Monday, October 31, 2011

Discerning God's Word (Voice) Today

In my final year of Seminary, I pastored a small rural church in a little Indiana farm community. This was a seminary pastorate; the church didn’t expect me to stay after graduation and I didn’t expect to stay. As graduation drew close, I was ready to go on to bigger and better things. The problem was that no one else seemed ready for me to go on to bigger and better things. I had sent out resumes. No response. Not even a nibble. Churches were not exactly knocking on my door wanting me to come. In fact, they were not even sending me any rejection letters. This went on for several months. I began to question my calling. At one point I was so filled with anxiety that I found it difficult to sit in class. I felt miserable and felt guilty for feeling so miserable. And the feelings of guilt for doubting my calling and questioning my faith compounded my anxiety. 

I happened to be taking a pastoral counseling class at the time and the professor said something very simple that struck me as quite profound at the time. I heard it as a word from God. He said, “It’s okay to feel bad.” Pretty simple isn’t it? But that is what I needed to hear. And what a weight lifted when I appropriated that word. Some of the anxiety I was experiencing came from the sense that my stay in Hoover, Indiana could be for a longer time than I had wanted or anticipated. But the debilitating, oppressive anxiety I was experiencing sprang from the guilt over feeling bad and from questioning my calling. When I realized that it was okay to feel bad, to question, and to experience some anxiety, then the deep dread, guilt, and worry that hovered over me started to lift. 

I share this story as an illustration of how the Divine Voice speaks to us. The Divine Voice speaks to humans through human words, images, ideas, and feelings. This is true in any gathering of disciples for study, fellowship, and worship, and it is true of the Bible itself that is used by these faith communities. 

Paul tells the church in Corinth to “weigh carefully” what is said by the Christian prophets in their worship gatherings (1 Cor. 14:29). He tells the church at Thessalonica to “test everything” that is said by the prophets and teachers in their community, holding on to what is good and avoiding all that is evil (1 Thess. 5:19–22). 

The Divine Voice often speaks healing and transforming words as Scripture is read, interpreted, discussed, taught, and proclaimed in Christian communities. But biblical words read and interpreted must be “weighed carefully.” The Bible can just as easily be used to justify our sexism, racism, classism, nationalism, and egotism as it can be used for redemption and transformation. There is no infallible word. 

Here are questions I ask: Do the words reflect the compassion, love, forgiveness, and prophetic challenge of Christ? (In other words: Is the Spirit of Christ present in the words read or spoken?) Do the words inspire hearers to be more caring, empathetic, gracious, hospitable, and inclusive? Do the words call forth the best of the human spirit? Do they inspire us to pursue peace, reconciliation, and justice for all people, especially the disadvantaged and marginalized? Do the words bring healing in a holistic sense, calling forth humility, generosity, gratitude, and grace? 

Paul writes to the church in Rome that “the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:16). When our lives are immersed and filled with the Spirit of Christ, it is not that difficult to discern the Divine Voice bearing witness to our human spirit. When our lives are not filled with the Spirit of Christ, we will often mishear the Voice, as I can testify through my own experience. Some Christians who mishear that Voice seek to justify their prejudices and sin by appealing to an infallible Bible. 

Every voice in the Bible or in the church should be filtered through and weighed against the Divine Voice that has become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth (John 1:1–18).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Bible as a Lens

New Testament scholar Marcus Borg tells a wonderful story illustrating two different ways to approach Scripture. For many years Borg taught an introductory-level Bible course at Oregon State University. At the beginning of the class, he always informed the students that the course would be taught from the perspective of the academic discipline of biblical scholarship. Borg would tell them that they didn’t have to change their beliefs, but to do well in the class they would have to be willing to look at the Bible from that viewpoint. 

He explained that the Bible is the product of two ancient communities. The Hebrew Bible is the product of ancient Israel, the Christian Testament is the product of the early Christian movement. As such, the Bible tells us not how God sees things, but how those two ancient communities saw their relationship with God. 

Roughly 20 percent of the students that took the course believed that the Bible was inerrant (literally the Word of God). Borg would, inevitably, spend the first two weeks in lively discussion with the more articulate and courageous of those students. 

One semester, a very bright Muslim engineering student took the course. A senior, he did so because he needed another humanities course for graduation and the class fit his schedule. One day, after witnessing Borg’s interaction with the more conservative students, he said to him, “I think I understand what’s going on. You’re saying the Bible is like a lens through which we see God, and they’re (the inerrantists) saying that it’s important to believe in the lens.” 

That is a good analogy. When I am asked if I believe the Bible my response is: As a Christian I believe (I trust in) in Jesus of Nazareth, the living Christ who is my Lord. I use the Bible as a means to nurture a transformative relationship with God, whom I know through Jesus. The Bible is a lens through which I see God and Jesus. 

I try to approach the Bible in as unbiased a way as possible (we all, however, bring some bias to the text). I try to be open to both the diversity and the unity of faith that the various authors and faith communities express, and receptive to both the contradictions and the coherences found in the Bible’s many different kinds of sacred literature. 

When the Bible becomes the object of faith (bibliolatry?), the Bible can easily become an instrument of oppression and death. In a general sense, the Bible gives us a description of the faith of the writers and communities struggling with what is real and what is unreal, not a set of infallible prescriptions or propositions. 

Every reading of the Bible is an interpretation of the Bible. The reader inevitably brings his or her temperament, personality, culture, biases, and education into the process of understanding the text and discerning its meaning for today. 

The Bible is not just about God, but about how people of faith have perceived and related to God. While it is not literally the Word of God, it can become the Word of God (the Divine Voice speaks through it) to those who read it critically, spiritually, and discerningly.  We should employ the best methods at our disposal to make sense of it. This should include a balance between the best resources of historical-critical scholarship and other methods more spiritually oriented toward nurturing Christian disciples. 

The Bible contains a plurality of voices. Sometimes these voices conflict with one another, sometimes they speak as one, using different language and words. The Bible includes voices of oppression (claiming to speak for God), and voices of protest against oppression (also claiming to speak for God). There are voices that endorse conventional wisdom, and voices that speak a subversive, alternative wisdom. But in, with, around, under, and over these voices is the Divine Voice, seeking to lead us into a transformative relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

It's Time to Grow Up

The world needs for the visible body of Christ (the church) to grow up. How does this happen? According to one biblical writer, “it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16). What kind of love? The kind of love demonstrated through Jesus’ sacrificial life and death (Eph. 5:1–2). 

We have to stop using the Bible to justify our sexism, bigotry, and hypocrisy.   The Bible itself shows us how the people of God appealed to divine command to justify their greed, hate, and violence. For example, consider all those passages where it is claimed that God orders the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites wholesale, even the women and children, in order to possess the land of promise (see Deut. 7:1–6). Under European colonization, we did the same thing to Native Americans. We claimed “manifest destiny” and sought God’s blessing on our plundering and killing. We claimed to be doing the will of God, portraying the Native Americans as hostile, uncivilized, and inhuman (the same thing Hitler did to the Jews). 

We are still using the Bible to endorse violence, refusing to see the evil in our own hearts. (We are always finding evil somewhere else, projecting it onto “the other.”). One can find the worst and the best of humanity in the pages of the Bible. Since the Bible reflects our human sin and prejudices, as well as God’s vision of transformation, it is not hard to find Bible quotes that support our biases and injustices. 

Jesus is the Bible’s own answer to its divine sanctions and endorsements of violence. Jesus shows us that God is not violent at all, but a God of forgiveness and love. Even God’s judgment, which can be painful, is for the purpose of salvation. 

It takes us a long time to get there in Scripture; the process is always three steps forward and two steps back. But in the fullness of time God sends forth God’s Son. Jesus breaks down barriers, expands the boundaries of God’s grace (even to our enemies), and embodies and proclaims a nonviolent gospel. Yet, we have a difficult time believing that nonviolence is the answer. Even in the final book of the Bible, we take another step backwards, imagining that Jesus returns as a violent warrior slaying all his enemies. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin (singular) of the world. What is this sin? It is the sin of hate. It is the greed and animosity of the powers that be that put Jesus to death. Yet Jesus does not lash out in revenge. So how does Jesus take this sin away? He bears it in forgiveness all the way to the cross. This is why in John’s Gospel Jesus’ death is referred to as the glorification of the Son and the Father. The glory of God’s love shines through all the darkness of evil and hate. Instead of enmity and revenge, John says, “God so loved the world,” showing us “a more excellent way” (see 1 Cor. 13). 

As Christians, we must stop worshiping our Bibles and quoting Bible verses to justify our sexism, classism, nationalism, and all manner of greed, prejudice, and love of violence. We must listen to Jesus, as the Voice at Jesus’ transfiguration tells us to do (Mark 9:7). We must read our Bibles through the lens of the nonviolent, peace-seeking, forgiving, compassionate, inclusive Christ, who is Lord (head) of his body in the world. 

It is time to grow up. Our world desperately needs Christians to shed their infantile Christianity, and put on Christ, “the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). We must stop worshipping a book and using that book to justify our sins; instead, we must start worshiping and serving a God, who in the “fullness of time” plans “to gather up all things in him (Christ), things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10), a God “from whom every family in heaven and earth takes its name” (Eph. 3:15), a God destined to be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).