Can You Picture That?

A Sermon for Sunday April 12 (The Second Sunday of Easter and Holy Humor Sunday), Acts 4:32-35 and I John 1:1-7a (The VOICE translation)

Have you heard the recent rumors?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is deathly ill.

It is dying.

It is irrelevant.

It is out of touch.

It is unfaithful and toxic.

It is irredeemable.

So say a small group of loud obnoxious voices about our denomination choosing to become more loving and welcoming of all of God’s people.**** However, to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, the reports of the PC(USA)’s death was exaggerated.

True, Presbyterians have traditionally been known to be more stiff and reserved in the practices of faith, i.e. “the frozen chosen.” Fozzie the Bear gets it right when he walks into the church, sees the rocking band and says to Kermit: “They don’t look like Presbyterians to me.” The colorful, zany muppets of Doctor Teeth & The Electric Mayhem, we are not.

We Presbyterians are not inclined to raise our hands during a hymn or shout “Amen!” during a sermon or call loudly on the Lord Jesus while the pastor is delivering a prayer. We’re not eager to talk about the work of the Holy Spirit, as in “I believe the Holy Spirit moved me to connect with you today.” We like things to be decent and in order—a Reformed maxim that is often beneficial but sometimes can be a detriment for ministry.

And yes, not all Presbyterian churches are healthy. There are several churches that are stagnant and unsure of its calling or hurting from conflict or heavily divided over the interpretation of scripture or struggling with aging members and financial debt.

All churches, Presbyterian or otherwise, go through times of hardship, conflict and transition. And some churches do cease to exist. They close their doors because there are no more members, the funds dry up and the congregation doesn’t ever ask hard questions bout the purpose of their ministry.

But none of that means the denomination—with 1.7 million members and more than 10,000 congregations in the U.S.—is dying. It doesn’t mean that Presbyterians are longer viable or creative or imaginative or faithful or passionate about following Jesus and being Christ’s body in the world.

Nor does it mean that Presbyterians should accept that they are eventually headed to the precipice of death without hope in sight, even if the current state of Church and religion seems shaky at times.

Like billions of other Christians around the globe, we actively proclaim in this season of Easter that we are Resurrection people! We are about spring, and rebirth and new life! We are about planting and cultivating and growing! We are about sharing and loving and walking in the light of a bright dawn and a fresh day! We are Resurrection people!!!!

This is not a naïve rose-colored-glasses believing that ignores brokenness and suffering and strives for nice, cute answers to life wrapped up in a bow. It’s risky, faith-filled believing that says that even in the midst of the muck, we will painstakingly forge ahead in God’s hope so we can fill the cracks and holes of life with love and grace.

Image: Buddy Christ statue from the 1999 movie "Dogma"

Image: Buddy Christ statue from the 1999 movie “Dogma”

It’s the topsy-turvy wildly creative Jesus believing that says we can create life in the midst of destruction and death and shine light into the darkness.  As the late theologian and writer Mike Yaconnelli puts it:

Jesus was a dangerous man—dangerous to the power structure, dangerous to the church, dangerous to the crowds of people who followed Him. Shouldn’t the followers of Christ also be dangerous? Shouldn’t everyone be awed and dazzled by Christians? Shouldn’t Christians be known by the fire in their souls, the wild-eyed gratitude in their faces, the twinkle in their eyes, a holy mischief in their demeanors? Shouldn’t Christianity be considered dangerous—unpredictable, threatening to the status quo, living outside the lines, uncontrollable, fearless, wild, beyond categorization or definition? Shouldn’t those who call themselves Christians be filled with awe, astonishment, and amazement?

The answer is YES! YES! YES! That’s our purpose as Resurrection people!

The early Christians, the Jews and Gentiles who were figuring out how to follow Jesus post-Resurrection, embraced wholeheartedly that call to be dangerous, unpredictable, uncontrollable, fearless, and wild! According to the Book of Acts:

During those days, the entire community of believers was deeply united in heart and soul to such an extent that they stopped claiming private ownership of their possessions. Instead, they held everything in common. The apostles with great power gave their eyewitness reports of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Everyone was surrounded by an extraordinary grace.

The actions of the first Jesus followers may seem foolish and unrealistic in the 21st Century, particularly in a more individualized, capitalist society.  And yet it’s not all that strange when you pause to consider that their practice of being deeply united, sharing ownership and holding things in common is reflected in how the Church operates today.

PC(USA) churches (as an example) contribute financial tithes, offerings and stewardship pledges to make up the budget which provides pastor salaries, curriculum for church school, meals and resources for the poor and much more. And members creatively share together their time and gifts for preaching, teaching, praying, serving, inspiring, healing, comforting, nurturing and creating so that the church can be a presence of grace in its community and world.

So if holy mischief  and being united in heart and soul is part of our DNA as Presbyterians and Christians, then why are so many congregations in our denomination and Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, including Pleasant Hill, been experiencing drops in worship attendance and budget shortfalls?

Could it be that while we aren’t dying, we are sometimes lost and stumbling around a bit in the darkness or at least in a gray haze of uncertainty about the future?

Our wandering would be completely understandable, of course:

In less than two years, we’ve had two major staff changes, encountered a dip in our finances and said goodbye to beloved church members who have died, moved away or left for other reasons. We’ve also been going through some transitions with our mission programs. And we’re trying to determine what Pleasant Hill’s ministry looks like in an ever-changing multi-cultural community and evolving social-media connected society.

Change of any kind is hard to embrace and change of this magnitude can be so overwhelming that it spins us around and causes us to stumble on one another. We have the gifts and ideas to move forward and do something incredible and extraordinary, but we’re unsure if they will be accepted and given the opportunity to thrive.

The author Marianne Williamson suggests that:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

Image is from Biblia.com

Image: Biblia.com

It is God in Christ whose light shines brightly in our lives as the First Letter of John to the early Christian churches testifies:

This One is the manifestation of the life-giving Voice, and He showed us real life, eternal life. We have seen it all, and we can’t keep what we witnessed quiet—we have to share it with you. We are inviting you to experience eternal life through the One who was with the Father and came down to us. What we saw and heard we pass on to you so that you, too, will be connected with us intimately and become family… What we are telling you now is the very message we heard from Him: God is pure light, undimmed by darkness of any kind.

Many of us have seen and shared God’s light in our lives and we are invited to illuminate the lives of those in our midst and beyond that are having trouble getting their light to shine.

It doesn’t do us any good to play small and not make manifest the glory of God that is within us. Nor does it help for congregations to rely solely on their church leaders to manifest God’s glory. Each of you are capable of shining light in amazing ways. Each of you are capable of transformation. And you don’t have to have a Masters of Divinity or be an ordained elder to shine!

You just need a touch of love like the nuns of Sister Katherine’s Catholic Church in the movie Sister Act. The 1992 comedy stars Whoopi Goldberg as Dolores, a lounge singer who is goes into hiding after witnessing a murder. Pretending to be a nun named Sister Mary Clarence, Dolores soon realizes that the church is on hard times. In addition to a dilapidated roof, graffiti on the building and a chain link fence to keep out thieves, worship attendance is down to a handful of people and the choir’s music is quite stuffy and sleep-inducing. Being an outsider who sees the potential for something better, Dolores suggests to the other nuns that they can make a difference by leaving the safety of their church walls.

Did you notice that even though St. Katherine’s had a repair-the-roof fund sign, they didn’t ask a single person to give to the project? The nuns also didn’t invite people to come to worship or attend a class or a program. Instead they did something much simpler and more important: they went out to meet their neighbors and build relationships!

Although it wasn’t their intention to fill the pews with more bodies, the result was that more people came in the church to be a part of their ministry, and more people shared gifts of time and money to ensure the ministry would continue. And people did this not out of guilt or obligation or coercion, but because the nuns truly cared about them and desired to be in authentic relationships with them.

Image:  Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com, on nextchurch.net

Image: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com, on nextchurch.net

This concept of taking Church “out there” is something I learned by attending the NEXT Church Conference in Chicago last month.  The NEXT Church is a network of leaders across the PC(USA) who believe the church of the future will be more relational, more diverse, more collaborative more hopeful and more agile. More specifically their mission is:

to foster relationships among God’s people:

sparking imaginations;

connecting congregations;

offering a distinctively Presbyterian witness to Jesus Christ.

Trusting in God’s sovereignty and grace,

NEXT Church will engage the church that is becoming by cultivating vital connections,

celebrating emerging leadership and innovation,

and working with congregations and leaders

to form and reform faith communities

From a conference filled with breath-taking worship, captivating workshops and testimonies of new and vibrant ministry occurring across the country, I’ve discovered that the key to sparking imagination and vitality in the local church, the key to making sure a church stays viable and relevant, is about discerning important questions:

What biblical stories are we telling that  feed people’s hunger to know more about their faith and beliefs?

What might happen if we focus less on attendance in worship and other areas; less on the church building to hold classes, programs and events; and less on the cash it takes to run programs and maintain the building?

Image: "Imagination" search on google.com

Image: “Imagination” search on google.com

What cultural shifts are we willing to make so we can nurture and embolden others (who hardly participate in the life of the church) to be the body of Christ? Could we offer online worship devotionals and church school videos for adults, children and youth?

What does ministry look like out in the world God created as opposed to being in our church building? What happens if we change from being magnets that attract people to bring slingshots that go out among the people? For instance, what if we:

* held an adult church school class at a coffee shop near the church?

* attended Bible study on Psalms in a hospital waiting room?

* led VBS at a community rec center? 

* worshipped in the food court of a shopping mall?

* gathered for The Blessing of The Animals at a local park? 

* offered the imposition of ashes near the Five Points Metro Station at the beginning of Lent? 

* create worship stations or a spirituality walk in downtown Atlanta?

What is the purpose of the ministry we do:

* Are we passionate about participating?

* Are we comfortable with failing or afraid of trying something new?

* Are we doing something because “we have to do it even though we hate it” or because we feel deeply called to use our gifts to serve?

* Who is being spiritually nourished and what relationships are nurtured from the ministry we do?
 

* Who is being transformed to become more faithful? Who is being impacted?
 

Image: paper prayer cranes in the sanctuary of Broad Street Ministries in Philadelphia, PA

Image: paper prayer cranes in the sanctuary of Broad Street Ministries in Philadelphia, PA

How might our worship on Sunday morning be filled with more creative and artful collaborations:

*Hanging paper cranes with prayers of forgiveness from the ceiling of the sanctuary?

*An artist painting on a large canvass during a sermon or anthem to express the message in a different way?

*Offering prayer concerns out loud from the pews?

*A social-media focused service where people dialogue with the sermon or share their responses to liturgy on Twitter and Facebook?

How can our ministry take us beyond Sunday worship and spill over into every aspect of our week and lives?

Image: God created the Earth by Couboo, May 15, 2010, http://coubo.fr/category/t-shirt/

Image: God created the Earth by Couboo, May 15, 2010, http://coubo.fr/category/t-shirt/

How is God moving us to do something different, unexpected, colorful and imaginative with our ministry?

What might be revealed to us when we move beyond ourselves, our fears and walls and do more out there with a “touch of love”? Friends, I believe we must all grapple with the answers to these questions so that we—the community of believers who are deeply united in heart and soul and who walk step by step in the light of Christ—can join God in creating what’s next for our church, our lives and our world.

 

Can you picture that?

Amen.

****Google “PC(USA) is dying” and many articles and blog posts will appear, claiming the death of the denomination. Also, several news articles about the PC(USA) passage of Amendment 14-F have received numerous comments, stating that Presbyterians are irrelevant, toxic, unfaithful, condemned, etc., none of which is true. So let’s not ever give them the satisfaction, eh?

Image: The Electric Mayhem performing "Can  You Picture That?" in an old country church

Image: The Electric Mayhem performing “Can You Picture That?” in an old country church

 

Instagram Reflections on Easter and Resurrection by Rob Bell

On Easter 2010, pastor and author Rob Bell released the provocative video Resurrection. Five years later, he released more reflections on the powerful meaning of the Resurrection with six handwritten messages-posts on Instagram:

Resurrection 1

Resurrection 2

 

Resurrection 3

Resurrection 4

Resurreciton 5

Resurrection 6

 

Bell’s words are a beautiful affirmation of how God’s victory over death in Jesus (non-violent, unconditional Divine love)–Resurrection–connects each of us to one another and frees us to embody Christ’s love, God’s goodness and grace, in all that we say and do. The Body of Christ. Children of God. Easter people. Resurrection reminds us who we are, to whom we belong and how we must live.

A Song for Dead Saturday: Hurt by Johnny Cash

“Hurt”
(originally written and performed by Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails)

I hurt myself today 
To see if I still feel 
I focus on the pain 
The only thing that’s real 
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting 
Try to kill it all away 
But I remember everything 

[Chorus:]
What have I become 
My sweetest friend 
Everyone I know goes away 
In the end 
And you could have it all 
My empire of dirt 
I will let you down 
I will make you hurt 

I wear this crown of thorns 
Upon my liar’s chair 
Full of broken thoughts 
I cannot repair 
Beneath the stains of time 
The feelings disappear 
You are someone else 
I am still right here 

[Chorus:]
What have I become 
My sweetest friend 
Everyone I know goes away 
In the end 
And you could have it all 
My empire of dirt 
I will let you down 
I will make you hurt 

If I could start again 
A million miles away 
I would keep myself 
I would find a way

Maundy Thursday Reflection: Moving Toward The Cross

Toward the end of tonight’s Maundy Thursday Worship Service, following a hand-washing ritual where worshippers washed each others hands and then partook in communion, I offered the following reflection as we moved toward the Cross:

Holy_Week_Pics_2015-3Jesus goes from the water basin where he washed the disciples’ feet in love to the hands of Roman soldiers who will spit on his face, strip away his clothes and beat him unmercifully. 

Jesus goes from the table of communion where the bread was shared and wine was poured to his execution where his body will be broken and his blood spilled.

Jesus goes from having his followers faithfully by his side to his disciples abandoning him as he faces his earthly demise.

Jesus goes from being a breathing human being to the Cross  where he will cry out to God: “Why have you forsaken me?!?!” and breathe his last.

Jesus goes from the light of life into the darkness of death.

 And we go from following Jesus in joy and faithfulness to 

abandoning him in his final hour. 

staring teary eyed at an empty cross where the full embodiment of God was murdered.

locking our doors, turning off the lights and pulling down the shades to grieve his loss.

hiding and shaking under the covers as the world comes apart.

lamenting how we rejected the Divine Love that created each and every one of us.

wondering if this is the end of life as we know it.

The triune God of our beginnings and endings, goes with Jesus and all of us through the entire journey 

from nothing to something

from sorrow to happiness

from hardship to redemption

from judgment to forgiveness

christ-in-gethsemane-pAnd God declares that this is an end but not THE END,

as we go from sin to grace

as we go from darkness to light

as we go from the cross into the future of a new world–a place unknown

A reality and kingdom that lies beyond ourselves, our fears and our walls.

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: Small Victories by Anne Lamott

I don’t know of a single author who writes with such raw honesty and vulnerability than Anne Lamott. Her razor sharp wit, fantastic sense of humor, incredible humility and self awareness of her own short-comings and ability to find God’s presence in the midst of life’s worse messes is both convicting and inspiring.  Her latest collection Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace is Ann at her utmost best. Each essay shines with truth about humanity and God. And the truth is not a perfect fluffy sentiment wrapped up in a pretty bow, but instead something more real and tangible that readers can grasp and see in their own lives.  A truth about our own failures and struggles and God’s grace that rises out of the midst of the ugliness to move us toward hope, love and life–even if it’s one difficult, begrudging step at a time.

The passage in the book which grabbed me by shoulders and forced me to look in a mirror pertained to Lamott’s thoughts on forgiveness. Upon realizing that she needed to forgive her father for writing disparaging remarks about her in a journal she discovered years after his death, Lamott writes:

People like to say, ‘Forgiveness begins with forgiving yourself.’ Well, that’s nice. Thank you for sharing. It does and it doesn’t. To think you know is proof that you don’t. But forgiveness sure doesn’t begin with reason. The rational insists that it is right, that we are right. It is about attacking and defending, which means there can be no peace. It loves the bedtime story of how we’ve been injured. The rational is claustrophobic, too. The choice is whether you want to stay stuck in being right but being free or admit you’re pretty lost and possibly available for a long, deep breath, which is as big as the universe, stirs the air around, maybe opens a window. …

You can forgo the arithmetic of adding up the damage again, lay your Bartleby ledger in your lap, and look up. Looking up is the way out. …Rumi wrote, ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and righting, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’ In that field, you’re under a wide swath of sky, so the story becomes almost illimitable, instead of two small nutty people with grievances and popguns. You have to leave your crate, though; this will not happen inside your comfort zone. But if you can make a break for the field, you might forget all the whys, the nuance, details, and colors about the story that you’re sure you’ve gotten right, that doom you.

So you sacrifice the need to be right, because you have been wronged, and you put down the abacus that has always helped you keep track of things. This jiggles you free from clutch and quiver. You can unfurl your fingers, hold out your palm, openhanded…Forgiveness is release from me; somehow, finally, I am returned to my better, dopier self, so much lighter when I don’t have to drag the toxic chatter, wrangle and pinch around with me anymore.

For the last month, I’ve been dragging my toxic carcass of anger, sadness, irritability, self-righteousness and depression everywhere because I have felt wronged by a good friend. I’ve been quite a pitiful and sorry sight and not at all my more goofy, humorous, loving self.

And it’s not that I don’t have a right to feel angry and sad or share those feelings honestly and calmly. Those emotions are certainly justifiable. However, as my wife pointed out this evening, I haven’t moved (or worked) through those feelings in four weeks. I’ve let them imprison me in a terrible funk of inner rage, resentment, and doubt–consuming every breathing moment and preventing me from enjoying life, particularly my family and friends.

My hope, especially when I have a conversation with that friend this month, is that I can make a faithful attempt to set aside rationality and an insistence on being right, put the ledger away, look up and hold out my palm open handed.

May the unfurling begin.

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: Kid President’s Guide To Being Awesome by Brad Montague and Robby Novak

safe_image.phpOf all the movers and shakers and dreamers in this world, the one that has influenced me the most over the last few years (who happens to not be a renown politician, entrepreneur, entertainer, athlete, scientist, author and social activist ) is 11-year-old Robbby Novak, aka Kid President, “self-appointed voice of a generation.”  Along with his brother-in-law Brad Montague, Kid President strive to make the world more awesome through creative, inspiring videos, blog/social media posts, and now their New York Times best-selling book: Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome (which features numerous ideas on how to be awesome; illustrated transcripts of the videos and interviews with kids and adults who are making a difference in their  communities) Robby’s philosophy and outlook on life comes straight from the heart of a ridiculous, charming, silly, loving kid who sincerely wants people to embrace their awesomeness and “treat everybody like it’s their birthday.”

11046952_511758008964852_4478923496441481174_nThere is not an ounce of naiveté or empty platitudes within the pages of the book or the videos. Robby is not a kid who looks at life with rose-colored glasses. He sees the hurt in the world, and knows intimately about pain and agony and disappointment . And yet, despite his personal health struggles, Kid President is determined to spread love. “As human beings,” we are capable of lots of bad stuff,”he says, “but also cupcakes.”

In the “Who We Are” section of the blog, Brad explains the origins of Kid President and the desire he and Robby have to change things for the better:

We created our first Kid President video in July of 2012 out of the simple belief that kids have voices worth listening to. Never did we imagine our journey would take us the places it has. Who knew a little can and string could connect you to everyone from bestselling author Nick Hornby to actor Rainn Wilson or to the President of the United States?

We’re doing this because we believe kids can change the world. We also believe grown ups can change the world. It just takes all of us working together.

The idea for Kid President came a few years ago. My wife and I started a camp for kids who want to change the world, GO! Camp. We were blown away by the ideas and the hearts of the students there. These students wanted nothing more than to leave the world better than they found it. After seeing their creativity and compassion I couldn’t help but think – wouldn’t it be cool if we listened to kids more?

Robby, age 10, is my little brother-in-law. He’s full of life and ideas. Robby has Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) a brittle bone condition which has resulted in him having over 70 breaks since birth. What’s inspiring about Robby isn’t his condition, but the fact that his condition doesn’t define who he is. In spite of all he’s been through he not only keeps going – he dances.

The two of us work on each episode together. There’s no fancy film crew or staff. It’s just us having fun and hoping we create something that makes people happier than they were before they clicked play. Our hope is that each episode is received with the same love that started this whole adventure.

As Kid President says, “Love changes everything. So fill the world with it.”

Brad says in the book’s introduction that Kid President is a joyful rebellion:

The best moments are fueled by a joyful vision of what could be. There’s the way things are in the world, and there’s the way things could be…A joyful rebellion is you living differently not because you’re mad at how things are but because you are swelling with joy at the thought of how things could be. When you joyfully rebel against your circumstances, against mediocrity or negativity, you invite others into something really beautiful.tumblr_nkr1nsgu2B1qdpc8po1_1280

Even though he has adopted the moniker of Kid President, Robby isn’t trying to aspire to be President Obama or any other politician (today or in the past). He’s not asking for charity or looking for fame and power. He just wants to convey a simple and profound message that each and every person is loved and that folks are capable of showing love and using their gifts to do something extraordinary together (words that are echoed in Jesus teachings of a better way for humanity).

What might the world look like if we shed our fear of and anger at those who are different from us and learned to joyfully rebel and envision (and dare I say live out) how things could be? 

What might the world look like if we set aside the things that distract us and engaged with one another more, worked with one another more to follow our collective passions and build something beautiful and good?

What might the world look like if we made more time to say, “I forgive you,” and “I’m sorry,” and “You can do it”? What might the world look like if we were more compassionate and less hurtful in our words and actions?

tumblr_nlo971X3ko1rav3clo1_1280What might the world look like if we took more time to dance, to share corndogs and “treat everybody like it’s their birthday”?

If we did those things, maybe there would be less suicides among LGBTQ teens, less discriminatory laws , less threats of violence, less racism toward blacks and other minorities

So what are we waiting for? Like Kid President says, “This is life people. You got air coming through your nose; you got a heartbeat. That means it’s time to do something.”

Let us do something

Let us dance and joyful rebel 

Let us counter hate with love

Let us be heroes who change the world 

Together. Always together.

 

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: The Bible Tells Me So and Disquiet Time

Product8677_Photo1Although I’m a 39-year-old progressive Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor serving a moderate to progressive church in a mostly progressive denomination, I’ve encountered–since I was a middle schooler–church folk (including Presbyterians) who have staunchly believed that the Bible is a infallible rule book that is not to be questioned…ever. And to question the Bible is to question God and to question God is to permanently seal your fate in hell or in the very least incur God’s disappointment and anger.  As Peter Enns, religious scholar and author of The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read Itputs it:

Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual–follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force. If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to ‘defend the Bible’ against these anti-God attacks. Problems solved. That is, until you actually read the Bible. Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag–fine as long as its kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes.

Youth advisers and pastors whom I respected during youth and young adulthood echoed this sentiment in their own teaching, preaching and nurturing of my faith and belief in God, especially when other Christians tried to use the Bible to scare people into believing (which is not what Jesus ever had in mind when he walked the earth), i.e. the popular televangelists preachers of the 1980s in which I grew up or the fundamentalist Christian college students who descended upon my friends and I at our church’s Presbyterian camp at the beach in an effort to convert us.

While I knew this staunch defense of the Bible, God and faith was dangerous, I never felt I had the ability to express exactly why this way of thinking was harmful, bad theology that reduced God to a cruel and judgmental dictator.  Other than saying, “God is love,” I lacked the tools to full understand the larger context of the Bible: the ancient Israelites who lived in that ancient world thousands of years ago and their experience of God and of learning to live a life in faith to only one God, the creator of the universe and father of Abraham, Isaac, etc. I couldn’t counter the misconceptions (based on fear and a need to control) with deeper knowledge about the scripture passages, when they were written, why they were written and what they were intended to say to people of the time.  

This changed when I entered Columbia Theological Seminary at the age of 27 (way back in 2002). In the classrooms of Walter Brueggemann, Christine Yoder, Beth Johnson, Charlie Cousar, Stan Saunders, Mark Douglas, Shirley Guthrie, George Stroup, Bill Harkins, Chuck Campbell, Anna Carter Florence, Rodger Nishioka, Kathy Dawson and Erskine Clarke (just to name a few) I learned how to articulate what I always instinctively felt and believed about the Bible and God’s role in the text and human history:

The Bible is the messy and incredible story of God and humanity told by an ancient people whose message echoes throughout time and in our lives today. The Bible is the story of God’s love and grace that enters over and over and over again into human mess. God creates. Humans destroy. God calls people to create beautiful things (relationships, communities, lives). Humans reject the call. Contaminate and corrupt God’s gift of creation and misuse the gift to create by wielding hate and violence instead. God loves. Humans try to love and some succeed. But mostly they fail. God loves and loves some more. Humans fail. God keeps on loving and calling and encouraging humanity to trust in the Divine and live as people of the divine in their treatment of one another and the world they inhabit. Humans succeed in long moments and in spurts. God loves so much that God-self becomes flesh to show humanity that creativity, imagination, mercy and compassion is always the better way–better than desires to judge, control, manipulate, horde, and act recklessly with our own lives and the lives of others.  

The Bible is inspired by God and written by fallible human beings whom God loves unconditionally. God in Christ remains faithfully involved in people’s lives despite their mistakes, including the discrepancies and errors in their stories, experiences and interpretations of God. It is true for the ancients of the Bible and true for us crazy human beings today. 

Like my professors in seminary and my church mentors growing up, Enns’ book helped me once again to shape what I already knew to be true about the Bible but sometimes have difficulty expressing, particularly the violent, strange and contradictory texts.

End reminded me once again that the Bible’s purpose is not to provide safe and simple answers that solve all of life’s problems:

God did not design scripture to be a hushed afternoon in an oak-panel library. Instead, God has invited us to participate in a wrestling match, a forum for us to be stretched and to grow. Those are the kind of disciples God desires…When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey. That journey was recorded over a thousand-year span of time, by different writers, with different personalities, at different times, under different circumstances, and for different reasons…

This Bible, which preserves ancient journeys of faith, models for us our own journeys. We recognize something of ourselves in the struggles, joys, triumphs, confusions and despairs expressed by the biblical writers. Rather than a rulebook…the Bible is more a land we get to know by hiking through it and exploring its many paths and terrains. This land is both inviting and inspiring, but also unfamiliar, odd, and at points unsettling–even risky and precarious. 

I believe God encourages us to explore this land–all of it–patiently, with discipline, in community, and above all with a  sense that we , joining the long line of those who have gone before, will come to know ourselves better and God more deeply by accepting the challenge. ..We respect the Bible most when we let it be what it is and learn from it rather than combing out the tangles to make it presentable.

And, I might add, to judge others, to use the Bible to determine who is in and out of the church, who is not allowed in heaven or who is not deserving of God’s love.

Enn delves further into how the Bible can be so much richer for cultivating authentic faith when we allow the Bible to be what it is instead of trying to make its most violent parts behave or adhere to our justifications for God’s wrath and why we think God would be ok with all sorts of violence today.  With great knowledge and respect for scriptures and wily sense of humor, Enns tackles the violent and strange and contradictory passages of the Bible head on. Instead of taming the Bible or locking it in a cage, Enns takes readers on an exploration of this wild living thing that breathes and moves across the landscape of the ancient and post-modern. 

49827In their collection of essays, Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani, encourage “Bible-loving Christians, agnostics, skeptics, none-of-the-aboves and people who aren’t afraid to dig deep spiritually, ask hard questions and have some fun along the way,” to not shy way from having Disquiet Time with the Bible.

Essays written by the “skeptical, faithful and a few scoundrels” explore difficult, bizarre and (sometimes humorous) texts that stir up questions and cause discomfort and confusion for readers, like grotesque violence, plagues of frogs, the trippy vision of Revelation, the role and treatment of women, sexual innuendo, angelic body parts, and all the poop references.

Whereas Enns takes readers through a process of how to approach the Bible as a sacred object that doesn’t needed to be defended but to be wrestled with,  Grant and Falsani offer up voices of those who have stepped into the ring with the weird and formidable stories of the Bible.

Admittedly, I haven’t read the entire collection. Only the first nine essays because I’ve been distracted by other books on my sabbatical reading list. I’m realizing now that Disquiet Time is the type of book that doesn’t need to be read orderly from front to back and is actually better enjoyed when you flip to any essay when your own soul is feeling disquieted by the Bible, faith, God or the world in general. (Take a moment to peruse the global, political and entertainment news and you’ll immediately find some disquieting things).

The essays are exposing me to voices I need to hear and I’m in awe of their vulnerability and honesty as they share how particular texts have befuddled, angered, surprised or given comfort to them. To metaphorically see them struggle with disquieting texts to find meaning gives me courage to grapple with glowering behemoths like Genesis 16, Ruth 3, Ecclesiastes 9, and Deuteronomy 23. 

And the most important lesson I’ve learned thus far is that the Bible is full of crap (Deuteronomy 23:12-13; 2 Kings 9:36-37; Exodus 29:12-14, Ezra 6:11, among others) and God is wading in the muck right along with us.