Tag Archives: Bible

the Bible under my bed

I still have that red Bible with the frayed edges.

I still have that red Bible with the frayed edges.

I found it under my bed.  I know, not the best place to keep it.  I have no idea how it got there, but one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had with my Bible came the night I found it under my bed.

I was living alone for the first time in my life.  A graduate student in a small apartment with a strange roommate, it was probably the most lonely I’ve ever been.  I missed my girlfriend.  I missed my friends and family.  I had some nice co-workers, but the relationships were still at the very superficial level.  I was about six weeks into a two-year commitment.  When I decided to go to graduate school, I thought two years wouldn’t be too long to try and have a long-distance relationship.  On that night though, sitting on my bed feeling sorry for myself, two years seemed like an eternity.

For reasons which I cannot fully explain, I decided to clean my room.  I started at side of my bed, picking up clothes and books and whatnot.  I looked under my bed and found the red book with gold letters on it surrounded by dust bunnies.  I felt a little guilty that my Bible had been pushed that far back under my bed.  I picked it up, and held it for a moment and decided that cleaning my room could wait.  I crawled back on my bed, and felt compelled to read.  I didn’t know what to read.  I didn’t know where to start, so I started at the beginning.

I had never really read the Old Testament before.  Seminary was still in my distant future, so I knew nothing about JDEP, historical criticism, or a post modern hermeneutic.  I simply read the stories.  They were confusing.  The story of Noah was redundant and seemed to contradict itself.  It was boring.  Seriously, do I really care about the sons of Ham?  It was troubling.  Abraham did what to his son?  Yet I kept reading.  I also found the stories to be direct, and easier to follow then I thought they might be.  It all read like a TV drama.  As I read I found myself eager to read more.  Then I read this line:

“So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” (Genesis 29:20)

The words stopped me.  I read them again and again.  I drew so much comfort from that little verse.  The truth is, Jacob was a pretty unsavory character.  In my Pulpit Fiction Podcast, we’ve been blasting Jacob as his story has unfolded through the lectionary.  He was pretty much a scoundrel.  The story from which this verse emerges is a sordid affair that wouldn’t do very well in modern romantic comedies.  Yet at the same time, there was something so pure about this notion.  There really isn’t a lot of romantic love in the Bible.  There are a lot of property exchanges.  There are relationships fraught with deceit and unfaithfulness.  There are some strange tails men claiming their wives are their sisters.  This particular story finds Jacob marrying Rachel’s sister and Rachel, nevermind the fact that Rachel and Leah are his first cousins.

The fact of the matter was, in that moment, I didn’t care about any of that.  I didn’t need to know the cultural context of marriage.  I didn’t need to understand the source criticism of Genesis.  All I knew was that I was hurting.  I was lonely.  I missed the woman I loved, and somehow that verse spoke to me.  A pain was lifted.  It wasn’t erased, but I was able to look at my situation from a new perspective.  Call it the Holy Spirit.  Call it the power of the Living Word.  In that moment, the Bible spoke to me, and I was renewed.  Did God move me to clean my room?  Did God direct me to look under my bed?  I don’t know, but a couple of years later, my sister read that verse at our wedding.

That is the power of the Bible.  That isn’t to say that the deeper, more scholarly approaches to the Bible aren’t helpful.  I believe in using all of the tools of scholarship, archeology, sociology to dig deeper into the Bible.  I love looking at Scriptures from different cultural contexts, and I try to be aware of the lens I bring to the Scripture.  I believe that the Word of God is made more fully alive when we bring our own understanding of tradition, reason, and experience into it.

But sometimes, encountering the divine is as simple as opening up the book and reading.  Sometimes we can have an encounter with God through the Bible that is free of trappings.  On that night it was just me and my Bible, and I was made new.  That is an important reminder for me as I surround myself with commentaries and studies.  Sometimes God’s grace comes through a scoundrel, and a simple and eternal message of love.

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Walk of shame, interrupted

When I was a sophomore in high school I was kicked out of a football game for kicking someone.  It was a stupid.  I was near the bottom of a pile, and I felt like the guy on the other team that was on top of me was taking his sweet time in getting up.  Instead of just waiting for the guy to get off, I got mad, and started kicking.  I don’t think I actually kicked anyone.  I wasn’t aiming at anyone in particular.  I was just mad and reacted.  Unfortunately the ref saw me and said “You, 62 – you’re out of here.”  I couldn’t believe it.  So I stormed off the field in anger and sulked on the sideline for the rest of the game.  Strangely, none of the coaches even said anything to me.

After the game, none of the coaches said anything to me.  When I was back at school, had changed and was ready to go home, none of the coaches had said anything to me.  I was a little perplexed, but also pretty nervous.  I knew I wasn’t going to escape punishment.  They must be letting me stew.  I figured that at the next practice I’d be running laps around the field for the duration.  I started to walk home, despondent.

I didn’t get far when Mr. Selke pulled up and asked me, “Do you need a ride?”  Mr. Selke was an intimidating guy.  With his hair slicked back and suit on, he looked like he could have been cast as an associate of Joe Pesci.  He didn’t give sophomore football players rides home.  He was not a coach.  He was the Athletic Director.  I lived about a half mile from school.  I didn’t really want a ride.  I just wanted to sulk my way home.  “No thanks,” I said.  “No, let me give you a ride,” he said.  I realized that this was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

I’d say we had an interesting conversation on the short ride to my house, but that would imply that I said something.  He didn’t raise his voice.  The power of his words did not need volume.  “You will not do something like that again,” he said simply.  “Your family is too good for that.  Your Mom, Dad, brother, and sister have given you a good name.  And you will not do anything like that again.”

I didn’t run laps at practice on Monday.  None of my coaches ever said anything to me about it.  It was like it never happened.

When I think of that interrupted walk home, I am reminded of another interrupted walk of shame.  In Luke 24 we find the story known as “The Walk to Emmaus.”  The walk to Emmaus was a walk of defeat.  It was a walk of devastation, confusion, and anger.  Two men were going home – back to Emmaus.  They were leaving Jerusalem after a tumultuous week.

They were devastated, because the man that they thought was going to redeem Israel had been crucified.  We don’t know how long they had been following Jesus.  We don’t know how much they had given up, but we know that as the walked home, they were walking in shame.  they were walking in confusion, despair, and anger.  Their walk to Emmaus was a walk of shame.  And then they were interrupted.

They were interrupted by the living Christ.  They were interrupted in their despair, and at first, they were annoyed by this stranger that didn’t understand their pain.  “Haven’t you been paying attention?” they ask him.  “Have you been paying attention?” he responds.  He does two things for them after their encounter.  He allows them to tell their story, then he tells them his version.  Their version went like this:

“Because of [Jesus’s] powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.” (Luke 24:19-24, Common English Bible)

It was a story of despair, loss, and confusion.  Jesus responds by telling them the story again.  This time he starts with Moses.  He tells of God saving the people from slavery.  He tells of the giving of the Law.  He tells them about the Land that God provided the people.  He tells them about the Prophets that spoke the truth to power.  He reminded them about the God that saves.

Eventually it was time to eat.  So they gathered at a table, and Jesus broke the bread.  When they saw him break the bread, it all came together.  They knew that were in the presence of Jesus.  They knew that Jesus had risen.  They knew everything had changed.

While they gathered at the table, their story was no longer one of despair and fear.  Their walk was no longer a walk of shame.  It was a walk of triumph.  In the breaking of the bread, this act of friendship, companionship, and relationship, they knew that they were in the presence of the living God.  He re-framed the story.  He re-presented the bread.  He re-newed their hearts.

Like Mr. Selke did for me during my walk of shame, Jesus reminded them of who and whose they were.  All of us need that reminder every now and then.  All of us take long walks of shame.  We take a wrong turn.  We veer off the path.  We forget who and whose we are, and suddenly we find ourselves someplace we never intended to be.  We find ourselves on a path of shame – somewhere God never intended us to be.  It is in the midst of such walks that Jesus has a funny way of showing up.  We may encounter Jesus on our path when we are least expecting him to show up.

No matter where you may be on your path, no matter how lost, no matter how hurt, no matter how bitter, an unexpected encounter with the Divine can bring you back home.  Be open to the Scriptures, and the story of God’s salvation.  Be open to breaking bread with those that might surprise you.  Be open and know that you never need walk this path alone.  You never have to make a walk of shame again.

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Err on the Side of Grace

I’m a pretty safe driver.  I’m a safe driver for a lot of reasons.  One reason is that I hate the idea of getting a ticket.  I’ve gotten pulled over for speeding before, and it sucks.  It’s expensive.  It’s a pain.  You know that feeling you get when you drive past a squad car going a little over the speed limit, and then you look in your rear view mirror, hoping it doesn’t pull out?  I hate that feeling.  This, combined with the simple fact that I don’t want to die, is the reason I drive safely.  I get passed a lot on the interstate.

This photo is used with permission. It was taken by Dave King http://www.flickr.com/photos/djking/

I don’t go exactly the speed limit (partly because the way people drive, that in itself would be somewhat unsafe), but I’m never the lead car either.   I have realized that in the course of driving somewhere, I have to make many decisions.  Should I pass?  Should I wait behind this truck for the exit?  Should I change lanes now?  Each decision usually involves either speeding up or slowing down.  Whenever I’m driving, and I have a decision to make that can be boiled down to this, I almost always choose the option of slowing down.  Maybe it’s not always the best choice, but it seems like a good rule of thumb.

“I choose to err on the side of grace.”  A seminary professor of mine said that once in class.  He was not talking about driving.  He was talking about interpreting the Bible.

The Bible can be interpreted a lot of ways.  With any given issue, people of faith can go to the same Bible, pray to the same God, seek out the same Holy Spirit, and come up with very different answers.  Take any issue: homosexuality, immigration, the treatment of the poor, abortion, gender roles, warfare, capital punishment, gun rights, euthanasia, the environment, education, etc. and people of faith will come to very difficult conclusions.

Some try to group these things into neat little packages like liberal and conservative.  I’m not a fan of those labels, or of any labels really.  I think most people are more complicated than our labels.  I know that the world is.

That said, I think my seminary professor was right.  He taught a lot about grace and the Hebrew word hessed, which he translated as “God’s steadfast love.”  When asked once about God’s judgment he said (more or less), “For most issues, people lean either on God’s grace or on God’s judgment.  When I think about those two sides, I choose to err on the side of grace.”

It might not always be the right choice, but it seems like a good rule of thumb to me.  I choose to err on the side of grace.  Some may think that sounds wishy-washy.  Some may say that I am preaching “cheap grace.”  I understand if you think that, but I disagree.

I choose to err on the side of grace because I love and respect the Bible too much to narrowly focus on a few verses that do otherwise.  I choose to err on the side of grace even when it is inconvenient, unfair, or unsavory.  I choose to err on the side of grace because when I look at the Biblical story, that is what I see my God doing time and again.  Yes, there are moments of God’s judgment.  Surely there are warnings of dire consequences as a result of sin.   But I believe that the story of God’s redeeming love, mercy and forgiveness permeates the entire Bible.

The good news of Jesus Christ rests on the grace of God.  Above all, that is why I err on the side of grace – because that is what I believe Jesus did.  That is why he invited sinners to be his disciples.  That is why he ate with tax collectors and pharisees.  He healed gentiles and children and women.  He forgave the unforgiven and welcomed the unwelcome.  Time and again he leaned on the grace of God and for it he was betrayed, denied, abandoned and crucified.

So yes, I err on the side of grace.  It’s not always the easy choice, but it seems like a good rule of thumb to me.

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The Accuser

If you ask the average Christian in the United States about the Trinity, or about the Holy Spirit in particular, you probably will not get a very meaningful answer. On the other hand, if you ask that same person about the devil, they will probably have a very systematic and detailed view of exactly what the devil is, what his purpose is, and how he came to be. Most people would then site the Bible as their primary source of knowledge. To me, this is perplexing, even a little troubling.

Most people use the term devil, Satan, Beelzebub, and Lucifer all to mean the same thing, and believe that all the Biblical uses of these terms are about the same evil being.

The most famous cases in the Bible of the devil are in the book of Genesis, Job, and the Gospels. In Genesis, though, there is no use of any of the devil-like words. There is simply a talking serpent, who tells Eve that nothing will happen if she and Adam eat the fruit. In Job, the Hebrew ha-satan is used, which means the accuser. By making ha-satan the word Satan, it appears as if this is a proper name of a being, instead of a desrciption or title. I wonder how much of our cultural misunderstanding of Satan would be different if the King James Version had translated ha-satan into the lower-case “accuser.”

In the Gospels, the appearance of the word “devil” comes from the Greek diabalos, which also means accuser. The devil appears to Jesus in the wilderness immediately after his baptism, and tempts Jesus.

All three of these “appearances” differ much from the cultural understanding of Satan. With Eve, Job, and Jesus, the accuser is seen as an instrument of temptation – not the personification of evil. Many understand Satan as a fallen angel, at odds with God, trying to rule the world and overthrow God. This image does not match up with most of the Biblical images of the Satan. To a certain extent, this depiction is supported by images of Satan in Revelation.

It is unlikely though, that the Satan in Revelation is meant to be the same being as the Satan in Genesis, Job and the Gospels. Revelation was written in a rich and dense symbolic code to a people under heavy persecution by the Romans. It had a much different purpose, audience, and meaning than much of the Biblical narrative.

This is obviously a brief scratching of the surface of the concept of the devil, but I think it is an interesting topic. Maybe someday I will write a book comparing the cultural concepts of the devil, which has roots in propaganda against Pagan religions in Europe, and the Biblical concept of the accuser.

I suspect that an in-depth word study of the 51 appearances of the word “Satan” and the 36 uses of the word “devil” in the Bible, compared to a survey of what people think is in the Bible about the devil or Satan would reveal much about our culture.

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The Social Creed, 100 years later

100 years ago, the Methodist Episcopal Church put forth a Social Creed.  It was a statement of solidarity with the millions of victims of the industrial revolution.  During a time of unchecked capitalism, the industrial revolution had created a system of enormous oppression.  Workers were forced into labor conditions that were dangerous, grueling, oftentimes cruel, and usually for little pay.

In the face of this injustice, the Church found its prophetic voice, and ushered in the era of the Social Gospel.  Reading the creed of 1908 is like reading a summary of modern labor laws.  Among the items covered by the creed was the abolition of child labor, the six-day work week and the right of workers to have a safe working environment. 

Some decried the creed as Socialist, and many thought that the Church was overstepping its bounds.  Critics wanted the Church to stay out of politics and policy.  They felt that the Church should just have worship on Sunday, a few Bible studies on Wednesday night, and a pot-luck from time to time.  If the Church wanted to get involved, these critics felt, then open up a food pantry or give money to a missionary in Africa.

I like a good green bean caserole or deviled egg as much as the next guy, and I love sitting around a table to talk about Scripture, but the Church is about more than pot-lucks and Bible studies.  Read Isaiah 58, and you will find these words:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
   and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
   and to strike with a wicked fist.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Isaiah demands that we do more.  Isaiah demands that the Church act when it sees injustice.  In the New Testament, James agrees:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

I, for one, am proud that the Social Creed of 1908 is a part of the legacy and history of the Church I love.  In this, the one hundredth anniversary of the Social Creed, the United Methodist Church has created a new creed.  It is more universal and timeless.  Instead of being directed at specific injustice, it speaks of the nature of God in hope that believing in a God of justice will lead people to act for justice.  It is more liturgical in nature, and is written to be read responsively with a beautiful musical response.

There are many injustices in this world.  There is economic turmoil, a growing disparity between the rich and the poor; there are preventable epidemics, growing extremism, environmental disasters, and wars being fought that could have been avoided.  The writing of creeds and social principles will not solve the problems of our world.  The idea of a creed though, is to set a standard – to give people a place to fall back on when the work of justice becomes difficult.  It is a reminder of the God to whom we belong, and it holds out hope that in time the world in which we live can reflect God’s goodness more perfectly.

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