We went to see “Noah” this past weekend. Some atheist director of large movies took on a study of the Bible. For all the things that could be said about liberalities, secularizing, environmentalism, I thought it did an exemplary job of exploring how people hear God. In some people’s imagination, brought vividly to life by Bill Cosby, back in the day, it was an audible voice out of the skies. But that’s just someone’s imagination. When the Bible says, “God told Noah,” it doesn’t say “in an audible voice out of the air.” It just says God said it. If someone tells me that MEANS it was an audible voice, what it really means is that this is the way this person imagines it. But God doesn’t speak to people only with an audible voice.
Sometimes God sends a dream or fire from heaven or a vision or visits in a form people can understand as a person or in a book (like THE book) or through an angel or through a prophet or in a still, small whisper or in a pillar of smoke or a pillar of fire or a burning bush and a voice or in a particularly vivid way as Jesus.
God speaks in ways that we can understand and it is fascinating that this is what Noah is told in the movie. I believe one of the core elements of this vision of the story is the exploration of how God speaks to people. At different points God speaks:
• Through the repetition of his story as told to others
• Through creation
• Through dreams
• Through ritual
• Through verbal blessing of one person to another (confirming the blessing)
• Through shared wisdom
• Through signs (like a flood or a rainbow or a miracle)
• Through angels
• Through forgiveness
• Through community interpretation
All these ways that we read in the Bible of people seeking after knowledge or understanding from God and finding it or shown in this movie as it tells the story. We even have the example of someone demanding God to speak, essentially telling God to say what this person wants to hear, without looking at what is right in front of his face and has been throughout his life. And we see someone corrupting words and ideas we find in Scripture as one who has heard the words, but is making them fit his own design or imagination.
I was impressed with the adherence to Scripture’s telling us that people were given plants to eat before the flood, or the story of Creation (with a gentle variation) being passed down as God spoken or all the animals being drawn to the ark and Noah not having to get them. I was also impressed with the combining of the issues of free will and God’s ordaining something and miracles and God’s seeking our partnership (a rather fuller act of obedience some believers don’t seem to appreciate). I also like that they utilized elements that so many Christians latch onto, that the ark is broken in two in the mountains or that it was a big “box” more than a ship.
And I liked the “explanations” that were given, suggesting how the events may have played out without diminishing the story as Scripture presents it.
Overall, I found “Noah” to be a retelling that reminded me that God is involved and enjoys our world, doesn’t wink at the damage humans do to each other and the world, desires a relationship with us and understands our fragility. Those who are seeking to “defend” the faith and who use “Noah” as a supposed attack are not only shadow-boxing, but are also missing a chance to open a generous extended hand of friendship. We should never forget the guy to whom Jesus said, “You’re not far from the kingdom.”
I got together with a group of liberally minded students of spirituality who were wading into the Bible for a while. I was invited because I take the Bible seriously and they wanted that as part of the conversation. Some had come from stricter backgrounds but had left those years before and others were just wondering about all things spiritual and had been doing that for years. So, over tea, wine and yummy, health-minded cake (fun to discover such a thing) we chatted.
They wanted to specifically talk about one particular phrase… “pray continually.” This came from 1 Thessalonians 5:17, but to be fair the sentence is actually verses 16-18. They wanted to know how this was possible and why God would require it and what would happen if you didn’t fulfill it. They had done preliminary study and found that in older translations it read “…pray without ceasing…”
I told a little joke about a group of rabbinical students who came to their elder Rabbis saying that they wanted to study things outside of Torah, outside of the Law and the Prophets and the Wisdom literature. They wanted to study philosophy, the world, the news. So the Rabbis asked for a time of consideration and then came back and shared that they had examined Scripture and found that it was possible for the students to study these extraneous subjects. They shared that Scripture said, “I meditate on your Word day and night.” So, the students were free to use any time other than day or night to consider these other subjects.
No one thought that was funny. No one even smiled. They were serious.
These folks who had invited me into their discussion wanted to understand the LAW, because that’s where they sorted God and the Bible. How could one of the rules be PRAY WITHOUT CEASING? And I found it was impossible to teach them in that evening that it wasn’t a law. It was describing the importance of an activity, a life-giving resource that was available to us, the incredible value of what we held. The sentence is “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” God’s desire and intention for us is never to be out of community with him. This is the activity of the Holy Spirit with us, right?
My friends, that evening, couldn’t receive it.
But the truth is that the Spirit fills our hearts with the reasons to celebrate our days, with the companionship that allows us to continually converse over life and with the assurances that open our gratitude to God no matter what we are facing.
We should never stop living in that, right?
As I walk the path of Lent I am reminded that our constant companion leads me into this life first and provides the means to live it fully, abundantly. That’s God’s will for me in Christ Jesus.
Yesterday was our midweek midday service in this third week of Lent and I read the story of Joseph from Matthew 1 as part of our worship. The reason for this sudden intrusion of Christmas into Lent is because March 19 is St. Joseph’s Day. Even at Christmas time Joseph doesn’t get a lot of attention, so it felt nice to look at him with some consideration.
The tradition within the Roman Catholic Church for some is that Joseph was an older man whose wife had died and who married Mary later in his life. The sons and daughters we read about in Mark would then be from Joseph’s first marriage. This keeps Mary a perpetual virgin. That isn’t a necessary theological issue to me and when it says, in Matthew, that they didn’t consummate the marriage until after the birth of her first born, I’m willing to go with the plain reading there. I’m comfortable with Mary and Joseph having children after the birth of Jesus – four other boys and some number of girls (never noted nor named).
I’ve also noticed in the theology of some of my more conservative Protestant friends a need for Jesus’ education to have come directly from spiritual sources. In other words, Jesus knew what he knew because he was God and not because he grew and learned as a human being. That’s not necessary to me either. I’m comfortable with Jesus “growing in wisdom…” as it says in Luke and that this included gaining influence from parents. His time with the teachers of the law in the temple at the age of 12 tells us that they were impressed by his “questions” which also suggests learning to me.
Growing up in a household where the boys are named after Jewish rebels (the Maccabees) in a land still occupied by the forces rebelled against, should have created some kind of influence. If you’re going to put it out there that much, you’re probably going to talk with some comparable attitude around the dinner table. What was that like for Jesus? How human was Jesus? Completely, like we say in our doctrine, or just sort of, like we imply in conversations when we want to be authoritative with unbelievers?
Did his Dad speak into his heart and life? Walking the 4-5 miles to the construction site in Sephora, the town near Nazareth that was being built throughout the lifetime of Jesus and a likely worksite for a carpenter… did Joseph and this eldest boy walk there and back together and talk about life, work, construction methods, actors, the poor, the rich, farmers, slaves, soldiers, nature… why would the joy of learning be denied our Savior who came as one of us? There is a means of understanding fully that may be within the realm of divinity that doesn’t dismiss the act of acquiring the pieces that is so fundamental to our humanity.
So, kind of nice to have Joseph show up in Lent and remind us that a remarkable dad once stood alongside a remarkable boy, and that with humble strength each shouldered remarkable responsibility for the sake of the rest of us. That deserves my acknowledgement, I think. And it walks me toward the cross.
A man walks into my office to share news. He’s been having an affair and it is long standing. Soon everyone will know. He wants to know what to do because he has children. He doesn’t want to see his wife hurt anymore than the news itself will bring, if that’s possible. He knows that admitting this hurts me and our relationship, but, like he said, everyone’s going to know soon and he wants to tell me himself.
So, I have him tell me the story.
He shares how it started subtly, gently. He talks about being seduced and seducing. It was a relationship in which he got to share true feelings, what he was actually going through. It made him feel strong, attractive and clever. Now, he could see a way into the future and it was great. So, things were going to come out now because they were ready to follow the map they’d drawn.
And he added the comment that he and his new partner had realized that God had brought them together, that they should have found each other earlier and that now they were praying together and that God was leading them into this new life.
“Oh, no,” I replied softly, “No… God doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
And he began to argue, not in a belligerent or loud way. We were just talking. It was disagreement. God was surely in this because they’d been praying. They had asked God to guide them. God was in it.
“Nope,” I said.
“How can you say that?” he asked.
“Because, God hates divorce. Not saying that you can’t do this and I’m not telling you divorce is wrong in all situations, but I can say what God says and it’s that divorce is like ‘someone clothing themselves in violence,’ if you can picture that. You’re about to bring violence down on your whole family and that’s not a choice God would make or enjoy.”
He pushed back. He challenged. He lifted up moments when he had feelings of comfort in the prayer time he had with this new partner. So I simply asked if he was confident that God would choose for his kids to go through this, if he knew that the reason this new person was in his life was because God chose for him to renounce vows he had made to his wife. He could make any choice he wanted and he might be forgiven for any choice he made but he couldn’t claim that this is what God chose.
What if we can choose things that hurt God? What if a lot of choices we make hurt God? What if the moments when we turn toward hurting others or neglecting others or dismissing others as worthless all hurt God? What if things we want God to do or bless or confirm are not things that God would choose at all? If we read the prophets in the Old Testament with these kinds of questions in the back of our minds then their words become less about right and wrong and more like the wailing of a shredded heart. And then, when they tell us that that God is creating a way back, a way of salvation, a hope, the promise they lift up becomes so much more personal. God wants us back, so he sent Jesus to say what his heart ached to express and to do what needed to be done to clear the way.
I wish I could say that every conversation I’ve had like the one compressed above moved each individual back into health and wholeness, back into relationship. But it didn’t. I’ve had a bunch of these conversations. Some folks stormed out of my office. Some just thanked me for my time and went on their way, followed through on the new choices. But, some woke up, like they’d been sleep walking and suddenly now realize where they are, and what I’ve watched happen with them is described as Life.
As I’m walking on the pathway of Lent, one thing I’m reminded of is that God is not on my side. I’m on his and he’s the one who explains his side to me. I’m just following and trying to hear, best I can.
Lately I’ve been hit with two issues… lying and bullying. It’s very interesting that the two came together just recently. I don’t know what you think of when you hear about “bullies” or “bullying,” but I think I’m supposed to think of homosexuals. I’m being told that the members of our society that are being bullied are homosexuals. That’s where bullying starts and stops. I did hear a fluttering reference to young girls, picked on unmercifully to the point where one girl took her own life, but I still think I’m supposed to be moved to compassion toward homosexuals who are the real targets of bullying.
Having been bullied in my life several times, and that it never reflected a particular sexual connection, makes me think that bullying is a wider phenomenon than hurting one portion of our population. I remember being bullied with my friend George. George was black and I was white and we hung out together, but he was picked on because he wore a white shirt and tie to school every day. I was picked on because I hung out with George and not because I dressed like him. He was just an interesting kid, but other people couldn’t get past his clothes and they couldn’t understand how I could. His skin color came up in one conversation but mostly it was about his clothes. There were other reasons for bullying piling up on me. I was different. I made different choices. Like George sometimes it was my clothes, sometimes it was stuff that wasn’t more than skin deep, but seemed to mean something to people picking on me.
So, having something of a different experience, I begin not to believe people who want me to focus the way their telling me to focus. I begin to think they’re selling me something rather than trying to tell me the truth. Lying is when we use words to create a world that works for us. We don’t like the way the world is and so we concoct a notion of how the world should be and we say it. The trouble with lying is that, if it said in a wide-enough context, at some point it will uncovered and at that point the backlash will begin. Remember Roe vs. Wade? Remember when it came out that there was no rape involved? It was just a story made up to force the hands of those making laws. When the truth was revealed, it substantially fortified the other political side.
My problem here is the determination I sense to make me believe something other than the full truth. The full truth is that bullying is wrong. It’s not wrong for a portion of the population. It’s wrong. It would be wise of those in any camp to think long and hard before pushing anything else. It would be wise of those in the camp that is pushing the “almost” true to stop, talk with each other and take another, wider approach. It would be wiser to start promoting the idea that we are ALL human beings. That we are ALL in need of safety, care, support, honor, compassion and we shouldn’t be denied this… ANY of us. Because, let’s face it… ashes, ashes… we ALL fall down.
And so as I pass this Ash Wednesday and walk into the pathway of Lent, I focus on following the one who taught me to stop trying to make the world work for me and to work with him to create a world that works the way it was created to work. I’ve learned that if I continue to follow this one, that after I fall as he fell, in truth, I will get back up. As I walk into Lent I am reminded that truth has set me free.