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Quote of the Day: August 5th August 5, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Church, The Bible.
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It is rare to find an established community of Christians that encourages radical expressions of following Jesus. The natural conservatism of institutions is deeply rooted in the desire to survive, and that desire colors and limits the way they read the Bible and how they see God functioning in the world.

Michael Spencer (Mere Churchianity)

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Isaiah 55 August 4, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Blessings, Personal, Promises, Scripture, The Bible.
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I have been experiencing an incredible amount of fatigue this week. My schedule has been a little unusual and I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep, but I feel like the depth of exhaustion I’ve been having is more than can be accounted for by those factors. I don’t know if it’s a physical issue (medication change, insomnia, or vitamin deficiency), a spiritual one (enemy attack or struggling with faith), or an emotional one (stress, depression) – or some combination of all three. But even just staying awake at work has been a struggle. If I don’t feel better after the weekend I may go in for a blood test and/or sleep study to see if there’s a medical reason I’m so out of it.

That said, despite both a long nap this afternoon and some light exercise in an attempt to get a little energy, I am just too tired for a proper post today. But yesterday, I did something I hadn’t done in an embarrassingly long time – sit down and read the Bible. Like actually crack open a physical Bible (my online attention span is too short for anything more than looking up individual passages) and just read it because I wanted to. Without a particular goal or agenda or because I wanted to see what a certain verse said. Just read.

It was so refreshing. I read a good deal of the Gospel of John, Galatians, and part of my favorite portion of Isaiah. I’m not much of an Old Testament girl, but Isaiah 55 is one of my favorite chapters of the Bible. It’s so full of hope and promise. I love how it starts, because I constantly spend time and money and energy on things that don’t satisfy, that don’t fill me or quench my thirst. I’m at a loss to explain why I do this, but it’s so good to know that God is calling me to true nourishment and refreshment. This is a great passage to use to meditate on so many of his promises to us.

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

Give ear and come to me;
hear me, that your soul may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David.

See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander of the peoples.

Surely you will summon nations you know not,
and nations that do not know you will hasten to you,
because of the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendor.”

Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.

Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.

Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the LORD’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
which will not be destroyed.”

I’m off to read some more; if my body refuses to be refreshed at least my soul can be. Hopefully I’ll be back on my game tomorrow.

Quote of the Day: July 28th July 28, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Belief, Church, Sectarianism, The Bible, Truth.
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“I see the Christian world like this: we’ve inherited a divided map of the truth, and each of us has a piece. Our traditions teach us that no one else has a valid map and that our own church’s piece shows us all the terrain and roads that exist. In fact, there is much more terrain, more roads, and more truth for us to see if we can accept and read one another’s maps, fitting them together to give us a clearer picture of the larger Christian tradition.”

Michael Spencer

The Wounded Christian July 22, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Belief, Blessings, Compassion, Death, Pain, Struggles, Suffering, The Bible.
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Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the way that in certain Christian circles admitting sadness, mourning, doubt, or deep emotional pain is almost taboo. Sharing struggles is, of course, encouraged but if you don’t end your story with something on the order of “…but I know God is in control” or “…but  I’m still just really praising God for all He’s done for me” you will get some deeply concerned looks and probably some aggressive encouragement which may or may not be welcome at the moment. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve said something, in real life or online that indicated I was going through a bit of a dark patch or having a bad day only to have a well-meaning Christian friend jump in instantly to tell me not to be sad, that God had a plan to work it for good, or that we should just keep thanking God.

And it’s true. God has done so much for us and we should always praise him. He will work it all together for the ultimate good. He is in control. And of course there’s always someone who has it worse than me and I should be thankful for what I have.  The problem is, I may not be there yet. And I don’t think God needs me to be. I’m afraid I am a bit suspicious of relentlessly cheerful Christians – either they really are that unaffected by life’s woes and thus cannot understand what I”m dealing with, or they are in deep denial about their lives. God does not require us to be happy all the time, or instantly be okay when tragedy and pain strikes us. In fact, the Bible has a lot to say about sorrow and grief, and almost none of it is that we shouldn’t let ourselves experience it.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Matthew 5:4

This is not Jesus telling us to “get over it”. For we cannot experience God’s comfort unless we have a need of it. Over and over again, the Bible shows us that God honors our grief, our pain, our suffering. He promises to heal us of it, but we have to admit the pain first, before there can be healing. This is not say that we should seek out pain and hurt, or tell other people how awesome it is that they are suffering. There is enough pain in this world already and plenty of things will wound us without us having to go look for them. And we should do our best to be God’s hands and ease the wounds of others. But we can’t do that by pretending they don’t exist and that they don’t need to time to be felt before they can begin to mend. God never tells us is it wrong to feel a certain way. In fact, he has infinite compassion on those who suffer. He never discounts our experience of pain, whether our problems are objectively large or small, or whether it seems like there are others who are suffering more.

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
Psalm 34:18

There are several books in the Bible that are devoted almost entirely to pain, suffering, loss, and grief and they do not shy away from the raw ugliness of human emotions, nor do they provide total answers to the questions we cry out in our difficult times, other than telling us that God IS. That’s all the answer Job really got, in the end. Yes he got back everything he lost and more but that doesn’t negate what he went through. Lamentations is nothing but grief and sorrow, and the author is just as desolate at the end of the book as at the beginning. Ecclesiastes has an author that is overwhelmed by the wickedness of the world and practically suicidal, and although he realizes we receive many good things from God he is still left with more questions than answers.

None of these books tell us we shouldn’t grieve, we shouldn’t hurt, we shouldn’t question. And yet, even in the darkest times the authors still managed to praise God. And I think today, a lot of people confuse praise with happiness. They think that you cannot praise God if you are sad or hurting or even angry at him. But some of the deepest times of praise spring from our deepest wounds, not just after they are healed but while they are still bleeding.

I can go in my darkest hour to God and say through my tears, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” It doesn’t mean I’m over whatever has happened, or that I’m going to be instantly happy and fine from there on in. It just means I am making a choice to worship him in spite of everything else, in spite of the questions or doubts or fears. It’s the first step toward healing, not the last.

Even Jesus felt emotional pain, and felt it deeply. And he knew for a fact how it would work out in the end. He didn’t have some wavering belief or faint hope – He had certain knowledge. But still, he wept for Lazarus even though he knew he could and would raise him from the dead. He wept in the Garden of Gethsemane, grieving more deeply than probably anyone ever has, even though he knew in three days he would rise again and become the salvation of the whole world.

“Then he said to them,
‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow
to the point of death.’ ”
Matthew 26:38

Just because we know things are ultimately going to be all right, just because we are saved and redeemed and know we have a place in heaven, and that one day the whole earth will be made new, doesn’t mean everything is all right now. It doesn’t mean we have to pretend not to feel the wounds that life brings our way. Julian of Norwich said:

“And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well!”

It is a joyful statement, indeed. And a true one. But she is also implicitly recognizing that even though God shall make all things well, they all not well now. This world is fallen, and full of broken people – ourselves especially included. There is cause for grief. There are situations where someone is going to be hurt no matter what choice is made. There is great evil, atrocities, genocides. And there is no escaping the sin in our own lives and the pain it will cause us and others. If we are to love God and love others as he loves them, then we must be willing to accept this and feel it and be changed and purified by it before we can come out the other side.

“Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will exalt you.”
James 4:9-10

For it is in our pain and mourning that God brings us comfort, it is how he draws us to him. And it is how he transforms us. Without it there is no need of him, and he can give us joy even in our greatest darkness. Joy is not the opposite of sadness, but something that shines through despite it and can exist simultaneously with it . And it is also in our suffering that we can minister to others. Someone who has never known real pain can not touch someone who is going through real pain. And in fact, it may take someone who has been deeply hurt to even recognize suffering in another. God uses our wounds to heal each other, to draw others to him. Someone who is truly suffering cannot abide to hear “Don’t worry, it will be okay, God loves you!” from someone who has not experienced (or acknowledged) pain in their own lives. They need to hear “It hurts. I hurt with you. And our Father hurts with both of us.”

These are the gifts that God gives us in our pain: The gift of himself, and the gift being able to reach out to others who are in the same place and help draw them to him. There is healing, there is joy, there is restoration. That comes differently to different people and we cannot expect everyone to experience it in the same way at the same time. There are times for rejoicing and times for grieving – one of the greatest gifts we can give each other is to allow others to experience the season of life they are in and not to try tell them they shouldn’t be where they are. Telling people they shouldn’t be sad, shouldn’t be hurting, shouldn’t doubt only isolates them further from the community and from God, adding extra guilt for not believing hard enough to whatever they are already going through.

“For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.”
Psalm 22:24

Until Christ returns, until the world is fully redeemed and fully healed there will always be new pains and fresh griefs. To deny that would be foolish. To accept it allows us to experience healing and to be agents of healing in others.

Taking the Bible seriously – but not necessarily literally. June 15, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Belief, Education, Fears, Grace, Heresy, History, Love, Questions, The Bible, Truth.
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I have issues with the Bible. There, I said it. And not just little issues, but big, fat, hairy issues with warts, which sometimes leave me wondering where I actually fit within Christianity. The Bible is a dangerous book. It has the power to bring people to freedom and wholeness in Christ or to completely drive them away. Literal readings of the Bible have led to everything from labeling the idea that earth is not at the center of the universe and Newton’s basic laws of motion as heresy, to the justification for slavery/racism and the oppression of women, to the horrors of the Crusades and the persecution of the Jews. And while we’ve moved past much of that, the same type of literal interpretation is still used today in many mainstream churches to keep women out of pastoral leadership and to condemn homosexuality. I think there is nothing more perilous than a strict, literal, and un-informed reading of the Bible (in fact, while I’m no gnostic, a small part of me wishes sincerely that no one was allowed near the rest of the Bible until they had read all of the words of Christ and burned them into their hearts).

This kind of thinking is a particular problem when you were raised to believe not just that the Bible is the word of God, but that it is the inerrant, infallible Word of God meant to be taken 100% literally (even the stuff that seems to contradict the other stuff), handed down without change through the centuries and that the words mean the exact same thing to an American living in the 21st century as they did to an Israelite wandering in the desert in 1000 BC or a Greek convert in 70 AD. And of course nothing was ever mistranslated or misunderstood, at least not by us. Maybe by some of those other denominations. And well, okay, previous generations got it wrong about some things. But we have it totally right.

Unfortunately I don’t buy it. Even more unfortunately, since I was raised to believe if you didn’t buy it then you weren’t really a Christian and were probably going to hell, every time I start to think like that I feel really, really uncomfortable. As though if I dare whisper that thought to any Christian that I know I will be, if not summarily cast out of the church, then at least given a stern talking to and not allowed to be left alone with the children.

The problem is the Bible was compiled from many documents and sources, written and copied and re-written by many people, over a span of more than a thousand years. Many of the authors were writing about events which took place centuries before they were born, and were relying on oral histories and other records as their source material. The Bible was then compiled over many more decades (in fact is wasn’t until several hundred years after the birth of Christ that the Bible as a document existed in anything like its present form and Christian denominations today still disagree about which books should be included).

These various documents that make up the book we call the Bible all have different purposes and functions. Some are oral histories passed down from time immemorial (and often bear a striking resemblance to the mythology of other nearby cultures) until they were eventually written down and some are basic histories of the Jewish nation. Some are laws given to a specific people at a specific time and some are over-arching principles for God’s people. There are letters, there is parable, there is prophecy, there is allegory, there is poetry, and there is advice.

And frankly there are things that are just downright disturbing. There is a lot of violence, rape, murder, revenge, theft, and worse – many times not condemned in the way that we would condemn those actions today. Some are even apparently ordered by God (with a seeming complete disregard for any people other than His chosen ones), a God who at times seems frighteningly different than Christ in the gospels or the God in the New Testament that Paul and John write of so tenderly.

And yet we tend to treat the Bible as all the same – all equally factual, equally applicable, equally relevant to everything in our modern world. Even though there is no evidence at all that this is how God meant for the Bible to be read. We pick and choose verses from history and poem, from prophecy and epistle helter-skelter and apply them to our lives and to others, often without regard to even the context of the rest of the chapter, much less the cultural and historical context, the type of book it is found in, or who the words were originally addressing. And yet parts of the Bible are so vastly different from each other it is sometimes hard to believe they could possibly belong in the same volume.

In fact the only thread that seems to truly connect all the disparate elements of the Bible is Christ. Whatever else the purpose, every part of it serves a function to point to Him. The Old Testament recounts the history of the human race as a whole, the origin and history the Jewish nation Christ came from, the stories of the members of His genealogy, the reasons His coming was needed, the ways in which this coming was prefigured, and the relationship of man with God before He came. The Gospels recount His time on Earth, what He said and did. And the rest of the New Testament is our attempt to figure out how we should live in light of his coming and what will happen when He comes again.

Christ is at the center of it. Without Christ the Bible has no purpose and no meaning, and there is no way to make sense of it  without Him. The Bible as a whole may contain the words of God, but Jesus is the Word of God. That is made very clear; He is the Word of God made flesh and made whole. And Jesus says that if we know Him, then we know the Father. Therefore any teaching in the Bible that does not make sense in light of Christ, His actions and his words, is not something we should be following – either it is not meant for us to take as a rule, or it has been mistranslated/misinterpreted, or we do not have the tools to fully understand the original meaning.

But then how to we know what is what? This is where study comes in. Now I am not saying at all that one can’t sit down and read the Bible in English in the present day and get the basic message of God’s love and salvation out of it. I am simply saying that in order to fully grasp the significance and proper meaning of many parts of it, knowledge of the prevailing culture, the history of the people it is addressed to, the original language, and the intent of the writer is vital.

For those just beginning, start with the words, actions, and attitudes of Christ and be aware that anything that seems to contradict these may require further investigation. Because the danger comes when a person reads a verse that may or may not be meant to apply to us after the coming of Christ or may or may not be translated in a way that preserves the original meaning and uses it as a basis for action or legalism while disregarding completely whether this literalistic interpretation makes sense in light of Jesus’ ministry or commands. That has happened all too often in the past and continues to happen today, many times with tragic results.

Many people do not like this idea, they feel that we should be able to crack open our NIVs, read straight through, and understand everything. I get that. The idea that some knowledge is reserved for special people is something that goes against the very fabric of Christianity and has been rejected since its inception. And in fact, the essential Gospel itself is easy to understand, applicable and relevant to anyone, anywhere, at any time. But the Bible as a whole is a deeply complex and varied book. Different parts are directed to different people groups at different times, and thus have different bearings upon us today.

I am also not saying only certain people are privileged to have this knowledge and I certainly don’t think that proficiency in ancient Jewish culture or the Hebrew language is required either for salvation, acceptance, or communion with God. But if you want to understand and properly apply the rest of Bible and the context of Christ’s coming more fully then study is required.

Asserting that you can read an English translation of a document written in a different culture, using several different languages and immediately understand all the implications is like someone from ancient Israel learning English, with no knowledge of American culture or history, and thinking they would be able to understand all the jokes in the Simpsons. They might be able to grasp the basic plot line, but it wouldn’t be funny and probably would end up leading to a lot of very serious misunderstandings.

I am just starting to fully grasp this myself, and truly beginning to study the Bible and its history and context. I am only now really starting to look critically at the interpretations that others have given me over the years and that I, too often, have just accepted without any kind of deep thought or research. When I come to something that doesn’t seem to make sense to me with what I know about the nature of God, I tend to just kind of push it aside and move on,  instead of trying to learn more about why it is there and what it is supposed to mean to me.

For example: although many of the offenses listed for the people of Israel in the book of Leviticus are referred to as “abominations”, we do not consider them to be wrong for us as Christians or things we have to worry about (particularly the ones regarding food and wearing certain clothes). But why? I have been told Leviticus is considered to be a Holiness Code, something which is given to a certain group of people at a certain time and applicable only to them, for the purposes of setting them apart from others around them. Okay, but how do we know this? Abomination sounds pretty bad. Like the worst thing I can think of, will land you in hell kind of bad. We think of that word as interchangeable with words like “sin”, “wickedness”, and “evil”.

But the Hebrew (and later the Greek) word that is translated as “abomination” and used for many of the laws in Leviticus actually is closer to meaning a religious taboo. It is not something that no one ever should do because it is inherently wrong; it is something that these people at this time should not do – culturally unacceptable, in a similar way to a woman wearing trousers in the 18th century. There is another Hebrew word (and a correlating one in Greek) that translates as sin or wickedness which refers to something which is always bad no matter who is doing it when, and this word is consciously not used in this part of the law, although it is used for other things. But reading the Bible without knowing this – well, abomination and sinful and wicked all sound like the same things to me!

Just this little bit of knowledge, of two words of Hebrew and two words of Greek, completely transformed how I understand large sections of the Old Testament that I previously didn’t know what to do with and honestly preferred to avoid. And building on this knowledge with more knowledge of words and culture and history, I will be able to better understand sections of the New Testament that refer to similar things, and thus better understand how I am to live and act, what is important and what is not. Our understanding can only be as good as the words we have to describe it with. If the words aren’t adequate, then the understanding will be lacking.

And of course, if we are really honest then we know that hardly anyone, even the most conservative American Christian, reads the Bible 100% literally. Only a few people cling to the idea that the Earth is physically only 6000 years old. Most realize the laws about religious purity given to the ancient Jews are not needful for us today (although that is made pretty clear in the New Testament anyway). It’s a very fringe belief to preach biblical support for racism or slavery, and only a tiny percentage of Christians would make a fuss about women wearing pants or cutting their hair. We all pick and choose, to some extent are all realists about what Jesus said was important and what is not. But we also all get hung up on issues where we have picked a specific verse which seems to forbid or require something, and then try to apply it to the whole of our lives and everyone else’s without perhaps putting it in proper perspective.

I cannot believe that every bit of the Bible (and which version of the Bible?) was literally dictated word for word by God as something we should follow to the letter, believe literally and absolutely without room for interpretation or change. The authors of the Bible were human. They had prejudices, they had limitations, they were only able to understand things within the limits of their cultural background and only able to express them within the limits of their language. We are no different ourselves. This doesn’t mean God wasn’t able to use them, to allow them to express and record deeper truths than they themselves may have realized. But at the same time we need to remember that they were also writing very human histories and records and prayers and rules for themselves and for the people of the time.

I do believe the Bible as a whole is a holy book and that every part of it is useful for teaching and instruction, and that God has given it to us for a reason. We can learn something from every part of it – the only question is what God wants us to learn as opposed to what we think we are to learn or what we might think other people need to learn. Some people try to use the Bible as all things, the only book anyone ever needs – religious scripture, law, textbook, sex manual, prophetic verse, inspiration, and financial guide. But I believe it is something greater: it is the story of His love affair with the human race and His redemptive plan for all of creation. And while the Bible may have a lot (some brilliantly applicable, maybe some not) to say on those other topics, that story is the only thing that cannot be found in any other book.

I am a scientist. I do not believe in a literal 6-day creation, or the Garden of Eden as described in Genesis, or even that we were literally hand-molded out of dust into the physical image of God. But I love and treasure the creation account in the Bible because it teaches me the greater truth. That God made the world, that He made us, that He made all things and is the Creator-God. That He created the universe and the world with an order to it. That He created us to be like Him and to be one with Him, and that we fell into sin and will never be able to reach a perfect state of union with Him without His grace. And that He loves us enough to continue to relentlessly pursue us across the centuries, despite all the horrible things we’ve done and ways we’ve rejected His love, as a species and individually. This is the story of our creation and salvation plan, however you read the actual timeline.

Science can give me answers about the physical processes involved, the timespan, the laws of nature. But nothing else can give me the core truth of His creation of us and love for us. And that truth is so much more precious to me this way than if I were forced to deny all my God-given senses and intelligence, and all the historical and physical evidence that exists in order to align my brain with the word-for-word account. For me that way lies only fear and resentment, and a small, rigid faith that can be easily broken by the discovery of anything that goes against the most literal of readings.

We should revere the Bible, but we should also work to understand what it is and what it isn’t. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with my point of view on this. If so, I do hope that there are at least a few things we can agree on: That God is Love. That the blood of Jesus offers redemption to us all. That, as Jesus said, ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” is the whole of of the law and the prophets and everything else is just details. That the good news of God’s love and Christ’s death and resurrection is equally available and understandable to everyone no matter their education or age or intelligence or background. And that the words, actions, and attitudes of Christ should be our ultimate test of what we should follow and how we should live. Because at the end of the day, whether you’re a liberal scholar or a Biblical literalist, that is all that matters.