How I Read the Bible

I hear all the time in United Methodism that our seemingly inevitable march toward schism is caused or at least significantly hastened by the fact that we don’t all read scripture in the same way. But very rarely does anyone offer a further comment on how any particular group does or ought to read it. For a long time now I have desired to articulate how I read scripture, both to clarify my own understanding and to offer something constructive to the conversation at large. What I am posting now feels deeply inadequate as a viable alternative means of reading, but I don’t know when or if I’ll ever have the time to research and say what really needs to be said. I feel compelled at this point in time to at least offer some sense of the framework out of which I seek to make sense of faith and truth and life.

For lack of a better descriptive term, I would name my primary lens of engagement as a thematic reading of scripture. Thematic engagement is neither literal nor figurative, neither obsessed with verses nor limited to vague impressions. Thematic engagement is a challenge to explore the stories that wrote us in such a way that we can most faithfully write out the next chapter in the light of God’s continued love and action in the world.

At the moment, I would offer these assumptions as the foundation upon which thematic reading is possible.

  1. A thematic reading values ‘why’ over ‘how’ over ‘what,’ consistent themes over specific verses, storied illustrations over propositional truths, contextual correctives over eternal specifics, and communal life over objective argument. 
  2. Context is the most basic unit of truth. We usually read stories to get down to the nugget of truth within. But truth is only truth in the context of the story in which it is told. The process of thematic reading does not extract a final “objective” meaning of any word or concept but assumes truth is only possible within the actual stories that give birth to meaning within the communities that remember and tell those stories. This approach is the operative framework of proverbs, in which nuggets of truth require an understanding of context in order to know which proverb applies and how. 
  3. Who illustrates a theme and how often it arises are proportional to how serious and central that theme is for understanding the point and purpose of scripture. As Christians, the themes most clearly articulated and fulfilled by Jesus take precedence, but are not intelligible apart from the whole.
  4. The entire Bible is an exploration of who counts as the family of God and what are the implications for faith and life. Thematic reading is an invitation and attempt to further explore those implications for our own life and future. The ethics of thematic reading do not attempt to take any concept or idea out of scripture but to shape our habits and choices by our identity in relation to the family of God and the implications thereof. 
  5. The Bible is to be read altogether or not at all. There are enough words and stories in scripture such that we can find a verse or two that justifies almost anything if read in isolation. Thematic reading assumes that we cannot ever divorce a single word, command, or story from the rest of scripture. When there is tension between the meaning or implication of two scriptures, we gain more from leaning into that tension than we do if the tension can be resolved. A simple example is the difference between the sermon on the mount in Matthew and the sermon on the plain in Luke. We could assume Jesus just preached two similar sermons in different places but it is more instructive to refuse streamlining into one simple story and instead learn from the nuances or differences each author chooses to incorporate.
  6. The questions asked and answered by the Bible are far more significant, central, meaningful, determinative, and crucial than the questions we bring to the text. It is tempting to think the Bible can answer any possible question we might have about life and faith, but the more we stray from the concerns of the Bible itself, the more likely we are to justify what we already believed than to be challenged and changed by God.

Reading with the above assumptions in mind, the biblical themes I find most significant and important are found below (keeping in mind that this list is extremely tentative and that any concept is intended as a way to point back to scripture rather than be meaningful apart from it). The main reasons I haven’t made this post until now are that 1) I hope one day to read through the Bible with an eye toward indexing the full list of stories and verses in which these themes find their coherence and meaning, and 2) there are plenty of other major themes that I would consider essential and are certainly worthy of much more engagement; but I have no idea when/if I’ll have time to tease out the meaning of those themes or their relation to those below. For now, this list will have to do. 

  1. Before we are anything else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Each and every one of us. Each and every part of us. Though our discussions of sin and holiness usually start with notions of right or wrong thoughts/actions and the consequences thereof, the bible begins with the assumption of the love and relationship for which God created us. Anything about sin, holiness, forgiveness, community, identity, duty, morality, etc. is only intelligible or significant as it relates to the relationship for which we are created and the prevenient grace of God at work to restore that relationship even before we have any awareness of or input in the process.
  2. Power is kenotic. Philippians 2:1-11 most clearly and concisely articulates the nature of real power in the world. Power is born through humility and self giving, not military, political, or physical strength. Ultimately, the vulnerability of God is the power to transform everything. [The near sacrifice of Isaac, John 3:14, 2nd Corinthians 12:9] 
  3. The wrong people tell the right story. While we often look to people with the right level of authority, credentials, or knowledge, biblical truth often finds expression only through the most unexpected character in the story. Thus, the widow with two copper coins is lifted above the rich. The good samaritan is lifted above the religious leaders. The women are the first to preach the resurrection, not the disciples. Scripture constantly upends our expectations about power and authority by choosing the weak over the strong, the outsider over insider, those who know nothing over those who think they run the world. [Luke 7:36-50, Rahab]
  4. Us for the sake of all. The concept of election or chosenness is essential to the Bible but deeply misunderstood. There is an insider and outsider, but those chosen are chosen for responsibility, not privilege. To become part of the inside crowd is to accept the call to share the gifts of chosenness with the rest of the world. The more we receive, the more those blessings necessarily overflow. The more set apart, more holy, we become, the more we necessarily participate in God’s work to heal the world. [Jonah, Jesus’ consistent rebuke of the insider and embrace of the outsider, Romans 2] 
  5. The goal is to learn how to love right, not to attain the right words and beliefs. We often treat faith like it’s a contest to see if we can create the best arguments or proofs to convince minds about Jesus. But nothing good happens when those words and arguments become the goal rather than being an attempt at articulating the experience of following Jesus. The embrace of community and the embodiment of God’s love always comes before rational understanding or objective truth. 
  6. To live right is to love as God loves, not to create a list of dos and don’ts. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he said love God and love neighbor; on these two commandments rest all the law and prophets. Like healing on the Sabbath, the corrective offered in Galatians, or Paul’s discussion of whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols, the point of moral imperatives was never about getting right the practical, specific, objective list of things to do and not do. Without referencing specific action, we cannot illustrate the shape of love; but love is who God is and actions either reproduce and/or witness to the love God is or they don’t. Every list we create is tentative and time bound at best. [Micah 6:6-8, Romans 8:1-11]
  7. Salvation is not “get me saved,” it is “participate in God’s work to love and transform the whole world.” Recentering the work of the church on community formation rather than individual guilt and forgiveness provides the foundation upon which we can begin to say why the church exists and how we ought to live in service to that broader mission.
  8. Scar born healing. Someone once said scars are not a sign of injury, scars are a sign of healing. The type of healing witnessed in scripture is one in which God does not throw away the old and broken body; God renews, heals, and transforms what is already present. In our disposable culture of shame and isolation, this may be the single most radical corrective offered by scripture. [John 20, Ezekiel 37]
  9. There is no if in the love of God. Deuteronomy is notable for its repetition of an if then formula. Roughly, if you are faithful, God will bless you. But even the story arc undermines its own formula as the people are not faithful but God remains faithful anyway. From creation on, there is always a hint of expectation that God will follow the if, then logic. But no matter how often or how deeply we are unfaithful, God remains steadfast, ultimately showing in the cross that there is no if in the love of God.
  10. God breaks out of every box. God’s people constantly think they have figured out the nature and shape of following God. But God always breaks outside of every box the people think is right. No matter how angry the insider becomes or how much God challenges preconceptions, God keeps pushing. [Jonah, Zaccheus, Peter and Cornelius, Ruth, Ethiopian Eunuch, Luke 4:25-30]
  11. Freedom from is freedom for. Freedom is not the lack of any possible thing to constrain our choice or desire. Freedom is from shame and fear and brokenness. Freedom is for overflowing the love that God first had for us. 
  12. Abundance in the face of scarcity. The world implies all the time that we are in competition for scarce resources and power. In the Bible, God is the source of an abundance of blessing and there is always more than enough. [John 6:1-14 (loaves and fish), Matthew 15:21-28, Manna in the Wilderness]

I am confident that the application of these themes to our present divide in the UMC is not self evident. To a significant extent, my argument hinges on the notion that the way we engage in the conversation about what sin is and how to respond to it is fundamentally and hopelessly flawed. That reality means I cannot offer a simple point by point acceptance or rebuttal of the more common arguments. But I feel compelled to at least offer some hint as to how the way I read the Bible informs my understanding of how to live and how to move forward. Again recognizing the insufficiency of what I am able to say coherently at this moment, I’d offer these several contributions to the conversation related to a few of the themes above. 

  • With respect to theme 1 above, conversations regarding human sexuality never meaningfully grapple with the nature of prevenient and unconditional love. The first question in evaluating action is usually something like, “is this a sin or not?” The only first question worth asking for Christians is something like, “what is the shape and nature of the love that God has for us.” And the second is like it, “how is that love reflected (or not) in our relationships?” Sin is a secondary concept that can only be defined to the extent that words or actions break the covenantal love for which we are created. Only as it relates to the potential for breaking the love that God is does it even make sense to explore the extent to which same gender loving persons are capable of living into the institution of marriage. It is often argued that to expand our definition of marriage is to dilute the meaning and significance of the marriage relationship. However, I would argue that we do great damage to the institution of marriage through our unwillingness to wrestle with the extent to which the institution is now defined more by specific practices and traditions than by an attempt to witness and embody the kind of love God is. We should always define our practices primarily by the extent to which they attempt to live into the bigger love of God and only secondarily and if necessary by the extent to which those practices fit neatly into a traditional taxonomy of sin and righteousness. To guide our future actions more by historical practices than by God’s prevenient love is necessarily to dilute and distract from our attempts at more faithful living; to do so reproduces the error corrected in Mark 2:23-28 regarding work on the sabbath.
  • With respect to theme 2 above, every authoritative moral pronouncement from the church presumes and reinforces a distinct hierarchical posture – the church is atop that hierarchy and below are those who break from that authority or wish to challenge the church’s moral teaching from within. Kenosis implies that those with greater power and authority must act in such a way that the less powerful or more marginalized people are empowered in some concrete way. That is not to say sin cannot be called out but, building on #1, the result of calling out sin ought to be a demonstrably more “as we are meant to live” life. The logic of saying don’t steal, for instance, seeks to at least root out envy and to create the ability for people to trust one another more fully. Thus, saying don’t steal concretely and demonstrably creates certain conditions for a better life. If those conditions are counterbalanced by the need to steal so as to meet basic needs, a different calculus is required by those in positions of power to understand the effects of our prohibitions and punishments, as well as the culture we have created in which stealing could make sense as an option in the first place. To determine how we ought to understand and respond requires us to assess whether our assertions of authority are empowering healthier lives and relationships. To faithfully articulate a stance on same sex marriage requires us to consider the effects of prohibition upon same gender loving persons. Assuming exertions of power ought to make lives and relationships better is not some sort of incidental or relativistic consideration – that assumption seems to be one of the most consistent means of understanding how and why expectations for how to live change throughout scripture. To be sure, sometimes requiring what is right does not result in obvious and direct benefits. But if we cannot see clear evidence that lives and relationships are made better by an exercise of power and authority, we must be extremely cautious and wary about whether we have drawn the right line in the right place in the sand.
  • With respect to themes 5 and 6 above, the point of Christian faith is not to get the right wording of beliefs onto a page or to make the right list of actions and prohibitions – the point of word and action is to experience and embody the love and grace of God. When seeking to understand the nature and acceptability of certain forms of relationship, we must therefore consider vital characteristics of that relationship like consent, intimacy, vulnerability, trust, empowerment, teamwork, attachment, mutuality, authenticity, commitment, public accountability, personal growth, sacrificiality, and respect. If gender is the only criteria we are capable of evaluating with regard to the validity of a potential marriage, then we have already gone hopelessly wrong, both in terms of what marriages we prohibit and in terms of the marriages we already foster and condone. 
  • With respect to themes 9 and 10, it baffles me how often more conservative voices imply that the church’s continued adherence to its current understanding of marriage is an issue upon which the possibility of a faithful and effective church rises and falls. It sounds to me like we are concerned that if we get our understanding of marriage wrong, we will hopelessly break the church and hopelessly/uniquely undercut its ministry. But there is no ‘if’ in the love of God. One of the most common themes in scripture is the breaking of every box that God’s people thought contained a faithful, holy, Godly life. Even if we get it wrong by changing the definition of marriage, God will still be faithful and will still overcome all our failures – just like God has always done from the beginning. We must operate from an assumption that we will get most things at least partly wrong most of the time. To start with that assumption requires that we be extremely cautious about what we are willing to consider essential and why we would do so.

Scripture and Change

“People don’t fear change. People fear the loss that inevitably comes with change.” I don’t know who originally said these words, but Dr. Jaco Hamman offered the quote in a conversation with me and a group of fellow pastors.

I can think of no more succinct way to describe the animating energy of the final few hours of our 2019 Annual Conference than this quote. One particular speech stuck with me. A resolution was submitted to remove the restrictive language in the book of discipline regarding homosexuality. Speaking against that resolution, a delegate said, “I have to take the Bible as it is written. I have based my whole faith upon it. I have come to Christ through it and follow it. And the Bible is very clear when it spells out marriage as a covenant relationship to show how Christ loves His bride, the church. And it’s very clear that God created men and women to be in this exclusive relationship. It is what guides everything and if I go against this, how do I define where in scripture I have to [live], how I have to be with my husband, how he has to be with me. I just want to make it very clear that I have to follow what the Bible says…” 

I have heard time and again the same kind of argument spoken from those who wish to maintain the language in the discipline. Last year I heard against a similar resolution, “This resolution would create a separation from almost 2000 years in the universal view held by the ecumenical and the global church on the issue of marriage.” The WCA phrases it as follows in their moral principles regarding marriage – “In keeping with Christian teaching through the ages and throughout the Church universal, we believe that marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union.”

In each argument and in many others, the common assumption is deeply present that the primary way to be faithful to the Bible and to follow church tradition is, necessarily, to continue to do things the way the bible says to do them and, therefore, the way we’ve always done them. What stuck with me about the annual conference speech and what I appreciate was the vulnerability with which the plea was made. There was no pretense of absolute scholarly certainty or a facade that faithfulness is easy, safe, or simple. The speech was a powerful reminder that the more significant and foundational faith becomes in our lives, the more we risk losing if some part of that faith is challenged or changed. If one thing about the way we have read, interpreted, or implemented the Bible is challenged, there is no way to know ahead of time how much else may come into question in the process of developing a new understanding or course of action.

I deeply empathize with the fear of loss that leads to the kind of statements made in this speech and in the variety of other speeches and arguments I have heard over the years. There is a famous family story about me that recounts the time I spent about 2 months doing nothing but crying because I was forced to move away from the place and people that I loved. The loss that comes with change is no small thing and may just be one of the most significant challenges that we all face in the course of a lifetime. 

I do not in any way wish to downplay or belittle the real and profound loss that would accompany a decision to remove incompatibility language. Any change to something as significant as how to live a faithful life is bound to feel like the ground is shifting beneath our feet. Any attempt to pretend like change does not necessarily lead to the loss of something significant denies the reality of human life and ignores the experience of countless men and women throughout the pages of scripture and church history. At the heart of our faith is a God who did not pretend like life will be easy or pain free, but offered to be by our side no matter what tomorrow brings; a God who is faithful until all will be set right even though we don’t yet experience the fullness of the victory that is already sure. Change includes loss. Loss is painful. People fear the loss that would inevitably come through a change in our biblical, historical views on marriage. Those fears are not unfounded.

However, my problem with even incorporating this reality into determining how we are to view marriage today is that I cannot read the Bible without seeing that the single most consistent strand throughout scripture is change. Page after page we are confronted with a God who overturns our understanding of the way things have always been and reshapes our expectations of the way they ought to be going forward. No theme is more consistent than God’s constant desire to break out of the boxes that we assume contain a faithful life. God is with us, absolutely. God is faithful and constant to the very end. But the flipside of that coin is that ‘God revealing a different or more full expression of who God is and how to most faithfully follow God’ is often one of the primary forces leading to the painful changes with which biblical men and women had to learn how to cope. I just don’t know how to read the bible and come away with the expectation that the way things have been done for the last 2000+ years is the way we should always expect them to be done.

It starts with the very shape and purpose of covenant relationship. Adam and Eve were given a single command. Abraham was simply called to get up and go wherever God led. He was then challenged with the covenant of circumcision. Moses brought the extensive and detailed law that gave shape to life. Joshua followed the command to purify the promised land of people. God relented to give the people a series of kings when they insisted one was needed. The temple became the locus of God’s presence and the center of life and worship in Jerusalem after years of bringing the tabernacle along for the journey. An intricate system of sacrifices was put in place to ensure obedience to God. In exile, the focus of worship and sacrifice became less centered on location and more on ritual and memory. In Jesus, we are offered relationship no matter the time or place, the sacrificial system is completely gone, and he claims to be the fulfillment of the law.

In between all these massive changes in the shape and implications of covenant, God overturned expectations left and right. First, that birth order was destiny. Women like Rebekah used deceit to help along the process of passing down the blessing to the “wrong” child. Membership in God’s people shifted from descendents only, to adding a few outsiders like Rahab along the way, to grafting in gentiles through Christ. Women like Deborah, Ruth, and Esther led in ways that only men were allowed to lead. Jonah was swallowed by a fish for thinking God should only be for the Jews. Judah became the center of political power even though it was the smallest tribe. David was a small kid chosen to be King in a time when physical stature was highly prized. Women preached the first resurrection sermon after finding the empty tomb. 

Outsiders were offensively lifted up as examples or recipients of God’s faithfulness. Jesus brings up the widow at Zarephath and Naaman to explicitly challenge the boundaries of God’s people. He ate with Zaccheus, let the children come to him, spoke with a Samaritan woman, made a Samaritan the hero of a parable, healed on the Sabbath, directly challenged countless religious authorities, conversed with prostitutes, gleaned on the Sabbath, and challenged the way things had always been enough to make multiple mobs angry enough to kill him. Peter’s understanding of dietary law was upended in his encounter with Cornelius. The Ethiopian eunuch would have been unwelcome in the temple but Philip saw that he could not withhold the water of baptism.

The founding of the church itself was a radical shift in the lives of God’s followers. The church was born at Pentecost when the focus shifted from Jerusalem to the ends of the Earth. At Pentecost, the people were amazed that they could speak in native tongues they did not know. Paul makes very clear that circumcision is no longer essential for church life in Galatians. In Corinthians, he explicitly says that God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. Paul himself underwent a radical transformation upon conversion to following Christ.

The Bible contains deep rejections of many habits and patterns of action we take for granted today. Luke’s gospel contains a radical emphasis on eschewing material wealth. Acts speaks of the absolute importance of close, covenant community and sharing resources with stories like that of Ananias and Sapphira. Jesus says the first shall be last, the meek shall inherit the Earth, and blessed are the poor. Philippians states clearly that it is the humility of Christ that expresses his power.

Jesus in Matthew includes a series of very direct challenges to prior interpretations of the rules by saying, “you’ve heard it said, but I say unto you.” He stopped a stoning by saying the one without sin should cast the first stone. He rewrote the meaning of Passover to refer to himself and, in John, named himself as the lamb for the sacrifice. 

On top of these actual changes, transitions, and challenges, there are a variety of unresolved tensions within the Bible for how to live and think. Proverbs offers a very transactional and clear method to a faithful life whereas Ecclesiastes repeats the phrase, “all is vanity” to imply that nothing we do matters in the end. Kings tells the story of the monarchy as a cautionary tale in how corruption destroyed the kingdom whereas Chronicles offers a much more positive and hopeful reading of history. Paul is convinced that grace through faith is the essential ingredient for salvation whereas James says faith without works is dead. A great deal of scripture seems to long for the end of war even as parts of it speak to God being on the front line of the battle. Paul and Barnabas had to part ways because of their unresolved arguments about the faith. Revelation leaves an inherent tension between images of Jesus as both lion and lamb.

Sometimes when a complete change does not occur, there are simply counter narratives offered to the official party line. Amos pushed God’s people to see it was not the sacrificial system God longed for but mercy, justice, and kindness. A mob in Acts sees more clearly than the disciples how revolutionary Jesus is by claiming his followers “have been turning the world upside down.” Palm Sunday already anticipates that Jesus will not be a military conqueror even though that is what his followers expected. There are four distinct gospels laying out the details of Jesus’s life that each have their own slightly different order, assumptions, details, and intent.

This list is nowhere near complete and a variety of complex changes covering a multitude of biblical books and themes have been condensed into single phrases for the sake of brevity. This list also represents a variety of different types of challenges to the status quo that variously affect personal, relational, or societal habits, choices, or expectations. My point is not that each change is the same or even directly comparable to a change in our language regarding sexuality – quite the opposite in fact. 

My point is that changes in how we live and relate to God are, at every level, more like the air we breathe than a rare occurrence in the Bible. Every single box that seemed to contain God or a Godly life is shattered at some point in scripture. This reality does not mean that anything goes. This theme does not imply that any particular action must be accepted or that it is capable of expressing a faithful life. But it absolutely baffles me that anyone can read the Bible and conclude that the way things have always been is the way they must always be. I cannot imagine why anyone would assume the God who is at work throughout the Bible could not do a new thing some 2000 years after the church was born. If anything, reading the Bible should make us shocked that God has not more radically turned our world upside down in every practical application of what it means to be faithful. 

I don’t believe it does any good to deny the real sense of loss that comes with a change in how we understand faithful living. But the most biblical thing I can think to do is stop presuming that 2000 years of church history means that we no longer have to question how we are called to most faithfully live. Rather than simply asking what the Bible says and assuming the same rules apply in the same way, here are the kind of questions I would rather us ask regarding sexuality – What is the shape of God’s love that we discern through the Bible? How does sexuality in general relate to and derive from that kind of love? What specific forms or practices of sexuality are capable of embodying that kind of love? To what extent do our current practices of marriage and understandings of sexuality fall short of that image of God’s love? To begin with these sorts of questions is to create the space in which we might begin to discern how and where our definitions of faithfulness may need to be challenged or changed in light of the God who, throughout scripture and history, has constantly forced us to adapt and grow.

95

Quite often it is argued that truth is either objectively and always true or truth is relativistic, fuzzy, and can’t be trusted. For Christian theology, a claim like Jesus is Lord or God is love is usually thought to be the former kind of absolute, objective ‘Truth’ on which everything else is built. The problem with this either/or approach to truth is the fact that humans are inherently relational, story telling, community first creatures. The dichotomy of objectivity vs relativity presumes a form of intellectual individuality that has never existed and, if it did exist, would undercut the very heart of the gospel message. Truth is not grounded in the ability of the human mind to get the words right in arguments. Truth is grounded in the love of God that sets the world right in relationship. Therefore, I’d argue truth is not objective or relativistic – truth is relativtastic.

Right or Left

Truth is not relativistic; truth is relativtastic! 

To clarify what that statement implies regarding ethics, consider how you would answer the following two questions about driving down the road.

1) Is it better to turn right or left at the intersection ahead?

The answer depends on where you’re trying to go.

Far too often we assume that the specific moment of decision is the only factor worth considering in ethical deliberation. To restrict our lens to the moment of decision is to preclude the possibility of our actions leading anywhere in particular. The most true and faithful way to act at any given moment may look radically different if our actions are meant to be in service to any particular goal.

2) Now assume you know the roads and you know where you’re headed. Do you know which way to turn at the intersection?

The answer depends on whether you know where you’re coming from.

Even if we know the goal of the decisions we make, the practical choices to arrive at the same destination are deeply shaped by where we are coming from. The most true and faithful way to act at any given moment may look radically different when our context is shaped by radically different experiences and histories.

In the same way, any time we are asked to consider the ethical implications of a particular word or action, we must consider both the world we believe ought to be created through that word or action as well as the context through which each person affected has arrived at the particular moment in question. No matter how “by the book right” something might seem, it may still have the effect of destroying the very world one hopes to create. No matter how many times one specific word or action may have been right, if the context has changed enough the implications might be the opposite of what they have previously been.

Ethical action is only possible at the intersection of the stories we hope to participate in and the stories that wrote us. In the tension between the world we create with our actions and who we have been up to the point of action, we create the space where the truth of relationship is possible. Ethical words and actions are precisely those that build up relationship and not those that tear it down. 

We so often ask only, “what should the individual do in a given moment?” A better question would be, “what would the world look like if our community made abundant life a present reality?” We so often think only, “why are those other people so wrong.” A more fruitful way to think would be, “what is the source of their fear or grief that leads to such opposite conclusions?” To start with a goal in our minds and empathy in our hearts would not solve all the world’s problems. But I sure do believe it would allow us to take at least one correct turn along the way.

That truth is relativtastic is another way to name this essential role of relationship in any ethical analysis.

I think about this kind of analogy a lot in terms of how our most partisan and broken divides play out in the life of the church. Whether it’s abortion, sexuality, immigration, or whatever else you want to name, we often consider only repercussions for moments of choice rather than where we are headed or where we are coming from. In other words, we spend all of our time fighting about the parameters or prohibitions of the laws that we think ought to be put in place. We spend precious little time or energy considering how we can become the kind of people who live in such a way that all but the most extreme cases make no sense as a source of controversy or division. 

If we were to become the kind of people that truly value life, we would not allow the possibility of systems and attitudes that tell people their children are a personal burden more than a communal gift. If we were to become the kind of people that know the power of intimacy, partnership, trust, vulnerability, and mutuality, we would not accept that gender is the necessary and sufficient category by which to divide our world and define acceptable marriage. If we were to become the kind of people that embraced and brought to light the gifts all neighbors have to offer, we would not be so ready to abandon common sense or compassion through fear and protectionism.

In short, if we were to build God’s kingdom here and now, there would be no lines in the sand regarding momentary choices because we’d recognize that God’s love is much bigger than our limited boxes can hold. The kingdom of God is a world upside down way of life that calls for nothing short of complete submission to the power of God at work in all things. The kingdom is not a right or left kind of endeavor; the kingdom is an invitation toward a radically different way of life no matter what roads have brought us to where we are now.

94

Some say that knowledge or intent or consequence or deontology is what matters in determining how moral our actions are.

In the Christian life what matters is that we are already loved, accepted, and enough in the arms of the Lord. Any particular action is an embodiment of that reality or a detriment to it. What matters first and foremost is the unbreakable love of God and only then does our response come into play, not as a pelagian demarcation of ‘morality vs sin’ but as a witness to God’s love or a breaking thereof. That we seem so intent on defining sin without understanding the community that sin breaks is perhaps the single greatest failure of the church today.

Apologetics

Christian apologetics (roughly the scientific, philosophical, and objective search to describe and prove Christianity) was very appealing to me in college. I no longer find the discipline to be particularly helpful or meaningful. My concern is not with the arguments that are offered, but with a particular assumption necessary to make apologetics meaningful. 

Apologetics searches for facts and arguments that prove the truth of the Christian story. This effort works exactly opposite of the way the mind, rationality, and knowledge production work. Humans are fundamentally story telling creatures. We go to incredible lengths to fit facts and evidence into the story of reality by which we coherently view the world. Only when facts and evidence dramatically differ from the story we tell are we forced to learn to tell a better story, and even then it may take a generational change to fully embrace a new paradigm.

This concern is so problematic for my understanding of Christian apologetics because the Christian story is necessarily one of the primary stories into which Christians place our experiences and arguments. To “prove” the truth of Christianity through the tools of apologetics is to presume there is some other more fundamental story of reality or rationality into which we can fit the Christian story. To do so is necessarily to treat scientific, philosophical, and other forms of knowledge as more essential, objective, or true than the knowledge the Christian story is capable of asserting. Thus, in the attempt to find a more objective grounding of faith, apologetics cannot help but subvert the fundamentality of the faith it seeks to prove. 

I still find plenty of what apologetics has to say to be fascinating and potentially important. I simply think the Christian faith is the context in which apologetics becomes compelling, not the other way around.

Honest Regret

Date Given: 7/28/19

Psalm 51:1-17

It’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. I want to start by sharing the story of a photo to illustrate this profoundly important point.

First, a very close up crop of the photo below – looks like a potted plant. Some small pink flowers, plenty of green behind so probably not taken in the dead of winter. Not much else all that worth saying about it unless maybe you’re a botanist and could name a species and maybe then guess a location.

first crop photo for regret sermon

 

We zoom out. Below you can see the potted plant on the far right hand side, it hasn’t changed at all. Now we see a group of 5 people who look like they’re probably friends. They’re sitting in front of a body of water – so maybe it’s a park. Based on the clothes, my suspicion is right that it’s at least not a cold winter day. Overall it seems like a pleasant and enjoyable setting for a chat with friends.

second crop photo for regret sermon

 

We zoom out one more time. I have to imagine the smoke in the background, rising from the New York skyline is a fairly unforgettable image for many of us. The photo was taken on September 11th, 2001. This photo appeared in publications shortly after that day and sparked national outrage. “How could a group of people so casually sit and relax when one of the worst terrorist attacks in history was going on in the background?”

 

third and full photo for regret sermonWhat can’t be captured in the photo itself is what was actually in the minds and hearts of the group pictured. If we could zoom out to that level, we’d see what they shared in interviews after the event. They said they couldn’t believe their eyes either. They said they were in a moment of shock and panic. They weren’t relaxed or enjoying themselves at all. They were trying to process a tragedy that would have profound implications for their lives and ours.

It’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. So many times in life, it happens like it does with the story this photo tells…the different ways of describing what is happening aren’t exactly right or wrong per se. They simply do the best they can with the information available. The more we zoom out, the more we know. The more we know, the more we have a full picture of what happened. But the great challenge in life is that people always disagree about what pieces of information actually count and whose voices are worth hearing. And even if we agreed on what we’re seeing, we could never be sure that we have a full enough picture to really understand what’s happening.

This may seem like a very theoretical exercise, but it is an essential part of understanding our world right now. I’d argue most of our inability to talk to people across our various, present divides comes from our choices about who to listen to and what to accept as true. The details we’re willing to include in the stories we tell, dramatically shape how we live and relate to one another. The vast, vast majority of our actions and decisions aren’t good or evil per se. Most of what we say and do involves a million tiny, often unconscious choices about whose voices are centered… about whose experiences are taken into account… about what our goal is in telling those stories. Where and when we are raised, the communities with which we identify, our life experiences, and so many more factors lead us to radically different conclusions about whose voice is heard and what to do with the stories we hear.

Those choices we make based on the stories we tell are almost never exactly good or evil, never exactly right or wrong choices. But it’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. Almost everything you learn and everything you try to do in response can change. Psalm 51 provides a perfect example of how this process changes what an honest prayer of confession is and what it teaches us. We’ll view this story at four different levels.

On a very straightforward reading, we find a powerful offering of prayer from a remorseful heart. Psalm 51 begins – “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” This is the confessional prayer at the heart of a Christian life. Every time we gather we are invited to admit our mistakes knowing that God mends our broken hearts and makes all things new.

The psalm goes on, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” The movement from confession to hope, from admission of guilt to restoration of joy – this might just be the single most consistent cycle in the life of God’s people. Psalm 51 provides beautiful imagery to capture the heart of this very movement. This is, plain and simple, a powerful and honest prayer of regret.

We zoom out. There are subheadings you have probably noticed if you’ve ever opened a Bible. Below are the subheadings in the version I typically use for study. You’ll notice there are three lines before verse 1 begins. The first is psalm 51, simply giving the number of the psalm.

Psalm screenshot for regret sermon

The second says “Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon.” The third says, “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” You may or may not know that none of those three lines would have been found in the very earliest manuscripts of the Bible. Original manuscripts were written in Hebrew and didn’t even bother to include spaces between words. The numbering system of chapters and verses was added much later. The second line, “Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon” was added when my particular Bible translation was created, probably in the late 1980s. You may find a similar line in your own translation or you may find something totally different or nothing at all in its place. It’s simply a topic marker to help name what various paragraphs and stories are about.

The third line is most interesting for our purpose today. “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” This heading is far more ancient, going back at least 2000 years or more. These headings are found in early Bible manuscripts but were not assigned numbers when chapter and verse numbers were added much later. Why that is the case could take weeks to explore. For today the important takeaway is to realize how this heading helps us see the larger picture. Psalm 51 is not meant as a generic prayer of confession; it is meant to show us the heart of David, this man after God’s own heart, just after he was confronted about his most shameful act.

David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and she had become pregnant. Then, rather than owning his mistake, David attempted a cover up. And when that failed, he had Bathsheba’s husband, named Uriah, killed. Nathan confronted David about his shameful conduct and exposed the errors and/or crimes David had committed. This is the context of the heartfelt prayer of confession that we read in Psalm 51. It’s about like zooming out from the potted plant to the level of people in the park. What we find doesn’t fundamentally change, but there is a whole new level of clarity offered about just how bad the sins were… and about just how deep and powerful the love of God can go to heal our deepest wounds. This powerful prayer is seen to be a profound act of humility by one of the most powerful of God’s servants.

We zoom out again. One of the difficult things to recognize when we read scripture is how deeply shaped the stories are by culture and authority. The stories we read are told by the people with some level of power and influence. The stories usually center the experiences and voices of the few most powerful or influential people involved. That claim isn’t a knock on scripture, it’s just an important truth to embrace if we want to understand the world of the Bible. A lot begins to change if we’re willing to hear the same stories through the eyes of the secondary characters.

Very little detail is offered about the beginnings of Bathsheba’s story. She is simply seen by David, taken to the king’s house, and only speaks her first words through a messenger when she discovers later that she is pregnant. There’s nothing in the story to imply that adultery is actually the right word. David, as king, has complete authority over her life. The prophets had warned God’s people that this would be the case when they begged God to have a king. The prophets said, “when you’re a king, you can do anything you want. Grab the women you want, send the sons off to war.” But God’s people still begged for a king. And the warning of the prophets came true.

Only one of the participants here had any desire or say in what happened. To hear the prayer of Psalm 51 in light of the power dynamics at play is to hear a very different kind of prayer. I’m honestly not sure what we’re supposed to do with a line like, “Against you alone oh Lord, have I sinned.” I don’t know what to do with it but it sure sounds different in this light. If the only voice we’re willing to hear is the one powerful enough to have his words written down, then we miss an incredibly significant piece of the story. We are clearly still looking at the same picture, it is still a humble prayer of confession from a powerful man; but everything changes when we imagine David’s prayer through Bathsheba’s eyes.

We zoom out one last time. We started with the heartfelt prayer of an unknown person. We saw that it is David’s prayer that we are invited to imagine. We were challenged to imagine that same story through Bathsheba’s eyes. But now we have to step back farther; far enough to see that the effects of David’s actions echo much farther out.

In many ways, Nathan confronting David is a watershed moment in the history of God’s people. There are twists and turns and ups and downs all over the place before and after David. But up until David did what he did, the general trend was in favor of God’s people taking control of the promised land and becoming who they were supposed to be. After David did what he did there is a downhill slide toward defeat. God told David the sword will not depart from you…and it didn’t; all the way up until God’s people were defeated, removed from power, and exiled from the land.

David’s actions set in motion a cascade of events that would dramatically alter the lives of his entire nation for generations. But the effect on one specific individual might just be more heartbreaking to me than all the rest. By the time Nathan confronted David, Bathsheba had conceived and given birth to a child with David. Nathan told David, “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” That tiny, innocent baby died just 7 days later.

There are plenty of thorny theological questions raised by this moment. Did God take the child as punishment? What would it say about God if so? Is it better to say God merely let it happen? I don’t have time to adequately address all the follow up questions that are certainly worth asking, but I’ll just say this. Everything I know and have been taught about God tells me that God absolutely does not take away our loved ones or punish us with grief as a response to things we do. The idea that God does so is a way that we try to make sense out of a sometimes senseless world. God’s desire is for us to find hope and healing, never to punish us or cause us pain.

But here’s what I also know to be the case; our actions have consequences far beyond those we might intend. And coming to grips with those consequences can be one of the most complicated, challenging things we do in life. When I look into the eyes of our precious little 9 month old Hutch, I cannot bear the weight of imagining that anything I do will cause him lasting harm. Yet I also know every parent makes plenty of mistakes in their own special way all the time. Believing that we are responsible for the harm of our loved ones can easily lead us into a spiral of shame. It is far easier to simply deny their pain than to accept that something we did could in any way be related.

Our willingness to believe the difficult truth is proportional to how much we can stomach. In other words, when someone’s pain is too much to fix, we’d rather ignore their voice than grapple with a wound that can’t be easily healed. We’d rather tell a different story than face the possibility we did anything wrong. And it’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. But brokenness is never healed simply because we deny that part of the story exists. Silencing the voice of pain is about the surest way to cause long term damage.

No matter who intends what or what the actual causation may be, it is vital that we do not close our eyes to the suffering of others. Racism, sexism, classism, and all the other isms of the world are the same kind of complicated, deep seated, daunting problems on a societal level. Some would rather pretend like the problems are fixed; others cannot help but name their pain.

Refusing to look beyond our side of the story, refusing to hear the voices of the powerless, refusing to accept that we are yet sinners in more ways than we know … to do so is to hide from the grace of God. To do so is to seek control rather than forgiveness. It is to do exactly the opposite of what Christ did upon the cross.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the vulnerability of our God. Jesus did not come to tell us that things really aren’t that bad. When people lashed out at God and blamed God for everything, God’s ultimate response was not to shout down our misunderstanding, misrepresenting, mistaken words and actions. In the cross of Christ, God instead humbled himself to our level. God said very clearly, “There is no where you could go that I have not already gone. There is no shame you could feel that I have not already felt. There is no brokenness you could cause that I have not already healed. I feel what you feel and my reckless love is strong enough to overcome it all.”

The vast majority of the decisions we make and the ways that we hurt each other do not mean that one side is good and the other side is evil. Far more often than not, especially in a partisan and divided time like ours, each of us are choosing to value different voices and different parts of the story. These are not exactly good and evil decisions but they dramatically change the way we feel about the people involved and what ought to be done in response. In our quest to heal the wounds of our world, we could all stand to remember how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include.

An honest prayer to God invites us to never run from the things we have done or left undone; it requires that we listen even to the voices that make us question our own self perception; it deeply challenges us not to pretend to be better than we are; it forces us to trust in the one who leaves the 99 just to find us.

“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, God will not despise.” In other words, we are invited to embrace our imperfections, to admit the harm we cause, to listen to the stories of others, and to trust that God’s love goes deeper. To trust that even though we fall short in ways we don’t intend and maybe don’t even know, God’s reckless love is still for us.

Before we are anything else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Each and every one of us. Each and every part of us.

We are loved no matter what. Therefore we can bring all that we have and all that we are, we can bring our whole story, even the parts we’d rather hide from the world or deny altogether; we can bring it all to the foot of the cross, knowing that God will wash us whiter than snow; and God will make us new.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Law is like parenting

In the midst of our broken and divided moment in the life of the UMC, one of the talking points that so often frustrates me is the implication that how we are supposed to live never changes. While I believe that we have been and always will be called to embody the love of God, I cannot help but think that living out that love ought to look different in different seasons of life and at different moments in time. The question should not be “do we do the exact same thing always?” but “do we seek to embody the exact same kind of love for our time and place?” 

To assume it is a given that we should do the exact same thing is as absurd as assuming there is exactly one right way to parent for your child’s entire lifetime. Tucking your kid in at night and saying I love you at the end of every goodbye might both be vital ways of conveying love to your child. But one only makes sense for a season of life and the importance of the other endures. 

We should always be striving to ask what the shape of God’s love looks like here and now rather than assuming that the specific practices that constitute a faithful life will never change. That we only ever seem confident about what counts as sin rather than what embodies love is a reminder of where our true brokenness resides.