Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“Confessio”

Confessio #999- This picture was the best I could do this early in the morning in the way of a pictorial representation of “confession,” and I’m sorry, Lord Christ, that You’re again having to wear that eery halo of light, thanks to the limited imagination of some Hallmark card artist. “Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.”

It’s amazing how throwing Latin at a subject can imbue it with more solemnity.  

That’s what Brian Doyle did in laying out his life’s confession in the August 22 issue of The Christian Century.  “I, Brian, a sinner,” began Doyle’s page-long catalog of all of the ways he has fallen short across a lifetime, interspersed with “Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas” (“I beg to be forgiven.”)  

In this case, the sound of “I beg to be forgiven” in Latin makes me think of a snot-nosed kid with a huge, green booger hanging from her nose asking for a Kleenex while wondering if anyone will notice if she uses her sleeve.  (“Ignoscas” has that ring, does it not?) Okay, so maybe not so “solemn” after all, but fitting for this morning’s liturgy of repentance…Because this morning I’m not sure whether Doyle’s “confessio” or my own sinner’s remorse are the biggest source of inspiration- and where Doyle took only a page to describe a whole life, I am taking a whole page to repent of only yesterday’s blunders:

I, Kristina, a sinner known to have occasional, short-lived moments of saintliness, do here confess that yesterday was largely a wash.

I wrote a smug post about a Christian leader who manages to embarrass himself repeatedly in public, and derived far too much satisfaction in pointing out his stupidity and only adding to the man’s humiliation.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas, I beg to be forgiven.

I spent more time in the mirror staring at the two red zits on my left cheek than grieving the worst violence yet in Syria or meditating that You are my Bread of Life.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

During our chaplains’ monthly conference call, when someone was sharing a serious pastoral issue and the rest of us were praying, I took the opportunity of a bad connection that sounded like nails on a chalkboard to surf the Internet and read the latest headlines.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

I lost my temper with the incompetent customer service representative from the mortgage company who was threatening to report me to the credit bureau for a missing payment that the mortgage company (not me) had in fact lost and that I was only hearing about for the first time yesterday.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

When I spoke unkindly to Violet, the sweet-sounding manager of the incompetent customer service representative who was just trying to rectify the damage done and seeking to be helpful despite an insurmountable amount of bureaucratic red tape, I probably succeeded in making Violet feel very small.  (The expression, “shrinking Violet,” may alas apply.)

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

I then snapped at three consecutive customer service representatives from Wells Fargo who, in a three-way conversation with Violet and me did not know what they were doing by introducing themselves, offering the latest line of new products and insisting on my answering the same security questions.  Alas, they still do not know what they do (which is to help customers rather than drive them into fits of angry exasperation).

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

During and shortly after two hours on the phone troubleshooting a problem I did not cause- namely, explaining how it was that a payment I made on time through my bank’s automatic bill pay service was withdrawn from my account but never reached its destination- I was in a foul mood, snapped at my kids, unloaded on my husband and felt genuinely sorry for myself and my first world problems- all this when at least I have a house and can pay my bills and live in a country where some small recourse is given to customers whose mortgage payments have gone missing.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

During Cam’s kindergarten open house, when we parents were sitting in a circle learning about the most important things in life which they teach you in kindergarten, things like being kind and considerate to other people and learning one’s A, B, C’s, I was secretly gloating about my son’s intellectual and athletic prowess.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

When in response to yesterday’s smug post on the latest gaffe by a certain embarrassing Christian leader, fellow saint and sinner Marco Naguib shared a crass, foul-mouthed news clip by The Onion (“Tampa Bay Gay Prostitutes Gear Up For The Republican National Convention“), I laughed heartily and only momentarily grieved that I was laughing at people not with them.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

There are many more things under heaven that I could here confess, only some of them truly printable here, but for those I wronged yesterday, and for whom I embodied not grace but only judgment and condemnation, I ask that Your mercy be as real for them today as it is for me- new every morning, for great is Your faithfulness.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

And, thank you, Father, for the Kleenex: I needed it.

Amen.

Hurricane Isaac Spares God’s “Chosen People”

“With friends like Pat Robertson, who needs enemies?” – God

Yesterday morning, when tropical storm Isaac was gathering speed and looked ready to hit this year’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, conservative Christian talk show host Pat Robertson was, oddly, silent.  The coincidence of a second hurricane in four years to wreak havoc with a Republican convention- in 2008, Hurricane Gustav delayed the opening of the convention in St. Paul, Minnesota- at first elicited no new words of wisdom from the host of the Virginia-based television show, “The 700 Club.”

Today I learn that this was because Robertson and other concerned Christians were busy praying to avert the disaster.

When it had become clear that the full wrath of Isaac would spare Tampa for New Orleans, almost exactly seven years after Hurricane Katrina, Rev. Jesten Peters appeared on Robertson’s show to say this: “We have had lots and lots of people praying around the clock that [Isaac] would move,” Rev. Jesten Peters explained. “And if you watch from the very beginning where they were saying it was coming up and now where they’re saying it’s going, then it’s really moved a lot for us, and we appreciate God doing that and moving it for us.”

By this rationale, Hurricane Katrina was merely the consequence of too few Christians directing the path of the storm with their prayers.  By this rationale, any time a hurricane blows through we should be mobilizing churches- ideally only the “pro-life” ones, by Robertson’s standards- to pray away the hurricane, or at least to ask God to redirect the storm to the places that “deserve” God’s wrath.  By this rationale, we believers have an insiders’ line not only to God’s ear but to God’s will- never mind that whole line in Scripture about “how anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).

Dubious?  I think so.  But more disturbing is the fact that “The 700 Club,” as one of the longest-running television shows in broadcast history, enjoys an average daily attendance of nearly 1 million viewers.

Apparently, there are a whole lot of people who subscribe to this rationale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Dating, Backgammon and Patience: A Sermon

Life is like a backgammon game…or is it?

Fellow saint and sinner Jake Dell preached this sermon yesterday, and has agreed to share it with us.  (Thank you, Jake!)  You can find more of Jake’s reflections at his blog:

How many times have you left someone or something in your life?

I have left many places and many people.

Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for not so good reasons.

I’ve left jobs, family, friends and places that I’d come to love.

Sometimes I’ve left in a fit of pique.

Sometimes I found a thing to be “too hard” and so I said, “I cannot accept this.”

And I left.

In the intervening years, I’ve had time to reflect on my comings and goings.

I’ve had time to examine my motives.

I’ve come to recognize the patterns in my life.

And, with a bit of effort, I’ve tried to to change the patterns that I didn’t like, and more importantly, that I didn’t want to see repeated over and over again in my life.

But then I hear these plaintive words of Jesus, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”

And immediately I think of all those whom I’ve left, those to whom I didn’t give a second chance, those moments in life that maybe I abandoned too soon, without letting things play out all the way.

***

I’ve learned a thing or two about games recently.

This summer I signed up for a backgammon tournament.

Now if you know the game, you’ll follow me right away. If you don’t, I promise to make this plain and simple.

In backgammon, a situation can develop where your own checkers are trapped behind a wall of your opponent’s checkers.

It’s called a prime.

When this happens, you’re stuck — and no matter how lucky you roll your dice — you’ll never get out of the trap you’re in.

What’s worse is when one of your checkers is stuck on the bar — in other words, it’s out of the game — and as long as your opponent has the board locked up, you can’t even think about getting back in the
game.

So you’re sidelined and stuck. And it’s moments like these when you think of quitting. When you think of leaving the game.

But an interesting thing happens if you don’t give up.

Eventually, your opponent’s board starts to break up.

Cracks in his wall start to appear.

And those cracks in your opponent can turn into opportunities for you.

If you’re lucky, you might find yourself back in the game.

If you’re lucky and have a bit of skill, you might even win!

When that happens you look back and think, “I’m glad I didn’t cut and run. I’m glad I didn’t leave. I’m glad I stayed in the game.”

***

Games are a metaphor for life and many things that you can learn from playing a game like backgammon or football also apply to real life.

Some say dating is a game. Others say relationships in general are a game.

So, for instance, in the game of dating, if you find that your checkers are stuck behind your opponent’s prime, then you should absolutely — for the sake of your self-respect — resign the game.

And here’s something else I’ve been told: if your opponent — be it your spouse, your lover, your business partner or your colleague – takes power from you, then you better darn well take it back.

Finally, if you see that you can’t win, then walk away. No one particular relationship or person is worth it — and you should never, ever sacrifice your pride or position.

***

In addition to playing backgammon, I’ve spent some time recently discovering the rules of the game of the world — at least as far as that game gets played here in the city, day in and day out.

And, mind you, I really don’t think New York is all that different from anywhere else.

People are people.

It’s just that I’ve noticed that things cycle faster here. More matches are played in the course of a day or week here than anywhere else that I’ve lived.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about how the game of the world is played:

First, the world is always ready to close a deal. If something — or someone — doesn’t provide immediate or discernible value, then you should walk away.

Second, the world is always ready to turn something good — something of true value — into a commodity.

You, as specific person, matter little to me.

Why?

Because by reducing you to your component parts: by reducing you to your beauty, to your talent, to your intelligence, your skill set, your experience, your social standing, etc., I can find someone else
just like you — though I may entirely neglect to see you as you truly are.

Third, the world is always ready to establish power and dominion, and to take it back when that power is lost.

Relationships — even the most intimate — are often evaluated by who holds the upper hand. Entire strategies are devised for keeping the other party in check or for winning back lost ground.

Finally, the world is always ready to move in for the kill.

Only things of immediate use are deemed of value.

The world is always ready to move on to something bigger and better, faster and brighter, or to someone younger and sexier.

By contrast, how does the Christian fare in this arena?

How does he or she play? And by what rules?

Saint Paul tells us in Ephesians chapter 6, verse 15 that our feet are to be “fitted with the readiness that comes with the gospel of peace.”

So, in direct contrast — even in direct contradiction — with the world’s gospel of power is the Christian’s gospel of peace.

From this place of peace, the Christian is not obligated to evaluate someone or something based on immediate gain.

In other words, for the Christian, it is not a question of “What can you do for me?” or even of “What have you done for me lately?”

Instead, the Christian is ready for good things to be given in their due season.

Ps. 104:27 says that every living creature looks to God and that he gives them “their food in due season.”

The Christian does not parcel and sell a person based on her component parts, her looks, her intelligence or her experience.

The Christian does not walk away from a person or a situation because it has yet to pay a dividend, but instead he waits expectantly for the fullness of time to arrive — for that person to grow into the full
image of God that she already bears.

The Christian does not try to hurry things up or to slow things down.

He does not try to get in the way of a thing as it unfolds.

Rather, he waits eagerly for the bud to blossom and for its God-given
potential to be revealed.

***

The Christian takes care to understand the signs of the times.

She understands that there is a time for everything under heaven (Ecc. 3:1-8).

She understands that a person, a relationship or a situation may need gentle and sustained nurturing, and that the time for reaping cannot happen before she has invested fully in the time for sowing.

Finally, the Christian practices patience. This is what Saint Paul means when he writes that we must be “fitted with the readiness that comes with the gospel of peace.”

Implied in that readiness is the ability to be patient.

Patient enough to be discerning.

Patient enough to allow God time to act.

Patient enough to let the beloved fall in love with the lover.

Patient enough to allow enough time to pass so that even the hardest of teachings can be understood.

***

“‘You do not want to leave me too, do you?’ Jesus asked the twelve.

“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.’”

Peter does four things in his answer to Jesus.

In doing so, Peter models four ways that the Christian should play in the world’s game.

These are: understanding, discernment, faith and perseverance.

First, understanding.

“Lord, to whom shall we go?”

Here Peter has understood.

Jesus has the words of eternal life.

In other words, Peter rejects the quick close and the immediate gain, and opts instead for a long-term strategy of eternal importance.

***

Second, discernment.

Again, “You have the words of eternal life.”

Here Peter chooses.

Christ cannot be made into a commodity.

We cannot parcel out his teachings or his miracles;

We cannot place his humanity or his divinity on a warehouse pallet;

We cannot reject his crucifixion while rejoicing in his resurrection.

We cannot replace him with someone else — a newer, younger, sexier, less offensive Jesus.

***

Third, faith.

“We have come to believe ….”

Here Peter surrenders his power.

Here Peter has made his fatal mistake.

He has fallen in love. He has cared too much for a single man. Jesus matters a great deal to Peter — so much so that he can withstand the grumbling of the other disciples without being tempted to walk away.

But at the same time, Peter adopts a position of weakness before the one he has come to believe in.

Peter cannot play power games with the Holy One of God.

***

Fourth, perseverance.

Peter decides to stay.

He does not close in for the kill — as we can assume some of those disgruntled disciples immediately left to go and do and conspire against Jesus.

Instead Peter rejects the idea of any immediate gain.

Instead he chooses to stick it out.

Jesus has not made it easy for Peter. Jesus has made it hard for them both. Jesus has entirely confused the situation and alienated many of those who cared about him and undoubtedly who cared about Peter too.

And yet there is the question again, “Will you leave me too?”

“No, I will not, Lord,” Peter replies.

Here we come to face to face with what Saint Paul calls our “readiness in the gospel of peace.”

Or, more simply, our readiness in Christ.

Peter is ready to understand the hard teachings of Jesus.

Peter is ready to choose a unique relationship with someone special rather than to add another entry to his little black book.

Peter is ready to surrender his power, though this makes no earthly sense.

And Peter is ready to stay.

He is ready to stay and wait patiently for the good season.

He is ready to stay and wait patiently for the fullness of time.

He is ready to sow with the hope that he will reap.

And finally, he is ready to believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God.

Thus, with his feet firmly fitted with the gospel of peace, he is ready to feed on the bread that comes down from heaven.

Peter is ready for eternity.

May we also be ready.

A Year of Kingdom-of-God Living

Photo credit: “Moms Against Hunger”

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” - Matthew 6:33

It’s rare that I remember my dreams, but the other night I did.  In the dream, my parents  had decided to buy a small trailer home in Boston.  The trailer was going to cost them $1,000, and after they had given me a tour of their new digs, they asked if my husband and I could contribute.  I had said we might donate $200, but apologized because I had grown up thinking that making a lot of money wasn’t really that important.  And now, in the dream, as I was apologizing that we couldn’t afford to contribute more to my parents’ new trailer-park digs, my dad burst into tears, apologizing for never telling us kids that money really is what makes the world go around after all.

Then I woke up.

The dream was “other-worldly” in a number of ways.  First, when all I ever hear about, whenever the subject of a far-off retirement comes up, is how my parents want to move back to Malaysia, where they once served as missionaries, the notion that my parents would buy a trailer home in Boston to whittle away their golden years is a bit, well, suspect.  (For that matter, do they even have trailer homes in Boston?) Then, that the trailer home would cost $1,000 and my parents would be asking for my help to buy it is also a bit fishy.  (Isn’t $1,000 cheap by trailer home standards?  And why would my parents be asking for financial help, when they’ve never asked for help from us kids before?)  And then the whole notion that my dad, upon hearing my regrets that I’ve not made enough money in my life, breaks down and cries, is pretty much another big aberration from reality.

That’s because Matthew 6:33 has been one of my dad’s favorite verses.  Considering that he and my mom have pretty much lived their lives by it, it would not be inaccurate to describe Matthew 6:33 as his life’s signature verse.  “Kris,” he said to me several weeks ago, “I’ve never not known that verse to be true.  God has always taken care of us when we put God’s kingdom first.”

Then Dad went on to tell me the story he has told a hundred times before- about how one day when tuition at the international school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was due, and my parents had no money to pay the $2,000 bill, a businessman they had never met rang their doorbell, handed them an envelope, and said, “God wants me to give this to you.”  Inside the envelope was a check for $2,000.  When the same man showed up later that year, again with the exact amount needed to pay for our tuition, my parents knew that this exchange was more than a serendipitous coincidence.  God was indeed providing for a missionary family who had determined they would never actually “solicit” funds from anyone but God.

The story, no matter how often it gets told, gives me goosebumps; but it doesn’t change the reality that when it comes to finances, I’m programmed to distrust God’s provision for me.  I’m programmed to worry that there won’t be enough.  And, if my dream had a message to send, it was that my anxieties about being able to provide for my loved ones and my worries about “measuring up” by this world’s standards are writ large across my subconscious.  At the subliminal level, I am a creature who desires her security.  In a world that places a premium on our monetary value to society, I want to be “valuable.”  I want to matter at the most basically quantifiable level.  In this sense, it is against my whole nature to live by Jesus’ words here- that “what to wear” or “eat” or “drink” need not preoccupy us, because when we put God’s kingdom first, “all of these things” will fall into place.

I know I’m not alone.  In our society it seems easier and more socially acceptable to talk publicly and openly about our life in the bedroom than about our finances.  We guard our personal spending habits as if they’re on the same list as the rest of the “inalienable” rights we claim as Americans (free speech, free religious practice, etc…).  The latest bruehaha over presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s refusal to produce recent tax returns, in addition to being justified- (as far as I see it, anyone running for the highest public office in this country must be willing to surrender their privacy around certain things)- is a testimony to the way many of us think about how we earn and spend our money.  Letting others see our bank account is like letting them look into our souls: it’s like letting them see our deepest fears and our biggest priorities.  If we are what we eat, we are also what we spend- and many of us are scared, worried, insecure children.

But, if Jesus’ kingdom is one in which the last shall be first and the “least of these” shall be greatest, where “family” has been redefined to mean “anyone who does the will of God” and our “neighbor” broadened to include anyone who has a need, then this kingdom is a place where God takes care of everyone.  Where everyone has more than enough to be happy and complete.  Where love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness and kindness reign, and where human beings have been restored in right relationship with their Maker and with their world.  Where both hungry tummies and ravenous souls are filled to full measure.  Where even the smallest of gifts, like a child’s lunchbox meal, can feed thousands of people.

It doesn’t take much looking around to discover that this “kingdom of God” is not of this world even as it is precisely for this world.  The World Health Organization estimates that if one-third of the world is well-fed, two-thirds of the world are either under-fed or starving.  Half of the children who die in the world, die because of malnutrition.  Every day almost 16 thousand children die of hunger.

I wonder what would happen if, in the spirit of others who have experimented with following various commands in the Bible (most recently, Rachel Held-Evans and her year of “biblical womanhood,” and before her, A.J. Jacobs’ “year of living biblically”) we as individuals and as the church resolved to follow just this one charge from Jesus here.  What if, instead of just mouthing the words to the Lord’s Prayer in our often namby pamby way, we really prayed “thy kingdom come” and then sought that kingdom each and every day for one whole year?  What if we, both as individuals and small groups and churches, vowed to put God’s kingdom first in our lives, in our families, in our workplaces and communities?

Maybe we would change; maybe our world would change- from statistics on hunger to even our dreams, and in the place of trailer-park hovels there’d be spacious mansions with many rooms and plenty for everyone.

 

“Reading the Bible For All It’s Worth”

In addition to being another saint and sinner like the rest of us, Steve Hayner is currently the president of Columbia Theological Seminary.

Some people really know their Bibles.  One of them is Steve Hayner.  Steve is the president of Columbia Theological Seminary, in Atlanta, Georgia, and has taught missiology, pastored churches, and worked at the helm of the student ministries organization, InterVarsity.  He also has gotten three degrees in biblical studies, and has written a book on the Bible.

The other day Steve preached a sermon for Kairos Church that, I believe, has much to offer to our recent exploration of “biblical authority” and what it means to read the Bible well.  (If you didn’t catch Monday’s post, “Is Rick Warren’s Daniel Plan An Exercise in ‘Selfish’ Bible Reading?,” you can here.)  Steve has kindly agreed to share his manuscript with us, and I hope his insights will be as useful for you as they were for me:

Psalm 119:105 – Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

Romans 15:4  – For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

2 Timothy 3:14-17  – But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

I love the Bible.

  • after I began to follow Jesus I got more hungry to learn
  • earned three grad degrees to learn to study Bible better
  • wrote book introducing whole Bible

The Qur’an calls Christians and Jews “The People of the Book” because we share with Islam a strong view of God’s word as found in the Scriptures.  We look to Scripture for firm foundation and truth to live in chaotic/confusing world.

But I’ve got to confess, that while I have always loved the Bible and considered the Bible as a key authority in my life—I have not always had a very biblical view of how the Bible should be used.

Most serious followers of Jesus would say that the Bible is their authority for faith and how they live life.

The most common ways people study the Bible:

  1. They mine for devotional nuggets to give hope, encouragement, peace, guidance. [verse pluckers]
  2. They search for specific answers to questions or issues
  3. They select passages to support what they believe

None of these are bad. But they are inadequate ways of studying the Bible.  Here’s why:

  1. There are plenty of devotional, encouraging nuggets in Scripture.  But if this was God’s intent, why is there so much other extra stuff?  E.g. Thomas Jefferson had a personal Bible where he cut or tore out everything that he thought was superfluous.

Lots of books written around the devotional highpoints. BUT, this is actually a demeaning view of the Bible, because it suggests that God made a mistake by “inspiring” all the parts that aren’t uplifting or immediately applicable.  The Bible says that “ALL Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” – and that we are to pay attention to the “whole counsel of God.”

  1. If the Bible is intended to be our final source for questions about what to believe and how to behave, why doesn’t the Bible answer clearly and completely the very questions we were asking?

Many people assume that the Bible should and does! But the Bible can’t possibly be as clear and complete about what we think we need to know, because there are so many Christians who disagree about what it says.  Churches are hopelessly split about all sorts of details that seem to the church to be important about our beliefs and behaviors. Thousands and thousands of groups are separated from one another by their distinctive beliefs or behaviors—all of which they claim are “biblical.”

  • E.g. Baptism
  • Style of worship
  • How we view war
  • How we define marriage
  • What we think about capital punishment or abortion

Whole denominations have split over these—and thousands of other issues, and most claim that they know what Bible says.

E.g. I was discussing an issue with a pastor who said, “Well, either the Bible is true or it isn’t.”  His assumption was that this settled the issue.  If I believed that the Bible was true, I would obviously agree with him.  If I didn’t agree with him, it meant either that my view of Scripture was faulty, or that I wasn’t reading my Bible enough.

To compensate, most traditions have come up with a whole series of creedal statements and governing rules and policy guidelines on various issues, precisely because the Bible doesn’t seem to speak adequately enough on these things. Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals—all make pronouncements—write papers—and argue among themselves and with each other.

We often end up with culturally informed viewsthinking they are biblical. And people end up making up stuff to fill in the places where Scripture is silent.  This is true for social and doctrinal issues.

E.g. Satan as fallen angel.  A story which most Christians assume is from Bible, but actually comes from 2 Enoch, some Jewish commentators—and made popular by John Milton in Paradise Lost.

  1. What we often think that what we need (and what the Bible is) is a book of timeless truth that ought to be simple to understand and simply obeyed.

E.g. A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible:

“The Year of Living Biblically is about my quest to live the ultimate biblical life. To follow every single rule in the Bible – as literally as possible. I obey the famous ones:

  • The Ten Commandments
  • Love thy neighbor
  • Be fruitful and multiply

But also, the hundreds of oft-ignored ones.

  • Do not wear clothes of mixed fibers.
  • Do not shave your beard
  • Stone adulterers

Why? Well, I grew up in a very secular home (I’m officially Jewish but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant). I’d always assumed religion would just wither away and we’d live in a neo-Enlightenment world. I was, of course, spectacularly wrong. So was I missing something essential to being a human? Or was half the world deluded?

I decided to dive in headfirst. To try to experience the Bible myself and find out what’s good in it, and what’s maybe not so relevant to the 21st century.”

But is this how God intended for the Bible to be used? After all, the whole Bible is culturally conditioned.  It is written in languages of another time, about people and cultures which are quite foreign to us.  We believe that God is speaking in the Scriptures, but sometimes what God is saying is not very clear, especially when it comes to narrative or poetic material where the “simple meaning of the text” just doesn’t seem very simple.  There are many voices in the Scripture, and at times those voices disagree with one another.  E.g. Theology of Deuteronomy: If you obey you will be blessed; if you disobey, bad things will happen.  Many books of OT were written to illustrate that point (Joshua, Judges, !&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings). But that’s not how life often seems to work, so Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and others were written with a very different perspective.

So how do we learn to study the Bible better—and let it shape our lives?

1. Adjust our view of what we mean by biblical authority.

When we look at what the Bible says about its own authority, what we discover first is that the focus is always on the authority of God.

God has authority in Creation.  God has authority as God calls, loves, pursues, frees, speaks, judges, redeems, heals, and in every way works with people in the world.  At the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Jesus boldly declares that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  And, then, perhaps surprisingly, Jesus gives authority to the Apostles, by the Holy Spirit.  And the church is given authority to work within the world as God’s ambassadors.

The Bible witnesses to God’s work, and attests to how complex and messy this work sometimes is.  But the Bible is not some sort of celestial information service or even sure test of doctrinal purity.  The Bible always points to God.

And all through the biblical story God exercises God’s authority through human agents who are anointed and equipped by the Holy Spirit.  From the very beginning, God brought God’s authority to bear on Israel, not by revealing to them simply a set of timeless truths, but by delegating authority to obedient women and men through whose words God brought judgment and salvation to both Israel and the world.  We call that inspiration.

And this is amplified in the person of Jesus, who lived authority, who claimed authority, and then who gave authority to his followers.  Jesus told his followers that they would receive power and wisdom when the Holy Spirit came upon them.  Jesus’ people are anointed and gifted to continue God’s work authoritatively.

Many of the Reformers in the 16th century talked about the principle of “sola scriptura” or “Scripture alone” as our final source of authority.  But others looked around and said, “No, that is not the whole picture.”  We also need to understand the roles of the Holy Spirit, of human reason and of tradition in matters of faith and practice. And the closer that the Bible, the work of the Holy Spirit, human reason and tradition line up, the more confident that we can be. 

E.g. John 5:39f: part of a story of religious leaders complaining that Jesus wasn’t being “biblical” and following the rules.  Jesus said: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

You can study the Bible until you are blue in the face, but you can still miss Jesus, and you may miss what God is trying to do in your life.

When we recognize that ultimately it is God who is authority—and not our understanding of the truth—then it produces a wonderful sense of humility.  We recognize that God is God, and we are not! We don’t have all the answers. And so God calls us to look to Jesus, to walk in light of what we know, to thank God every day for the God’s love which we have in Jesus Christ, and to rejoice that because of Christ, it’s OK to not have everything figured out—or to change our minds—or to be just plain wrong—as long as we keep submitting our lives to Christ and to his word.

Adjust our view of authority…and

2. Adjust our view of what the Bible is

The Bible is NOT primarily:

  • A rule book
  • A textbook
  • An answer book
  • A systematic theology book

What we see in the Bible is largely a narrative of God’s people who are trying to figure out their lives in relation to God—just like we are.  In the process they exercise and also frequently fail to exercise the authority which God has given them.  We watch as the Holy Spirit gives them songs to sing, wisdom for their daily lives, ways to approach the problems they face, and messages to proclaim.  Sometimes the stories are told so that we can imitate them.  Sometimes the songs are given so that we can sing them. Sometimes the teaching is given so that we can be corrected by it. Sometimes what is there serves as a warning that we shouldn’t try that again.

But the point I am trying to make is that what the sovereign God is doing is what God has always been doing—namely to make and remake people and the world through God’s love.  God uses the Bible as a Spirit-inspired book to mold our lives—not merely to give us a few answers to difficult questions.

N.T. Wright, a NT scholar and the Anglican Bishop of Durham, invites us to think about God’s work in the world as an unfinished drama.  The Bible, he says, is like the first four acts of a great play: 1) Creation; 2) Fall; 3) God’s work with Israel, and 4) then God became flesh in Jesus—are all included.  What is provided is a wealth of background, characterization, and an exciting drama. The assumption is that more will follow from these first acts.  The first acts will establish the framework of where the plot will go.  The characters in the next acts of this great story of God’s work—that’s us—will  pour over the first acts—we will enter into the whole story, work through the twists and turns in the plot, and learn that the parts that we now play in God’s drama must flow from what has gone before.

We are God’s people—being shaped by God’s living and written Word. The Bible is inspired by God to shape the Church and help us to live out Spirit-guided lives for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

We don’t consult the Bible merely to ask, “Are we allowed to do this or that?” or “What must we believe to be sound in our doctrine?”  Rather God wants the church to lift up our eyes to see what God has called us to be and to do as we follow Jesus into God’s great work in the world.  God uses the Bible as a primary means of calling and equipping the church for God’s work of love, reconciliation, compassion and justice.

N.T. Wright says:  “All of this is designed as a plea to the church to let the Bible be the Bible, and so to let God be God—and so to enable the people of God to be the people of God, his special people, living under his authority, bringing God’s light to God’s world.  The Bible is not an end in itself.  It is there so that, by its proper use, the creator may be glorified and the creation may be healed.” [N.T.Wright, “The Laing Lecture,” 1989.]

The God of the Bible is calling us all to be transformed and shaped by the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures, and then to carry on God’s work into the world.  So we study the Scriptures.

  • We study ALL the Scriptures.
  • We acknowledge that some of it doesn’t make sense yet, and that we don’t have it all figured out right away.
  • We pray and meditate on the Scriptures.
  • We preach and teach the Scriptures. 
  • Over time, our lives are shaped and reshaped by God’s Spirit through the Scriptures.
  • AND we become more like Jesus.

The Bible “is there so that, by its proper use, the creator may be glorified and the creation may be healed.”

Helpful books:

  • Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How you Read the Bible. Zondervan, 2008.
  • Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Brazos Press, 2011.

 

From War to Peace: A Story of Reconciliation in Burundi, Take 2

Those of you who caught last week’s post and have been waiting for a working link at which to view the ten-minute video I mentioned, don’t need to wait any longer.  The video, compliments of the World Prayer Assembly, tells the (true) story of how one man’s conversion sent a ripple effect of reconciliation through his nation; and it may inspire or provoke you- or do both.

Tomorrow, President of Columbia Theological Seminary (formerly President of InterVarsity) Steve Hayner weighs in with some thoughts on how “to read the Bible for all it’s worth.”

Is Rick Warren’s Daniel Plan An Exercise in “Selfish” Bible Reading?

Rick Warren of Saddleback Church is on a mission to help people lose weight. With the release last week by the Centers for Disease Control of the latest statistics on obesity- 55% of people in my state of Georgia are now “overweight” or “obese”- I am sympathetic with Warren’s latest enterprise. But is Warren modeling a faithful reading of Scripture by using an ancient biblical story as a diet plan? I don’t think so.

Lately, as I make my way through Rachel Held-Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood- (stay tuned for my upcoming review in the online ecumenical publication, Sermons That Work)- I’ve been obliged to reflect on the nature of “biblical authority.”  This is a term that we evangelicals lovewe have been known to throw it around to support all sorts of agendas.

But, if it is true that all of Scripture is, in the words of 2 Timothy 3:16-17,  “God-breathed,” and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work?,” what does it mean to take the Bible seriously?  What does it mean to read the Bible faithfully and ethically?  What does it mean to interpret the Bible in such a way that it impacts how we live in the 21st century- so that it truly is God’s “living,” “breathing” Word for us?

This morning fellow saint and sinner Paul Dover sent on this helpful critique by Rob Goodman for the likes of celebrity pastors like Rick Warren- and (I might add) Mark Driscoll- who mine the Bible as if it were a nutrition guide or sex manual.  Such approaches are in no way new to the evangelical world.  Before Warren and Driscoll (my addition, not Goodman’s), there were Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez and Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now, Goodman notes.  He goes on to invite a more “ethical” approach when reading Scripture, one that asks us to view stories in Scripture for what they are- narratives that demand empathy for the characters and sensitivity to their contexts.  Ultimately, reading the Bible faithfully and with respect for biblical authority means being willing to “love the stranger” in these stories, Goodman writes; it means being willing to relinquish the selfish tendency to impose our own agendas on Scripture, be they a trimmer figure or a hotter sex life, so that we might encounter the Bible on its own terms.

Is the story of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego really about what to eat in order to lose a few pounds and squeeze into that size 4 dress hanging in the closet?  Is the Song of Songs really about how to spice up one’s sex life with some new moves in the bedroom (a la Driscoll)? I don’t think so.

 

 

Recovering the Lost Language of God’s Mission

New Zealand’s indigenous Maori peoples have been around since about the ninth century.

Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish” featured a piece yesterday on how radio programming initiatives are keeping alive the dying minority languages of New Zealand’s Maori peoples:  “In the Maori community of New Zealand, for example, the combination of 21 radio stations and rigorous early childhood immersion programs have brought Maori-languages speakers from an all-time low of 24,000 in the 1980s to 131,000 in 2006, according to Mark Camp, deputy executive director at Cultural Survival.”

It strikes me that the church in the West must relearn a lost language, too.  Somewhere along the way, the language of self-sacrifice, of the costliness of following Jesus, of the kingdom of God and our part in it, of the church as a true community of believers called and sent out to be secretive co-conspirators on behalf of that kingdom, has been lost.

The biblical association here is of a person scattering seeds or sprinkling yeast into dough.  These images to which Jesus appeals in Scripture embody the older language of a people content to be, in a sense, “invisible”: they are ordinary, humble servants conscripted in God’s mission, rather than mega-church stars and celebrity figures with glitzy sermon series, loud, self-righteous proclamations about “right” and “wrong,” and all the money and political clout to show for it.

But these days I hear a whole lot of newer, trendier languages.  About church growth and strategic initiatives.  About how to fill the pews and attract new members.  About how to be relevant or hip (when, if there were anyone more marginalized or irrelevant by our own cultural standards, it would be Jesus Himself).  About how to, with more money, political lobbying and savvy media relations, reclaim the church’s “pride of place” in our society.  (David Barton’s recent book, The Jefferson Lies, is one example of this kind of shameless pandering.)

So many of us have come to believe that speaking this new language is what it means to belong to the church; and, so many of us have simply checked out, because we’re tired of a language that has jarred us, scarred us, hurt us and assumed we’re too stupid to know better.

But we’re better than that.  The “holy, catholic and apostolic church” we claim to believe in whenever we recite the Apostle’s Creed is better than that.  We need the old, ancient mother tongue- the one our earliest ancestors spoke, the one that sounds foreign in our culture, but which God, in the person of God’s Holy Spirit, can help us relearn. And we need leaders in the church (pastors, teachers, evangelists, prophets, and apostles) who will act as directors of “cultural survival,” who will teach us the rhythms and cadences of that lost and dying language, so that we can become fluent in it once again.

 

5 Ways to Put Coveting To Rest

Why I so rarely visit the mall these days….

I appreciate the sentiment of Emily Dickinson:  “Consider the lilies- is the only commandment I ever obeyed,” she once quipped (as quoted in the intro to Rachel Held-Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood).

Because while I used to think that keeping the Ten Commandments would be simple, a few more years of life have taught me that the only commandment I’m not really in danger of ever actually breaking is the whole “do-not-murder” thing.  (But check back with me on this one, will you?)

If the benefits of a week’s vacation in San Francisco and Napa Valley were palpable, so was the temptation to break the tenth commandment on a regular basis.  For those of you who don’t know the Ten Commandments by heart- and apparently the statistics show there are a whole lot of us- the tenth commandment reads like this: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor (Exodus 20:17).”

Coveting.  Wickipedia defines it as desiring the unjust acquisition of your neighbor’s possessions.  By this definition, few of us actually qualify as tenth-commandment breakers, barring maybe O.J. Simpson and his breaking and entering habits.

But, we’re not off the hook yet, because coveting, more broadly understood, is also a kind of lusting after what others have.  And, I must confess that while in northern California, I found myself doing this a bit too regularly.

My uncle, who took up the extended family’s profession of law and now lives comfortably in a big, beautiful house just outside San Francisco, and my uncle’s wife, who, thanks to a full-time, live-in nanny, doesn’t have to cook or do the grocery shopping or clean her house ever again, were, in addition to showing kind hospitality, perfect moving targets for my coveting propensities.  I imagined how my life might look different if, instead of having to cook, clean, fold laundry, grocery shop and drive my children everywhere, I might spend my time in scenic northern California, traveling more and writing a few more books while enjoying my children in leisure without all of the other pressures.  I wished for a different job, wondered why I hadn’t applied to law schools, lamented to my husband at how hard our constant juggling act had become, and longed for a second vacation home with an oceanfront view.

Coveting.  Can you identify?  If so, you, like me, may be looking for an antidote.  Here are five ways that we might begin to nip our coveting in the bud:

1. Make a list of all the things you have that you are grateful for.  You’ll be surprised at how long your list is.  (The great twentieth century theologian, Karl Barth, believed “gratitude” is what defines Christians.  I think Barth is right.)  Whenever you can, express your gratitude to God for the things you have been given.  If you forget, return to your list to remind yourself.  Whenever you think of something else to be thankful for, you can add it to your list.

2. Consider how all the things you have and your life circumstances, including the times you went astray from God’s purposes, have made you into the person you are today.

3. When you meet others who seem to “have it all,” remind yourself that appearances are never the whole picture.  You may have some things that your “neighbor” does not have.

4.   If you find yourself in a hard place, ask yourself, “what is the silver lining here?,” and “how is God using these circumstances for good” (Genesis 50:20).  Consider how God might be using these things to further form you for God’s mission.

5.  If you can’t find ways to express gratitude for life circumstances or the things you’ve been given, “rejoice in the Lord,” as the apostle Paul recommends (Philippians 4:4).  There is plenty of good news to be had in the realization that, regardless of how dark or disappointing our lives have become, God in Jesus loves us, is intimately involved in our lives, and ultimately promises new, abundant life.

The other day I spoke with a woman whose multiple myeloma had returned with a vengeance.  This time the cancer was in stage IV.  At age 52, this woman was facing an untimely death with honesty about her hopes and fears and griefs, but she was also bubbling over with gratitude to God.  For her family.  For God’s provision of her every need.  For how God was helping her use even her cancer to encourage others in their dark places.

This woman was grateful, when she could be coveting a longer life or better health.  She had put her coveting to rest.

Maybe we can, too.

 

A Toddler Meets the White Witch

“Any Turkish Delight, anyone?”

A shorter, storybook version of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for younger children comprised last night’s bedtime reading ritual.  A five-year-old boy and three-year-old girl snuggled up next to their mother to hear with bated breath how the majestic lion, Aslan, took on the sinister White Witch in the magical land of Narnia.

Whenever I turned the page to behold the foreboding figure of the witch, and mimicked what the witch might sound like (a mix between Gargamel of “The Smurfs” and my first-grade teacher, Ms. Melton, at the international school I attended in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), my daughter would repeatedly exclaim, “I’m scared!” and begin to whimper.  At which point I would try to reassure her that in the end Aslan-Jesus wins.  By the end of the book, the white witch had begun to sound more like the friendly grandmothers I met at yesterday’s visit to the assisted living center.

But this did little to quell my daughter’s new-found fear of the wicked White Witch.  Her crying and carrying on about being scared of the White Witch obliged me to spend the first few hours of the night next to my daughter in her cramped, twin-sized bed, as she finally wandered off to sleep- and this despite my reassurances over and over again that Jesus was stronger than the White Witch, that while the White Witch wasn’t real, Aslan-Jesus was.

So I’m struck this morning by how evil (the absence of the good) and those things that make us afraid and keep us awake at night can tend to captivate us despite what we may know to be real and true- often so much more than “whatever is…noble…right…pure…and lovely.” (Philippians 4:8).

We are so easily enticed and led astray by illusions.

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