Monday, October 26, 2020

The Truth Possesses Us

In my last post, "It's Not the Answer Book", I pondered aloud what the Bible is and isn't. After posting it I thought, "Why did I feel the need to give my resume with regard to Biblical scholarship?" There are a couple of reasons. One is that I sometimes see the Bible being misappropriated in its use on social media these days by people who are pretty obviously just trying to prove their point without having given a lot of careful study and consideration to the Bible as a whole. If I'm going to talk about the Bible, I'd at least like to give people enough evidence to decide whether I'm a comparatively credible source of information. Another is that I love the Bible. I've given it a major investment of my time. So when I call into question its usefulness as an "answer book", I want you to know that it's not because I have a low view of scripture. On the contrary, I think it's extremely useful for pointing us towards God--showing us what he is like and how he extends himself to people who, though they lived in ancient history, are surprisingly like you and me. 

Here's an illustration of what might happen if you and I had different positions on an issue, and went to the Bible for answers.  

Imagine two people were each given a copy of the same photo to look at and asked to describe what they saw. One describes a lonely rock beach with a solitary figure, perhaps searching for something. 

The other describes a lively sandy beach, perhaps a vacation spot, with people in the water, others sunbathing, and a colorful wall behind. What kind of conversation ensues? Would they insult one another's ridiculousness? Would they bother to discuss what they saw in greater detail?  Would they ask each other questions? Could they possibly be talking about the same thing? 

They could if they were looking at different halves of the same picture. But they would never know it.  What they thought was an "either/or" dichotomy was a "both/and" reality. Their separate perspectives clouded the whole truth. It's not that one of them had the truth and the other didn't. It's not that they each had their own truth. It's that both of them had a limited perspective on the truth. Here, the photographer (my brother) seems to have captured the full truth. But I wish I had been behind him, because I might have incorporated him into my own version of the photograph.

If you and I appeal to the Bible for answers, we might surface some conflicting perspectives, because God works in different ways in different situations. The danger is that we each pick the answer we like, and call it "my truth".  We may or may not have a productive conversation about our conclusions.

The Bible was written over the course of hundreds of years, contains several genres of writing (historical narrative, poetry, letter, biographical narrative, and parables, to name a few), and is attributed to some 35 different authors (depending on who you ask, we are not completely sure about that). So we can't just plug in a question arising here and now and get the Bible's definitive answer, because no matter where we open it, that author was not writing to us and trying to speak to our specific situation. Rather, as we read the Bible and begin to learn about the context and purpose of each author and piece of writing, we begin to observe overarching patterns and principles of the ways that God works. Some are thoroughly consistent throughout, others more nuanced. As we meet Jesus and hear his commentary on the scriptures that were in place long before he arrived, juxtaposed against the religious realities of his day, we see him clarify God's vision for humanity, especially for those who would call him Lord. All of this takes time, patience, and a desire to live that vision.

One of the things I love about God, as I have learned through the lens of scripture to see him, is that he is not only the source of all truth, he IS the Truth. Objective truth is the reality of all that has ever been and will ever be, material and immaterial. I embrace the Bible's claim that it originates with God and is contained within the parameters of who he is. He has a complete perspective on every detail--he can see what it looks like from up close and far away, from above and below, from before, during and after. He knows every thought and intention, every atom that moves, every beginning and ending. How he embodies all of this is a mystery, far beyond the scope of human understanding. If I could understand it, he would not be worthy of my devotion and worship. The Bible is one of the ways he peels back the layers to reveal more of who he is. 

When we wield the Bible as a weapon to fight our battles of issue and intellect against others, we take on the role of possessor of truth. I believe Truth exists. I don't possess it. You don't possess it. The Truth possesses us. And that is a call to humility and curiosity. Each perspective helps inform the others. 

The Bible is meant to be read in a relationship with God, and used as a mirror to see if we are growing up to look more like him.  He's more than ready to help make that a reality.

Photo Credit: Dave Decker on Instagram @dsdecker82 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

It's Not the Answer Book

This is my Bible.  

It has a 1996 copyright, so I guess it’s a little over twenty years old.  That’s about half the total years I’ve been studying the Bible in earnest.

I won’t claim to be a daily Bible reader.  I’m a regular Bible reader and studier.  I like to have an hour or two if I’m going to dig in.  I do that once or twice a week on my own, sometimes more.  Then I let it percolate.  I think about it a lot while I’m in the midst of whatever else I’m doing, and talk to God about it.  I make sure that I have conversations about it with other believers—plus every chance I get with people who don’t believe. 

I’ve studied it under real scholars, and I’ve stepped out with trepidation to facilitate groups that study and discuss.  I read other books and commentaries and resources by a variety of experts (including those who challenge my theological biases) who help me understand what it meant in its original historical/cultural context and languages.  The Bible constantly amazes me as it speaks to the soul of every person of every time and place.  And I am always aware that I’m in danger of trying to make it say what I want it to say.

Lately I’ve observed that a lot of people want to talk about what the Bible says and what Jesus teaches, especially pertaining to issues that are hot political topics.  The thing is, it’s perplexing the way that apparently Jesus and the Bible validate so many conflicting views.  

If you go to the Bible looking for something to validate your position in opposition to someone else, you will probably manage to pick and choose verses out of context to bolster your own defense.  But if you go to the Bible looking for God, you are likely to find that He validates your worth (and the worth of the person who disagrees with you) as opposed to your opinion. He will send you back into the world transformed and freed to embrace and engage, rather than armed to attack.  

My husband says, “The Bible isn’t the answer book.  It’s the ‘You need God’ book.”  I love that.  It’s a book that doesn’t offer itself as ammunition to shoot down other political stances, nor as bricks and mortar to fortify my own.  It doesn’t offer itself as a scientific journal, a comprehensive history, nor even a socio-political commentary.  It offers itself as a mirror, to show me my need for the God who made me, who knows me thoroughly and loves me deeply and unconditionally.  It shows me that nothing surprises God and that what’s old is always new again.  It shows me that if I really dare to look into it with an open heart looking to know what Jesus has to say to me, I can’t go away unaffected by his compassionate heart.  It shows me that only and always in partnership with him can I become all that he created me to be, and fulfill his purposes for me.  Ultimately, the Bible is the book that points to a God who alone knows and is the Truth that leaves any “truth” of mine undone.  It reminds me He's the one worthy of my worship and trust, the one who, if I choose to follow him, will not lead me astray.

So go ahead.  If you actually want to know what the Bible says, read it.  Read it with an open heart instead of an agenda.  Ask God to teach you about himself through it.  But be prepared to have your mind renewed and your life transformed.

Friday, October 16, 2020

It always snows in October

Dismal foreboding.

I popped onto my Facebook feed this morning, and it was everywhere.

Well not everywhere, it was from my local friends, the metro-area Minnesotans, announcing the arrival of snow that would soon reach my neighborhood.

Two years ago on October 14, a photo session had me driving through the countryside, where I witnessed the most magical snow-on-colored leaves scene, knowing it would be melted by the time I met my client.  I recorded the video in my mind, knowing there would be other October snows.  Last year?  First flakes, October 13.  Same story.

Today?  Clear schedule.  When I heard the communal moan, I had a few minutes to get my stuff together, choose a location, and dash out the door feeling like one who dances on graves.  But not sorry.

People seem surprised and appalled every year when October snow comes.  Why?  Because it's melted by noon, and they forget it's even a thing, so by the next year it seems impossibly early and ominous.

We seem a little more testy yet this year, like if one more thing happens we didn't foresee, that will be the one that puts us over the edge.

We have had life this summer.  Gatherings outside, dinner on patios, "safely distanced" time with friends.  If ever we were not ready for winter, this is the year.  We feel like it might leave us undone and alone.

When I heard the Facebook outcry, I also heard the voice of God (well not audibly, but experientially) saying, "I'm about to do some serious showing off if you'd care to join me for it."

It's a voice I've heard in the Bible--
"Do not be afraid."
"I am with you always."
"Be still and know that I am God."

A voice I've experienced as reliably as snow in October.

These are times of foreboding around us.  I wonder if maybe God has some ideas up his sleeve that we haven't thought of.  

Honestly, I'm counting on it.  Remind us, Lord, that you have always delighted to show up between rocks and hard places.  Though it's something we never seek, when October snow comes, it's breathtaking.

We believe, Lord.  Help our unbelief.


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Unfinished Stories

I recently spent some time unpacking an old family story. You know the kind in boxes, waiting to be "dealt with". This one was handed down to me because I was the girl with a girl. It was a story I really didn't want to own.

When my sister and I were young, our Great Aunt Molly made us a "dollhouse". Much ado was made about this gift while it was in the works, and Aunt Molly would tell us about it with delight. I was never much of a doll person, but hearing her animated descriptions, I was more than a little intrigued.

Aunt Molly was an artist with an eye for detail. She had a grandiose vision for this "house". It was to be a mansion with ornate furnishings that were mostly handmade, and filled in with sweet little miniatures she acquired from her sources, most of which were mail order catalogs. She loved announcing items newly arrived from New York.

When this "house" finally reached a point of adequate completion to be shipped to us, it came in large cartons. I can only imagine the anticipation that had built up over some years of hearing its stories, and the excitement when they arrived.

It turned out that the "house" was actually three large plywood boxes, all separate and unfinished on the outside, each representing a room in this home. Not quite what I envisioned. There was a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom, each with elaborate decor, and a letter telling the story of what was and what was yet to come. 

With the house were two handmade dolls, a mother and a daughter. ("The man", would be a future addition, newspaper in hand, but he never showed up.) The daughter was, per her letter, "an invalid child" (did she realize the word said in-valid?), who could "sit and lolligag on the chaise". The expressions on each of their faces looked angry. I wanted nothing to do with them. I rejected their narrative. Over the years, I forgot why it was that Aunt Molly's dollhouse was not a source of warm fuzzies for me, I just put it out of my mind.

You can imagine how thrilled I was when, decades later, the boxes eventually found their way to my house so I could share them with my then teenaged daughter. I knew she'd be as impressed as I had been. So they've been sitting awhile, waiting for me to deal with them as I'm trying to reclaim space and uncover treasures. My real intent was to get rid of them, but I thought I might photograph some of the details, like her tiny paintings, to remember and enjoy with my siblings. I was unprepared for the sense of dialogue I would have with Aunt Molly herself as I paused for a closer look at her handiwork.

Aunt Molly was a single career woman in a man's world.  I heard her called a "spinster" and an "old maid", because in those days those words were used interchangeably with "single woman". Beyond that, Aunt Molly was more than a little eccentric. She would come stay with us for several days at a time, being from out of state. She was a chain smoker--you could see it on her fingers and her teeth, and hear it in her constant cough, especially whenever she laughed uproariously at her own jokes that always ended in a coughing fit. I never really knew what to make of her.

As I began to put the pieces of the dollhouse together, I gained a new appreciation for Aunt Molly, and found myself wondering about her. Why on earth did she decide this little girl doll was an invalid? Had she ever felt in-valid for being who she was? Had anyone dear to her had polio and ended up unable to walk? What was the rest of her story? It was clear that, though she thought we'd be as delighted about the house as she was, it gave her a way to spend a lot of time and creative energy that gave her joy.  

It occurred to me--Aunt Molly started the story, and though I rejected the narrative, it was now mine to shape as I liked. What if the girl in her bathrobe was home because it was a snow day? What if she was happy to stay in her jammies and drink hot chocolate? What if she and her mom embraced the extra time by making a big breakfast together?

After that, maybe they'd work a puzzle together? What if their faces weren't angry, but intent on finding the right pieces? Aunt Molly would be ok with that, wouldn't she?

I got to thinking about the way our family stories come to us, and how we affect where they go next. Much has been said lately about the way we deal with our history, especially the inconvenient or unconscionable parts of it. Is it disrespectful to want to change the narrative? Is it dismissive of those who came before us? Is it arrogant?

I honestly don't think so. In fact, I think it's often necessary.

No one meant any harm by calling Aunt Molly a "spinster" or an "old maid", and if she ever overheard it, she knew that.  They were accepted terms.  But when I was single until I was 35, and had a career and purchased my own home, can I just tell you how glad I am no one called me that? I'd call that progress.  Aunt Molly made a life for herself and was a valued part of a community and our family. She was loved.  I prefer the way I was able to thrive as a single woman a couple of generations later. We are all products of our time.  

When we have the privilege of growing older, we can see that perspectives change and we can learn new ways that fit our time better. It's still hard for me to imagine the day when generations after me will stop to ponder who I was. When they do, I hope they'll feel free to be honest about my shortcomings, and those of my generation and do better as they write the next chapter in the narrative. I hope they'll also be generous with me, realizing I did the best I could with what I had, in ways that made sense here and now. Maybe, they'll appreciate the value of the gifts I've offered--even if they have to be reframed.

Ultimately, our story is a "choose your own adventure", and each generation steps aside to cheer on the next. But our stories continue on. We honor those who've written the chapters ahead of ours by writing--and living--with intentionality and integrity in our own time and place.

Thanks, Aunt Molly, for delighting in making us something that truly is beautiful. I receive it as the gift that it is (even if I'm not keeping the physical gift). It only took me fifty years.