On Applying Old Symbols (A Parable)

[I thought of this parable as I contemplated the tiny, but apparently sincere, minority of “heritage”-minded people who believe that the Confederate battle flag is not a symbol of racism.

In hermeneutics class there was a saying ‘context is king’. Perhaps it has a wider application. When you cut something out of the past and paste it into the present (a symbol, a procedure, a style, etc.) it may comfortably retain the cherished traditional meaning within your particular sub-culture. However, others outside your tribe will experience/interpret it in the context of their cultural values/ideals/style. The more culturally insulated a person is, the less sensitive he will be to this reality. If we are going to be a fragrant aroma amongst the perishing, we need to take heed.]

Once upon a time there was a small Christian school in Podunk, South Carolina. Actually, it wasn’t really small anymore. It was thriving. When it started 50+ years ago, it was just a handful of kids from the local Baptist church hiding from decaying morality and evolution in the science books. However, in the last 10 years or so, it developed a reputation for educational excellence, and it was pretty cheap, by private school standards. That, combined with the fact that the local county school district was one of the worst in the state, caused enrollment to swell.

To their credit, the 6 old Deacons Emeritus of First Baptist Church, who comprised the school’s governing board, saw this as a wonderful opportunity to minister to the community. They were sincerely committed to communicating, in word and in deed, the beauty of the Gospel to the whole student body and their parents—many of whom did not attend their church (or any other). At the same time, though, they were very concerned that having such a large number of students from outside their church could have an adverse effect on the “holy environment” that was at the core of the school’s very purpose. They resolved to protect their school’s environment from any unnecessary risk.

So, when a large group of parents and students requested that the school have sports teams, it didn’t take the board long to reject the idea. Sports seemed to bring out the worst in people—pride, aggression, outbursts of anger (and that’s just the parents in the stands!). Nope, they weren’t going to risk it. Over the next couple of years they saw many families withdraw from the school over the lack of sports. This didn’t really concern them until they realized that many kids were joining traveling teams that played on Sunday. They started to reconsider.

Nevertheless, they remained convinced that organized sports were a petri dish for all kinds of ungodliness to grow. They gave great thought to ways they could reinforce sport’s noble virtues (humility, hard work and strength) to counter the sports-inflamed passionate sins of pride, aggression and anger. If they were going to have sports, they needed a symbol of virtue to be their mascot. The mascot must embody the virtues they wanted to guard.

Hmmm…. mascots were typically animals. Usually they were carnivores with fangs showing. Lions, tigers and bears communicated an ungodly aggression and top-of-the-food-chain pride. It should probably be a herbivore. However, as they researched, they noted that herbivore mascots seemed to always have horns that figured prominently. Horns were a symbol of power in the Bible and usually associated with evil pride. So, they needed a hornless herbivore that symbolized Biblical virtues.

Eureka! A donkey. It is strong. It is known for hard work. It has a humble reputation. Best of all it is biblical! Abraham used one when he took Isaac to the altar. A donkey is the only animal that God ever used to speak for Him (Numbers 22). Mary rode it into Bethlehem at the beginning, and Jesus rode it into Jerusalem at the end. Perfect! The Board’s vote was unanimous that their mascot would be the—

Oh, did I mention that these people only used the King James Bible?

The Board planned a big event for last week of school in the spring. They would invite the media and local dignitaries to the big assembly where they would announce their new sports program and unveil their new mascot. When the big day came they just didn’t understand the mixed reaction they got when they announced the new school mascot.

First Baptist Christian Asses

Most laughed. Some gasped. A very small percentage of people clapped along with the deacons.

As the stunned parents discussed it that evening, they began to understand how this happened. The board members never watched TV, never watched movies or even listened to “secular devil music”. Their understanding of pop culture wasn’t really even “pop” 60 years ago when they think it was. They grew up in (and remained in) a culture and never looked beyond its borders (except to decry others’ moral and social inferiority and warn of the dire consequences that would necessarily flow from it). In their minds, they were the remains of what was once an almost universally-held social consensus. They hadn’t left the world, the world had left them and they didn’t see the need to understand much about where it went—their concern was to remain where they were. They would be the home that the prodigal world could return to when it came to its senses.

Over the days that followed, concerned parents and teachers tried to explain to the board why it wasn’t good to be referred to as “Asses”. Referring to someone as an “ass” was an insult and expression of contempt. Worse still, “ass” was a slang term for a body part and was often used in a sexually-oriented manner. Plus, it no longer had a biblical connotation (modern translations didn’t use that word). But, these warnings just strengthened the Board in its resolve. “Just because the Devil has co-opted our precious symbols does not mean that we should stop using them! We refer to God as ‘God’ even though idolators refer to their deities as ‘god’. We don’t stop teaching about the Noahic covenant sign just because homosexuals put rainbows on their bumper stickers. Modern Bible translations can float in the cultural winds all they want to, but we will stay true to our tried-and-true traditional words, symbols and message. WE DON’T CHANGE OUR MESSAGE TO COMMUNICATE TO THE WORLD—WE COMMUNICATE OUR MESSAGE TO CHANGE THE WORLD!!!”

The Board did not back down. In fact, they moved forward. They were sick to death of the fact that modern cultural style, driven by ignorant, ungodly people, was turning beauty into ugliness. They would not let this go unchallenged! So they promoted their holy Asses with passion. They instituted the “Ass of the Week” award that was awarded to a student from each grade who had demonstrated hard work and excellence (with humility) the previous week. They had T-shirts printed as a prize and put each student’s picture on a large bulletin board in the foyer under a huge “Asses of the Week” sign.

A picture of that bulletin board went viral.

Regardless of all its positive qualities, the world only knew that school for one thing. They couldn’t see past it. They never would. The Board never understood why. That school died–their symbol killed it.

Thoughts on Sexual Orientation

Sam and Julie were found dead in the house where they’d lived together for the past 2 ½ years. Sam’s body was found intact on the living room floor. There was a large rock by his head. Julie’s unclothed body was found mangled on the kitchen table…

The object of the game was to figure out how they died by asking 20 (or less) yes/no questions. The reason it was hard was because Sam and Julie were goldfish. Because the guessers assume they are people, they tended to ask the wrong questions and then be led further astray by the answers. Nobody suspects the pets.

I think the same thing is true about homosexuality. We approach the subject with an incorrect assumption and therefore ask some wrong questions and get led astray by the answers.

What if homosexuals don’t even exist?

We have an assumption (Dallas Willard would call it an “idea”) based on culture, popular opinion and personal feelings, that people who experience same-sex attraction are fundamentally different than people who do not. We have categories (“heterosexuals” and “homosexuals”) and everyone fits in one of those boxes. Most consider it a self-evident truth that there is a significant substantive difference between the two. It is believed as strongly as the difference between “black” and “white” was by many in the pre-civil-rights days. “They” are fundamentally different than “us”.

What if that assumption is wrong? What if there is no substantive difference whatsoever between someone who desires homosexual intercourse and someone who recoils at the very thought? What if the universal experience of all humanity since Genesis 3 is that we desire some things that God forbids and are repulsed by some things that God desires?

What if everyone’s day has enough trouble of it own? What if God’s grace is sufficient for each of us? What if we’re all at war with the same enemies using the same weapons as soldiers of the same kingdom but our battlefields are as varied as we are?

What if you aren’t different than me? What if you aren’t a “homosexual”—you are just one of 7+ billion people who really really really wants something that God has denied them?

What if none of us is a special case?

We’ve bought into the lie that people who desire sexual relations with someone of the same sex are fundamentally different than people who don’t. Then we’ve used our logic to conclude that, to be fair, they shouldn’t have to fight a battle that other people don’t. Since the heterosexual subspecies has the opportunity (at least in theory) to experience sexual release according to their tastes, then the homosexual subspecies should as well. Surely God wouldn’t require some people to carry a significantly heavier/different burden than others…

Yet, He does. Some saints are living in countries where persecution is likely and many saints are at zero risk. Many saints are living in circumstances where adequate food is as unavailable as adequate medical care while many saints will never know a minute without overwhelmingly attractive opportunities for gluttony. Some women who have dreamed of being a mother since they were children will never have a baby (some others not even a husband). Some men will never see, some will never walk. Some will never know a day free of debilitating disease.

The fact that our temptations, resources, enemies and opportunities are extremely diverse and unequally distributed has no bearing whatsoever on our individual meaning or worth. Nevertheless, it certainly will affect each individual’s experience of the life to which he has been created and called.

We are all equally post-Genesis-3 people. We all, to one degree or another, have to deal with a seemingly overwhelming combination of lust and fear and greed and laziness and pride and anger and envy and disappointment and so on and on and on and on. It isn’t hard for me not to sin in the areas of illegal drug use, physical violence or homosexual activity. But the fact that I do not even experience temptation in any of those areas does not mean that I am fundamentally different than someone who does. I have a “temptation fingerprint” that is unique to me, but it is not meaningfully dissimilar to 7 billion others’. If I feel that I’m in a separate class/subspecies of people than you because my “fingerprint” does not contain elements that yours does, it only means that the pride aspect of my temptation fingerprint has won yet another skirmish.

All of us, without exception, experience temptation—we sometimes crave what God has denied, and we sometimes recoil from what He has given. The specific appearance of the temptations common to man is diverse. The ultimate meaning and goal of them is not.

I remember going “orienteering” in ROTC. We had to find flags in the woods with only a compass and written bearings and distances. I was better at finding ticks than flags because it is harder than it sounds to go straight in a particular direction in an obstacle-infested environment. I’d frequently stop and hold the compass against my stomach to check my bearing while counting my paces. Nevertheless, everything in the environment conspired to lead me off target. On a few occasions I managed to get close enough to a flag to see it. I’d then ignore the compass, focus on the flag and run to it. Those were the only flags I found. I think this is the picture in Hebrews 12:2—we are to be looking to (eyes fixed on) Jesus as we run with endurance. Jesus is to be our orientation!

If we are Christians, our sexual orientation must be Jesus Christ. Our vocational orientation must be Jesus Christ. Our family orientation must be Jesus Christ. Our financial orientation must be Jesus Christ. Our ministry orientation must be Jesus Christ.

How easy it is to be oriented to our desires rather than to our Lord! This is the very essence of sin. It matters not whether my desires lead me in a direction that is socially acceptable or not. It matters not how heinous others judge the behavior that follows to be. Ultimately it matters that my orientation is not Jesus. Everything that is not of faith is sin (Rom 14:23).

A boat’s orientation is not the direction that the wind and current is pushing it (no matter how forcefully)–it is the direction that the captain is steering. Likewise, a person’s sexual orientation is not the same thing as his feelings of sexual desire! It is possible (actually expected since Genesis 3) to experience sinful desire while being oriented on Jesus. (“For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things that you want to do” Gal 5:17). Maintaining a Christ-focused sexual orientation (while also maintaining a Christ-focused vocational orientation and family orientation, financial orientation, etc.) is what someone does who is loving the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind and strength. This singular, comprehensive, whole-life Christ-orientation is the whole point—it is what walking by faith strives to accomplish. This is the calling of God to His people. Are you oriented to Jesus? Anything (and everything) else is an idol.

Satan’s power is in the lie. Don’t believe it. You are not a “homosexual”—you are a person created in the image of God and adopted into the holy family of our Lord Father. You are a prince or princess in the kingdom of God! This ongoing flesh vs Spirit dissonance will end one day, and then our Christ-orientation will reign unchallenged in our hearts. Maranatha! But until then, God has promised us enough trouble for every day (Matt 6) and that our temptations, which are common to man, will be accompanied with a means of escape (I Cor 10).

There was a time when our temptations defined us, but no longer (I Cor 6). God defines us now—we are His beloved sons and daughters. Our calling is the singular calling of the Family business—manifesting the truth and beauty and glory and love of our Lord Father in the midst of a painful, hungry, dying world. Sin is the kryptonite of the Church. What else cripples truth, beauty, glory and love? We work out our salvation with fear and trembling because it really hurts this side of heaven. Jesus warns us, but he also equips us—better still indwells us. He doesn’t send us out for Him–He calls us to go with Him.

Your temptation fingerprint is not identical to mine, but it is not meaningfully dissimilar. We are all in this together without division. There are not two kinds of Christians in the world separated by the nature of their temptations–there is one kind and one kind only. It is a tempted kind; a beloved kind; a fearing/trembling kind; an adopted by God kind; a suffering kind; a secure in the hand of God kind.

A holy kind.

If God has adopted us into his family, why would we want to define ourselves by the nature of our temptations? Honestly, the only reasons I can think of are pride or an attempt to justify or excuse our idols.

Don’t believe the lie that there is something wrong with the same-sex-attracted saint that isn’t also wrong with the all the other saints. Sin–it is what is wrong with all of us. When the lazy man is born again his recliner is still comfortable and ESPN isn’t less delightful than housework. When the porn user is born again his eyes will still long for the sites God denies them. When the heavy drinker comes to Christ, beer is still delicious. When the glutton joins the church, pizza still tastes way better than salad. After the impatient man comes to Christ, the slow car at the front of the left turn lane will still elicit a strong emotional response–and it will feel very unnatural to not express it. When a same-sex-attracted person is truly born again, the Holy Spirit will turn off their homosexual desires like a light switch. If that is not their experience, salvation is questionable at best.

That sounds so ridiculous when you write it out!–but don’t we sometimes give that impression? Why do we treat same-sex attraction differently than every other temptation?! The only reason I can think of is that we believe the lie that, unlike other temptations, same-sex desire makes you a fundamentally different type of person. It is like a variation of racism.

Let’s never tire of reminding each other that Jesus is better than what our post-Genesis-3 flesh craves. And, although our feelings to the contrary are overwhelming at times, we are one people with one calling. The associations and distinctives that the world values so highly do not fracture our singular identity or mission in the slightest. Since there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal 3), why would there be gay and straight?

Lets fix our eyes on Jesus! No post-Genesis-3 person maintains that orientation unchallenged. Each day, although experienced 7 billion different ways, has but 1 purpose—the glory of God. Sin, of any and every type, is the thing (the only thing) we can do to thwart it. In the end, we never will thwart it—we can only temporarily hide, besmudge or appear to delay it. We will all manifest His glory in the end—in our salvation or condemnation. Oh to be among the saints on that day!

What is my orientation? Really—how will I know? Should I look at my life and make my best guess?

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom 8).

In the end, my orientation is what I actually set my mind on—not what I feel like setting my mind on in the heat of temptation’s moment. This is hard enough for all of us, but I recognize that the pain is not evenly distributed. For what it’s worth, compassion exists. I’m with you in this, and I love you.

Grace and peace to you from our Lord Father.