Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Experiencing God Through Worship

The scene in Isaiah 6 is known by biblical scholars as a theophany—an appearance of God. Isaiah is taken directly into the throne room and presence of God, where he is confronted with not only who God is, but with who he is in relation to God. The scene is one that defines for us what being in God’s presence might entail and it may be an example to us of what worship should be in our own lives.

Our biggest problem in realizing the kind of life-changing worship that Isaiah experienced is that we are essentially self-centered and self-absorbed. Some of us may be more self-centered than others, and most of us may be less self-centered than the celebrity driven world in which we live, but the reality is that all of us are to some degree self-centered. This may present the strongest obstacle to the life-changing experience of God in worship.
But in order for worship to be life-changing, we must first understand what Christian worship is. 
In the scene from Isaiah 6 we find themes that demonstrate what worship is. 
First we find that worship is wonderment. As Isaiah enters the presence of God, he is awe struck by God’s majesty and holiness. He cannot look upon God, for in God he finds wonder beyond his comprehension. 
Second, we also see from Isaiah 6 that worship is transformative. In his experience of God’s presence Isaiah sees who is really is, a sinner. Yet, in his confession of his sinfulness, Isaiah is transformed into the person God desires him to be, a person who experiences the forgiveness of God.
Third, worship is also renewing. Through God’s forgiveness, Isaiah is a renewed person, who lives for the purpose and will of God. He calls out to God, “Here I am, send me” declaring to God the newness that he has found in the presence of God.
Finally, worship is decentering. In his experience of God, Isaiah’s life finds a new center. Through worship, he is decentered from his self and centered on God’s will and purpose for his life.
But, how do we experience this kind of worship? If worship is the primary practice to which we are called, if worship is what can change and transform our lives, and if worship is what puts us in the presence of God, then how are we to experience this kind of worship? I will answer this question through four key words.
Preparation. Athletes prepare for games. Entertainers prepare for the big show. Hosts prepare for their guests. Why don’t Christians spend time more time preparing for worship on Sunday?  Is it because we rely on others, the pastor, the worship leader, the musicians, to do the preparing for us? Worship, if it is to be transformative, renewing, and decentering, requires our preparation.
This involves personal times of worship during the week—prayer, bible reading, reflection, etc.  It involves asking God to prepare us for cooperate worship and to prepare us to receive and respond to God’s word. If we are not experiencing life changing worship, then perhaps we are not preparing for cooperate worship through our personal worship.
Participation. We live in a culture bathed in the “entertain me” mentality. We pay good money to go to movies, concerts, and other forms of entertainment. We have hundreds of cable channels to choose from and Netflix! We are perhaps the most entertained culture in history.
Yet, this often spills over into our worship as we come to be entertained. If worship is boring to us, we complain. If we are not being entertained by worship, we complain.
But worship is not about entertainment. Worship is not about meeting my entertainment needs. Worship is about participation with the saints in the eternal praise and experience of God.
Expectation. Do we come expecting God to change us? Or do we come expecting not to hear from God? Do we come with prepared hearts and minds, wanting, desiring, and longing to hear from God, to experience God’s presence, and to be changed? 
Or do we come with our own agendas, distracted by our own lives, and set on maintaining our status quo existence. We need to come prepared to participate and expect God to speak to us.
Imagination. It took great imagination on Isaiah’s part to experience what he experienced. By imagination, I do not mean a Disney Land sort of imagination. By imagination, I mean can we imagine that God can change our lives? Can we see God working in our lives by shaping us into the image of Christ? This is faith, and faith involves imagination.
We live in a world of skepticism. I do believe that a level of skepticism and asking questions is healthy to faith. But perhaps we have become so entrenched into this way of modern thinking, that we cannot image an experience that is other-worldly, an experience of the real presence of God. Imagination can bring us to this experience.
Worship should be an experience of God that transforms us. When we come together to worship as the body of Christ, we participate in one of the most miraculous events ever to occur here on this earth. We get to experience the presence of the living God among us.
And when this practice becomes consistent in our lives, God is able to move us from simply doing worship as a part of our lives, to worship becoming our way of life.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Word of God and Words of Humans: Rethinking Divine Inspiration

Christians have long believed that the Bible was inspired by God, basing this doctrine on Second Timothy 3:16, which states, “All scripture is inspired by God.”  The word translated as “inspired” literally means “God-breathed,” and although the author of these words would have been speaking specifically about the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians would most certainly include the books of the New Testament as those inspired by God.  But what do we mean by “inspiration”?
Most seminary students can list the various theories that have been proposed to describe the action of divine inspiration.  From those theories that view the scriptures as produced by gifted human authors, to the idea that God gave a message to the author, who then used his own words in writing the text, to the theory that God dictated every particular word of the text, each hypothesis has been debated by theologians across the range of Christian thought.  Indeed, schisms in denominations and local churches have happened over disagreements over how one defines inspiration.  Moreover, professors of theology have been fired from their institutions and excommunicated from academic societies based their definition and explanation of divine inspiration.
While 2 Timothy 3:16 clearly states that “All scripture is God-breathed,” this does not mean that we must accept the idea that every word was dictated by God to the human author, who then recorded those words.  Again, if we take the author of 2 Timothy seriously, we can only admit that this verse is in reference to the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.  Yet, even if we recognize the New Testament as inspired by God, it is not compulsory to believe that every single word of the text was inspired by God.  One’s critical approach to scripture or to any theory of divine inspiration does not in and of itself negate one’s faith in God or the Bible as a source of faith.  To view the text of scripture as having a human origin as much as a divine one does not make one less faithful in one’s belief in God, and is really more intellectually honest with the evidence.
In fact, the texts of scripture actually give more evidence to human involvement in their production than they do of divine inspiration.  This does not mean that we need to throw out divine inspiration altogether.  But we must ask two very important and interrelated questions if we are to define, at least at some level, the idea of inspiration.  Why did the writers of the books of the Bible write and why did they write what they wrote?
Those holding to verbal or literal inspiration would answer that God led these biblical authors to write what they wrote.  This may be true at some level, but there is no way for us to know this.  In fact, a critical and historical investigation of the Bible, as I have suggested above, leads us more in the direction of concluding that these authors chose of their own free will to write and to write what they wrote.  Thus, it might be helpful for us to answer the questions about why these texts were written, and why the authors wrote what they wrote, by considering why the two communities that produced the two portions of the Bible would have done so.  In approaching the question from this angle, we are being more intellectually honest with the text.
Obviously, we must speak here in generalities when we talk about ancient Israel, from whom we received the Hebrew Bible, and early Christianity, from whence comes the New Testament.  Across the time and space of both of these communities, but particularly ancient Israel, there was much diversity that has become a part of the text of scripture.
The people of Israel viewed themselves as different from the other nations that surrounded them.  They believed their God was supreme over other gods, and that their God had created the physical world from nothing and had chosen them as a covenant people.  This belief certainly influenced their understanding of the world and other peoples, but it also influenced the telling of their stories, both orally and then through written texts.
To put it succinctly, Israel’s texts of scripture came forth from the people of Israel in response to what they believed about God and what God was doing.  In other words, they were theologically interpreting history and they were telling their history from a theological point of view.  Their understanding of God and the world influenced the way they told their stories, from the creation story, to the flood story, to the Exodus story, to the stories of conquering the land of Canaan through violence, and the stories of their Exile and their return.
In approaching an understanding of the writing of the New Testament books, we must remember two things.  First, the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish, and hence any faith that would develop from their experiences must have some connection to ancient Israel and its texts.  Second, because these earliest followers of Jesus believed him to be the promised Messiah of Israel, they must be able to explain this in relation to God’s working in the life of ancient Israel as expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures.  To state it differently, early followers of Jesus needed to make their texts point to Jesus as the promised Messiah and they needed to tell the stories of Jesus in ways that harmonized him to their texts.
In holding onto these two important ideas, the authors of the books that would become the New Testament searched the Hebrew Bible in an attempt to understand and explain Jesus.  While we like to think that the Old Testament foretold the coming of Jesus, it is probably better to say that those earliest believers in Jesus saw in him what they believed was described about the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible.  In other words, in their experience of Jesus, they re-read their ancients sacred texts, looking for texts that made sense to their understanding of Jesus, and then applied those to Jesus.  They then formulated their stories about Jesus to define his life, teachings, death and resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises.  Thus, their experience of Jesus influenced both their reading of the Old Testament as well as their writing of the New Testament.
Yet, what also influenced the writers of the New Testament was the current situation of the churches to which they wrote.  As stated above, the documents of the New Testament for the most part were shaped as much by the needs of the communities of faith as they were by the stories that were passed down about Jesus.  Certainly we are aware that Paul’s letters, as well as the other epistles, were written to churches that were dealing with issues.  But we must also be aware that embedded in the Gospels and other New Testament books are the situations of the followers of Jesus during the time of the writing.
What all of this means is that the text of scripture, what we call the Bible, is the Word of God in the sense that it contains the stories of how God’s ancient peoples believed God to be working in the world.  For these two communities of faith, the writing of these texts was the formation of a theological explanation for the existence of the world and humanity, a theological diagnosis of the human predicament, and a theological explanation for overcoming this predicament.  The Bible contains the explanations of the mysteries of God envisioned by these historically situated humans, but no more.   Their understanding of God, humanity, and the world is much different than our own.  Though we can learn from them and are influenced by their stories and texts, we must approach these texts critically in order to assess how the Spirit speaks through scripture today.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Gospel Compels Us to Tear Down Walls of Hostility and Make Peace

One of the greatest events to take place in the last few decades was the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For almost three decades this wall stood as a visual reminder of the hostilities that existed between the parties on either side of the wall. Yet the demolishing of this wall brought a new sense of hope to the world and the beginning of a new relationship between countries that once were hardcore enemies. 

And yet, despite this historic event, walls still remain barriers between groups of people who often do not trust one another, and who do not care to associate with one another. Some of these walls exist as physical representations of one of the fundamental problems of human societies: a deep fear of the other. But, there also exists the non-physical walls that keep us from building authentic community.

Ephesians 2:11-22 addresses the idea that in the incarnation of Jesus, God was bringing about a new creation, not just of those individuals who became new creations in Christ, but also a new creation of one new humanity in which the barriers between two specific groups of people, Jews and Gentiles, were brought down in order to bring the two into one.

In Christ, the wall of division has been brought down, and the two people that once existed apart from each other are now one new humanity. This transformation in relationship is not God’s attempt to create two covenant people, Jew and Gentile. Nor do the Gentiles take the place of Israel. Rather, the Gentiles have been brought near to God and are now joined in union and in peace with God and God’s people.

What really is at the center of this passage is the idea of peace. The word appears four times, and the peace that is discussed is that which is connected to our peace with God through Christ, as well as our peace with others. And this peace is certainly what our world needs now to break down other walls.

As we have seen even in the last few weeks in witnessing the heinous shooting of African-Americans in their own church, even in our modern world violence continues to plague our homes, our neighborhoods, and indeed, countries around the world. Division and fragmentation continue to work against God’s desire and dream for true community that is based in love and peace.

Much of the problem is that although people desire community, they often cannot find authentic community. We don’t know everything about the gunman that took the nine lives in the Mother Emmanuel Church, but we must wonder, at least to some extent, about his community and whether or not he had a community that nurtured something other than racist hatred.

Would it have made a difference if he had a loving and caring community that offered him both acceptance and accountability? Would this have nurtured him to be a different person? 

And we must also wonder and reflect on who we are as a society that we continue to allow these tragic events to be possible. Our radical individualism, as much as we take pride in this as Americans, has caused us to lose the view that we are a collective society. Even if we show concern for others and seek community with them, we are more likely to do so with people who are like us, who look like us, and who agree with us.

Christ came to bring peace and community among all people. And, if we read the Gospels carefully, we find that Jesus was concerned with community, including the mission to bring those who had no community into his community.

And in his mission, Jesus, as the writer of Ephesians puts it, created, “In himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”

But the message of peace, reconciliation, and unity cannot be limited only to the divisions that existed between Jews and Gentiles. Christ’s death was an act of God to bring all people into a new relationship with him, and this includes coming into new relationships with others.

No longer are we to stand on either sides of the wall so that we can vilify the other. Rather, in Christ, God has brought us near to God’s self, and thus we are near to people from all walks of life. God desires to destroy the barriers that divide us and Christ teaches us to embrace others.

If we are followers of Christ, to embrace others means we are called to be peacemakers. As Jesus plainly stated, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

In the closing verses of the Ephesians passage, the writer uses the image of the temple, a structure that once stood in Jerusalem that symbolized the division between Jews and Gentiles. Ephesians states, however, that the two people have become one united holy temple in which God dwells. 

This temple is never finished or closed; it is a living and ever growing inclusive temple. It is a community of faith that seeks to bring near those who are far off; that seeks to welcome aliens and strangers; that seeks to bring hope and community to those who do not have these. As we participate in what God is doing, we cooperate with the spirit of God in fulfilling God’s dream to continue to create break down wall and create one new humanity of peace.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Critical and Communal Interpretation of the Bible

Regardless of which Christian tradition we call our own, the sacred texts of the Bible are always central to that tradition.  While we may affirm different canons of scripture, all families within the Christian faith have great reverence for the scriptures and view them as having a vital place of authority in shaping Christian belief and practice.  Yet, we must realize that the texts of scripture never stand on their own. The Bible does not interpret itself, but must be interpreted by those who read the text; those situated in various times and places who seek to grasp what these texts say about God.
There are many reasons people may read the Bible, e.g., historical or literary, but the ultimate and constant reason for reading the Bible is theological. Most who read the text, or hear the text read, believe it to have something to say about God and God’s engagement with humanity.  Indeed, the Bible exists, both in its parts and in its whole, not primarily for historical or literary purposes, but because both the parts and the whole of the Bible offer the historically situated authors’ views on God and how God relates to humanity.  In other words, the authors of the different books of the Bible present primarily a theological perspective of life from their own world. 
But the very existence of the Christian sacred texts from any and every tradition indicates that the stories of the Bible are not just about the events, characters, and times of their own era.  These stories extend beyond their own frame of reference to communicate a belief in God’s good future in which each generation can find hope in the midst of the challenges of human existence.
So, if the primary purpose for writing the books of the Bible and for reading these books is theological, then how should we read these ancient texts that were written by historically situated humans who would not have envisioned the world in which we live?  Do we take what they say about God at face value, or should we be open to fresh understandings of God?  Answering these questions fully would take more space than allotted here, but I want to offer at least a rudimentary approach to reading the scriptures theologically.
One important step to reading the Bible theologically is to embrace a critical approach to biblical interpretation.  In other words, we can extend our critical approach to the Bible past simply asking questions about the history of the Bible, to asking questions about what the Bible says.  A critical approach to reading scripture is not only appropriate, it is also necessary when one is seeking to develop relevant theological thinking.
A critical approach involves several components that contribute to viable and meaningful interpretations.  Reading the Bible critically means not only giving close attention to the literary nature of the text, and to the genre of a specific text, but also to the historically conditioned nature of the biblical texts and the authors who penned them. These authors, and the texts they produced, reflect a different worldview than ours.  They viewed the cosmos differently, history differently, and the experience of the divine differently.  Thus, any faithful readings, and the theology that develops from those readings, must take into account the assumptions these authors had that we no longer have. While developing our theology from the scriptures must demonstrate integrity with the historical meaning of the text, our readings are not bound by those original meanings as we seek to bring theological relevancy to our own context.
Yet, as we read and interpret the text of scripture to this end, we must also recognize our own presuppositions.  Each of us reads from our own ideologies that are often culturally transmitted to us.[1]  We approach the biblical text with these ideologies, which often leads to our reading our presuppositions into the texts of scripture without realizing it.  Our gender, our race, our sexual orientation, our socio-economic class, and even the various events we have experienced and continue to experience all contribute to the assumptions we have about what the Bible says and means.  Moreover, we often do not recognize such ideologies and presuppositions, and not doing so can cause us to cling consciously or unconsciously to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of biblical passages that are not true to the text or a critical approach to its interpretation.  
Indeed, such misinterpretations may be so deeply embedded in our cultural locations that they may be hard to set aside altogether.  They are often like a pair of old spectacles that have become a part of who we are and through which we see everything.  To be sure, we would be uncomfortable and untrusting of what we read without them.  But, if we are to read the texts faithfully in order to shape a more relevant and meaningful theology and practice, we must take them off, at least for the purpose of seeing the text differently.
Of course, we could read the Bible critically in isolation, but that may only lead us back to our presuppositions.  A more fruitful practice of reading would be to read the text of scripture in a community that may offer challenges to our individual understandings.  A text of scripture does not have a single meaning limited to authorial intent, and no one person has greater authority in interpreting a text of scripture.  Certainly we can be helped by those trained to read these ancient texts; those committed to the study of their original languages, settings, and purpose, but we need not all be biblical scholars to read, appreciate, and live out the meanings of the biblical texts. 
Each of us approaches the texts with different experiences and thus each of us has different presuppositions.  When shared in a community of textual readers, however, such experiences can enrich one’s faith and lead one to be more faithful in his or her discipleship.  The richness of the biblical texts cannot be limited to authorial intent or authoritative interpretation.  Rather, the Bible contains a multiplicity of valid interpretations, and reading in community can help us see other meanings and other ways of assessing the Bible.
Yet, while we can read the scriptures in the communities we call our churches, this may only reinforce the same presuppositions.  Others from our community wear similar glasses, for we typically associate with those who look like us, talk like us, and are from the same social and economic situations.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this practice, and reading in like minded community is an exercise in biblical and theological interpretation that can shape our discipleship. 
But, reading the text with people from other races, other cultures, other social and economic conditions, and other ways of thinking about God and humanity can help us recognize our presuppositions and assist us in seeing the text vastly different.  And such a practice may help us to see God differently by offering the Spirit a way of leading us to fresh interpretations that shape our theological thinking.

[1] See V. George Shillington, Reading the Sacred Text: An Introduction to Biblical Studies (London: T&T Clark, 2002), 5.