Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Holy Bible

"It's priests have done violence to my teachings and have profaned my holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the common....  It's prophets have smeared whitewash on their behalf, seeing false visions and divining lies for them, saying, 'Thus says the Lord God,' when the Lord had not spoken.  ...And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me..."  --  Ezekiel 22:26, 28, 30

These words resonated with me as I began to think about teaching a Bible 101 course for adults at my church.  While searching for resources to use for the class, I noticed two prevailing, and contrasting, viewpoints.  On one side, I found resources that promote the point of view that every word in the Bible comes directly from God, every statement in the Bible is literally true, and the canonical Bible is the only source and norm for religious life.  On the other side, I found resources that promote the idea that the Bible is simply the product of different people writing from within specific cultures and times who had their own agendas, which were then compiled, edited and redacted, by other people, with other agendas.  I have to say...neither viewpoint appeals to me. 

I began to wonder...  Is there a way to understand the Bible that does not equate it with God and that does not remove God from it altogether?  Is there a middle way that values both the humanity (with all its flaws) and the divinity (with all its perfection) to be found within this holy book?

Personally, I value much of the historical-critical biblical scholarship that is available for the average person today.  I appreciate understanding more of the cultural context behind these writings.  When I find differences in the Bible, for example in laws or theology, or outright contradictory statements, it helps me to know that the Bible is the product of diverse people over a long period of time.  There is, naturally, a progression in understanding over time:  laws change, viewpoints of historical events change, and understanding of God changes.  Even one writer, say for example Paul, does not demonstrate absolute consistency of thought over time.

My appreciation of the Bible is also deepened by understanding the various kinds of writings that are to be found within it:  legends, history, civil and ritual law, love poetry, praise hymns and lamentations, parables, teachings, stories, letters, etc.  The Bible is the epitome of what it means to be united in the midst of diversity:  differences are not erased, they are all included.  The Bible as it has been handed down to us, without harmonizing the diversity found within it, is more like an anthology of man's evolving understanding of God, than it is a single story.
But more important that what the Bible is, is what the Bible does.  And this is what makes the Bible holy.  The stories and prayers and teachings in the Bible have the ability to inspire, comfort, convict, and guide us as people of God.  Because these ancient writings are about (or by) people aspiring to, or turning away from, God, they have the power to speak to us, even to this day.  The things that concerned these ancient people still concern us today: judgment, suffering, divine intervention, spiritual gifts, prayer, the poor, the stranger, the lost, the afterlife, etc.  And very often, their answers provide needed insight into our own lives. 

Even stories that may have been originally intended as a retelling of an actual event can still act as parables or allegories for our lives today.   The Bible is chock-full of these, each one resonating with new meaning depending on when you read them.  For example, in the story of Adam and Eve, besides the story itself, one can discover many other insights:  there is the understanding that Eve was made to be an equal partner with Adam, having come from his side; there is the understanding that in the beginning Adam and Eve walked naked upon the earth with no shame, and that God walked with them and conversed with them; there is the idea that knowingly disobeying God creates shame; there is the idea that because neither Adam nor Eve admitted their transgression they were separated from God; there is the idea that the whole story from beginning to end can be an analogy for our own growth from innocent children to disobedient adolescents to independent adults; there is also the understanding that even with God's punishment comes love as God makes clothes for them before sending them out of Eden.  There are many more insights that have been and can also be discovered in this one story.  The Bible, in this way, is rich with untold treasures.

And yet, clearly some writings are more meaningful than others.  Martin Luther placed greater value on some books than on others.  Catholic Bibles include more books than do Protestant Bibles.  And, while I hesitate to discount any books from the Bible, I must admit that the specific laws about animal sacrifices, temple construction, and ritual purity, which illustrate the cultural-religious understanding of an ancient time, are not as important to me as the stories of the patriarchs or the parables of Jesus, which cross all cultures and are timeless. 

I am not a biblical scholar by any means.  Thankfully, you don't have to be one to appreciate and learn from the Bible.  However, over the years, I have discovered a few things about the Bible, besides those mentioned above, that I wish were more readily known. 

(1)  The stories in the Bible do not have to be literally true to convey profound truth.
(2)  The writings in the Bible do not have to be written by who they are attributed to in order to reveal God's truth.  Even the humblest person can reveal God's truth.  The test for truth is whether it rings true over time.
(3)  The Bible has never been an effective tool for determining church doctrine.  Alternate viewpoints will always find corroboration within these diverse writings, which is why schism so frequently occurs.
(4)  Historical-critical biblical scholarship seeks to determine the human context of the writings, which can be insightful.  It can, however, digress into irrelevant minutia which does little to convey the meaning of these writings.
(5)  Commentaries and study Bibles, while informative, can also direct and limit your thinking.  If you think about what the biblical words say to you first, without other guidance, you will gain even more insight.
(6)  God can and does speak to us through these words, especially when we read the Bible devotionally.
(7)  The Bible is not the only means, or only book, through which God can speak to us.  God was with humanity after the Bible was canonized.  God is still with us.  And God still speaks to us in many diverse ways.

This is what I know about the Bible, so far -- or at least what comes to mind at this moment.  I'm sure I have much more to learn.  Hopefully, the more I read the Bible itself the more I will learn.  And that is really the key to appreciating the sacred qualities of the Bible:  reading it, again and again.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you


Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Good Shepherd

"I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  And I lay down my life for the sheep.  I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd." ... Again the Jews were divided because of these words.   --  John 10:14-16, 19

This passage is so fitting for me this week.  Once again I am wrestling with how to honor unity in the midst of diversity.  It's a continual challenge to honor the other, the one who thinks differently, as much as you honor yourself, and your own opinions.  There is this creeping tendency to want to shout, "But I'm right."  I certainly have this tendency to want to defend my own opinions.  Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, I also have an even stronger tendency to want to shout, "It doesn't matter who's right or who's wrong.  All that matters is that you love each other as you love yourself."

So many issues have divided us Christians, and continue to divide us:  who was Jesus, what did his death signify, what does the eucharist mean and who can partake of it, what baptism signifies, who can be clergy, is divorce a sin, what kind of worship music is appropriate, what worship style or liturgy is best, which Lord's Prayer is preferable (traditional or modern), who can marry, etc.   Christians have different understandings on all of these issues, and more.

If you took all of the issues that Christians have divided themselves over, or could divide themselves over, and listed all of the possible choices on each issue, do you know what the odds are that any two people would have the same answers?  It would be as near to zero as mathematically possible.

The problem is not how we answer any of these specific issues, the problem is the idea that we all have to think alike or we can't be united.  This is a problem especially common in churches.

And yet, if we look to our families and friendships, we know that we don't all have to think alike to be united.  Where love binds us together, differences do not tear us apart.  My sister and I approach Christianity differently -- she leans toward the conservative, I lean toward the liberal.  My husband and I approach faith differently -- he leans towards atheism, I lean towards mysticism.  All of my friends and family members are in different places when it comes to their beliefs.  And yet, with these people, it doesn't matter that we don't agree.  It only matters that we love each other.   
So if a church is made up of people like this, people who all come to Christ from different cultures and different denominations, with different baggage and different gifts (which it is), how do you keep them united as one body?  What do you teach that wouldn't be divisive?  Is there anything that we could all agree on?

I would say... Teach them to love God with all their being and to love one another as they love themselves.   Focus on that.  Do not deviate from that.  When differences on any other issue arises, remember to love the person more than the difference.  Try to understand why the person thinks the way they do.  And if you forget to love, or the other person does, then as soon as possible repent or forgive, and return to love.

Only those who cannot love another as they love themselves must be separated from the flock.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Live and Rest

"I gave them my statutes and showed them my ordinances, by whose observance everyone shall live... but [they] rejected my ordinances, by whose observance everyone shall live..."  --  Ezekiel 20:11,13

"Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care ... For indeed, the good news came to us just as to them; but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.  For we who have believed enter that rest....  -- Hebrews 4:1-3a

Why do some people believe in God, and some do not?  There are many reasons, I am sure, but these two passages, one from the Hebrew Scriptures and one from the New Testament, contain repeated phrases that speak to me of why I believe in God:  "everyone shall live" and "enter that rest."   Live and rest... that is why I believe in God.

When I was a young child, probably five or six years old, I must have realized that not everyone believed in God.  I remember lying on my bed, thinking about this ultimate question:  Is God real?  If God isn't real, then why are we born?  It didn't make sense to me that we are born and we would die and that's all there is to life.  There had to be some reason for being alive.  What that was, I didn't know, but I believed God knew.  A meaningless life just didn't make sense to me as a child.  It still doesn't.

As I got older and saw the beauty and intricacy of the living world around me, that also seemed to argue for an intelligence behind it all.  Like the early Pythagorean's who were extremely fascinated by numbers, I wondered, why is there an underlying order at all?  How is it that the lengths of the sides of all right triangles fit a formula?  Why is the human body made the way it is -- like such a perfectly designed machine?  Why do the same patterns occur naturally in various objects?  Galileo is not the only one who thought that God must be a mathematician. 

However, both of these explanations for God rely to some extent on my ability to reason logically.  There is another, less logical, reason why I believe in God.  In fact, the reason I most deeply believe in God is because I cannot explain my experiences in any logical way.  My experiences do not make sense.  In fact, they make so little sense that I find them very hard to share with very logical people.   Only people who have had the same kind of ineffable experiences can truly understand what I'm talking about.

Countless experiences come to mind, but I will share three.

In my senior year of high school, I had a dream in which someone handed me a picture of a handsome young man with dark brown hair dressed in a blue suit and tie.  I awoke with the sense that this was the man I was supposed to be with, not the one I was actually engaged to at the time.  Shortly afterward, my fiance and I broke up, and I went off to college, where studying mathematics and history took center stage.   Towards the end of my freshman year at university, I was invited to a luncheon for students who all had the same scholarship.  I didn't want to go.  Mingling with a crowd of strangers, making small talk, was my least favorite thing to do.  But my roommate encouraged me.  "Who knows?" she said.  "You might meet the man you're going to marry."  It was April Fool's day, so I laughed at that.  Nevertheless, I went, and this cute guy sat down beside me, and he was surprisingly easy to talk to.  We began dating, and then just before summer vacation started, he gave me a copy of his high school senior portrait to keep with me.  It was the picture in my dream from the year before. 

We eventually got married, and even more eventually, decided to see if we could have a family.  Not ever having longed for children, I was surprised by the overwhelming joy I felt when I got pregnant.  I felt as if I was carrying joy inside me.  In my second month, I had a miscarriage.  The sadness I felt could not be eased by anyone's words of comfort.  After a couple of weeks, I went to church, hoping that maybe being in church would help me feel better.  That day the sermon was about mourning the death of a loved one. 

One final example -- an example that is similar to what most often happens in my life -- was the first time my thoughts found guidance in an unexpected book.  One evening after a Bible study, I went to the bookstore to check out a book on the holy spirit that had just been recommended by the leader of the study.  On the way, I started to wonder about gifts of the spirit, the topic of the study.  I wondered if the ability to forgive was a gift of the spirit.   I had never heard of this as a spiritual gift before, but I had been thinking about forgiveness a lot that day.  It seemed to me that some people were just able to forgive more easily than other people.  When I got to the bookstore, I found the recommended book.  Sitting right next to it was a book by the same author titled, "The Gift of Forgiveness."

How do these things happen???

Some people might say that these examples are just coincidences.  I stopped thinking that awhile ago.   These experiences are too weirdly specific, and they happen so very frequently.  I can't dismiss them as "just coincidences."  And I can't explain them in any logical way.  So it is, through these experiences, that I have come to believe that there is a supernatural being in this world who hears my very thoughts, and who offers guidance and comfort.  I call that being God.

The repeated phrases in the passages above, that "everyone shall live" and "enter that rest," are not simply explaining that we will live and eventually die, and that's all there is to it.  No, they are saying something much more meaningful, something more like what Jesus was talking about when he said, "I came so that they may have life and have it abundantly."  And, "Come all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."

When you feel that God is guiding you, life is rich and satisfying and truly amazing.  It's not always easy, mind you.  There are responsibilities that come to "those who listen," as both writers above attest.  But I would not want any other kind of life.

Dear God, thank you for everything you have given me.  May I in turn convey your deep and abiding love for the world, so that all may come to you for true life and true rest.  Love always, Pam