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.

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