Friday, October 23, 2009

But I Learned it in Sunday School! (Part II)

How does learning ideas that are new to us shape our faith? How does doubt help us grow stronger?
Open My Eyes That I May See
Seek Ye First

Romans 12:2
2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.
John 5:39-40
39 "You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. 40 Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.


I had a pastor in Indiana who used to talk about how kids always know the right answer in Sunday School. It's either "God", "Jesus", or "The Bible". And you know what? Sometimes we adults don't get past that either. And what I may say today may make you feel uncomfortable. I hope it doesn't, but I understand that it might. But what I hope more than anything, is that your understanding of the Bible is enhanced and that your faith is strengthened.

In the first part of "But I Learned it in Sunday School", I spoke about how when I was in college and taking classes about the Bible, I was learning a lot of new things. Some of what I mentioned was that I was hearing for the first time that there were multiple stories about creation, not just one, or that the first five books were written by four different authors and weaved together by an editor. Or that when New Testament authors quoted Hebrew Scripture, they were using it in a new and different way. I also mentioned that before this, I hadn't ever really thought of the Bible as literature, but more as a manual for life. My experience in reading the Bible was still pretty new, and so far I really only knew about application, because that's what we concentrated on in the small group that I was in. It really puzzled me and I at first had a difficult time understanding how I could read it without thinking that everything was supposed to apply to me.

"But…but…the Bible is God's word!", you might be thinking. "It says so itself in 2 Timothy 3:16!" But does it really? That scripture is used a lot as proof, so let's read it: "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (NRS 2 Timothy 3:16).
Let's think about when Paul wrote this. He is writing this letter to an individual, Timothy. From what we know of Timothy, he was born to a Jewish mother and a Greek father. They raised him in that faith, and then he also adopted their faith in Jesus as his own. In addition to that, at the time this was written, we didn't even have the New Testament yet; the only thing that Paul could have been referring to is what we call the Old Testament; the Hebrew Scriptures of his people.

Let's also look at what Paul says just prior to this verse. In 2 Timothy 3:14-15 he says
to Timothy "14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." He basically tells him to remember what he's learned and who he's learned it from, and what the learning and the scriptures he's always known have been for, which we are told in verse 17: "so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work."

When we put it all together it says: 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

We see that Paul encourages Timothy to see the Hebrew Scriptures as instruction that is useful for certain things. That word translated as useful is ophelimos (wvfe,limoj) which can mean useful, valuable, beneficial, or profitable. It doesn't say it is the final word. Paul wouldn't have thought it was anyway; with his background as a Pharisee, he would have been well-versed in the oral torah, the traditions handed down over many generations that explained things about those scriptures. He knew that there were interpretations and different understandings of what was contained in scripture.

As I read this one day, I noticed a note in my Bible about the inspiration in verse 16 which said to compare it to Genesis 2:7 where God breathes life into the first human being, and that got me to wondering. Is Paul reminding Timothy of humankind being God-breathed? That even though God gives life, humans still have the ability to mess up? That despite that, they still have a purpose in life? Could Paul have been saying that even if those Hebrew Scriptures are God-breathed, there's still room for human error?

Another thing we should take into account is that typically, when we see something called "The Word of God", it rarely refers to something written. We see that the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision (Gen 15:1) or that it was something God had said and that the Egyptians feared (Exodus 9) or that in the time of Samuel, it was a rare occurrence (1 Samuel 3:1). We see it a lot in 1 Kings where it is always spoken. We're probably most familiar with the phrase when we see it regarding the prophets…the word of the Lord came to the prophet Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Hosea, or Joel or Amos or Jonah… and in these instances, it is connected with hearing. With listening. And then when we get to our New Testament, the author of the gospel of John takes a different spin on it. He says that the word of God—logos (lo,goj)in Greek—which draws on the idea of Hebrew wisdom and the Greek idea of reason is something that always existed and then became flesh in Jesus. In addition to that, the most frequent use of the term in the New Testament is in the book of Acts where it also is something that is referred to as Jesus (Acts 11:16) or something people heard (Acts 13:44) and as a message that was spread (Acts 13:49).

And yes, of course, sometimes what was heard was written down. But does that mean that God speaks once; it's written down, and that's it? Or does God give different messages at different times to different people with different needs?

In the Bible itself, there were many people who heard from God to do things contrary to what was expected or thought or understood at the time. Moses, a man with a speech problem was supposed to speak on God's behalf to Pharaoh (Exodus 4:10). David, only a boy (1 Samuel 17:33, 42) fought the giant Goliath with only a stone (1 Samuel 17:49). The prophet Amos was a simple shepherd (Amos 1:1). A great evangelist who told many people about Jesus was a nameless, sinning, Samaritan woman (John 4). The first people to spread the good news of Jesus' resurrection were women (Luke 24:10). And Jesus himself was from Nazareth, and we all know that nothing good can come from there, right? (John 1:45-46).

If we only take the words of the Bible as we read them in our translations without question or discussion, we run into problems. We run into ideas that promote slavery. We run into ideas that God and science are at odds with each other. We run into ideas that I should not be up here speaking to you.

If the Bible is the final authority on all things, why would we have the Holy Spirit? If the Bible is the final authority on all things, why doesn't it address every single issue that ever comes up in life? The thing is, the Bible isn't only a manual or rulebook. Even the rabbis knew that; that is why they had to interpret it and discuss it and figure out what it meant for them. For example, take the commandment to "8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work" (Exodus 20:8-10). It's not clear to us readers what it meant to not do work on the Sabbath (which, by the way, is Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, not Sunday). So the rabbis had to discern what people could and could not do on this day.

I love reading and studying the Bible. I enjoy knowing that the people in the Bible had struggles and doubts and questions too. It makes them easier to relate to. To know that they didn't have all the answers and had to learn and grow in their relationships with God makes me realize that it's not a book that we just follow without question and that's it. But to know that we can learn from the successes, failures, hopes, joys, tears, and pain of the people in the Bible is a way that we can connect with them though they are long gone.
But even though I love the Bible, I do have to work sometimes to make sure I use it as a tool, and that it helps me to look to God, to look to the God revealed in Jesus, to look to the God present with us in the Holy Spirit for my primary guidance. I don't want to be like the Pharisees that Jesus speaks to in the scripture we heard earlier. And I do want to continue to use my mind and renew it.

Even as I prepared this, there was a balance to be found. I searched the scriptures, yes, but I also prayed that God would guide my words as I wrote them. And I was reminded of how the words that people in Christian and Jewish history have chosen as scripture are alive and meaningful. How they can help point us to God, how they can help us to seek Him, how they can point us in the right direction, how they can help us to understand Him better.

Would you please stand and sing "Seek Ye First", seeking God's kingdom with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

But I Learned it in Sunday School! (Part I)

Be Thou My Vision
On Eagles Wings
But I Learned it in Sunday School! (Part I)
How does learning ideas that are new to us shape our faith? How does doubt help us grow stronger?
Luke 2:52 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
I’m not usually a fan of taking only one verse to talk about so let me give you the background of this verse. It comes at the end of story where Jesus and his parents had been in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. When it came time to leave, family members all thought he was with someone else. It was only after they’d been gone for an entire day that they realized he was not with them, and returned to Jerusalem. They found him learning with the rabbis, amazing people with his knowledge and understanding. I wanted us to focus on this verse though, because it contains some information that we tend to pass over without much thought. It says “Jesus increased in wisdom.” So we see that Jesus had to learn. Jesus had to grow.
I grew up in church, sometimes attending twice in the same weekend, as my parents attended different churches. I knew the Bible stories well but when it came to more depth, I had a lot to learn. The first time I attended a Bible study, when I was 19, it was on the gospel of John and I was confused right off the bat—until someone explained the John who wrote it was not the John that we were reading about in the first couple of chapters. And then when I decided to minor in Biblical Studies in college, I found myself confused a lot. It seemed that what I was learning in class was different from what I had been taught at church. And I was also concerned because I’d heard from someone that most religion professors were atheists anyway and didn’t believe anything in the Bible they were teaching about
Some of the new things that I was learning were that well, maybe Moses didn’t write the first five books of the Bible…maybe they were written by four different authors and then weaved together by an editor. And that there were two stories of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis. And when I read Hosea 11:1 in context for the first time I thought to myself, wait a minute. This verse is about the nation of Israel. I always thought it was supposed to be about Jesus (Matthew 2:15). And are you telling me that we don’t know if the authors of the gospels are actually named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and that they weren’t reporters writing down every event with precise detail? And that Matthew and Luke have different accounts of Jesus’ ancestry and birth, And I always thought there were three wise men, but nowhere are we actually told that, we’re really just told that they brought three gifts. Or what about where Jesus says one thing and Paul says another?
The thing is, before this, I’d only understood that the Bible was a “manual for life” or a “love letter written to us from God” and that we could find answers to all of life’s questions there. Nobody had ever mentioned to me that it was an incredible work of literature as well. Or that before I understood what it meant to me, I should probably investigate what it meant originally—not only in Christian history, but Jewish history as well.
So these new things I was learning threw me for a loop. There were many times I felt confused and didn’t know what I was supposed to believe anymore. I spent countless hours sitting outside by the “Duck Pond” on my college campus, writing in my journal and praying about the conflict I was feeling and experiencing.
Somehow, I got through it. But I didn’t get through it unchanged. I ended up with a stronger faith than I began with. It may have taken a different course, but ultimately, I felt more confident in my Christian faith, even if it looked differently.
I love the Bible, I love studying it and reading commentaries and learning more about what it contains. But I do have to be really careful that I don’t make the Bible my god. Jesus was pretty clear with the Pharisees that searching scripture wasn’t the way to find him or know him (John 5:39). He also had the Father send the Holy Spirit so that we would have God’s presence among us after Jesus physically left this earth (John 14:16, 26).
Some of you may be taking a Bible class for the first time and really wondering about what you are learning. You might be wondering “what is he teaching us?!” or “I can’t believe he doesn’t believe the Bible is true!” Sometimes, the way we perceive something can hinder us. We hear that the first creation story in Genesis is Hebrew poetry and not a literal account, and we confuse the word literal with the word true. We think that things must be factual or historically accurate to be true.
Yet nowhere in the Bible are we told that’s what we must believe. In fact, while the Bible contains truth, the Bible itself tells us what truth is. It is not a written record. It is a person, Jesus (John 14:6).
And the Bible contains many different kinds of writings, written by many different people, over the course of many, many years. It tells the faith journeys of many different people, of their struggles and triumphs, their hopes and their fears, their continually evolving relationship with God. And that is one of the things that makes it so beautiful.
One problem, when we read the Bible, is that if we are only focused on application, we may find that while some verses may bring comfort and peace and understanding to us, there are others that don’t speak to us at all. While one person may really relate to a particular verse or story, another person may have no connection to it.
Another problem is that hearing something different or expressing a different understanding is sometimes seen as a threat to faith and that having doubts is sometimes seen as not having faith. I don’t know why that is. Our faith can actually end up being stronger—and more personal—if we go through this. Here are some words of Jesus that I’d like to share:
1"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. (John 15:1-2)
Pruning is painful. But what happens when a plant is pruned? I’m no gardener, trust me, but I do know that pruning a plant actually makes it grow better, stronger, and healthier.
I think this is one of those verses that we can usually talk about intellectually, but don’t really think about how we may be pruned. Too often, we have the idea that the Christian life frees us from pain or that anything bad that happens to us is Satan’s fault. I suggest to you that the struggles that we face, even struggles and doubts about faith itself, are times of pruning. It hurts. But when that time of pruning is over, we can be stronger and healthier Christians.
I’ve also discovered that people close to Jesus had their doubts too.
John the Baptist wondered if Jesus really was the one he was supposed to be announcing as Messiah. (Matthew 11:2-3).
Later, Jesus has a conversation with his disciples about who people think that he is. People are speculating different things (Matthew 16:14). He wants to know who his disciples believe him to be. Peter says to him: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." (Matthew 16:16). And while Jesus calls him blessed for knowing that, he doesn’t berate anyone else for not knowing it or for being confused about it.
And all Jews in general had to learn something new. They had to wrestle with the fact that Jesus was not acting like the Messiah that they had expected, the Messiah that they honestly and truly believed that scripture pointed to.
I eventually realized that what I was now learning maybe wasn’t so different from what I’d learned in Sunday School as a child. I was just getting more depth and understanding, moving from milk to solid food (1 Corinthians 3:2). The lessons I’d had as a child, while they formed a good base, were meant for a child. I was now an adult and had to put childish ways behind me (1 Cor 13: 11). And the professors? Some were strong Christians. Some were not. But not once did I ever have anyone try to convince me to believe otherwise, make fun of my faith, or say anything detrimental about it.
So don’t be afraid of your struggles, your questions, your doubts. But don’t go through do it alone. Throughout it all, talk to God. Ask Him for guidance, for discernment, for protection, for clarity, for understanding, for encouragement, for comfort from His Holy Spirit.
I’ll be honest with you. To question and doubt without God’s involvement could likely lead to a loss of faith. But with His involvement, you will never be alone. It may take time, and in our culture of instant-everything, that is difficult to understand and accept. It can be scary. Some answers may come to you much further down the road in your journey than you want. But that is a beautiful part of faith. It is not an object to be carried around in your pocket, taken out only when you think you need it. It is a lifelong journey, carried in your heart, in your mind, in your soul, always a part of you, always guiding you, always available and waiting whether you think you need it or not.
Earlier, we sang a song asking God to be our vision and our wisdom. Now, we’ll sing about how God is our refuge, our rock, the one that we trust, the one that will protect us and hold us in His hand.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Welcome Home

No matter where we are, there is always a place to come home to.

Ezra 1:1-7 1In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the LORD stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared: 2 "Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Any of those among you who are of his people-- may their God be with them!-- are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel-- he is the God who is in Jerusalem; 4 and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem." 5 The heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites-- everyone whose spirit God had stirred-- got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the LORD in Jerusalem. 6 All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered. 7 King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the LORD that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods.

Ezra 2:64-68 64 The whole assembly together was forty-two thousand three hundred sixty, 65 besides their male and female servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred thirty-seven; and they had two hundred male and female singers. 66 They had seven hundred thirty-six horses, two hundred forty-five mules, 67 four hundred thirty-five camels, and six thousand seven hundred twenty donkeys. 68 As soon as they came to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem, some of the heads of families made freewill offerings for the house of God, to erect it on its site.

This summer, I was away from home for just over three weeks. Three weeks of sleeping in a bed that wasn’t mine, in a house that wasn’t mine, in a city that is no longer mine. As good a time as I had, it was still good to return home.

I’m sure we all know how good it feels to come home after a trip, whether it is a long or short trip, no matter how much we enjoyed ourselves while we were gone. When we come home, we are in a familiar place again, we can sleep in our own bed again, and get back into our daily routine.

Just over three years ago I’d never even heard of Waldorf College or Forest City and now, here I am, a member of the Waldorf Family, and it is Homecoming, a time when people come home, when they feel as if they are seeing long-lost family and friends. This is a place that means something to them; it’s where they learned, lived, and served for two to four years of their lives. For so many alumni here at Waldorf, Homecoming is very much like coming home after a trip. Waldorf has been a home for so many people over the years. One of the number one things that people love about Waldorf is how close of a community it is. Not all schools are like that. I graduated from a large university and while I loved my time there, it wasn’t a home in this same sense. And at Waldorf, there are even multiple generations of family members that attend. Parents encourage their children to attend the same college that they did because they want to share that same experience.

In our scripture reading today, we see more than 40,000 people returning to the land from which they or their ancestors had been exiled about 70 years before. Many of them may never have known the land that were now returning to. But they’d been told about it. Throughout the years of exile, the people who had known their land kept the dream of returning home alive, telling stories about the land in which they’d lived, giving hope to future generations that one day, they would return.

And return they did. God uses a pagan king, King Cyrus, to do His will and let His people return to the land He’d given to them. The temple that had been destroyed in the expulsion (2 Chronicles 36: 19) would be rebuilt. It was a promise of hope to the people—that their God would once again dwell among them. This was so important to them that once they arrived, they freely offered what they could in order that the Temple would be rebuilt, and, eventually, it was.

But it wasn’t exactly the same as the old temple. We see in Ezra 3:10-13 that 10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the LORD with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; 11 and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, "For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel." And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.

So we see that some people were happy about the new Temple, and some people were sad. Because they had been away, things had changed, things were now different, and they would never be the same as they remembered. But despite that, many people were still so joyous that they had returned and that the Temple had been rebuilt, even if it was different, that the sound of their joy was “heard far away”.

The Waldorf of today has been through many changes and will continue to go through changes. For many alumni returning this weekend, Waldorf was a junior college. Those alumni have returned to a Waldorf that is a four-year institution. For many alumni that did not know Waldorf as a two-year institution, it has always been a four-year institution in their eyes, and as they continue to return home, they will see changes too. But one thing remains: this place is Waldorf, whether it is Waldorf Junior College, Waldorf College, or, at some point in the future, maybe Waldorf University. The people who come here, to learn or to teach, will all be connected; they will all be part of the Waldorf family.

Just like Israel had to adjust to changes when they came home, so do we all. We can join with those who lament the changes, or we can join with those who shout with joy to be home, no matter what the change. Because at its heart, for Israel, being home meant being God’s people in God’s land with God dwelling among them. What the temple looked like was external, cosmetic. So what does it mean to you to be home at Waldorf, with Waldorf people? Think of the connections you have made or are making during your time here as a student or employee or new connections that are made when returning to Homecoming.

I want to read another Homecoming story that I think goes along with this theme. It’s from the 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke. I’m sure you’ll recognize it.

11 Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe-- the best one-- and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.

This weekend, Waldorf welcomes its alumni home. There are special events, and people are made to feel welcome. If an educational institution can do this for its alumni, how much moreso can God do this with His children? And, not only does He welcome anyone home, but He meets them on their way home. And not only does he meet them on their way home, but he runs towards them with open arms. That is what we see in the story of the prodigal son.

Homecoming is fun, yes, with a parade and special events and a football game, but beneath those external events, there is a deep connection between this institution and its students and alumni. For some, Waldorf is the place where they first met God, or where they grew much stronger in their faith, and so the connection to this place is even deeper. Homecoming is a reminder of that time, a reminder of the knowledge of God running out to meet them when they were ready for it.

Everyone who returns here has different memories, different experiences, and different expectations. But the common tie that binds all together is the sense of Waldorf being a home. And so, students, alumni, staff, faculty, administration can all join together, shouting with joy, together celebrating that bond.