Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Pucker up, baby!

As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment form them, and to model your life upon them.

I spent Monday and a good chunk of Tuesday in an anti-racism training that is mandatory nationwide for leaders in the Episcopal Church. Great intention, but in my opinion the training had a lot of problems from the logistical (cold room, weak coffee, hard seats) to the conceptual (rule #1: know your audience). In addition to being hopelessly lodged in "boomer-think"--(I just made that up. It means to think like a baby boomer ignoring the experiences of Generations X and Y)--the training was strangely un-theological. We prayed, we did a brief Bible study, and we had communion, but most of the time was spent with socio-historical materials that many of us had encountered (over and over) in high school and/or college. I came away feeling like I'd just experienced a secular training with liturgical window dressing. Nice aquarium, poet Li-Young Lee would say, but where are the fish?

At one point, I commented to my small group--perhaps with a bit too much sarcasm--that if we really want to talk about racism and the church we might want to start with the genocides in the Old Testament. I meant this very seriously: how do Christians get honest about our role in racism if we don't acknowledge the conflicting messages in our own faith about how we treat the "other"? Do we slaughter them? Or do we listen to Deuteronomy 24:18: "Do not deprive the alien . . ." remembering "that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there." Is Paul talking out of both sides of his mouth when he tells slaves to obey their masters then abolishes all distinctions between man and woman, slave and free?

I raise these questions not with any hopes of answering them, but to point out that they need to be asked. The examination for ordination to the diaconate includes the words quoted above "to seek nourishment" from the Scriptures. There is a lot in the Bible that we'd like to avoid. Frankly, it's distasteful. But if we really want to be nourished as Christians and as the Body of Christ, we can't afford to be picky eaters.

Even as a tiny baby, my son had a taste for the sour and bitter. In restraunts he would eat the lemons from our tea, screwing up is little face as if he was about to implode. But he kept right on eating them. I proposing something a little less radical. We don't have to like everything we eat in Scripture. We don't even have to accept it at face value. (Seriously, do we really want those who strike their parents to be put to death?!) But we have to acknowledge the darker moments of our faith story and ways our faith has gone horribly wrong for others.

During an online class in Old Testament, one student tried to make sense of the violence in the Old Testament by arguing that we have a better understanding of God now (all puppy dogs and sunshine, apparently) than "they" did back then. To me, it's more like photography--same reality, different angles. We have to be willing to wrestle with conflicting images of God and Christ. Islam has a list of 99 names for God which is recited in a prayer ritual similar to our rosary. God the Destroyer sidles up next to God the Comforter--and folks, however you feel about Islam, there is nothing "unbiblical" there. God's is not a flat, simple character, as soothing as that might be. We don't get Jesus the good shepherd without Jesus the temple trasher. (A golden retriever? Are you kidding me?)

When is the Kingdom of God coming? When we get real about all the ways we have, and will continue to, screw it up--avoiding cognitive dissonance by picking and choosing from Scripture like it's an all-you-can-eat buffet, ignoring the cultural and historical contexts of Scripture, or failing to leave our own agenda at the door using God's word to justify the institutionalized oppression (blacks) or attempted anihilation (Natives) of God's own creation.

My close friends know that I'm no literalist when it comes to Scripture, but I do believe that Scripture is sacred, and that even contradictions in Scripture help us wonder about God. I think God wants us to wrestle with these things and to take some responsibility for what happens when we fail to engage. And so I invite you to a no-thank-you helping of Deuteronomy, just one little bite of Genesis 34. There, now, that wasn't so bad.

When it comes to dismantling the systemic injustices of this broken world, of course we can learn from historians and sociologists. But if we really want to be God's instruments of change, we'll favor His wisdom over ours. We'll gather, we'll pray, we'll listen for the Spirit. And we'll feast on Scripture until it's running down our chins.


  1. I like your image of the camera angles.

    Reminds me of how A squared plus B squared does not equal C squared in curved space. How disorienting and marvelous. Makes me feel my own smallness. Perhaps the closest we can come to really understanding God is in intricate approximations.

  2. OK I posted a LOOOOOONG note and it didn't make it on here and I cannot recreate it so I am looking for a bat to bust up this stoopid computer.

  3. And no I didn't write it in a word file so it is gone.

  4. OK fine—the gist of it was when people do things in the name of Jesus, they represent Him, but if they do this thing in Jesus name and are doing something different than carefully representing Him, they are violating the third commandment: do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain… sooo if you have a roomful of people doing the secular thing (read: not engaging the Bible in the discussion) but they are doing this in the name of the Church—then it is no wonder you felt uncomfortable.

    On the other side of the coin are those who do nothing because they are paralyzed by the gravity of being entrusted with His work, making decision in His name never happens because they are afraid to make the wrong decision—as it the parable of the talents. Or they are afraid of offending people (the scourge of America).

    My take on it is that the greater problem is people taking their politics to the Word rather than the other way around. People tend to bring their cultural mores to the Bible and try to make it fit rather than going to the Word empty and looking be filled.