Monthly Archives: October 2014

Graceful responding

In the last week and a half Columbus Mennonite has been in both The Mennonite and the Mennonite World Review because of our hiring of Mark.  In this digital world, stories travel fast on social media and comments become just as publicly accessible as the story itself.  The large majority of responses we’ve received through the office have been enthusiastically supportive.  I’m aware that a number of you have had personal interactions with friends and family members, not all of them affirming of our path.  I don’t mean for the following to come off as overly advice column-ish, but for those more difficult conversations, here are some thoughts and hopes for how we might enter those in a way that builds on our common humanity and avoids excessive polarization.

+ Find something to affirm in the other person.  Most folks speak out of a genuine concern, and wish to be faithful to God, as they understand God.  It can be disarming and change the tone of a conversation if one replies with something like, “I can tell that you care deeply about the church.”

+ Disagreement and conflict is normal.  Rather than trying to resolve the disagreement, one approach is to say that we’re still committed to be the other person’s friend/family/fellow Christian, despite differences.

+ Tell a story.  Stories are powerful and it’s difficult to argue with a story.

+ Don’t concede the Bible!  Ok, so I feel rather strongly about this one.  I’m bothered by the stereotype that progressive people of faith don’t care about the Bible and disregard its clear message on this.  No and no.  The Bible has always been open to interpretation and in our Anabaptist tradition it is the work of the people to discern what it is saying to us in our time.  For a brief example, the Ministerial Committee of CDC has done good work in naming its biblical/theological foundations for credentialing LGBTQ persons.  The document is HERE.

+ “Come and see.”  This is a phrase that is said by four different people in the gospel of John and serves as a way of inviting others to come and discover for themselves what Jesus is up to.  Rather than trying to win an argument or prove anything, the invitation is put out there for people to “Come and see” whether God is present through his actions.  It feels like the right kind of tone and gesture for how we might respond to folks skeptical as to whether the Spirit is present among us.  Rather than trying to win an argument, we can invite them to come and see the life we have in our worship, in our service, in our love for one another.  We’ll have a chance to further ponder this phrase during the November 9 worship service.

Blessings, wisdom, and much goodness to you in all your thoughts and interactions.

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Arguing with God

A friend recently quoted the first sentence of James McClendon’s three volume work of systematic theology: “Theology means struggle.”  It’s a fitting phrase for this month of exploring difficult passages in the Bible.  It’s a good reminder that our faith is not just about comfort and refuge, but about venturing out from our comfortable places and walking into an expansiveness that we can never fully comprehend or tame.

Along with Genesis 32:22-32 (Jacob wrestling with God) and Genesis 18:22-33 (Abraham haggling with God), another valuable text of struggle is the book of Job.  The outline of the story is fairly simple: Job is a wealthy and righteous man who is tested by The Accuser (which translates as The Satan), first by losing all his possessions and children, then by losing his own health.  He is visited by three friends who stay by him on his sickbed.

There is a powerful strand of thinking throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that teaches that God blesses those who do right, and curses those who do wrong.  Deuteronomy 28 is a case in point.  One conclusion from this could be that wealth and righteousness/virtue go hand in hand and that the poor or sick must have done something wrong to reach this state.  This thinking lives on in our society when the poor are subtly or not-so-subtly blamed for their condition.

The majority of the book of Job involves Job’s three friends speaking this theology to him, ultimately asking him to search his heart for what he has done wrong to lose his blessings.  But Job won’t have it.  He demands justice from God and calls his friends, “worthless physicians….Your maxims are proverbs of ashes” (13:4,12).  Job finds no emotional comfort in the orthodox arguments of his friends, and gets no physical relief from his suffering.  Of God, Job declares, “Oh that I knew where I might find him…I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments” (23:3,4).

God ultimately does respond to Job, and the words are not particularly comforting.  God challenges Job to ponder how small he is in the cosmic scale of things.  But God also invites Job to pray for his friends since they “have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done” (42:8).  Job’s health is ultimately restored, but this isn’t the main point of the story.  The entire book challenges easy answers about God and human life and presents theology as struggle.  I take Job as an invitation to enter into that struggle together, and to be the kinds of friends who listen and honor one another’s struggle rather than simply defend our own small notions of the Divine.

Haggling with God

It’s “Difficult Passages” month and the midweek blog is an opportunity to talk not about those difficult biblical passages themselves, but about other passages that help us think about the difficult passages.  Last week: Jacob wrestling with God.  This week: Abraham haggling with God.

Genesis 18:22-33 occurs right after Abraham and Sarah have extended hospitality to three travelers, and right before the infamous destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  After refreshing themselves and eating their fill, two of the travelers continue on to toward Sodom.  The other, who turns out to be Yahweh, stays behind with Abraham.  What follows next is a good old fashion haggling contest between this elderly man and the Lord of the Universe.

Knowing that the entire city of Sodom is in danger of being destroyed by divine wrath, Abraham opens by challenging the Lord: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?”  The Lord answers: “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”  Abraham then gets bolder and asks whether Sodom could be saved if there are only 45 righteous within.  Yes, for 45 Yahweh will spare and forgive the city.  What about for 40?  For 30?  20?  How about ten?  Each time Yahweh responds that the city will indeed be spared for the sake of these few.  “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”  Throughout the haggling Abraham is self-deprecating to a fault, calling himself mere dust and ashes, hardly worthy to bargain with the Lord.  But Abraham also challenges Yahweh with words that still fit on the lips of those who mourn destruction and seek the redemption of the world: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

In this encounter, Abraham brings his own sense of justice to Yahweh, and challenges the Lord to be more merciful.  One might think that Yahweh would turn on Abraham – remind him he is a mere mortal.  Tell him he has no place haggling with the Almighty.  But Yahweh listens!  Yahweh is even persuaded by Abraham’s persistence.  Abraham calls on the Lord to do a more merciful job of being the Lord, and Yahweh responds positively.

I love this story because it suggests that God is looking for partners in this world who will extend and deepen the experience of justice and fairness.  Abraham is a friend of Yahweh, and this very friendship emboldens him to challenge Yahweh to be more just.  God does not silence such a challenge, but invites it and responds favorably.

As we ponder difficult biblical passages, I see in Genesis 18:22-33 an invitation to recognize our conscience as one of the ways the Divine speaks to us.  When we voice our conscience to God, it is, in a way, the Divine speaking through us back to the Divine, partnering with us for the creation of a more just and merciful world.

This Sunday’s difficult passage: Numbers 25.  Quite a doozy.

God-wrestlers

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

— Genesis 32:24-28

Although this was not one of the scriptures anyone selected as one of their “Difficult Passages,” it is one of the first that comes to mind when I think about how we relate with difficult passages of the Bible.  Jacob is the patriarch of the people of Israel, and the act of naming always carries significance in the Bible.  Jacob wrestles with God (or an angel, or a human, or himself!) and is given a new name, carried forward by a whole people.  “Israel,” roughly translated, means “God-wrestler.”  To be a part of the spiritual descendents of Israel is to be a part of a community that wrestles with difficult and even unresolvable matters of the spirit.

A few things that stand out to me in this Genesis story:  Jacob refuses to let go until he gets a blessing.  If he had let go and walked away, it seems he would have missed out on a blessing.  Jacob “prevailed,” but he was also injured.  Blessings and bruises often come together in the same package.  Wrestling with God (and with the Bible) is not counter to the life of faith but is an inherent aspect of what it means to walk this faith journey.

In our “Difficult Passages” series in October we are attempting to hold on and not let go of those parts of scripture from which we’d simply like to walk away.  Despite the injury they may have caused us and others, we are wrestling with them and seeking a blessing.  We are entering the ring with the children of Israel and wrestling with angels –and maybe a few of our demons as well.

This Sunday Mark will continue to preach on the theme of the mistreatment of women in the Bible, and for the last two Sundays of October we’ll address Divine and human violence.