Sunday/Monday Meditations: Nothing New Under the Sun

Pete Enns reposted an article that I really liked.  I started to write him an email about it, but it began to go longish, and I realized it earned “meditation” status, especially since I didn’t do one for this last Sunday.  A bit of warning – Pete’s article is about the cycles of generations passing away, so the mood it will leave you in is, best case scenario, pensive.  This post you’re reading will probably be similar.

I am in my early forties, and the kinds of things Pete talks about are things I have started to try and come to grips with.  I thought my thirties were my official separation from youth, but for some reason, my mortality didn’t really hit me, nor did the idea of the passing away of everything that was a frame of reference to me at one point.  But it does, now, and I wish I could say I always handled it with the gentle acceptance Pete portrays in his post.  Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t.  I tend to skew more toward the “rage, rage against the dying of the light” way of dealing with it, but I think that’ll change with time.  Lord, I truly hope so (that is a prayer).

I moved around a lot when I was a kid, so I don’t have a single childhood home per se.  There is one that I lived in for most of elementary school, and that’s the one I think of when I think of childhood homes.  I thought about my room.  I thought about how the overhang of the second floor and the bushes lining the front made for a sort of tunnel I used to duck into and play behind when I was a kid.  I thought of watching TV and playing in a family room that seemed, to me, to be truly massive.  I thought of my own room, reading a sci-fi book (yes, I have been a nerd for a really long time) and munching on a Dole pineapple juice bar.

There is another family in that house, now.  They have their own furniture and decorations.  Other children are growing up in that house.  Whole new lives and stories are being spun out in those walls that held my own vitality and stories as I grew up, and when that family is gone, a new one will move in and create a new world there of their own.

In the house we lived in when I was in high school, someone else will be thinking their relationship with some girl is the most important thing anyone could possibly be thinking about.  Someone else will be dealing with their insecurities, working through their spiritualities, and heading out to do stupid things with their friends.  Someone else will be mowing that lawn in the summer, resentful of the time it takes away from them to do absolutely nothing at all, because all they have is time.  And when those people are gone, someone new will live out new dramas where they are the center of the world and life is all about what comes next.

I wonder if the people who live in those houses would let me in if I came by and introduced myself.  I wonder if I would cry, seeing those spaces through my eyes now and what they’ve become for someone else, or how different the reality seems to me at my age and my height.  My eyes certainly aren’t what they used to be when I was ten, either.

Other people are on the Park Hill debate team.  They have another captain, and whoever was captain after me is long gone and replaced by another and another.  Those bleachers are filled with different people watching Homecoming rallies or basketball games, enjoying those moments when everyone – no matter what your clique – is friends as you join against a common enemy.  Other parents have come to watch their kids on the auditorium stage.  In twenty years, it’ll be yet another set.

Our current culture in the modern West has done a good job isolating us from death.  The average lifespan is no longer forty.  People do not have children expecting that only one or two will survive.  You don’t have to go back very far to find a time when a relative who passed on did so in the family’s house, and someone sat up with the body for a night, and they were buried in a small cemetery at their home or the village church.  Everyone in all ages was intimately acquainted with death as a part of the cycle of life.  It wasn’t strange or jarring.

But now you live twice as long as your ancestors.  You die in a hospital full of other people who are also fighting for life.  Your body is sent to a funeral home.  Death is something we hide away and try to forget about, like some deeply unpleasant secret shame every family shares.  While this may serve to keep our lives a little bit sunnier as we do not think regularly about death, it makes the thing itself seem more like a fundamental disjunction in reality instead of just what naturally happens.  It is a shock, and it is something to dread, avoid, fight, or even keep from talking about in any kind of concrete way.

Fifty years ago, my grandfather was coming to terms with the fact that he would die, someday.  A hundred years ago, his father was, too.  Somewhere centuries down the line, one of my ancestors thought about his life, his family, everything he had done, and contemplated that it would end.  All those people are gone, now, and someday so shall I.  Someday, my sons will enter their forties if the Lord wills and begin to think about these things, and their children.  One day, my grandchild will think about their grandfather passing away.  And his grandchild will think about his grandfather passing away.

To me, these are sad thoughts.  I want to cry even typing them out.  And I’m all right with that.  The instinct is to jump in with some comforting thoughts like the resurrection or what have you, but I don’t think I want to paste over this with doctrine.  This is the window to reality that Ecclesiastes gives us, and in some form or fashion, that message is from God.

This is the way things are and will be, and only a fool does not come to terms with it.

But I will allow myself a little bit of doctrine to seep in, I suppose.  That’s who I am.  My identity does not belong to me and never did.  My who-I-am-ness is something that is a gift.  I did not create myself or construct my consciousness.  It was given to me for meaningful use.  The God who gave it to me will have it back, one day, and it is up to Him to superintend that.  It is into His hands that I commit my spirit, and no other.  And while I do not know exactly what He’s going to do with it, or how, or when – I trust Him with it, and perhaps that is the seed of making peace with death before I die.

Sunday Meditations: Habitual Sins

I was reminded recently of a talk about habitual sins I gave at a men’s retreat last year, and it got me thinking about the subject, again.  At some level, I really never stop thinking about this subject, to be honest.  I don’t know if this will be helpful to the Internet, but I’ve been thinking about it and want to get down a few thoughts about dealing with these struggles.

First, we have to own up to the fact that it’s habitual.

We can call this whatever we want.  Some people don’t like to think of them as addictions.  Some don’t even like to think of them as compulsive behaviors.  I won’t press the case, but I will say that if there’s something that you’re doing that you desperately want to stop doing and have repeatedly failed to do so even in the face of consequences, then the line between “addiction” or “compulsive behavior” and whatever you think you’re dealing with is a very thin one, indeed.

I have probably had this conversation a dozen times with other guys:

OTHER GUY: “I really struggle with Issue X.  It’s not an addiction, but it’s a big struggle for me.”

ME: “So you could stop anytime just by wanting to, right?”

OTHER GUY: “Well, no.”

Ok, well, whatever you want to call that, you have to come to terms with the fact that you can’t stop, and any solution that relies on your ability to stop yourself will only work for the short term at best.

Perhaps you have even earnestly prayed for God to help you stop or to take it away from you.  Years, maybe?  Decades?  Maybe you’ve even offered desperate pleas like asking God to take away your free will in this area or throw the switch that would make you stop sinning.  But it isn’t stopping, is it?

This is where we get crushed, because we assume that every struggle with sin is just a matter of overcoming it with our Holy Spirit-infused willpower.  So, if we cannot, then we are actually terrible Christians, or perhaps not even Christians to begin with.  Praying and trying harder are the only tools in our tool belt, and if those fail us, even that becomes our fault and just compounds the shame of the whole thing.  Believe me, I know.

But let me let you in on a little secret.  I have never, ever met a Christian who did not have something like this.

It’s not always the same thing.  In fact, sometimes it can be kind of abstract.  In further fact, sometimes it’s even something that is relatively socially acceptable in the world and even in the Church.  There are a lot of gluttonous pastors out there, and congregations just think it’s funny, for example.

It may be a substance.  It may be a practice.  It may be something that only happens in your head or heart.  But all those people at church around you who you think would never relate to having a sin you can’t stop – all of them have one.  Usually, more than one.

Now, they don’t all react to that the same way.  For some people, it makes them very compassionate toward themselves and others.  For others, it has the exact opposite effect, making them relentless judges.  For many, it seems to have a sort of polarizing effect where everyone else is perceived to be basically righteous with a few understandable failings, but one’s self is seen to be the worst mass of depravity ever spawned.  And, honestly, a lot of our church experience sort of engineers that perception.

But I’m all over the place, here.  My point is this: if you ever want to stop, you must first come to accept the grim, difficult reality that you actually cannot stop no matter how much you want to, and your life is the proof.

It doesn’t make you not responsible.  These are your choices.  It doesn’t make it someone else’s fault or a product of your life circumstances.  Other things may aggravate the conditions that cause you to choose to sin, but ultimately it is your choice.  You could get a new job, new friends, a new spouse, a new whatever tomorrow, and you would still find yourself turning to this pattern because you can’t outrun you.

Second, there are reasons that this is a pattern for you beyond a “sinful nature” or whatever.

We are responsible for what we do and the choices we make.  However, there are events that have shaped us, many of which we could not control.

You may think you had an idyllic childhood, but every last one of us adopted ways of behaving and taking on interpretations of the world around us that helped us navigate and prosper in our environment.  This way of dealing with life didn’t stop in childhood; it’s just that’s where some of the most formative, well-entrenched things happen that become so much a fundamental part of our matrix that we can’t even see it as adults.

(NOTE: Whether you remember them or not, your parents also had issues.)

For instance, a large number of guys in my generation had fathers who were not home very much.  Their fathers may not have been abusive.  They may not have been enraged and unpredictable (although that’s not uncommon, either).  They were probably just doing the best they could to handle their obligations and deal with their pressures even with their own failings.  But, let’s say your dad was barely home or didn’t really spend time with you on a regular basis.

Well, kids are great observers and terrible interpreters.

To navigate this world, you might develop a rich imagination and internal thought life, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s so you could keep yourself company.  You might decide that real life is something that holds very little for you.  You might think that people don’t want to spend time with you.  You might think that, unless you did something spectacular, you weren’t worth noticing.  You might think that you just weren’t unconditionally lovable.  You might even think there was something actually wrong with you, fundamentally, that made people stay away.

If these things or something like them begin to worm their way into the way you think about yourself and the world, can you see the kinds of holes this creates?  Can you imagine, as you got older, what sorts of things you might do in response to this?  Can you imagine what sorts of people you would draw into your life and why?

And this is just one example of something someone might think because of one circumstance.  There are almost limitless variables in someone’s childhood and adolescence that begin to lodge various faulty interpretations deeply into our conceptual grid.  They go deep, we don’t even have conscious awareness of them as we get older, but they are there and, out of a sheer need for survival, they push us toward certain behaviors and steer us away from others.

There are reasons you have chosen your habitual sin, and you probably have no idea what they are.  But I can tell you that those reasons are there, they most likely were not things you chose but were sort of thrust upon you, and they helped you get through your world in some way, just as they are trying to “help” you get through your world, now, but they are actually destructive.

Like, I wish I could tell my body that food was plentiful and it really did not need to store up fat reserves to the extent that it does, but that fat storage is “helping” me survive, and when my choices are in line with keeping the fat storage mechanism up and running at full gait, it makes it a destructive force.

This is a reason why someone struggling with habitual sins needs to have compassion on themselves.  There is a constellation of false beliefs, possibly even trauma, about yourself, the world, your relationships, and God, that makes your behaviors not just attractive, but seemingly necessary.  You feel them in your core.  And you did not have any control over how this constellation got there.

But you are responsible for what you do, and you cannot stay here.  God does not want you to stay here.  You can’t throw up your hands like so many do and say, “This is just how I am.  I have to live with it and so does everyone else.”  It isn’t, you don’t, and they shouldn’t.

I put it to you that the reason God does not supernaturally take away your behavior is because that behavior is the tip of an iceberg of unhealthy spiritual junk you need to get rid of to heal and move forward, and if God took away that behavior, you’d never deal with what was lurking under it, and something even worse would take its place.  Or maybe it wouldn’t, and you’d think you were “sanctified” while all this gunk was still rolling around in your heart just because it didn’t manifest itself in a highly visible bad behavior.

Third, at the very least, start by getting someone else in this with you.

The very bad news I have for you is that you absolutely cannot stop your habitual behavior by yourself.  Read all the books you want.  Have a consistent Quiet Time.  Journal.  Meditate.  Whatever.  Those are all good things, you should do them, they will not enable you to stop.

Probably the best thing you could possibly do is find a group of people who have your struggle who are trying to work through it together.  Another great idea is to find a therapist or counselor who can ask you questions about your past and help you ferret out these core issues that have shaped you into the person you are, today.

But you might not be there.  Those may sound like the kinds of things addicts do, and you’re not comfortable with that right now.  That’s fine.

But at the very least, think about someone you can share your struggle with who will meet you with compassion, love, acceptance, and the caring impetus to help you move forward.  You don’t need someone who will just condone your behavior, but you don’t need a cop, either.

Because if you can share your story with someone, and what you get back is not condemnation, or shame, or lengthy explanations about why your behavior is a sin – but compassion, understanding, forgiveness, love, and a desire to help you out of it – those are all things God has for you.  You are experiencing Him through that other person, and that is what you want, because that is what it’s going to take to start untying those dark knots that live under your surface.

Sunday Meditations: My Neighbor

As part of the What if the Church initiative, we’ve been talking a lot at church about neighborhoods and being a blessing to neighbors.  I’ve been encouraged to see so much interest and energy devoted to figuring out what it means for the Church to be something in the world and what it looks like to be a blessing to the people around us.

The command to love your neighbor as yourself first crops up in Leviticus 19:18, although the preceding verses also spell out a lot of what it means to live with justice and compassion with regard to your neighbor.  The word for neighbor is reaka (and derivatives) and is used, at base, to mean someone that you’re with.  It is sometimes used to describe a friend or a peer as well as someone you live around or even encounter in daily life.

In the context of Israel’s law, this commandment is close to the heart of Israel’s identity and mission, which is to be a special people dedicated to YHWH in a world full of other options.  By being this special people, they become a light to the other nations, inviting them to follow YHWH as well as enjoy a relationship with Him and the benefits that flow from that (protection, prosperity, survival from age to age, regard after death, etc.).

In order to be this special people, you need to live a certain way among one another and with one another, and the engine that drives this way of life is love.  Not courtesy, not tolerance, but love – the genuine pursuit of the welfare of the other person even at your own expense.  If Israel cannot live with each other in this way, then their testimony to the world is seriously impaired.  They’ll look just like every other self-serving people out for themselves.  The pursuit of love for one another and having that define all their relationships and interactions is something that marks them as different in the world (note John’s record of Jesus saying this is how the world will recognize his disciples – by their love for one another) as well as bringing tangible benefits to the world.  The creation of a just society that runs off of love of God and neighbor is what God wants the world to look like, and Israel at that stage of the game was intended to be the model for everyone else.  In fact, Leviticus 19 begins with the declaration, “You shall be holy as I am holy.”

By the time we get to Jesus’ day, this experiment has not gone well.  Israel has suffered at the hands of her own leaders, hungry for money and power.  Some of her own people have even taken up being tax collectors for the Empire, keeping their own people in poverty while skimming off the top for their own comfort.  Israel is not in solidarity tied together with strong bonds of love, but instead is scattered like sheep without a shepherd – each one looking to survive life however they can.

The vision of loving neighbors is something Jesus calls faithful Israel back to, but he puts a little teeth into it with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  In this parable, there is a man of indeterminate ethnicity, but he is from Jerusalem and, in the story, is most likely a Jew.  He is waylaid, and the people who are supposed to love him as themselves – a priest and a Levite – do not.  The person who does is a Samaritan, a people who were viewed by the Jerusalem Jews at the time to be of dicey descent and dedicated to a pseudo-Judaism that had many errors, not the least of which was not worshiping at the Temple in Jerusalem.

This is what puts the teeth in Jesus’ parable – this Samaritan, who most in the audience would consider more outsider than fellow Jew, takes care of this man from Jerusalem.  He binds his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care.  This is love, and this man demonstrates to the haughty priest and Levite hearing the story what keeping this commandment looks like.  The Samaritan and the beaten man do not live next to each other, nor are they even considered to be the same people group at the time, but the Samaritan cares for someone in need at his own expense – someone God has simply put in his path – and thus fulfills the Law.

We do not have a biblical mandate to do things in our neighborhoods.  “Love your neighbor” in the Scriptures does not have a reference to your subdivision, and while the scope of the commandment may include people who live near you, that has never been the reference point of that commandment.  I heard a speaker recently comment on that commandment complaining that we “spiritualize” it too much instead of understanding it to be about our literal neighbors, and the problem with that complaint is that Jesus himself “spiritualizes” it by making it not about literal neighbors at all.  I’m assuming Jesus’ rabbinical commentary on the commandment should take precedence.

However, as the Church seeks to embody loving neighbors, it may very well be that a wise and good thing to do is to start embodying this principle with our literal neighbors.  Considering how little thought we give to doing this in the rush of trying to survive, having a deliberate project to love one another and be a blessing in one’s own neighborhood is actually a pretty great idea.  The deliberate, intentional focus on being the people of God in discernible ways in the world is nothing but good for the Church and often neglected.  Pursuit of this will benefit us and the world and provide a counter-testimony to our critics, many of whose criticisms are sadly well-founded.

But we also ought to examine ourselves.  Are we even loving our neighbors within the Church?  This is easy for me to say, sitting behind a keyboard, but do we have church members in danger of foreclosure while others are trying to decide if teak or cherry is the best wood for their new entertainment center?  Do we have families who refuse to speak to each other because of some offense or rift from the past?  Are we promoting the welfare of others in the church even if it comes at our own expense?  What are the limits to that expense?  What was the limit for Jesus?  Are we really doing anything for one another that would distinguish us from any other community?

I know biker gangs that are more self-sacrificial for one another than many congregations, and it is this phenomenon that is helping to lead an increasingly secular world to conclude that religion, at best, is irrelevant, and at worst, is directly harmful.

But with this, we also need to recognize that loving our neighbor encompasses a broad scope of activity.  Delivering meals to and lifting the spirits of those who have to stay at home.  Giving blood.  Sorting donated clothes.  Spending your night off with a person who is struggling to keep their life together.  Allowing someone to steal your silver because they need money.  Spending time helping your son with his homework when you don’t feel like it.  Writing off someone’s invoice.  Anytime you sacrifice something of your own welfare to promote the welfare of someone else, you are being a loving neighbor to them.

Rather than sit around feeling terrible about how little we do, we should be encouraged at the scope of how even our little efforts make the world look more like God wants it, and it can motivate us to give even more of ourselves.  Loving our neighbors, the way it appears as one of the greatest commandments, is less about singular, grand gestures and more about lifestyle.  It’s about making sure everyone who passes through your sphere of interaction is treated with love, whether it costs nothing, a little, or a lot.


Sunday Meditations: The Mission

To me, the main story line of the Bible doesn’t get rolling until Genesis 12.

Yes, I know there are big things that happen before then.  There’s Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel.  But those events set the stage for the main drama to play out.

For example, the movie X-Men: Apocalypse starts with a segment in ancient Egypt where the powerful tyrant En Sabah Nur ends up trapped in his pyramid due to a revolt.  The movie is not about ancient Egypt or that revolt, though.  The story is about the X-Men facing En Sabah Nur in modern day.  Those past events give you the necessary background to appreciate what happens next, i.e. the worst X-Men movie put out so far.

By Genesis 12, mankind has attempted to build a Flood-proof bastion and God has scattered and confused them.  The plan to fill the world with His image seems to be a bust.  The first guy rebelled, one of his kids killed the other, their descendants filled the world with violence, God wiped them out to start over with a new guy, and he and his kids get off to a rocky start, and the next thing we get is the world conspiring to defend itself against God, and there’s even hints of launching a counter-offensive.

This time, God changes tactics a little bit.  Instead of starting with one family in an otherwise depopulated world, He starts with one family in the midst of a world populated with people who don’t seem to like Him very much, or are at least indifferent.  He selects His new progenitor, Abram, and commissions him to multiply and fill the earth with His people (same as Adam, same as Noah), but the twist is that this will happen in the midst of other nations, and what’s more, Abram’s descendants will grow into a large and powerful nation who will use their numbers and power to bring blessing to all the other nations, not the least of which involves being a light to them, pointing the way back to the true God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.  They are supposed to be the new Creation in the midst of the old one.

The rest of the Bible is occupied with how this story plays out.

These people do grow, move to another nation that eventually enslaves them, are liberated by God who has to remind them who He is and makes a formal agreement with them to be their God and have their back if they will worship Him and live faithfully in a nation of justice, compassion, and uprightness.  Sometimes this goes well, sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes they are led by judges, sometimes by kings, and sometimes these leaders lead them in the ways of their agreement with God, and sometimes those leaders lead them away from it.

As time goes on, the leadership becomes more unjust, more desirous of power and wealth at the expense of their people, and while they keep up all the rituals, they are far from God in their hearts and lead the people the same way.  God is losing them.  He sends prophets to warn them and call them back.  He sends other nations against them so they will remember where their help comes from.  He grants them reprieves from their trouble.  But nothing seems to work long term.  This great nation of Abraham’s ends up exiled from their land, dispersed, and under the dominion of one nation after another.  The only thing that even serves to remind them that they were once a distinct people and a great nation is enshrined in their Temple and their Law.  Now, they’re just members of (eventually) the Roman Empire along with every other conquered people.

And the curtain falls.

When the curtain comes back up, God sends a sign that He is still with His people and has not abandoned them in the birth of a special child, Jesus.  Turns out that God is still faithful to the now-broken-many-times agreement He made with Israel and still loves her and wants her back.  Jesus works in powerful ways to raise Israel back up from the ashes, turning the hearts of her people back to their God, teaching repentance, and promising a powerful work on the near horizon where God will bring down those who led them astray and give them a new life in a new age.  Jesus willingly sacrifices his life for this mission, and God begins the apocalypse (not related to the X-Men movie) by raising Jesus from the dead and pouring out His promised Spirit.

But there are so few faithful.  How can these people survive an apocalypse?  How can these rag tag faith communities, growing despite persecution, become once again the mighty nation they were so long ago?

In the biggest twist, yet, God gives His Spirit to Gentiles who believe in Jesus, repent of their sins, and take up their lives anew as His faithful people.  The numbers are swelled by a huge influx of those who used to be on the outside.  The boundary between “God’s nation” and “the other nations” is no longer whether or not you are a descendant of Abraham, but whether or not you believe in what God has done in Jesus and change your life, accordingly.  This mechanism not only bolsters the survival of God’s people through the terrible events of 70 A.D. that destroy the Temple and all vestiges of the old religious power structure, but it is the very means by which, years later, Caesar will declare Jesus Christ as lord of the Roman Empire.

It’s difficult for us, on this side of history, to appreciate what a world shattering chain of events all this was.

But here’s the thing – Jesus becoming lord of the Roman Empire was not the long term goal.  It was something that happened that was a great advancement for God’s people at the time (although, over time, it also became a setback in other ways).  In all this, God’s mission never wavered, which was to have a new Creation people in the midst of the old one until, ideally, there was no more old one and the world was filled with the image of God.

This is why I do not believe it is the church’s mission to produce conversions or to “get people saved” (unless by “saved” we mean something very holistic that is much broader than saying a prayer).  Conversions are a side-effect of the church’s mission.  The church’s mission is to be the new Creation people in the midst of the old one and, by doing so, be a blessing to all nations, not the least of which involves pointing them to the true God who is the Creator of the heavens and the earth.  We do not measure our success by the number of people who pray the Sinner’s Prayer; we measure our success by how well we, collectively, look like new creation in the world in such a way that allows us to effectively testify to the existence of and our commitment to the true God, inviting any and all to join in the new creation with us.

In America, where I live, does this look like it did in the first century?

There are certainly some commonalities.  For example, we also have religious leaders who have gotten in bed with the national powers of our day, and they stir up their followers to exercise what power they have in a republic to advance the causes of wealth and power through force.  In many places in America, such values and efforts are even equated with faithfulness to God, and Jesus is a prophet for free market capitalism and protecting our borders from immigrants.  American patriotism is a spiritual value.  In the sense that we, as a people have been severely compromised by the powers of this age starting with our leadership on down, this is very much like the first century.

But (once again, speaking in terms of America) we do not have the same relationship to America those first century faith communities had with the Roman Empire.  America is not a hostile power that needs to be overthrown by God so that His people can be rescued.  Or, I don’t know – it doesn’t seem like it to me, anyway.  Maybe that day will come.

But the cultural dominance Christianity enjoyed in the West is not just in decline; it’s pretty much gone, and it’s only getting goner by the day.  Christendom is vanishing and, in its place, is the rise (backlash?) of secularism.  I recognize this is not the primary phenomenon in all countries, but it seems to be in ours.  The flow of power is shifting to forces that are not simply pluralistic, which America was always supposed to have been, anyway, and I’m ok with that or even becoming more that if that will increase justice and fair treatment for Americans of other religions or none at all.  If I thought Christianity being politically ascendant would provide more justice, compassion, and mercy in the world, I would fight for that, but that honestly does not seem to be the case.  The overwhelming majority of politicians who profess the name of Christ are also about power, wealth, dominance, and disenfranchisement of anyone who is not like them.

So, please, I am not saying that the power structure we face in America is an erosion of exclusively Christian values.

But what we are facing is secularism with teeth.  It’s not about all religions existing peacefully; it’s about no religion existing at all.  It’s about a vision of a better world if humanity could shake off the idea of any kind of God whatsoever.  It’s a narrative that God is at best irrelevant and at worst harmful to a just and compassionate world.  And you know what?  We have loaded that gun with bullets, ourselves.

In face of this situation, which is really just getting started, and it will get far, far worse before it gets better, it is more important than ever before that we, as a people, are about the business of living out the new creation and being a blessing to the nations.  It is not only the reason we have been called to serve God, but it is perhaps the only testimony we can make that dismantles the incoming wave.

Sunday Meditations: White-Out

I was going to write about something else, today, but a good friend and brother in the Lord texted me a link to this article and asked what I thought, so this is literally a Sunday morning meditation for me.  What follows is what I sent him with some minor edits based on reading it a second time and keying it to a (marginally) wider audience:

In my own opinion, I think the article is right on for the most part.  Biblical interpretation is something that happens in our brains, and our brains have been shaped by our experiences, and our experiences have been shaped by race, socioeconomics, nationality, culture, zeitgeist, etc.

One powerful example that comes to mind is the time in America’s history when the white theological conservatives were not only 100% certain that the Bible condoned slavery, but that any suggestion that the Scriptures did not condone slavery (or opposed slavery) was nothing more than liberal capitulation to the culture.  Presbyterians were especially bad about this.  Black theologians, however, argued that slavery was incompatible with the Bible.  It is amazing how so incredibly certain our Presbyterian forefathers were that the Bible was pro-slavery and how strident their critiques of cultural relativism were to anyone who argued otherwise.  I almost wonder if the very accusation of relativism isn’t a white thing, and by it we mean “interpretations that aren’t ours.”

Furthermore, we also recognize that Scripture will hit different people in different ways and have significance to them in different ways, even if these ways were not originally intended or envisioned by the author.  For example, in the American black church, many identified with Israel in Egypt, and the story of God’s liberation of Israel from her slavery was a great hope and encouragement to them.  We might look at that and say that was illegitimate, but why?  Is it any more arbitrary than viewing Israel in Egypt as an allegory for being in slavery to sin and death?  Is it any more arbitrary than a Christian reading a Psalm that David wrote about his experiences as king of an embattled Israel and finding a resonance there with their own emotions regarding spiritual struggle?

Understanding that different people groups will read the Bible in different ways is how God can speak in the church; listening to other groups to help us with our blind spots.  White Presbyterians should have listened to Black Methodists in the 1800s.

This is not the same, however, as saying that all readings are equally cogent, valuable, or likely.  This is something we acknowledge with every commentary we read, right?  Christians disagree about almost every point of doctrine you can imagine, and while some of these views can be complementary or corrective to one another, they can’t all be 100% correct.

But what we can’t do – and this is where I think we go wrong – is evaluate the validity of a reading based on how well it conforms to our existing reading, and this is more or less the whole story of Western theology.  When this happens, biblical interpretation is just a power struggle.  Whoever’s paradigm is on top gets to dictate orthodoxy.  And, honestly, this is a big part of the Western church’s history.

If we reject that idea – if we believe there is truth in the Bible that does not depend on a single group’s controlling narrative – then we really owe it to ourselves to listen to these diverse readings and allow them to speak to us.  Are we less influenced by our culture than other cultures?  Do we have more of the Spirit than they?  I would say the answer to both of those questions is a resounding “no,” and that means we need to be in a receptive posture when it comes to hearing from quarters of the church that are not going to read the Bible like we do.

Sunday Meditations: The Individual

Usually, my Sunday “meditations” (and we use the word loosely) are prompted by conversations during the week, but this is something I’ve thought about this week as a result of my daily recovery work – a lot of which has revolved around God’s dealings with me as an individual.

I was raised in a relatively small Baptist denomination, which was more Arminian and a hair more fundamentalist than evangelicalism at large tends to be these days, but the main pulse was similar.  The main story was that everyone was going to Hell, and the main task was to keep people from going to Hell, and the main way to do this was to get as many people as possible to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and mean it.  Church, then, was a group of people who had done this and were now focused on trying to get as many other people to do it as possible, all while avoiding a list of various practices designated as immoral.

At the core of this operation was the “gospel message” that went something like this:

You, as an individual, have sinned and, as a result, you are destined for Hell.  But God loves you as an individual such that He sent Jesus to die a death that appeased His wrath toward you as an individual, and if you will accept this on faith and pray a prayer to ask Jesus into your heart, you as an individual will go to Heaven, instead.

You may have noticed this story is heavily centered around you as an individual, mostly because I said “you as an individual” about a dozen times.  You have broken God’s laws.  God will send you to Hell.  God loves you.  Jesus died for you.  You can invite Jesus into your heart.  You will go to heaven.  You, you, you, you, you.  Everything is about you.  The whole story of the Bible ultimately spins around you as an individual and this all-important individual decision.

This plays very well in America, where individualism and self-determination are our highest virtues, and if we isolate certain passages (say, for instance, the Romans Road), and temporarily suspend the notion that these were written to a group of people and not to us as individuals, the Bible can be read this way.

But is this really what the Bible is?  Is this where the center of gravity of the story is, if we take the Bible as a whole?

Because the Bible, to me, seems to be telling the story of a people.

These people begin in Abraham, whom God chooses (as an individual, sure, but you’ve gotta start somewhere) to be the father of a nation that will grow immensely numerous.  God will be the faithful God of this nation, and they will be His faithful people.  The growth, prosperity, and the faithfulness of these people will bless all the other nations, and they, too, will turn to the true God.

And so the process begins.  Abraham’s sons become families that become tribes that become Israel.  She has her first big crisis when she is imprisoned by another nation, and God – keeping His promise to Abraham – sets her free to bring her out of Egypt into her own land.  She is able to fight off nations much larger than herself because God is with her, and she gains her own land and, eventually, is ruled by a series of kings.

This is not an unbroken line upward, however.  Israel is seen to be sort of flighty.  Sometimes, she is faithful to her God and all is well.  Other times, her national sins and disobedience end her up in very precarious situations while her prophets call her to repentance and to return to the Lord who will restore her.  Some kings are righteous and faithful and lead the nation in that direction; others are corrupt and breed faithlessness and injustice in the nation, and she suffers as a result.

As we move further in the story, Israel’s unfaithfulness as a nation finally provokes the curse of her covenant, and she is exiled from her land and brought into captivity to another nation.  Even in this situation, though, the story isn’t over.  Prophets continue to call Israel to repentance.  Sometimes, ground is gained.  Israel ends up being able to send people back to her land and rebuild her Temple.  But overall, the nation slides into a desperate sort of dissipation and dissolution.

But God will not let this be the end of the story.

He sends Jesus to Israel – His own Son – to call them to repentance and faithfulness and restoration.  Jesus begins to undo the curse and re-form the people into what God had always intended for them.  Israel’s leaders do not care for this development and, in conjunction with Roman authorities, have Jesus executed.  But this does not stop God, either, who raises Jesus from the dead and apocalyptically pours out His Spirit into this new Israel Jesus had been building around Himself, and the apostles carry on the mission.

But there is still so much rejection and opposition at work that God makes a drastic move to ensure the growth and restoration of His people – He grafts in Gentiles who believe, and they come in droves.  This phenomenon occupies the bulk of the New Testament until we get to John’s Apocalypse, which shows us in very graphic terms an end to persecution, vindication of these faithful people, and the overthrow of the Roman Empire itself – a huge explosion whose echoes resonate against the far-flung picture of a renewed creation.

It seems to me, and obviously I could be way off, here, that the overwhelming bulk of the biblical story is about God’s relationship to a people in history – specifically the history of the people who are the children of the promise made to Abraham.  It is God’s creation of this people, love for this people, the sins of this people, the salvation and restoration of this people, and the survival and growth of these people into the future that dictates the things that end up in the Bible.

Now, obviously, you can’t have a people without the individuals who compose it.  You can’t have national sins without individual sins.  You can’t have corporate repentance without individual repentance.  You can’t have a faithful people without having a faithful person.

But the individual experience with God has context, definition, meaning, and expression inside the story of the corporate people of God, not the other way around.

We can’t have the Army without individuals who have decided to join the Army.  However, when America deploys troops, the whole reason you get sent somewhere is because you’re in the Army.  It’s not like someone made an announcement, “Hey, everyone with a gun and a desire to pursue American interests in other nations, get on this plane and we’ll take you to Afghanistan so you can do your thing.”  You as an individual sign up to become part of a people, and it is this entity that is trained, equipped, and sent into the world to accomplish the mission.  Your life becomes defined by a larger, corporate context.

When the Kansas City Royals play, it isn’t a game played by whatever individuals show up to Kauffman Stadium that night wanting to play baseball (although, I admit, it does look that way some games).  No, you try out for the Royals and train with the Royals.  The Royals get scheduled to play games against other teams, and you go with the Royals to play these other teams because that’s what the Royals do.  If you were not a member of the Kansas City Royals, you would not take the field against Tampa Bay.  If you are, then you will.  If you retire from the Royals or get traded to another team, you no longer get on the bus with the Royals and play the baseball games the Royals are supposed to play.  Your corporate identity defines your experience.  It is your participation (or lack thereof) in that group of people that dictates what happens to you.

So, certainly, the Bible does not leave out individuals or their experiences, but individuals and their experiences derive from and are defined by their relationship to the group.  God makes a covenant with, pursues, redeems, protects, and glorifies a people.  If you belong to this group, you experience their highs and lows and historical relationship with God along with everyone else in that group.  If you don’t, you don’t.  Obviously, this experience affects us as individuals in our individual, daily lives (or it ought to) just as it did for Joe Israelite in the Old Testament, but the movie isn’t “God and I,” it’s “God and His People,” and this has some very practical ramifications for our priorities and mission and daily practice.

It affects how we understand and present the gospel.  It affects what we do as the church and what we do as individual believers and how we make coherent sense of that two thousand years after Jesus.

Sunday Meditations: The Ages

A few parallel conversations have had me thinking about the word “age” in the New Testament and its corollary “eternal.”

The Greek word usually translated “age” is aion from whence we get our English word “eon.”  It is a word that means a period of time that is characterized by some distinguishing characteristic or prevailing set of conditions.  We use the word this way many times when referring to historical periods like the “Bronze Age” or the “Industrial Age” or “the Middle Ages.”  The word doesn’t specify a period of time, but rather segments of time defined by a particular characteristic.  We can talk about the “age of the atomic bomb” or an “ice age.”

In Jewish thought, “age” has that meaning.  It doesn’t mean a set period of time, it means a period of time defined by a particular characteristic or circumstance.  The reign of a certain king, for example, or the Babylonian Exile.  Those are ages.  Probably the use of the word to describe the shortest amount of time is Jonah 2:6 in the Septuagint.  That phrase “the bars closed on me forever” is actually “the bars closed on me for ages (aionioi)” and is something of a hyperbolic way to describe three days and nights.  But the use of the word doesn’t mean a certain period of time; it means a period of time defined by being in this fish.  In Jonah chapter 2, he doesn’t know how long he’s going to be in there, and he refers to the period of time in the fish as “ages” even though it actually turns out to be a relatively short period of time (I say as someone who has not spent any length of time in a fish).

This is a good segue, then, into the concept of “eternal.”  Generally, the word translated as “eternal” is some variant of the word aionion, which means “of the ages.”  The idea here is something that will last beyond a specific age and into the future succession of ages to come, indefinitely.

This is one area where I wish translators had been a bit more literal, because there is a subtle difference between “a single, infinitely extensible period of time” and “a potentially endless succession of ages.”

The idea of an age grounds us immediately into history.  In order to call an age an age, you have to have some content to define it.  What makes this time period an age in contrast to other ages?  What defines the age?  How would you know when this age was up and a new age had come?  By nature of the case, we have to think about an age or the passing of ages as definitive historical events and circumstances.  This way of looking at time and eschatology is much closer, I would argue, to the mindset of the biblical authors than a more Greek philosophical static conception of a single period of time that has no bounds.  In both cases, we may end up with a period of time with no discernible end, but in the case of ages, that endless period of time is made up of an endless succession of historically definitive periods of time – ages – as opposed to just being an endless time with no particular historical progression in it.

This has particular implications for how we understand the New Testament and the various talk about ages.

For instance, Jesus tells his followers that he will be with them until the end of the age.  His disciples ask what the signs of the end of the age will be, and Jesus talks about the destruction of the Temple.  Perhaps my favorite reference is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he says the Old Testament happened to the saints of the past, but it was written down “for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”

It is a popular understanding that “end of the age” means “end of all time,” but this does not seem to be the intent.  The end of an age is a drawing to a close the things that define that age, and this will give way to another age that is defined by something else.  In English, we sometimes use the expression “the end of an era.”  It doesn’t mean the end of all time – it means a definitive period has come to a close and things will be drastically different, afterward.

This has some deep ramifications for our understanding of the New Testament.

For instance, if you think “end of the age” means “end of the world” or “end of time,” then passages like Matthew 24 are in the distant future.  The destruction of the Temple will refer to some distant future destruction of the Temple that will happen near the end of the world.  The persecution, wars, famine, etc. and the instructions to avoid catastrophe by fleeing to the mountains all refer to something that happens at the end of the world.  And then we run into trouble with statements like, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” so we have to push the referent for that statement out until the end of the world, too, so “this generation listening to me right now” becomes “that generation that is alive in the future whenever these things happen.”  And Jesus’ warnings to his immediate audience to be watchful for these things is only applicable in the sense that nobody knows when these things are going to happen.

It is, in fact, this understanding of “age” that drives a lot of the criticism that Jesus was just plain wrong about the future.  The Temple was destroyed and the world did not end.  That generation he was talking to did pass away, and the world kept on turning.

However, if an “age” is to be understood as a period of time defined by a certain state of affairs, these passages work naturally.  The “end of the age” isn’t the end of time, it’s the end of the present system of things.  It’s the end of this era.  It’s not the end of the world – it’s the end of the world as we know it (apologies to Michael Stipe).  The things that define this period in history will collapse and give way to a new period defined by other things.  If we consider that the disciples are asking when this big historical transition they’ve been expecting will happen and what the signs will be, then Jesus’ answer makes sense, not only in its own context, but also in terms of what actually happened, historically.

This also affects our understanding of things like “eternal life.”  Here, we have a succession of ages.  The idea is not that time stops and we all sit around on clouds or whatever.  The idea is that the life Jesus offers is life that carries into the next age – whatever that age happens to look like – and countless ages to come.  It contains promise both for the here and now and in a renewed heavens and earth and general resurrection.  It is a promise that God will keep you through history’s highs and lows, tribulations and blessings, and ultimately raise you from the dead.

Sunday Meditations: Toenail Clippers

Because I live in a first world country, I have two sets of nail clippers – one for my fingernails, and another, larger one for my toenails.  Obviously, the idea of using one kind of nail clipper for both sets of nails is just nuts.

Whenever I go to clip my nails, something that has always struck me is that the type of clipper I don’t need at that particular time is always right there at the top of my single drawer of man-grooming stuff.  But I have to dig around for the other one.  Never fails.  I can easily find the one I don’t need, but the one I need requires searching.

It occurred to me this week, however, that this is because of one, simple thing: when I am done with the clippers, I just put them back in the drawer.  Thus, the pair I used last is always closest to the top and easiest to find.  But the pair I need is usually the other one, because I haven’t used them, recently.

This is probably not news to you, but it was something of a small revelation to me.  This phenomenon of the clippers I don’t need being easy to find (but the clippers I need being buried) is not due to Murphy’s Law or a comical irony of life and the universe or God or Satan trying to make my life marginally more difficult – it’s a perfectly logical and natural consequence of my own actions.  My present action of just putting the clippers away in the drawer – perfectly logical and natural action on its own – has the unintended consequence of annoying me in the future.  It is because of time and a host of other actions that pass in between that kept me from making the connection.

This is a very small, trivial matter.  But it does make me think about things on a larger scale.  What are the things that distress me in the present that are simply the natural outworking of my actions in the past, but I fail to make the connection because of the time and events in between?  What are the things that I am doing in the present that will cause me issues in the future even though it might not seem like it due to the amount of time and events that will pass before Future Me has to deal with it?

What are the things in my life that I ascribe to others or God or the brokenness of the universe that are actually nothing more than the very logical, natural outworking of my own actions?

Perhaps most importantly, how can I get better at seeing those things and using them to make things easier for me in the future?  How can I avoid being at the mercy of myself?

Sunday Meditations: Application

If we take seriously the historical parameters of a passage, can it speak to us outside of that specific situation?

One of the advantages of an approach that pares away the historical particulars of a passage to get an abstract, “timeless” truth is that it’s very easy to drop that truth into virtually any situation.  If the point of the story of David and Goliath is “you’ll win all your battles, no matter how difficult, if you trust God,” then you can easily apply that truth to a wide variety of circumstances across time and individuals.  The actual experience of Israel in her battles would suggest that this truth needs to be at least a little conditional, but you see what I mean.

By peeling away the historical specifics of a passage to get to an abstraction, we now have fodder for both sermons and personal Bible reading.  And self-help books.  And greeting cards.  It’s easy.

Take, for instance, Jeremiah 29:11:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV)

If we take this from the moorings of its particular historical situation, the text as a basic principle can easily be used to give comfort and optimism in all kinds of situations, ranging from high school graduation to a first job to buying a new house to planting a new church or even trying to decide on the right brand of peanut butter.  No matter who we are or what our situation is, God has plans for our welfare to give us a hopeful future.

A good question is, though, is there any good reason to assume this is what God intends for us to take away from this text?  Is this the reason it was included in the canon?  Did the faithful community receive this writing for this purpose – a repository for abstract truths with no particular referent?

If we look to the historical situation surrounding the text, this is a word from God to the exiles in Babylon.  Prophets are claiming to speak in YHWH’s name that their deliverance will come right away, and Jeremiah is out to correct this notion.  The deliverance will not come right away, but it will come.  Therefore, the exiles should make the best of their current situation and persevere in faithfulness, carrying with them the hope that their deliverance will come, because God has plans for Israel – plans for her welfare and a good future, and not her exile, assimilation, or destruction.

When we read Jeremiah 29:11 in its context, this begins to rock our boat a little, because clearly this text was meant for a particular group of people at a particular time, and by rights has no immediate relevance to anyone who isn’t an Israeli captive of Babylon in the time of Jeremiah’s words (or the following seventy years).

So, on the one hand, we have a way of looking at the text where the historical setting is just window dressing.  The actual meaning of the text has nothing to do with its original author or audience, transcends all historical particulars, and can be used for any situation that might in any sense fall under the umbrella of the abstract truth.

On the other hand, we have a way of looking at the text where the historical setting is like a concrete wall around the meaning.  Anyone who isn’t an Israelite captive of Babylon at that time is not the intended recipient of the text, and the text would have no meaning for anyone outside of that group.

Are these our only options?

I think we can get some direction from the New Testament use of the Old Testament.

It should be noted that, when talking to Gentiles, Paul and the Apostles (great band name) do not really appeal to the Old Testament.  They talk about things like unknown gods and what has been made clear in nature and truths expressed in pagan poetry – things with which the Gentiles have a point of reference.  It’s not that they never mention the Old Testament to Gentiles; it’s just that by far and away their use of the Old Testament is for specifically Jewish groups or letters to groups that have both Jew and Gentile in them.

Part of that may be explained by the simple fact that the Gentiles wouldn’t know the Old Testament, but I would guess a larger portion of that is explained by the fact that the Gentiles have no relationship to the Old Testament.  The Torah is not their covenant.  The kingdom was not their kingdom.  The temple was not their temple.  The exile was not their exile.  In a very real sense, the Old Testament does not apply to them in any kind of direct way.  Yet, the apostles will announce the good news of the kingdom and Jesus to them, and they come to believe and receive the Holy Spirit.

The reason I point this out is that it may very well be that we assume all biblical texts have to be relevant to us, but maybe that assumption is wrong.  Maybe it’s ok to say that a lot of that text just isn’t directly pertinent to our present circumstances, and it doesn’t have to be.

I don’t think we need to resign ourselves to that, but I do think we need to be ok with it.  The assumption that a text has something to say to us is just that – an assumption.  We need to let the Bible tell us what it has to say and to whom and not dictate that to the Bible in advance.

But when the New Testament does use the Old Testament, it does give us some windows into how a text might speak to other communities past its own boundaries.

Take, for instance, Matthew’s use of Jeremiah 31:15.

I’m not going to repeat everything I said when I talked about that passage, but the upshot is that Jeremiah 31 (continuing the train of thought in Jeremiah 29, in fact) is about the destiny of the Babylonian exiles.  Ramah was the city where Israelite captives were processed and shipped off to Babylon.  The prophet uses the image of weeping in Ramah for having to witness the loss of Israel’s sons, but her weeping will come to an end when the Lord brings an end to the exile and brings the children back.

Matthew uses this passage to talk about Herod killing Israelite children in an attempt to preemptively murder the newborn King of the Jews.

From a strict historical boundary, this use does not make a lot of sense.  Ramah is not Bethlehem.  The Israelites in the exile were not being murdered.  And so on.

But it doesn’t work well from an abstract truth perspective, either.  Matthew does not take Jeremiah 31:15 as, “Whenever you are sad about something, God will help you,” and that’s why it applies to the story of Jesus’ birth.

The reason Matthew can use Jeremiah with a straight face is because he sees Israel in captivity, and Herod’s predations are a rather dramatic and literal removing of Israel’s sons by those in power.  This is a tragedy for Israel.  There is weeping.  But it is the weeping before the promised hope.  This is the tragedy that comes before deliverance.  Matthew sees an end to captivity that Jesus will bring, and so, for him, Jeremiah’s prophecy about Ramah is an ideal descriptor.  In fact, he is counting on his readers’ knowledge of the Ramah passage to get his meaning across.  He is importing the meaning of the Ramah prophecy and using it to explain Israel’s present circumstances in his writing.

Or take for example Jesus beginning to quote Psalm 22 from the cross (also in Matthew’s gospel).  If Psalm 22 could only possibly be about David’s experience as a beleaguered king of Israel, then this would not make sense.  David did not die on a cross, for instance.

However, the abstract truth tack doesn’t work well, either.  Jesus didn’t look at Psalm 22 and go, “Here’s a Psalm about feeling like God has left you.  We all feel that way, sometimes.  Well, that’s how I feel now, so I think I’ll quote it.”  And in that vein, I should add that Psalm 22 is not a prophecy of the crucifixion, either.  It’s not like Jesus is mentally thumbing through the Old Testament scriptures he hasn’t fulfilled yet and came up with Psalm 22.

Psalm 22 is about Israel’s king who, despite his faithfulness, is surrounded by enemies who seek his destruction.  He is thoroughly distraught over this.  But he remembers how God delivered him in the past, so he will remain faithful.  Because of this, God will save him, and future generations will proclaim it, and God will have dominion over all nations.  Even the dead will serve Him and generations yet unborn into the future.

It is this meaning that Jesus brings forward into his own circumstances.  He is Israel’s king who, despite his faithfulness, is distraught and surrounded by enemies.  It is he who is in dire straits.  But he remembers the faithfulness of God and will remain steadfast hoping in the help of the Lord.  God will save him, and countless future generations will proclaim it.  God will rule the nations.  Even the dead will rise up.

Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 is not independent of its historical meaning – it thoroughly depends on its historical meaning.  Once you understand what Psalm 22 means for David and Israel, then you are in a prime position to understand what it has to say in Jesus’ circumstances.

This is where I’m at so far on the issue of how biblical texts can speak into circumstances beyond their own.  If we can get our arms around what the text is communicating in its home environment, we can take that meaning and transpose it for circumstances beyond the original.  But that activity is grounded in the original meaning, not an abstraction.

So, Jeremiah 29:11?  Perhaps I might send that to a group of Chinese Christians in prison for having an underground church.  Perhaps I might remind them that their forefathers, too, were in captivity, and it looked hopeless, and they wanted with all their hearts to be released immediately.  But God made a way for them to be cared for in the present because of His plans for their future.  Not every Israelite saw that day, but that day came, nonetheless, and that hope was meant to sustain them in their captivity.

But as liberating as high school graduation might feel, I’m not sure I’m on solid ground applying Jeremiah to it.

Sunday Meditations: What is the Question?

A rather lot of the time, what the Bible has to say to us is influenced by the ideas we bring to the text.  As I’ve pointed out earlier, we generally have a theological framework in our heads (formally delivered or not), and when we come to the Bible, this has a profound influence on how we understand it.  For example, if we have in our heads that an evil, apocalyptic figure will appear near the end of the world (e.g. the Antichrist), then any passage in the Bible that mentions an evil person in the future from the standpoint of the text will sound to us like it’s talking about this evil figure at the end of the world.  Because of this, such disparate works as Daniel, Paul’s letters to the church at Thessalonica, and John’s Apocalypse appear (to such a reader) to all talk about the same person.

Related to this issue, although subtly different, is the fact that the questions we bring to the Bible also influence what we hear from it.

Years ago, I taught a basic HTML class at Intel in California.  As part of the class, I was talking about HTML tables (which we don’t use for layout, people) and made the offhand comment that, if I were going to build a complex table, I’d sketch it out first on paper.

After the class, a lady came up to me to tell me how meaningful my comment about sketching out the table was to her, because for so many of her endeavors in life, writing them out first helped her to clarify her goals and outcomes and helped her stay on track to achieving them.  So, she really appreciated me sharing that.

Now, I’m not saying that what she got out of that was wrong, exactly.  I can tell you 100% that it was not my intent to communicate that; I was just sharing a way to make HTML tables that I found helpful.  If you were coming to my class asking the question, “How can I keep my life on track?” you would get different things out of it than if you were asking the question, “How can I create complex HTML tables?”  Those things are not necessarily incompatible, but at the very least, I’d want to make sure this lady still knew how to make HTML tables, because that was actually my intent and the value I was trying to bring to my students in that class.  It was not my intent at all to give life coaching advice on accomplishing goals.

This lady was looking for something from the text that the text was not designed to give her.

Along with our existing theology, we have to be aware of the questions we are bringing to the Bible, because they can also shape what we hear.  If we come to the Bible asking how to live moral lives, that’s what we’ll hear back.  If we come to the Bible asking how we can go to heaven when we die, that’s what we’ll hear back.  If we come to the Bible asking whether or not transgender people should be allowed to use the restroom that fits their gender identification, that’s what we’ll hear back.

But like the very well-intentioned lady in my HTML class, if we come to the Bible with our questions, the “answers” we get back are rather suspect.  It’s unlikely that a writer in the Levant over two millennia ago is writing to answer the questions a 21st century American might have about life, or even the questions such a person would have about God.

What’s more, we run the risk of getting our answer and assuming that’s all the Bible had to say to us.  We might very well miss what the author had intended to get across because we went with our goal in mind, and when that goal was met, we were done.  When the lady at my class told me about the life-changing revelation I had given her, I just wanted to ask, “Ok, but you also know how to make HTML tables, right?  That was kind of the point of all that stuff.”

Along with reading the Bible without imposing our theological framework on top of what it has to say, we also want to be careful about imposing our questions on top of what it has to say.  We may discover that a given biblical text has no interest in our question whatsoever.  It may be addressing a set of questions completely different from our own.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t find our own answers, but it does mean we shouldn’t mistake that process for “what the Bible teaches” any more than it would be legitimate for that lady to tell her coworkers that I showed up to Intel to teach them all how to reach their life goals and recommend my HTML class to anyone who was struggling with life.

I would offer that one way to get out of our own heads and meet the Bible on a more level playing field is to explore the concerns and questions of the author of a text and/or the people who would be receiving it.  What was in their heads?  What was their day to day reality?  What were they looking for in the future, and why?  What were their frustrations and problems?

We might begin to discover that the Bible has a lot to say about issues that simply aren’t relevant to us, which may be disconcerting at first, but once we can hear it speak into those issues, we are much better prepared to transpose things into our world where appropriate.