I love the Bible. It is so funny and strange and shockingly accurate about human hubris and tenderness.
Jepthah sacrificing his own daughter because of his arrogant thoughtlessness? Sounds like us.
Martha chewing out Jesus for not coming when her brother Lazarus was dying? Of course she did!
The Bible is like looking into a mirror and through a window at the same time. Sometimes we see ourselves, other times we glimpse gracious possibilities. I understand the Bible to be holy as a result of its use and inspiration, but not written word-for-word by God.
I use several tools when approaching our scripture:
- Literary: Is this a poem, prose, hymn?
- Historical: What do we know about the context in which this might have been written?
- Post-colonial: Knowing how much the Bible was used to conquer and enslave, how might a given passage reverse those effects or reveal the colonialism of the characters themselves?
- Anti-racist and feminist: As with the above, can a given portion be used to harm or free?
- Jewish: I do not read the Hebrew Bible with a Christian lens (“the red line to Christ”). Instead, I take the books preceding Matthew on their own, Jewish, terms as much as I am able. It is not an old testament to people who are Jewish, so why call it that?
Ultimately, I do not take the Bible very literally, but I do take it very seriously. To use Christian Wiman’s language, I have staked my life on it.
What is faith?
As a Gen-X-er from the Pacific Northwest, I am an outlier. We are not a religious people, with a special rejection of Christianity due to its history of, and contemporary associations with, hate and violence. I found that it was far, far easier to come out as gay in my home community than as a follower of Jesus Christ. Even if I could explain away the ugliness as an inaccurate abuse of my faith tradition, I still had a lot to explain: Did I really believe Jesus was resurrected?
No. I do not believe Jesus rose from the dead and walked around and then floated up into the sky.
In fact, I do not believe much of what is in our scripture: Eden, the flood, half-human/half-divine beings, flaming chariots in the sky, that women should be silent in church.
But I have a great deal of faith. I have faith that this truly weird collection of stories that has endured for over three millennia and across tremendous cultural differences has truth to reveal about humanity, God, and the space in between. I take the Bible seriously, not literally, as we like to say in the United Church of Christ.
Faith, as opposed to belief, releases me from absolutes and proof-texting. Faith allows me to dance intellectually and spiritually with the more-than, which I refer to as God. Faith is what inspires and sustains my solidarity with the widow, orphan, and stranger (the Hebrew Bible terms for the oppressed).
The imagery of the resurrection is not original to the Jesus story; other holy men in Roman culture had similar deaths and ascensions. But I have faith that when the many writers of the gospels (including the gospels that didn’t make it into the Bible) used that story form, they were trying to speak a truth. It is a truth that encourages me to die to my self-centeredness and manufactured needs in order to live again for justice.
I do not believe very much, but I have faith enough for all.
What is Justice?
Many years ago I had the opportunity to serve as a teaching assistant for Tracy Ore when we were both at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The course was Sociology 100 and had over 600 students, 90 of whom were assigned to me for discussion groups outside of the large lecture.
Just as it was for so many of the undergraduates, this was a transformative experience for me. At last I had the language to articulate and explain the injustices of race, class, sex, gender, ability, sexuality, religion, and nation of origin that I had seen. I find the sociological theories and terms cropping up in my preaching to this day, particularly justice.
What is justice? For some, justice comes when a convicted felon is executed, for others when all children can read by the second grade. Here is the definition I learned from Dr. Ore—I haven’t found one better. (And I can’t find my old notes to see if she had a source.)
A society is just when
- People have options.
- People are aware of those options.
- People can act on those options.
- Acting on those options does not harm others.
For example, access to college. Acceptance to a college requires a high school diploma and testing, be it the SATs or ACTs. Not all youth have those options, or if they do, know how to (and can afford to) take them.
My posts in this section, then, will be based on this notion of justice, one that I find wholly reflected in the scripture and practice of my faith.
Very early in my coming out as a Christian with a call to ministry, my pastor asked me to stand up in front of our church. He asked me to share that story. I did, concluding that I knew I could not be ordained because I am gay. (At that time I was in a denomination that would block my progress.) As I moved to sit down, he asked me to hold still. He then turned to the day’s worshippers and asked anyone who would stand with me through my journey to come forward. They all did, putting their hands on my head, shoulders, and back. I was overwhelmed by love.
Years later, as I went to seminary and moved through the ordination process in the United Church of Christ, I carried with me both their love and my awareness that as a gay woman, my road would be rockier. At the time, only 20% of the UCC was Open and Affirming and women still had a harder time than men securing a pulpit. I knew that I would have to work harder than others just to reach the same goal.
I also knew how much power a pastor could have in a person’s life and the responsibility that comes with such trust. Although most of the pastors I had known in adulthood were good people, there was one who betrayed my trust significantly. As I pursued my call, not only did I work to get past the hurdles of my sex and sexuality, I strove to have an integrity that would be worthy of the trust congregants would so easily give.
I take pastoring seriously. It is a life and death job. Yes, good pastors will be flawed and make terrible mistakes. But they—we—may also have the integrity to own up to our humanity, tend to our boundaries, practice what we preach, and honor our vows (baptismal, marital, and ordination).
And have a lot of fun along the way.