About “The Word of God”

I’ve been mired in boxes of books, tools, supplies, and household paraphernalia as we seek a more manageable shape of life. The thrift stores have welcomed us with open arms. But now it’s time to return to more public matters, even as our country grieves once again at the senseless carnage that has engulfed the citizens of El Paso, Dayton, and many other places in our country.  Out of an ongoing effort to struggle with the religious roots of our inability to walk the path of reconciliation, I share this reflection. It’s a theological rumination, but I invite everyone to reflect with me from their own angle of vision.

Many Christians claim that the Bible is “the Word of God.” It is not. As attested to by John’s Gospel, Jesus Christ is the Word of God (John 1: 1-5, 14). The main problem with saying that the Bible is “the Word of God” is that we are soon led to a literalism that gives every word, sentence, and passage equal value. This leads to a legalism and fundamentalism that casts aside the spirited relationships of love, mutual persuasion, humility, and service characteristic of Jesus’s message and ministry. In the church battles over human sexuality the words of the Bible become legal clubs for attacks on others and defenses of our positions. Every time we make statements in worship, writing, or speech, that assume the Bible is the Word of God, we further encase ourselves in this literalistic legalism and fundamentalism.

The concept of “the Word of God” is firmly embedded in churches shaped by the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The more Protestants rejected the Papacy and the Roman Church as the proper interpreter of divine truth, the more they appealed to Scripture. The more they appealed to “scripture alone,” the more they fed the literalism we suffer today. Yet Jean Calvin, at the fountainhead of the major strand of the Reformation informing American Protestantism, held firmly to the position that it is Jesus Christ who is “the Word of God” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Ch. 13, section 6). As Methodists and other Christians appeal to the Bible in their struggle over the proper forms of human sexuality and activity, reclaiming this simple truth becomes crucial.

What then, does it mean, that Jesus Christ, not the Bible, is “the Word of God”? First, it is important to remember that the Bible itself is a collection of books written between about the tenth century before Jesus to around seventy years after his death. Other writings, such as the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas contended for canonical status well into the third century AD, when the basic collection of canonical writings took shape. Even today, Catholics and Protestants are divided over which books constitute “the Bible.” These books themselves do not claim to be “the Word of God,” since they all were written before even the basic shape of the Bible was established by the churches formed by these scriptures.

The concept of “the Word of God” does, however, shape the Scriptures. God creates by a “Word” in Genesis 1. The prophets frequently speak of hearing and proclaiming “the Word of YHWH (“the Lord”) as they receive their calling and prophecies. It is in the Johannine writings that this creative and prophetic Word is seen to become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. The “Word of God” is the dynamic life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. It is this reality, known through the Holy Spirit informing the church, that God’s “Word” is present.

What we have in the Biblical writings, from a Christian perspective, is a series of documents in which people give witness to the work of God in their history. The Scriptures lay out the faith and history of the people among whom Jesus lived, ministered, taught, died and was known in resurrection by his followers. They speak out of deep inspiration and ecstatic experience, but their words only point to the mystery of God’s work that Christians see in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. They are not the work and word of God themselves.

Christian preachers and witnesses hope that their words will open up this saving work of God to others, but neither their words nor those of the Scriptures are “the Word of God” themselves. The reading of Scripture can draw us into a greater experience and understanding of this incarnate Word, but Scripture itself is not this Word. Moreover, the capacity of these words to draw us into God’s revelation depends on the Holy Spirit that continually seeks to guide the church assembly in its work of discernment. Reading the words does not automatically open us up to “the Word” that is Christ. That is the work of the Spirit guiding the community of listeners.

In moving from the view that the Bible is the “Word of God” to one that holds that Christ is the “Word of God,” we move to opening ourselves up to this deeply personal, mysterious, and self-transcending reality of a life, a living presence, that is transforming us toward the love, goodness, and beauty of the Creator of All. It is in the Spirit of this reconciling work that we are to approach the vexing ethical and spiritual challenges of our world.

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Leaving Overbrook

Like many people our age we have to leave the home that has centered our lives for many years in order to live in more manageable and accessible circumstances. They say we are to “grow old in place,” but the place that has contained our dreams and loves must be left behind for the sake of prudent aging in a new place.

“Overbrook” is the name we gave it, for it was built with funds from the liquidation of the farm of that name that my father and grandfather had built up in the twentieth century. It was only a happy coincidence that you had to ford a creek to reach the home we built low on a mountainside here in the Smokies.

The constant murmur of the creek and its cascades sometimes became a roar beneath the weight of captured hurricanes and summer downpours. At night the woods were as quiet and dark as a womb, as “dark as the inside of a cow,” as we said when I was a boy on the farm. The birds became an orchestra in early summer. In fall, the golden leaves poured down from the ancient tulip tree that was our trust and stubborn inspiration. We knew what neighbors were when trees fell down across the road and snow bound us together in a blanket of mutual aid. And there was the view, the ten-million dollar view, as one of our friends exclaimed. It stretched from Eagle’s Nest and Hemphill Ridge to Mt. Sterling on the west to Utah Mountain, where the locals hounded Mormons into exodus to western deserts. Beyond lay Hurricane Ridge, trailing off to Crabtree Mountain and Chambers Mountain, where the broadcast towers bristled in quiet radiation. Below us in the valley the Research Farm laid out its ever-changing quilt of open earth, fresh growth, and harvest yellows. We knew that someday we would have to leave it. That time has become now.

Now, at our new place in town, half way between the church and the coffee shop, the library and the bookstore, the creek is replaced with the whirr of passing cars. Instead of groundhogs and deer, we will watch schoolchildren parading back and forth to the Middle School. “The View” will be the ridges of nearby Eagle’s Nest. A sleepy freight car passing on the nearby tracks will take the place of pickups straining at the curves below our deck. The sights and sounds will change, but not the homebrew, the coffee, the hand that lines my own with aging veins that speak of many years together.

It’s time. Life flows against the screen of seemingly changeless mountains and streams. It is a dying. The Hindus call it the passage from the forest-dweller to the renunciant. Downsizing, we call it. Becoming smaller against the infinities of cosmic order. Overbrook has been the fulcrum of our life, but now we move out on the springboard that releases us to possibilities of a more proportional existence.

For some, this move, like death, is only grief. For us, we have received the blessings of the couple who rebuilt a house we felt could be our home. And then another couple came to see our Overbrook and said upon the threshold, “We are home.” We pass on not a commodity to be used up but a trust to be enjoyed and be loved. So there is a passage and a passing on. Our leaving is also an arriving, an acceptance of who we are right now, an openness to what we might become. Like life. Like all our lives. Thanks be to God.

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Transitions in Scotland

We just returned from two weeks in Scotland. Many months ago we planned to visit the Island of Iona to participate in a week-long retreat at the historic Abbey. We then added on a brief stay in Edinburgh to taste its long history and present spirit. Every year, thousands of people make a pilgrimage, or at least a tourist stop, at the little island adjacent to the larger island of Mull, gateway to the inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. Claimed for a missionary monastery in 563 AD by St. Columba, of Ireland, it has long been revered, even in ruins, as the cradle of Christianity in the land of the Picts and the Scots. Over the last century, much of the Abbey and its buildings has been restored. Programs of spiritual renewal and ecological awareness are conducted by the Iona Community within its precincts and beyond. Sheep and Highland cattle browse the clipped fields while the bones of centuries of monks, warriors, kings, fishermen, and farmers sleep beneath the sod.

While we had simply wanted to soak up any spirits these grounds might yield, our retreat agenda was suddenly reshaped by the decision to buy a house in town to sustain us in this next lap of our life’s journey. The time on Iona became a chance to suspend our daily chores in order to assimilate this profound movement from our beloved dream home in the mountains to a smaller house in town that was being resurrected by a caring and competent couple whose “fixer-upper” work seems as much a ministry as a profession. Our own life transition became an unexpected part of our group’s conversation as the week progressed amidst internet connections that were, let’s say, somewhat medieval.

So Iona became for us a hinge between our personal past and future, just as it has been the hinge between Scotland’s ancient past and its Christian era. The stone walls of the old Abbey where we prayed, listened, and shared our deeper thoughts contained a darkness like the fears and mysteries encasing us, but the sea outside was brilliant in the summer sun, the sheep and cows like the still patience of God. The stones and beams arching over us became a sheltering presence re-arranged to argue for a future only dimly augured by the past.

Out of ruins

a place of devotion

Not drawn from the sky of speculation

and pristine plans

But from the broken stones that lie about

detritus of an unknown hand.

And so we move from our beloved home built

pure amidst the mountain brambles and the trees

To claim a domicile from the bones of long-neglected rooms

left desolate by loss of hope, of means, of caring hand.

Out of life

a dissolution

Out of death

a resurrection

All one life in the builder’s hands

Seeking habitations for our souls.

But Scotland was not finished with us. For four days the long “Royal mile” of Edinburgh, sloping from the old town of castle and Cathedral to the royal palace of Holyrood and the new Parliament building, was yet another metaphor of our transition in life. At the high end, we worshipped in contemporary yet formal language at St. Giles Cathedral and heard a lovely concert of contemporary music by the visiting choir of Myers Park United Methodist Church of Charlotte (how strange to come so far to hear our neighbors!). At the bottom of the road was the wholly original doorway to the future, Scotland’s new Parliament building, completed in 1999. Here was openness to the future as well as voices of the past inscribed on outside walls for passersby to contemplate. We were able to get tickets to attend a session of Parliament to hear debate about how to respond if or when the UK leaves the European Union. Scotland stands at yet another threshold of possibilities, with dangers on either side, trusting only in the power of mutual persuasion in the face of grim necessities of trade, immigration, climate change, and new expressions of ancient rivalries.

It was not the trip we expected. It was a chance to pause between past and future, to sense the anxiety as well as the liberation of change. I’ll try to share some relevant thoughts about this in the months ahead.

 

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Riley Howell

Our church and community just suffered the trauma of the death of Riley Howell, a young man raised in our congregation, who hurled himself at a gunman who invaded his classroom at UNC-Charlotte, shooting at the students. As his strong body crushed the young man beneath his own, a bullet took his life. His action gave police time to capture the killer. Only one other student died in the shooting. Though we did not know Riley personally, we know several members of the family and have spent many hours with his great aunt. Riley’s heroism did not arise from a vacuum. It was the core of his communal and familial ethos.

This is a town knit together by long-standing family ties, civic associations, school friendships, and a common love of these beautiful mountains. Streets and bridges were lined with well-wishers as his body was returned here for burial. The funeral had to be held in the largest auditorium in the county. Our local paper, The Mountaineer, devoted most of an issue to Riley’s life and his heroic action in death.

At our monthly roundtable worship Sunday evening his Sunday School teacher, who had put her hand on his head at baptism and confirmation, was able to share her grief and her thanks for this blessing that blazed through our life like a meteor. He is one more marker, not only to the demonic violence of our society but to the self-giving love that will get us out of it. It is at tables like this that reconciliation takes root. The table is a place for healing as well as conversation and nurture.

Riley’s exuberant, self-giving life will remain in our consciousness as a light to guide us out of the isolation of suspicious fear into the solidarity of mutual giving that is life itself. His own gift calls all of us to do what we can, where we are, to demand laws, policies, and redoubled commitment to our communal fabric to turn back the gun violence that rips at our children’s lives, at our congregations’ sanctity, and our public life itself. Take a minute with us to give thanks for Riley and for all those who have lived out to the full Jesus’s ancient words that no one has greater love than this, to lay down his or her life not only for their friend but for the stranger and their neighbor (John 15:13).

 

 

 

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