Love: Beyond sex and marriage? (Part 1 of 2)

Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage.” So sang Frank Sinatra in 1955.

I love it when people get married, especially in church. It is wonderful to see a man and a woman express their love for one another by making promises before God, embarking on a journey to commit to one another for life, the beginning of the creation of the new family. I very much look forwards to the time when I will be able to marry people (as a vicar, that is), and will be praying that their marriage will indeed be one of love.

However, when recently reflecting on the Coalition For Marriage’s petition against the redefinition of marriage as anything other than “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others,” it struck me that the petition mentions nothing of love.

In a sense this shouldn’t be surprising, in that those defending the traditional view of marriage are not, ostensibly, arguing against two people of the same gender loving each other, but against the legal institution of marriage being altered. It seems to me that legal terminology is more to do with matters such as adoption rights, inheritance, benefits and whether or not you feel someone is discriminating against you than love.

For many Christians, it is also the religious institution of marriage that is at stake in the government’s proposal. In the eyes of Christians, marriage is not just something that society came up with, but God. Most traditionalist Christians believe that God ordained marriage as a union between one man and one woman, who show fidelity to one another through sexual union (and don’t have sex with anyone else) and who seek to raise a stable family in the context of this relationship. This can be supported by the statement in Genesis 2:24, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (quoted by Jesus in Matt 19:5-6)

But the question I want to ask in part one of this post (the topic is too big for me to express my thoughts about in one go – sorry!) is, is marriage the ultimate expression of love? Hear me out on this. I am an idealistic optimist. I recognise that marriages are flawed, but I see it as the intention of people who marry to aspire to give themselves to one another through faithful sacrificial love. But is marriage always the carriage that follows the horse of love? Is the only way two people can express their complete intimacy to one another through a marriage, and is the love between two people of the same gender (friends or civil partners) somehow of a lesser quality because they are not married?

There are numerous ways in which people define marriage. (I think that is why politicians are struggling when thinking in terms of redefining it, as no one seems quite sure what the original definition was first off).

The Coalition for Marriage’s petition defines marriage as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.” But what then would be their definition of a gay marriage, so redefined, that they are objecting to? In shorthand (leaving polygamy aside for the time being), if it is merely the reversal of this definition, it would seem to be, “the voluntary union for life of two men or two women to the exclusion of all others.” Which sounds to me suspiciously like a civil partnership, by another name. However, the Coalition For Marriage’s website makes it clear that “Civil partnerships already provide all the legal benefits of marriage so there’s no need to redefine marriage. It’s not discriminatory to support traditional marriage. Same-sex couples may choose to have a civil partnership but no one has the right to redefine marriage for the rest of us.”* So the argument seems to be, that homosexual civil partnerships are one thing, but heterosexual marriage is something else. A marriage and a civil partnership are different. Fair enough.

So what are some Christian definitions of marriage? As someone training to be an Anglican vicar, I probably ought to be much less muddled in my definition of what marriage is than I actually am. But for what it’s worth, I think there are several different definitions of marriage going around in Christian circles, which is where half the confusion seems to be arising. Let’s look at some:

1) Marriage is a lifelong union, instituted by God, between one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others. It is consummated by sexual union, and is the only valid context for sex. It is the context in which children should be raised and nurtured.

2) Marriage is a public commitment, made in the eyes of God, where two people declare their love and commitment to one another to the exclusion of all others. It is blessed by God.

3) Marriage is the context where two people can most fully express their unconditional love and fidelity to each other. Within marriage, two people are able to physically express the level of their intimacy through the most intimate bond ever – that of sexual union. It is in the context of marriage that two people are able to most fully give their love to another individual and receive love from them in return.

Definition one, I would say, is the traditional view of what Christian marriage is. Personally, I think I am in broad agreement with this view, that marriage should be exclusive, and the context for rasing children, and the proper context for faithful sexual union. For me, this is what the Bible sets out to say when it explains marriage. The conservative in me says that the Bible intends marriage to be heterosexual, and that homosexual sex is wrong in God’s eyes. The liberal in me wants to say that it is actually promiscuous, lustful behaviour that the Bible primarily speaks out against, and that a gay marriage, if permissible, should aspire to those qualities of fidelity and providing a stable family unit. I confess my internal jury is still out on this one.

Definition two could apply to a blessed civil partnership – it need not be called a marriage. It says nothing of sex, and could be celibate. What it does promise is that the couple will aspire to loving faithfulness, and exclusivity. I can’t see as there are any Christian grounds for opposing such a union, yet sadly some Christians seem vehemently opposed to even a civil relationship of this nature.

Definition three is in my view, seriously flawed. It implies that for all individuals to know true love (which lets face it, every human desires), marriage is vital (as is sex). It idolizes marriage too much as the least lonely and most desirable state for all individuals, a form of idolatry that the modern protestant church seems to sadly succumb to. But the supreme example of love is the sacrificial love of Jesus, who died for our sins. Jesus was the most loving being ever to have lived, yet he was single and celibate. Another Biblical example is the example of David. David was married to several women, and lusted after and raped Bathsheba, but he also sings that Jonathan’s non sexual love for him was greater than that: “Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.” (2 Sam 1:26)

I would be interested to know what others think on this topic before I write part two of this post, and in particular, what married people think, as I am writing from a single point of view.

Mark

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*A statement which inadvertently seemed to alienate same-sex couples in civil partnerships from signing the petition, by assuming they are not “us”.


Is prayer good for your health?

Image © 2012 healingherald.org

Recently I was reading an article in the Guardian. Maybe that was where I went wrong. After all, the Guardian isn’t known for its Christian outlook 🙂

However, this particular article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/jun/18/christian-doctor-lucky-not-struck-off) was written in response to the investigation into the conduct of Dr Richard Scott, the Christian GP who discussed his faith with a patient in an apparently “inappropriate” way. In it, Robert Winston sets out the scientific wisdom of Leanne Roberts of the Southwalk diocesan office who has conducted a survey of 8000 patients, to show that whether you are prayed for or not, you are just as likely to die.

I find this mildly amusing, because when Jesus prayed for his patients, he had about a 98% sucess record of healing them completely. (The 2% is the time when he took 2 efforts at healing to make a point – see Mark 8:24). So there – prayer worked for him. And it worked for Peter, who prayed in Jesus’ name to heal the lame man (Acts 3:6), and Paul, known for resurrecting a youth who fell asleep out of a window and died because he got so bored by the sermon  (Acts 20:9). If it worked for them, it could work for us.

I confess to being a charismatic Christian, which means not only do I wave my hands in worship services whilst trying to sing along to tunes my parents claim are unsingable, but I believe the Holy Spirit has the power to heal people. Sometimes physically, sometimes spiritually, sometimes just by teaching them something new. But I also have Christian friends who have felt slightly miffed by talking to Christian doctors, who have been a bit too keen on recommending prayer at the end of a consultation, when they say there is not much else that they can think of that can be done.

I don’t know enough about Dr Richard Scott (other than that he worked at an explicitly Christian Bethesda healing centre in Margate) to judge how appropriate he was in his comments to his patient.

But I do get annoyed with atheists in the media (especially the Guardian) who seem to keep harping on about the “inappropriateness” of Christian prayer and medical healing having anything to do with each other. Yes, we all know that atheists and Dawkinsites like to portray prayer as wishful thinking, faith as a delusion, religion as a dangerous malady and good old secular stoic psychology as the answer to all human problems.

In particular I get annoyed with that breed of secular psychiatrists who actually do think Christianity is a problem for those with mental health issues, because, yes, the Bible does talk about sin, and guilt. It says we have all sinned (no-one is perfect), but Jesus died for us and forgives us completely. And this gives us hope. It gives me hope of knowing I am an adopted son of God, loved unconditionally, made to praise God in heaven eternally. God brings me power, healing, and strength. Not that my life is always easy – but I rest securely on the promises of God. And what do the gurus of atheistic philosophy have to offer those who are struggling, and in need? Not much, it would seem. Advice to make the most of this life, and try to find some meaning in it, because this life is all there is. Sounds fairly depressing to me.

I am not a GP. I am not a psychologist. I am a biased Christian, who believes that faith in Jesus Christ brings hope and healing to people. And that prayer does work. So yah-boo-sucks to you, Guardian columnist Robert Winston, with your fancy white coat and big moustache.

Why as a Christian I play poker

As a Christian, I am often asked about one of my more unusual hobbies – why I choose to play poker at the King’s Arms Pub in Bristol most Thursday nights. When I mention my enjoyment of poker to church friends they usually raise their eyebrows in surprise somewhat, and try to work out a polite and well-meaning manner in which to venture the question – doesn’t that mean I’m gambling, which Christians shouldn’t really do? I have to say though, that this is nothing compared to some of the shocked expressions I get from men and women at the poker table when I say I’m training to be a vicar. Once they have got over my eccentric seeming choice of profession, they say to me, doesn’t that mean I’m gambling, which vicars shouldn’t really do?

The short answer to why I play poker is – because it’s fun, and I enjoy it, and I make good friends doing so. I am, as a game player, ultra competitive. Nearly as competitive as my sister. Which meant that the family board games of “Mine a Million” that I continue to play with my (now married) sister every Christmas Eve usually result in heated arguments as I attempt to justify why I can move my boat six spaces forwards even after playing a card that moved it three spaces back, and why the rule book is working in my favour, and not hers, while my brother-in-law holds his head in despair as to why his generally mature adult relatives have degenerated into bolshy twelve-year olds.

So poker for me is for me a game, not a money-making enterprise. Even though it involves chips, for me, it needn’t involve money. I can disassociate the two – just as I can happily enjoy a game of monopoly without feeling the need to get my cheque book out at the start to buy into the game.  Texas Hold’em Poker, the form I play, is becoming increasingly popular as a game in its own right. It is not just luck – it involves skills of working out how much to bet, calculating odds, working out where you sit relative to the dealer, bluffing, acting, trying to read other people from their mannerisms and the way they play, trying to fool other people by not allowing them to read you or predict the way you play – all of which is good fun. (By the way I haven’t mastered all this – I just try to play cards randomly to mix things up*).

When I play at the Kings Arms, I play in an amateur league. (This means I don’t play with cash – I’m not like the Reverend Fairbrother in Middlemarch, who gambled his clergy stipend away on the card tables, and I don’t have ambitions as a vicar to go to Las Vegas to win a few extra bob to mend the church roof.) What happens is I play in a tournament, entering for free each week, and being given chips to play against (usually about 15) other people. The prize is a bar voucher, and points towards a league final every couple of months, where cash prizes can be won.

I am  very grateful to my Christian college friends who introduced me to poker. As well as giving me a good social hobby which requires little athletic prowess, they had the foresight to see that it is a great opportunity for Christians to witness to the power of the gospel by showing we can have fun playing a good game. Others have mentioned to me also that when Christians play poker in the league, the games can become much less aggressive, and people focus more on having a good social time rather than fuelling an addiction.  I hope that as Christians playing poker we can show people that they can enjoy the game without money being involved.

So what about Christians who do play Poker for cash? Well, my advice would have to be – be very careful. Think very hard about it. Some Christians do consider it okay to spend a bit of money in a gambling game as part of a night out – whether that be a night out playing bingo or entering a  raffle (my grandma, a lovely Christian lady, was uncannily good at winning bingo and raffles). For others, any form of gambling is dangerous. It has to be a personal decision. I know of devout Christians who refuse to take out insurance, for example, because they see it as a form of gambling against disaster with the insurance companies, and I respect their choice, even though I wouldn’t adhere to it personally. For me, it is a personal choice, but a choice which should never be made lightly without thought.

If you do decide to enter a poker tournament, to my mind, paying £5 at the start for a game where the winner takes all, should provide at least a couple of hours of entertainment (if you play reasonably enough), and I wouldn’t object to that. But cash-in cash-out games at casinos can be very dangerous, because of the temptation to “buy back in” with more money, especially if you see others doing so. I would give four warnings about this:

1) Poker playing is addictive. It is addictive enough when you are just playing once a week, not for cash. If you cross the line of playing for money, you can land yourself with a very unhealthy addiction which is dangerous.

2) Think about others on the table as well as yourself. If you are feeding someone’s addiction by playing cash poker with them, that is clearly not a helpful Christian thing to do – it is like offering a glass of wine to an alcoholic.

3) I don’t think “cash in-cash-out” games are very wise to play as Christians. Tournaments are much better because everyone puts in the same at the start. With a “cash in-cash out” game, either you are tempted to put in money when you lose, or else you end up winning large amounts of money from others. To my mind, when you put in £5 and someone puts in £50, if you win £55, you have practically robbed them. The Bible constantly condemns rich people who rob and oppress the poor and take advantage of their weaknesses (which might include their inferior poker playing abilities).

4) Don’t play for cash online. There is no social element to this, it is all about you winning money at the expense of others.

So my principle is, it’s okay to have a good night out playing poker, and it needn’t cost a thing. Personally I think it is okay to spend a few quid to enter a game if it is going to be your night’s entertainment, but think about others when you do so. Poker can be a great way of making friends, and also, as Christians, I think we can be a powerful witness when we are out talking to unbelievers on neutral ground, not ours, showing it is possible to enjoy a game of cards without gambling.

I am always open to hearing other Christian thoughts on this subject (which is not uncontroversial – I am sure many Christians will fervently disagree with me!) and to be held accountable myself. What do you think – should Christians play poker?

Mark

* This sentence could be a bluff, be careful.

Link

After reading a BBC news article on mental health provision in the UK recently “Shocking discrimination in mental health services” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18481943), I decided to write a post about our attitudes to mental health in society today. I have known many friends who have received various forms of treatment for various forms of depression. Personally, I was diagnosed with anxiety by my GP a few years ago, and was referred to an NHS service which taught me techniques of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and breathing control which I found very valuable. It was this treatment, along with, I believe, the power of God’s Holy Spirit working in me, that I have been able to make massive progress in dealing with anxiety issues, which affect me now to a far lesser degree and in far fewer challenging circumstances. I used to get nervous sitting in very crowded rooms for long periods of times without suffering anxiety . However, in the past year I have sat in many services and lectures, and led a fair few, without being significantly struck by my anxiety. Indeed, looking back since my anxiety treatment, I can see there are many public events I have attended which would have caused me considerable worry before, that I didn’t even think twice about worrying about this time round. I confess I still felt pretty anxious before singing in a choir of ten at a graduation ceremony in front of about 500 people including my tutors and University officials – but I managed to sing well enough – and I am, after all only human!

So my testimony is a success story. I credit most of the work to God. But I also am very grateful for how I believe he worked through the NHS – enabling the right GP to refer me to the right NHS service that would enable me to receive the proper treatment for my condition. I recognise that I was in the right city at the right time. But I also remember my worries about speaking to my GP about anxiety the first time. I was afraid to book in an appointment – in the end I waited until I was wanting to see the GP about a physical ailment, and only mentioned the anxiety situation at the end of the consultation. At the time I was also undergoing the selection procedure for the Church of England, and I spent sleepless nights worrying about the effect it might have on the process to have a “mental health” referral on my medical record. Fortunately for me, this worry proved to be unfounded, although it did take a trip to London and the reassurance of a second doctor to confirm this to me and the Church of England.

I believe that in recent years, mental health issues are beginning to be more recognised by society as “real” health issues, not just mood swings or conditions that people make up. I hope that our society is not ignoring those with mental health issues. It worries me though that services such as the simple series of 6 classes that treated me might be being squeezed out with the budget cuts. As Christian churches and friends, I believe we can be helping people in this area and encouraging people to seek, where available the appropriate treatment, and I hope that the recent BBC article will help people to

But more importantly, I hope people begin to see that mental health conditions are treatable. They might not always be 100% curable, but there are therapies and medications which enable people to deal with their condition enough to be able to perform their jobs well, and help people do the things they really love doing more frequently. We need to break apart the unhealthy mindset, of those with conditions and those without, that to be afflicted with a mental health condition means an end to successful employment, happiness and enjoyment of life. For me, dealing with anxiety has taught me to learn about myself and to recognise my dependence on God. I no longer see it as the “death sentence over my career” I once believed it to be.

Do Christians celebrate beauty enough?

This post is not about beautiful women and men. Well, not living ones at any rate. Sorry if that disappoints anyone.

It is about paintings. And buildings. And flowers. Beautiful ones.

A few weeks ago I was in Rome, and was amazed by the awesome grandeur of the churches, and the artistic genius of the painters and sculptures. I couldn’t help thinking about how much time and dedication the artists had put into their work, and how they truly intended their work reflect the glory of God.

But then, niggling at the back of my mind, was the economic cynic – the reluctant evangelical, who was thinking, should the church spend its money on expensive buildings like this? (It sounded scarily similar to the voice of Judas objecting to Mary lavishing expensive perfume on Jesus in John 12:5, claiming the money should go to the poor instead.) After all, as a “low church” charismatic evangelical, I have felt plenty of frustration at watching churches being forced to poor endless financial resources into vast black holes to prop up large buildings which, lets face it, are not exactly on a par with St Peter’s Basilica or the Sistene Chapel. Again and again I have heard the cry, why not just meet in a church hall and spend our money on “mission” instead?

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It is a challenging question. But I can’t help thinking, as Christians, do we appreciate Christian art and beauty enough? 500 years ago sculptures and painters painstakingly dedicated their lives to producing glorious pieces that are recognized today as infinitely more impressive than the numerous holiday photos that paparazzis like me like to snap on mobile phones. And as a two time arts student, there is something inside me that rebels at the idea that what is most beautiful and best about the creative faculties God has given must always be done away with in favour of saving money (often to be spent on fliers, posters or publicity campaigns).

To take another example, last week I was at our church flower festival extravaganza, themed around entertainment. And it was definitely extravagant. The church was full of glorious colour, celebrating films and shows ranging from South Pacific to Pirates of the Caribbean. The atmosphere was jubilant, and it was an amazing demonstration to the people of the village of the skill of the flower arrangers and the love they have of their craft. And people were flocking from round the local area to enter the church – some for the first time in many years.

God is the ultimate artist of beauty. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1) But he has made us, his creatures, in his image, capable of creating beautiful things as well. In a world twisted by pornography, where society is tempted daily to bow down to idols of cheap thrills and instant gratification, do we value enough the joy and wonder that can come from celebrating beautiful things – things that reflect God’s glory and draw inspiration from all he is?