.”

The Keeper laughed. “You mean Scruffy Little Puppy?” he said. “Oh well. He can’t run very well. And his coat is pretty mangy. Let me show you some different puppies.”

“No,” insisted the gentle young man. “I want that puppy. How much is he worth?”

The Keeper scratched his head. Sophie had sold for ten dollars. Sparky for fifteen. But Scruffy Little Puppy wasn’t worth anything near as much as them.

“Well,” he said at last, “I could give you Scruffy for two dollars. That’s probably a fair price.”

The kind-looking young man rubbed his chin. Scruffy hung his head in shame.

“Two dollars is a lot of money,” he said. “But it’s not enough for my Scruffy Little Puppy. I’ll give you a hundred dollars for him!”

Scruffy couldn’t believe what he just heard. Nor could the Keeper. He said, “Sold!” and put the money in the cash register before the young man could change his mind. And that was the day Scruffy Little Puppy went home with his new master.

Sold for a hundred dollars!

Well. Months and months went by. But the Keeper of the Pet Store never forgot the strange young man who had bought the worst puppy in the store for a hundred whole dollars.

And one day, looking out the window of his shop, he saw that same young man walking past. He was holding a dog leash, and on the leash walking next to him was the finest-looking looking dog the Keeper had ever seen.

The dog had a glossy grey coat. He walked with his head held high, and each step he took was so strong, and graceful, that you never would have noticed that he had just the faintest little bit of a limp.

The Keeper rushed out of the store to greet the man. “My,” he said. “That is a fine-looking dog you have there. What ever happened to the scruffy-little mutt you bought from me?”

The young man looked at the keeper for just a moment, and then he laughed. “Sir!” he said, “This is my Scruffy Little Puppy. It’s the same dog!”

The Keeper was astonished. “But how?” He asked. He just couldn’t believe that this fine-looking dog was the same sad-looking puppy he had sold so long ago.

“Don’t you see?” said the wise young man. “We are as lovely as we’re told we are. If you only pay two dollars for a dog, you’ll get a dog worth two dollars. But a puppy that believes he’s worth a hundred dollars, will become a hundred-dollar dog.

I showed Scruffy he was worth a hundred dollars to me, and that’s what he’s become.”

The Keeper walked away scratching his head. He just didn’t understand.

But God wants us to understand.  Because in a way, what the nice young man did for Scruffy Little Puppy, by showing him just how much he was worth to him when he felt worthless an unloved, that’s like what God did for us.

We were like the Scruffy Little Puppy, and Jesus is like the kind-young man. Because like the man in the story, who paid a hundred dollars for a puppy that no one else would even pay two for, Jesus gave his very life for us on the cross, when we were broken by sin and marred by selfishness. Jesus paid his very life for us, so that we could be with him, and so that we would know how precious we are to God.

And that’s what God wants all of us to know. He loves us so much that he gave Jesus, his one and only Son, who died on the cross for you, so that you would no it for sure, that you are infinitely precious to him.

Ministry by Twos (Luke 10:1)

Corpus Christi Carol (a song)



lyrics based on a traditional poem


Lullay, lullay, lullay, lullay
Falcon has born my mate away

He bore her up, he bore her down
He bore her to an orchard brown

And in that orchard there was a hall
It was hanged with purple and pall

And in that hall was laid a bed
That was hanged with gold so red

And on that bed there lieth a knight
His wounds a-bleeding day and night

And by that bed there kneeleth a maid
And she weepeth night and day

And by that maid there rests a stone
Corpus Christi written thereon

Towards a Theology of Celibacy, Part III

(Note: this is adapted from a paper I prepared for the FMCiC in 2016. You can find the whole paper here: Pastoral Reflections on Singleness and Celibacy)

Any church that wants to treat the Bible's teaching on marriage seriously will have to grapple, at the same time, at some point or another, with its teaching about celibacy as well.  Few books I've read or sermons I've heard on the topic of marriage actually do this. Instead they tend to treat Christian marriage as though it were some how the ideal, and ignore the sometimes startling things the Bible says about the goodness of the single life. There are a number of Bible texts that laud singleness as a path for following Jesus, and often these texts present marriage, if anything, as a concession to those who are unable to walk the path of celibacy.  If we wish to have a theologically rich understanding of marriage and singleness alike, I think, we will have to let these texts speak with their full weight.

The first, and most obvious, is 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul addresses the Corinthian church on matters of marriage and celibacy. What stands out in this text is the way in which Paul seems to view marriage here as a good and proper concession to the frailties of our broken sexuality, rather than an arrangement that is somehow superior to singleness. “It is good for a man not to marry,” he writes (7:1), “but because of immoralities (porneia, sexual immorality), each man is to have his own wife and each woman is to have her own husband” (7:2). Later in the passage he will say that it is “good for the unmarried to remain single” (7:8), but if they are likely to “burn with passion,” they should marry. Here Paul lines up celibate singleness and marriage as equally legitimate expressions of Christian discipleship, though he is clear that he sees an advantage in singleness. The advantage, specifically, is that unmarried Christians are free to serve the Lord with an undivided heart, whereas married Christians have divided interests (7:33-34). Finally, it should be noted that in this passage Paul  refers to celibacy as a “gift.” Given the fact that the term Paul uses here for gift (charisma) is the same he will use later to describe the supernatural empowerings of the Holy Spirit—gifts of healing, tongues, prophecy and so on—it should be noted that Paul does not single out singleness as a unique “gift,” as distinct from marriage. Rather he notes that for some the “gift” is to live a married life, for others it is to live a single life (7:6), but both situations are gifts from God and, presumably, require the empowering of the Spirit to live faithfully and well.

Another passage that deserves careful reflection is Jesus’ teaching about “singleness for the sake of the Kingdom of God,” in Matthew 19. After hearing Jesus’ firm position on divorce and remarriage, the disciples respond that, given this view of marriage, it is “better not to marry” (19:10). Given the church’s tendency to see marriage as the ideal expression of the Christian life, Jesus’ response is fascinating, because he does not deny their conclusion. He simply states, with a line of reasoning similar to that of Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 7, that “not all people can accept this statement” (19:11); in other words, because most people cannot successfully embrace the celibate single life, marriage is the best alternative. He goes on to say, however, that those who are able to “accept” the celibate life should in fact “receive” it, offering a clear and unambiguous affirmation of celibate singleness.

A final text we ought to consider is Jesus’ teaching about marriage at the resurrection. In an effort to point out apparent inconsistencies in his teaching about the resurrection, the Sadducees ask Jesus about a woman who was married seven times: who will she be married to at the resurrection? Again Jesus’ response is startling for Christians used to assuming that marriage is the highest ideal for the Christian life. “In the resurrection,” he says, “they neither marry nor are they given in marriage” (Matthew 22:29-30). In other words, marriage is an earthly institution that serves a good and useful purpose in this life, but will be unnecessary in the life to come. This is not to marginalize or trivialize marriage in this present age—the Scriptures are uniformly clear that marriage is a blessing and a gift from God—but it is to put marriage it its proper perspective. Marriage serves an end and is not an end in itself; and celibacy, too serves an end, though it is not an end in itself either. Both are, in their own way, signs of the coming Kingdom where the human arrangements of husband, wife, master, servant and so on, will all be overshadowed by the heavenly relationship of “brother and sister in Christ.”

A church that takes the scripture’s teaching on celibacy seriously will recognize it, celebrate it and affirm it as a distinct and meaningful path for discipleship, one that requires the support of the Christian community if it is to flourish, one that is highly valued and respected in the teachings of the apostles and in the explicit word of the Lord, and one that makes as valuable a contribution to the community as do marriage and family. Similarly, churches that wish to be shaped by the Scriptures when comes to singleness and celibacy will reject the popular notion that in order to be effective a pastor must be married, or that marriage is a qualification for ministry. This is directly contrary to the plain teaching of the Bible, which, if anything, gives the advantage to the single pastor, who is less encumbered by the demands of a family and a household in the discharge of his or her ministry. At the very least, churches that wish to be shaped by the Scriptures in this matter will take intentional steps to offer a counter-culture to the highly sexualized culture of contemporary Canadian Society, to be a community where singles are affirmed and supported, and celibacy is embraced as a meaningful path for Christ.