The Bible (Part 1): Tool of Violence or Liberation…or Both?

Holy-Bible-by-Steve-Snodgrass-Accessed-August-4-2014.-Used-by-Creative-Commons-Licence.-httpsflic.krp79AtF3The Bible is one of the most misunderstood books in the history of humanity. Yet, it is the most read book in the history of humanity.  

It has been used to produce beautiful and broken realities:

  • The Bible has been used to silence and dehumanize women as “less than” and inferior. Some scholars have gone as far as saying women lack the image of God. Obviously, this leads to abuse and exploitation.
  • The Bible has been used to affirm the enslavement and exploitation of complete races of people who look different than those in power.
  • The Bible has been used to justify some of the bloodiest and unjust wars in human history.
  • The Bible has been used to isolate segments of society as though they are modern day lepers who are trying to infect the rest of the society.
  • ON THE OTHER HAND, a massive number of human rights and liberation movements throughout history have been fueled by a community who held the Bible as their sacred text. To name a few: The civil rights movement, modern unearthing of the sex trafficking industry, global reduction of poverty and increased access to clean water, overturning South African apartheid, etc…

This begs the question, “Is the problem the Bible or the way in which we have interpreted it over centuries of Church history?”

The other day, our church community started a series focused on asking hard questions about the Bible; where it came from, how it was written and assembled, what it contains and what are faithful ways we can begin to interpret its seemingly beautiful and broken contents. 

Let’s be honest, many folks have been reading the Bible since they were small children and now approach it will so many assumptions around interpretation and application that our engagement with the living text has calcified. On the other hand, many of us are new to following Jesus and asking where this book containing violence, infidelity and tribalism fits into liberating love and faithful discipleship.

We have two choices: 1. Continue with our assumptions about the text and stay comfortable (and potentially resentful), or 2. Engage the text critically seeking a renewed understanding of its place in our Christian story.   

I would endorse the latter. We don’t honor the Scriptures by dancing around the hard questions that force us into the muck and messiness of this complex story. No, we honor the Scriptures when we push into them with an eye toward understanding where they fit in God’s story of reconciliation with humanity and redemption of all the cosmos. It should make us squirm when we read about God endorsed genocide in the Old Testament and dehumanizing endorsements of “slavery” and gender inequality in the New Testament. We can let that squirming fester and lead us to resentment or withdrawal, or we can jump right into it seeking to understand beyond a surface reading that fails to invite us into the depth and breadth of the text in context.

A Couple Thoughts to Frame this Conversation

We don’t follow the Bible, we follow Jesus. When those get inverted, bad things happen. Yes, the Bible is one of the primary resources for faithfully following Jesus, and we are commanded to obey Scripture, but it is a means to an end…not the end in and of itself. When we follow the Bible (or, more accurately, our interpretation of it…) rather than Jesus, we may get the “right” answers while failing to live, love and lead in the way Jesus did and calls us to do. We can’t prooftext our way to right relationship (e.g. 1st century Pharisees or modern street preachers holding hate signs that may - or may not -- have the “right” answers but in no way reflect the love of Jesus for humanity). We must enter into relationship and allow the Spirit to lead and guide us in the middle of it. 

The Bible wasn’t written ABOUT us, but it was written FOR us. We have to understand context and genre because most people writing the Bible and/or whose story the Bible was telling lived in a radically different context that we do today. The vast majority of the Biblical canon is written about a people (Israel) who are seeking to rightly follow God (Yahweh) and reflect his love to the world as they live as a migrant community wandering the Middle East or as a community in exile under the heavy yoke of Empire (of course, they had seasons in power as well). Bottom line, as Western Christians who have the most “power” in the world, there is very little we can relate to about the realities of who the Bible was written about. We’d be wise to ask our immigrant neighbors or our brothers and sisters living under the reign of a violent regime how they may help us intrepret the Story of God told through Israel. Lastly, it was written FOR us in as much as it is a story of humanity’s (which includes us) journey back to God and his mission of reconciliation and redemption of all the cosmos. 

Infallibility, Inerrancy and all that fun stuff. This is where things often get a bit sticky. The Bible is a book written by human beings with stories, agendas and literary techniques unique within their context. Yes, the Bible was God-breathed, but we have to understand both the human writing and human reading of the text. Inerrancy is a modern concept; not applied to Scripture until the Enlightenment when truth became primarily associated with science, logic and rationality. Infallibility doesn’t lead people astray, it leads people into the middle of the human story (with all its muck, mess, beauty, hope, tragedy, doubt, etc) and of God’s willingness to meet them right in the middle of it. 

The Art of Interpretation. There is a long history of brilliant people trying to decide how in the world to interpret this wildly complex and sacred text. The way in which said brilliant people have chosen to interpret represents a really, REALLY wide spectrum. Some have chosen to see Scripture as allegorical (Church Father, Origen, being a leading proponent), which proposes that the deepest truth of Scripture isn’t found in a literal reading, but in the space where the words are pointing us (beyond and below a literal reading). On the other end of the spectrum, some argue that a literal reading of text is the only way to faithfully interpret the truth being conveyed by the biblical authors. In short, it is important to note that there is no such thing as reading the Bible without interpreting it. There are many ways to interpret and we trust the Spirit to guide us to those ends, but all is interpretation and we’d be wise to embrace that as a gift rather than a threat.  

PRIMARY THEME: It is important to enter our reading of the Bible with an eye toward the meta theme of God’s Story, which is God’s Reconciliation with Humanity and Redemption of all the cosmos (New Creation). Amid all of the potentially confusing, complex and confounding pieces of Scripture, this is the theme our interpretation must point back to (unless, of course, you view the primary theme as something radically different…). It is a story of right relationship, grace, selfless love, unfolding liberation and a relentless pursuit of all things being set to right.  

CENTRAL CHARACTER: Israel. Yep, this is not the answer most people expect to hear and, sadly, I don’t have space to fully unpack the nuances here. In short, the whole of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) is the story of Israel’s covenant relationship with God (Yahweh) and their vocation to reflect good news to the world. The Bible isn’t a story of autonomous stories that are fun to read. No, they are all placed within God’s redemptive plan for humanity as seen through its central character, Israel. “Well, what about Jesus?” one may ask. Yes, Jesus is the more important character in the story, but we MUST understand Jesus in the context of his role in Israel’s story. Jesus is the long awaited messianic deliverer of Israel (second “Adam”) who finally liberated them from exile and expanded the identity of the people God to the ends of the earth. Jesus is central to Israel’s story and to understand him outside of the context completely neuters the story and his decisive role within it. 

In my next post (part 2), I’ll seek to answer the question, “Where did the Bible come from?” by offering a brief recap of how the content was captured over a couple thousand years leading up to the final canonization of our current Christian Bible. 

 

4 Tips for Following Jesus in Election Season

Donkey-elephantWell, here we are again. The season that seems to come around all too often and stick around far too long. Some of our dinner table dynamics are still trying to recover from “conversations” that percolated during the last election season and our “unfriend” counts have finally slowed. 

We have come to embrace the fact (whether we like it or not) that the political process in this country involves mudslinging, political posturing and combative debate. With that said, I’m yet to meet a person who finds that reality helpful. Most alarming, the Jesus’ Community often falls prey to this failed political discourse though its participation or fueling of an unsafe, divisive environment.     

So, how does the Jesus’ Community live in this election season as a signpost of the kingdom rather than a pawn in a political power play?     

1. Spend AT LEAST as Much Energy Advancing the Kingdom as You Do Your Candidate

Based on one’s core convictions and values, there is no doubt that some candidates are a better choice than others. The championing of a candidate becomes problematic when we find ourselves spending more emotional and physical energy advancing the cause of a candidate than we do advancing God’s Kingdom which has both come and is coming. Championing a candidate and championing the Kingdom are certainly not mutually exclusive, but they are far from the same thing.

A good question to ask in this election season: “Does my life’s energy more reflect a desire for “God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven,” or a desire for “my candidate to get elected and his/her agenda implemented?”

2. Be Careful Where You Place Your Hope

I don’t know how many times I have heard Christian’s say something like this about their political aspirations, “If my candidate (insert name) isn’t elected, the United States will fall apart and I’m not sure I even want to be here when that happens.” Or, “If my candidate (insert name) is elected, our next generation will finally have somewhere to place their hope.”

Both sentiments are problematic. First, no candidate or system is perfect, so we must not (ever, EVER) claim as such. We can get so caught up in the political game that we white wash the corruption that is marbled into our political system and place our candidate/party/system on an unwarranted pedestal. This blind hope reduces the Jesus’ Community to pawns in a politically partisan drama, rather than signposts for the hope found in the upside-down Kingdom of God. Second, we can celebrate and endorse our political institution without worshiping it. As one who came to upend and reorient the power structures around a system of love and selfless sacrifice, it’s hard to imagine Jesus entrusting the hope of his kingdom agenda to the agenda of Rome’s political systems and power players. Our hope isn’t found in a political party or system, it’s in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. 

3. HOW Someone is Elected is as Important as BEING Elected 

This is often where things get pretty ugly. As our Facebook timelines, Twitter feeds, family reunions and conversations at the park fill up with political rhetoric, mudslinging and dehumanizing language, the Jesus’ Community has a choice. We can either join the chorus of unhelpful sound bites seeking to “win,” or we can model constructive discourse that places relationship ahead of political agenda. The discipleship challenge in the midst of a heated political climate is to embrace a posture of curiosity that seeks to understand rather than to be understood. “Winning” an election while losing our prophetic witness as a community shaped by the cross is not “winning” at all. We don’t have to fall victim to this game of rhetoric and political posturing. It IS possible to stand for our core values without being jerk in the process. 

4. Remember Your Primary Allegiance and Live Like it is Real

In the end, our primary allegiance isn’t to the United States of America; our primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. Yes, we are US citizens with a corresponding set of responsibilities (voting being one of them!), but we are first and foremost Kingdom citizens. It is a Kingdom without borders whose values often run in direct opposition to many of our cultural values of acquisition, power, prestige, control, peace through violence or winning at any cost. When our allegiances get inverted, bad things happen and we fail to live into our call to be salt and light in a world desperately in need. 

Friends, we live in a system where elections matter because they determine who will make decisions that impact people. People created in the image of God and with infinite worth. So, in so much as that is true, elections are worth our attention. BUT, getting our candidate elected isn’t worth compromising our witness. And, in the end, whether our candidate is elected or not has no bearing on our call to live, love and lead in a way that reflects God’s heart for the world amid the muck and messiness of everyday life in our homes, neighborhoods, nation and world.  

A Celebrated (Yet Toxic) Addiction & the Gift of Today

IMG_0833I’m a doer.

Not only do I feel pretty darn good about myself when things get checked off my “to do” list, it actually gives me a weird high and offers a really tangible grid for success. 

Interestingly, once I get stuff done, I almost immediately turn to the next thing to get done. 

Family admin. 

Household chores. 

Finances. 

Meetings. 

Neighborhood initiatives.

Work Projects.

The list could go on and on. 

I’ve been studying the Enneagram a lot lately, which is a unique (and ancient) tool for understanding how you’re hardwired to function in the world. I’m a “3” on the Enneagram which is known as the “achiever” or “performer.” In short, I’m designed to do stuff. 

This can be really good and really bad.

While I can make things happen, contribute to long term movement and rally folks around a vision, I can also overwork, form my identity around the things I do rather than who I am and, in the end, miss out on the sacredness of being present in the beautiful mundane of everyday. 

This is an important realization (and a hard one!) and I’m having to do a little extra evaluation of it in my current season of life with nearly four kids, a non-profit and a household that requires the attention of a Fortune 500 CEO.

I was recently on a walk to the park with my girls Ruby (4) and Rosie (2). While I was distractedly responding to an email on my “smart” phone, I looked over and noticed that Rosie had fallen behind and was bent over starring at the ground. As I circled back around to speed her up, I noticed that she was looking at a crack in the sidewalk admiring the little twig that was sprouting between the concrete slabs. 

For her, she wasn’t at all concerned about arriving at a destination, but about being fully present along the way. In this tiny twig, Rosie found beauty and she wasn’t about to miss it. 

I was at a conference this past weekend and one of the speakers (Rob Bell) shared a rich insight that completely ruined me (in all the best kind of ways). He said, “Success means you wake up and ask what you can get. Wonder means you wake up and say, I can’t believe I get to do this.” 

Head and heart explosion. 

In the midst of the seemingly endless “to do’s” of life, it’s easy to miss the beauty and wonder. There are insurance calls, diapers to change, mortgage/rent payments, dentist appointments, deadlines, dirty dishes and emails to respond to. 

Yes, that stuff has to get done, but friends, it will get done.

Maybe there is a way to get all this stuff done and not miss out on opportunities to wonder. Opportunities to be fully alive to ourselves, the world and those around us. Opportunities to be reminded that we aren’t what we do, but who we are.  

Maybe when we release our addiction to doing, we can begin being the types of people the world needs most.

When I slow down long enough to look at my life, I can honestly say, “I can’t believe I get to do this.” 

May we wonder. 

 

 

Why I’m Giving Up Peace for Lent

atomicholocaustThe violence of our world seems to be spiraling out of control. Every news outlet is filled with the latest tragedy and for many, the violence has struck closer to home than they ever imagined. Sadly, much of the violence is being done in the name of religion. Religion -- at its best -- is designed to be a conduit for right relationship. At it’s worst, used as a tool for manipulation and violence. While the former is certainly happening, the latter appears to be one step ahead at the moment.  

If ever there were a time where the work of peacemaking seemed soft and unrealistic while proposing some kind of fairy tale future reality, it is now. If ever there were a time to set aside the way of reconciliation for the way of revenge, it is now. Peacemaking appears to be a royal waste of time reserved for the ignorant idealists. 

Yet, if ever there were a time the exact opposite case could be made, it is now. In recent history, there has never been a time peacemaking is more necessary. In fact, the moment we deny the necessity for peacemaking, we deny the very mission of God and the vocation of God’s people. God’s work is peace -- the holistic repair of relationship -- and the vocation of God’s people. We aren’t pawns in a divine drama that will end in an atomic holocaust allowing us to apathetically put our hands up in resignation because “everything is going to hell.” No, the Jesus’ Community is to announce the reality of God’s kingdom and participate in God’s activity of making all things new. And not just in some future world, but NOW. 

Where do we start and how do we keep hope in a world of war?  

We need to give up peace for Lent. 

When the world is filled with violence, it is easy to get so caught up in evaluating and critiquing big picture, systemic issues (and the figure heads they represent) we often don’t make any effort to look inward; to do the hard work of unearthing the lies we believe about God, ourselves and others. The “peace” we need to give up for Lent is the pseudo-peace that says we are immune from contributing to the violence we see around us. When we tell ourselves that all the violence in the world happens “over there” because of “them,” we give ourselves a free pass from confronting our own evils that overflow into the world. 

To wage peace, we must first (and continually!) wage war on the evil within that keeps us from embracing our vocation as ambassadors of reconciliation (II Cor 5). 

Our prejudice.

Our isolation.

Our “othering.”

Our paralyzing fear.

Our stereotypes. 

Our insecurity.

Our need for revenge. 

I was recently sitting with a friend, a leading Muslim scholar and teacher, who adamantly denounced the corrupted definition of “Jihad” proposed by extremists and amplified by our fear-funded news-outlets. He said, “True Jihad is simply to face the evil within so that we can better reflect love to the world around us.” I was deeply convicted both of my falling pray to stigma and stereotype and by the long process inward that would be required to face the evil within. 

Jean Vanier, practitioner and seasoned guide on Christian community, says, “We create enemies because we haven’t confronted the enemy within us.” This begs the question, who are the “enemies” I have created as a result of my inability to face the “enemies” within?

Today marks the beginning of Lent, a 40-day pilgrimage of introspection, repentance and re-alignment that leads to Holy Week on the Christian calendar. It is a season of confronting the evil within so we can wage peace in the midst of a broken world. It is a season of reflecting on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and acknowledging the decisive peace God waged in Jesus. The evil has been dealt with and the Kingdom has broken through. It is now our job to acknowledge and live into the reality of a Kingdom of peace despite the kingdoms around us that promote the opposite. The Jesus Community is called to be Salt and Light in THIS world, not some distant-future reality. It is to live as a reminder of the way things were meant to be all along. To seek the holistic repair of relationship. To be an instrument of peace. 

During this Lenten season, may we turn our sights inward and confront the evil within that keeps us from embracing and living out the decisive peace waged on the cross and embodied in the resurrection.

May we put to death the evil that creates and confronts “enemies” with revenge and be resurrected with the weapons of transformation, reconciliation and sacrifice.

May we seek the forgiveness of those we have harmed -- near or far -- and repent (turn) toward a life that reflects the one we follow. 

6 Myths of Community

IMG_9601As we move into a new year, our little community of Jesus followers is taking some intentional time to individually and collectively reflect, evaluate and consider the implications of committing to each other and God to our shared life in Golden Hill for another year. One of the practices we have committed to in this time is to confront the unhealthy or unrealistic expectations we have of each other. We have found that dreams, visions and hopes for our community are good, beautiful and necessary. While that remains true, they can be the very things that destroy community before it starts. 

When I was going through seminary, I talked with countless leaders who had had big visions for the type of community they would lead, yet most didn’t last past 8, 9 or 10 months.  

What keeps many communities from sustaining for the long haul?

We all carry ideals and expectations with us into community and when they aren’t realized, we often assume our community isn’t “real” or that it is a failure. If we can identify the myths we carry into community, we can confront our unrealistic expectations and choose to willingly submit some of our personal one’s for the larger mission God has for our community. 

Here are 6 myths we have identified over our years as an intentional community committed to follow Jesus together:

Myth #1: Perfect Harmony

This myth says that we’ll all get along really easily and naturally with little to no conflict. After all, we all showed up here, so we must all be on the same page, right? This myth means that we assume that we will all be naturally interested in each other’s lives and we’ll discover things about each other with which we strongly connect. We also assume that we’re in similar places in our maturity, experience, and readiness, and since we’re all equally committed to the same things, we’ll all be willing to make similar sacrifices.

However, the reality is we’re not all at the same place, and we may never be. That’s okay, though. There will always be some dissonance in a community. Dissonance doesn’t mean you don’t have community; in fact, it might actually mean you do! Or, as we saw in the stages of community, you’re at least on your way there. 

Myth #2: Absolute Agreement

This myth does not refer to harmony in relationships, but to harmony in decisions and direction. It is the myth that we’ll always agree or arrive at a consensus because that’s what happens in community. This myth is the naive belief that no one will ever have to yield their opinion to the group because we’ll always end up on the same page if we just talk long enough. It is the belief that if we’re yielding enough to each other and to the Spirit we will never have to agree to disagree. There’s another assumption in this myth that’s a little more subtle but pretty significant: it’s the assumption that we won’t need distinct roles or responsibilities because we’re a community and everybody will decide on everything together, and we won’t move until we do. When we do that, we flirt with a denial of the gifts and roles with which God has gifted his church. The reality is, there will always be disagreements and differences in perspectives. There will be differences in gifts and responsibilities. In our communities, we’ve found that the answer isn’t agreeing on everything; it’s finding a way to go forward even when we don’t agree. 

Myth #3: Raw Pleasure

This is the myth that being honest, raw, or authentic means we have the right to say whatever we’re feeling whenever we want and thinking that people will actually appreciate that. This myth leads to thinking that unbounded authenticity is always good and welcomed. In fact, it is thinking that unbounded authenticity is community. Further, the myth of raw pleasure is the belief that now that we are in community, the door is wide open for us to say whatever we’re feeling whenever we’re feeling it—because healthy community requires complete honesty 100 percent of the time. It’s concluding that messiness and confusion are the reality of community life and that people actually prefer messiness over harmony, peace, and light-hearted adventure.

The reality is that community is not—and never has been—a green light to be mean or insensitive. Chaos is not synonymous with community. In healthy communities, love and kindness will always trump raw, self-serving disclosure.  

Myth #4: Truth At All Costs

While raw pleasure is more about personal disclosure, this myth is more about the idea of speaking “truth” to others. This is the myth that in community, we have a duty to point out people’s faults as soon as we see them. It is the assumption that we need to deliver the truth that we know as soon as we know it. It’s the belief that people want and need to hear truth more than they want and need to feel loved. This myth assumes that we can freely share our convictions and opinions at just about any time because being in community gives us a green light to address people’s “ignorance” or their personal issues at any time.

But, the reality is there is still a right time and a right way to share convictions and people will always have different convictions . . . and you may even be wrong!

Myth #5: It’s All Fixable

This myth is the common assumption that communities are miracle workers—that if a need is shared in community, the community must have the ability to fix it. Those who hold this belief often assume that if we need help beyond our community, we’re not a “true” community. Believing this myth also leads us to jump to the conclusion that people share things openly because they want us to fix their problems. Maybe they do, but maybe they just need us to listen and empathize with them.

The reality is that we’re human and we won’t be able to meet everyone’s needs. There are many great resources outside of our community (pastors, counselors, spiritual directors, coaches, and so on) that we would be foolish and arrogant not to access.  

Myth #6: True Community Is Always Communal 

When people visit our community, they are often surprised that we don’t all live in one house. The assumption seems to be that true community requires a common roof. Many communities have chosen that form, and it has worked well for them. It certainly brings people together, and we agree that proximity is vital to organic community. There are also obvious environmental and economic benefits to shared living that should not be discounted. However, there are downsides to communal life as well: the biggest negative is probably the time and energy that are required to maintain peace and order in communal space. Sharing space is not the same thing as sharing life.

We have opted for a slightly different approach while still valuing proximity and a sense of shared space. We made the decision to live close to one another (all within a ten-minute walk) and to inhabit the same neighborhood rather than the same house. Some of us do share houses with each other, some of us live in separate apartments in the same building, and some of us live in our own homes. We share our lives, we share our neighborhood, and we share a common covenant to do life in a particular way. For us, making these choices has created real community. 

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Note: The majority of this post is an excerpt from my book with Rob Yackley, Thin Places: Six Postures for Creating and Practicing Missional Community

 

 

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