Monthly Archives: March 2015
Three Quick Thoughts on Scripture and its Authority:
- Ambiguity exists in scripture. Its isn’t the voice of God – it is voices about God and God’s people. This doesn’t mean it lacks authority and insight into deep truths. It means that this authority is more complicated and nuanced than simply saying it is the Word of God, for it is filled with alternate voices, worldviews, and sensibilities about the life of faith. It is a mosaic of faith which is, at times, at odds with itself. And yes, somewhere in this stream of its voices we believe God to be revealed by God’s own will. But let us take some care not to misrepresent the clarity and consistency with which that is true.
- We all cherry-pick scripture. This isn’t an indictment, its just true. Its necessarily true. The diversity of scriptural voices means that we cannot help but lend greater authority to some voices within the text. We all – ALL – will pick and choose what stays front and center, what shifts from the foreground to the background, and what we exit stage right/left. I would contend even that you cannot actually hold yourself accountable to the whole of scripture simultaneously in all its parts for within the texts themselves there are voices vying against each other for the stronger truth claims.
- Idolatry of God and God’s Word is inevitable. The life long challenge scripture’s ambiguity presents us is that we will gravitate to texts that confirm our own desires, fears, and sense of self. We will want to give greater authority to that which agrees with our notion of faith and diminish the voices of scripture that challenge our worldview – no matter how cosmopolitan we think ourselves. This is the insidious way we create God in our own image. We make God and scripture into idols that are less than the whole and fashioned from ourselves, and we worship our own image/imagination.
This three-part nature of scripture means we must acknowledge ambiguity lest we forget the interpretive task and make rigid something that is a living text. We must place ourselves in diverse communities that hold together the tensions of life and resists monolithic faith. And we have to be willing to constantly be placed outside our comfort zones to be de-settled… set apart from our own self to encounter the God who is holy-other.
While I was at the National NEXT Church conference I ran across several conversations about the language of membership in a church not making sense. The idea of membership – the argument goes – is antiquated and institutional.
The conversation is familiar, it is one I picked up about 8 years ago and it led into my Doctor of Ministry with a focus on discipleship and how member language may subvert the church’s calling to make, and send out, disciples. I want to try to distill some of those thoughts:
My initial frustration was that member language makes the church feel any social group – rotary, the YMCA, a soccer club, a country club. We pay a service, we get a card: we are a member. Furthermore I have “membership” cards to everything from my favorite yogurt place to Pet Smart. I constantly am reminded of this when I stop at gas station I use frequently that has a membership card (I don’t have one) and before you pump you have to hit a button either for “loyalty card” or “continue without loyalty.” I always feel judged when I hit the latter. Is church just a place seeking your loyalty and your dues in order to be included? Furthermore if you work towards what you measure and we measure members, not disciples, than isn’t the church working toward the wrong telos?
The church is not a social club. A word from a great sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber:
“To some this may a sign that the “church is dying” …society will still have the Fortune 500 for profits, and non profits for service and day care centers for children and the ELKS Club for socializing and Starbucks for overpriced coffee and many other things we may not ever be. But we should never judge ourselves as the church according to these things because you know what the culture around us will NEVER do? Preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and proclaim forgiveness of sins. You know why? That’s OUR job.
Add in to this critique of looking and acting like a social club that generations of people today are skeptical of institutions or wish to create new ones. In today’s culture anything that feels rigid and formal and promotes the church as a place where you have to fit yourself into us in order to be an “insider” just feels wrong. I can understand, in this light, the desire to do away with the member word. I was one of those people.
But I’ve tipped my hand when I said was.
Two things emerge from a cascade of thoughts:
Peter Block’s research on belonging (I highly recommend his book Community: The Structure of Belonging). His work on community is not about the church but I find it the most captivating argument about what a church needs to be in order to really BE church. In the foundation presentation of his thesis he presents a two-fold understanding of belonging. The need to foster a sense of belonging to the community that causes a sense of place (I belong here) and a sense of responsibility (I own the mission and seek the welfare of these people). We make a difference in our community, and make communities of difference, when we belong to them.
Member: send it away or claim it in a healthy way I do think we are all in for the work of creating this kind of belonging (both these kinds of belonging).
Secondly. Its Jesus. Pesky, makes my life difficult, Jesus. Jesus certainly reached out to the masses, healed insiders and outsiders, and frankly more outsiders. Jesus preached on the street to any who overheard his gospel. But Jesus also called disciples. From out of the crowds of undifferentiated masses Jesus calls individuals. Jesus called those disciples to committed relationships (just take a gander at the Luke 9). Jesus required “dropping nets” and leaving behind and committing to a community of transformation. I recall often the words of A.B. Bruce author of The Training of the Twelve. He says that the apostles in the Acts are capable of audacious faith because first they spent significant formative time committed to be in the presence of Jesus and community of discipleship around him.
I may not love the member word. But the word isn’t as misplaced as I once thought. I came to an articulation of membership like this: Discipleship is our lifelong journey of wrestling with God, and God’s people, in how I am called to live my faith. Membership is the particular community I choose for this time and place to help me do the ongoing work of discipleship.
Maybe what our bigger problem is when we think the membership word draws a line. Us | Them.
Jesus doesn’t practice this kind of community. Instead he seems adept at ever larger concentric circles of community.
(The Twelve Disciples)
(“many disciples” (John 6:66 indicates a ring beyond the 12))
(The crowds // onlookers, over-hearers… admirers)
You get the point.. ultimately this is an unbounded set. Emphasis on unbounded!
So maybe our member word isn’t the problem. The problem is that we make too little, and not enough of it, in the practice of the community of those who follow in the way of Jesus. The community that is, somehow, the Body of Christ.
Somewhere this week, possibly tonight and if not Saturday, Amendment 14F to the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order (constitution) will secure the requisite votes to confirm the change to our definition of marriage to be between two persons. Some will celebrate and some will mourn, some will gloat and some will gnash their teeth. Many really won’t care.
I will celebrate.
I will celebrate because God’s covenants are always bigger, broader, and deeper in the promotion of life and love than we like to let them be…
I will celebrate because I believe the primary call of the Gospel is to let the oppressed go free. Oppression exists in so many ways – but none more insidious than the forcing of the other to adhere to a dominant cultural norm. Such dividing walls must be brought down.
I will celebrate because people I know and love will be embraced by the church I know and love and their love will be acknowledged as being lived in God.
I will celebrate tonight – I hope – because I am here at #nextchurch2015 with so many who worked so hard to let this justice and blessing roll down. And there is no greater gift than watching history happen with the people who made it happen… Even if just a microcosm of the larger whole.
I will celebrate because footsteps into the future should be celebrated and appreciated and marked for remembrance.
And then we will continue the work because it isn’t done. The work of listening to the anger and pain of those who do not see God in this. To the anger of pain of those who saw God in this long ago… and this is so so late. The work of loving the walls away, and building up the communities whose seems are stretched by the messy work of being transformed out of our comfort zones. The work of continued listening and openness to transformation, and setting aside oppressive norms and hurtful assimilation. The work friends are doing – and being arrested for – even now back in Idaho as we continue to seek to #addthewords and protect LGBT friends and neighbors from discrimination and oppression. The work of promoting life and love for all people.
I will celebrate, and I hope you will too:
Celebrate life; celebrate love; celebrate each other.
Something has really been nagging at me over the last three months. In conversations about a piece of legislation one of our Idaho representatives said that he was elected on the promise to vote a certain way on certain issues and he would listen to other viewpoints but he would not change his mind. It was a matter of principles and ethics to him. He made a promise and he wouldn’t let those people down.
On one side I can see his point. Its integrity.
And yet… maybe what it really was is a bad promise.
He essentially is saying that he refuses to imagine that anyone can present a compelling reason why his preformed opinions aren’t better than anything else he may encounter. He refuses to be wrong. He refuses to imagine another answer has more wisdom, is more informed, or makes more sense. He refuses to… think, grow, or allow any listening he might pretend to do to actually change him. He is immutable.
That word is important, I want to say more about it… so don’t lose track of it. But first I feel the need to be fair. He isn’t alone. In fact the only reason I’m not naming him is because we all are more than a little bit like him. It seems we have a cultural fascination with being right. We attach a moral righteousness to our opinions. And in such a world to admit that an idea we had wasn’t good is on par with acknowledging that we are bad people. Therefore we do battle over whose viewpoint is better and in such a battle to admit to any weakness means to lose. And not just on one issue… but maybe on everything. We begin to imagine that if we let go of one single proposition of our worldview the whole thing has to come crashing down. And so we entrench. We close our hearts and minds… and we double down on being right. And in this world we are NEVER really hearing another person. We are only listening for the flaw in their world that proves we were – as we knew – right all along.
I remember thinking once that why I like to share ideas is because I never know if the idea is any good until I take it out for a walk. In so far as I keep it to myself, I will always be right. I have not dared to be wrong. But being wrong doesn’t matter. In fact the best thinking I heard once about failure is that it’s a great diagnostic tool. It tells us what doesn’t work so that we can figure out why and come up with another idea that may move us forward. This is the way life works. Life has not survived the millennia by being unwilling to change. Adaptability is THE survival mechanism. Any organism – be it a form of life, a person, an institution, or a system – that is unable to adapt to a dynamic and shifting world… will die out. Any organism that wishes to live has to risk being wrong in the pursuit of learning, growth… and change.
For life – change is much like the air we breathe. Who can say when I became an adult? Most of the time I still don’t feel like one. But I guarantee you if I was today who I was at 21… I would be a poor husband, father, and pastor. I even liked who I was at 21. He was a good guy. But he had to change, grow, and learn. And in the course of the last (almost) twenty years I never said, “Today I’m going to grow up” … but I did. One slight adaptation after another. And that same work is still at work in me – and you – today, tomorrow, and to the end (and beyond… who knows – not me).
Let’s get theological for a moment. In the world of Judeo-Christian god-talk it doesn’t take long for someone to talk about what I like to call “the omni-God.” That God is omniscient, omnipresent, all powerful, and perfectly good… and immutable – God never changes.
I think this god is one of our most insidious idols. This is the God we imagine because this what we wish the world was. In our fantasies we wish the world never changed. But the world does and it’s so obvious that we cannot even pretend otherwise. So we project our need for something to be unchanging onto God… and we say God is immutable. And then we think we are to follow in God’s way and aspire to the same trait: that we are somehow stronger, more whole (and holy), and more right if we do not change. We idolize and become devoted to immutability and we call it integrity.
But the scriptures I read make a hard case against any such understanding of God. I would try to list all the counter examples but it would take all day and I do not want to get bogged down in “proving my opinion right” either. I’d invite you simply to read the arc of the story… a covenant with Noah to remind God (not us, God) of what God has promised never to do again… Moses changing God’s mind in the wilderness, God being willing to acquiesce to Israel’s demand for a king… God looking down in Isaiah and seeing something God didn’t expect and being disappointed and angry… and God announcing later that God is doing a new thing – the old has passed away… God’s heart kindled in Hosea to forgiveness again and again despite God’s decision to give up… the scattering and restoring; the destroying and rebuilding… Jesus moved to go beyond his people to the outsiders and non-Jews sometimes because he ends up on the losing side of an argument and sometimes because he is just awed by the faith he finds in the most unexpected places.
Scripture again and again also picks up on God being full of steadfast love… even that God IS love. Does this change? How can steadfast change? Steadfast isn’t however a direct synonym for unchanging. The idea that God is love may be a deep and abiding truth of the nature of God but the expression of the love changes constantly, must change constantly, because that is the nature of relationship and communal life. Even God learns… on the job, in the midst of covenantal promises.
Are we so much better that we must claim to have been right from the start?
It isn’t weakness to admit that you were wrong. Its courage. And I would like to think we can be a people of courageous love. I would like to think that I seek to elect and to follow courageous leaders. Not perfect leaders. Not unchanging leaders. Not cookie-cutter ideologues.
Unchanging leaders make people into dinosaurs… unchanging leaders in fact aren’t leaders at all. They are practitioners of sameness… and stagnation. I want leaders. People who will listen, and hear, and then lead us in love for the well-being of the human organism. People who will bring us together and give us the best opportunity for diagnosing the path towards greater life and love.
Show me those kind of leaders – I do not care what labels they may wear – and I’m ready to follow.
Deuteronomy 3:12-20 (abbreviated)
As for the land that we took possession of at that time, I gave to the Reubenites and Gadites the territory north of Aroer… and I gave to the half-tribe of Manasseh the rest of Gilead and all of Bashan… At that time, I charged you as follows: “Although the Lord your God has given you this land to occupy, all your troops shall cross over armed as the vanguard of your Israelite kin. Only your wives, your children, and your livestock—I know that you have much livestock—shall stay behind in the towns that I have given to you. When the Lord gives rest to your kindred, as to you, and they too have occupied the land that the Lord your God is giving them beyond the Jordan, then each of you may return to the property that I have given to you.”
Then Joshua summoned the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and said to them, “You have observed all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, and have obeyed me in all that I have commanded you; you have not forsaken your kindred these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to keep the charge of the Lord your God. And now the Lord your God has given rest to your kindred, as he promised them; therefore turn and go to your tents in the land where your possession lies, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side of the Jordan.
The first text you read here is the account of Moses and the Israelites first coming into the “promised land.” And for all the challenges I face reading these texts of “promised land” because they are texts of displacement (and killing) of the people that were already there… still I find words of grace in them. What happens here in this Deuteronomy text is that 2 ½ of the 12 tribes of Israel are given ancestral lands. They are, by all accounts, done. They have what they need. But that isn’t what they are told. They are told they are not done until EVERYONE has what they need. They may not rest in the land until everyone has land… everyone has place. And so they must continue to strive alongside their brothers and sisters to secure home for them until they may enjoy their home.
In the second text that dream is realized… they have found home. They all have found homes… those who achieved early may finally rest on those laurels because all have finally achieved their purpose: home/place.
I love this idea. I love that this idea reminds us that we cannot simply look out for ourselves in life. Our goal is communal. We achieve together, or we all fall. I cannot – by the basis of scripture – seek my own success apart from the achievement of the goal of the WHOLE. In the biblical ethic it would be immoral to rest in my comfort when a neighbor (beloved or despises; near or far) is in discomfort or is displaced.
Let me repeat that: by the ethic of Holy Scripture it is immoral to be content with our own comfort when anyone else is denied such comfort on any grounds.
And then I get to another message that always haunts my own discipleship (my own wrestling – thus the name of my blog space). The message of Deuteronomy/Joshua is driven home much later in a different time and slightly different place by the person of Jesus. It’s an easily looked over passage and yet I find it profoundly important. It is slightly after the initiation of the “Journey” section of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus starts that section when he “turns his head towards Jerusalem.” Everything that follows is about a journey to the cross, to death, to resurrection. And shortly after this journey is commenced Jesus has three invitational moments to discipleship. I should say three abortive moments (the later portion of Luke 9). In each case Jesus either turns it down or puts a condition on that discipleship the would-be disciple is not ready for. All three together combine for a sense of unsettledness and challenge. But the first one intrigues me because I see a direct link from it to Deuteronomy 3 and Joshua 22.
“As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Now I cannot say for certain what Jesus is thinking, I do not actually know the mind of God. But I wonder if Jesus isn’t enacting his own moment of saying that he cannot rest until everyone has a place to rest. The Son of Man cannot have a place until all people are granted place. Jesus is homeless. And will be homeless until all God’s people have homes. Jesus is rejected, and remains rejected until all people are accepted. Because Jesus resides in everyone… and the fate of one person is the fate of Jesus.
I find this a powerful moment of solidarity. I also find it a moment of clarity of purpose. I wish to follow in the way of Jesus – I too am a would-be disciple. I would, and have, left some of my family behind – though it isn’t always easy. I am not willing to let the dead bury themselves, and I do have a place of rest I call home. So my identity as follower of Jesus is not 100%… but I still follow in those ways I am willing. And my mission is clear. I must not to rest as if I am concerned about my own well-being. I am to be concerned for the well-being of all. I am to “not rest” until all may rest. (Okay, you may want to call this part one and stop reading here… but I felt I had to keep going, so if you are still with me, let’s go a bit further.)
I’m struck this day as I know that friends are being arrested one block away from me for their advocacy of those who have been rejected over and over again… and I know where Jesus stands – with them, and for them. And I’m not there. Today I’m being comfortable. It makes me wonder if I would have marched with Martin Luther King Jr… or been one of the pastors writing him in jail telling him to slow down, be quiet, and gives justice some time to develop…. I hate that I think I’m probably the latter. I don’t challenge you to follow Jesus way as one who is good at doing it. Far too often I am doing far too little… and that doesn’t sit well with me. But I continue to wrestle. I continue to follow… and I’m on my journey and, I think, growing into such discipleship step by baby-step.
This kind of growing in rest-less-ness and advocacy for those who have no rest, place/home/affirming welcome may seem like an insurmountable burden… but, it isn’t really. So many of the problems of our world are far less complex and far easier to solve than we wish to imagine they are. If we imagine that they are “hard” then we get off the hook for not making the sacrifices necessary to solve them. The moment we admit that we actually can solve them… well then we either have to do so, or admit that the real problem is that we aren’t willing to do so.
And that is the rub isn’t it? We don’t want to solve the problems. We imagine that the cost to our own comfort is too high. So we do not. We look the other way and hope someone else will do or that it will go away… sometimes we even push it away. But it isn’t gone – its only been displaced even further from hearth and home.
Over the last year or so I have come to learn more and more about issues of homelessness thanks to my role as a Board member of a nonprofit group that houses homeless families. What I have learned? It would not take much investment to effectively irradiate homeless, even for the majority of the chronic homeless population. The problem is not resources available or complexity to the job. The problem is that we simply aren’t interested (or not enough of us are). We refuse to admit or be convinced that it can be done and so we won’t do it. I am struck by how often people will bring up that there are some people who want to be homeless. Sure. Right. I will grant that. There are also people whose personal psychology has gotten to a point where they want to be sick. This doesn’t mean we don’t treat sick people or we don’t have medical care as an option for people. This doesn’t even mean to do not try to address all of the various illness of that particular person – it simply means their particular care will be longer and more challenging than the average case. That some people, for whatever psychological reason, wish to be chronically homeless is absolutely NO EXCUSE for not addressing the systemic causes of the vast majority of homelessness including lack of affordable housing, lack of medical care, lack of job opportunity and adequate compensation, and the perpetuation of criminalizing poverty in our country.
I have also learned much more about the fight for equal rights of gay and transgender people. I did an interview with a reporter on Friday who asked why this community will not comprise on what they are asking for in being added as a protected group in the Idaho Human Rights Act. The argument is why won’t they settle for being protected in their jobs and homes but allow small business owners to still discriminate against serving them (see footnote below for more on this). It seems rationale right? Make the first step and then work on the next… But what this is saying is that we will only give them 2/3rds rights. Admitting, as the legislature’s committee did, the vulnerability this community experiences daily, but refusing to make sure to protect their full human rights as we have done with other vulnerable communities in the past is to say that they are only 2/3rds human. We see the need – but we won’t do it, because we value our own comfort and rest more than their lives and place.
It is for reasons like these that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. It is for reasons like these that he Son of Man is rejected by the religious and political authorities… over and over and over again. Because the Son of Man will not rest – until all may rest. And the Son of May is rest-less in provocative and prophetic ways.
Until we are willing to house all people, and treat everyone as possessed of human dignity to be protected and nurtured than we actively oppose the life of Jesus… we are actively forcing him out to the streets… we are the reason he has nowhere to lay his head. We are not called to secure our place in the world. We are called to secure place in this world for all people. And there is room enough, resources enough, energy enough, and mind-power enough to figure that out… all we need is will to do so. So… is there WILL in the world for peace and place for all? Will we come together across our various interests and agendas and partner for a world to have peace and place? I most surely hope so.
In fact, I stake my life on it. Will you?