Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bible Study: Seek the Truth

Forty-one months of blogging, done for myself as a daily pseudo-intellectual exercise, started in October 2010 upon being told my stage of heart disease was inoperable and I had two to five months to live; and since I had as priest and pastor been down that road with many parishioners over the years and always wondered what it must be like to be dying and be aware of it (more precisely so than the dismissive "well, we're all dying"), I decided to pay close attention and enjoy and journal my end of life experience. "Enjoy" is a stretch, because admittedly it came as a bit of a shock, especially when a beloved daughter burst into sobs when told on the phone, but I accordingly started my journal in my BayMed hospital room the evening of Wednesday, October 20, 2010, the day the team of cardiologists and heart surgeons gave me the bad news. Within a day of starting my journal, a friend cajoled me into being public and letting people know how I was doing, so I did that and have never skipped a day of writing and posting. Only one post was deleted, and I'm no longer sure why I did that, perhaps it was offensive or obtuse, I don't recall (after all, being a brainless bull in a china shop has never bothered me). Even when I was in Cleveland Clinic for open heart surgery and recovery, Tass and Joe covered for me faithfully a day or so and never missed a beat. 

Although it's for me, I blog for myself, the blog nevertheless gets read by some people, ranging from about 150 to sometimes more than 300 hits a day. Know what causes the wide range of counts? The title I put on it. I've messed with minds just to find out, and it's so: a sensational sounding title garners lots of hits. This, "Bible Study" will be lucky to get a dozen. But I don't care, and here goes.

Always to some extent a bookworm of sorts, I love the Bible and love reading and studying the Bible and discussing it with others, both with people who know more than I do about it and especially with people who know little but whose Bible interest and enthusiasm may be ignited by studying in a group. So, I like to offer Bible study classes. The reason I offer Bible study is that in my experience coming out of seminary into life as a parish priest I generally found my lay parishioners naive about the Bible. Naive and ignorant. Naive and ignorant and literal. Literal minded. Mentally and emotionally and knowledge-wise in children’s Sunday school, like the people Saint Paul found to be still on milk, pablum instead of chewable food. Not just cradle Episcopalians who always thought that all they needed was the Book of Common Prayer and the Sunday Lectionary and do the liturgy and get home for martinis and Sunday dinner; but especially the good folk like my dear mother who had been raised in fundamentalist literalist churches, who grew up with a family Bible on the coffee table in the living room with notes penciled in the margins and always lying open in case the preacher dropped by, folks who memorize Bible verses and tell you, “well, the Bible says...” because they’ve picked out prooftext verses that eisegete their certainties while skipping verses that say quite the opposite, who have no idea of the centuries of human experience that went into telling and compiling and writing down and rewriting what they were reading, and who brought this personal baggage into the Episcopal church with them but still generally assumed that God scribed the Bible himself with his own fingers a la Moses or dictated to a human amanuensis a la Paul. And who see the Bible as a book when in fact it's a living process. 

On leaving seminary I observed that my colleagues, and in fact the priests who had been my predecessors before me, eased into “parish management” and pastoral duties and conveniently tucked away in a box on a high shelf in the back of the closet of their mind, what they studied and learned about the Bible in seminary. As in, "Oh, lay people aren't ready for that, and besides I might get fired." My seminary theology professor warned our class that this would happen and urged us to be bold and take our seminary education into our parishes. I have tried to do that, beginning thanks to a friend named Pat with a program called "EfM" and branching out after long EfM years into general Bible study wherever I find myself in ministry. 

At first, I tried limiting Bible study class registration, attendance and participation to folks who were EfM graduates, because I knew that there would be shocking things to face and they would arrive with basic knowledge and not be floored at what they found out. But I no longer limit: all are invited and welcome. Yet it's risky, quite risky.

Why? Because there's lots to learn, and much of it is challenging, assumption-shocking, certainty-rattling, faith-shaking. Things of “faith” get people riled up to feel affronted and take offense when lifelong certainties are called into question. People with certainties to protect defend them with rationalization. People with “faith certainties” want them ratified, not challenged. People like to nod their heads knowingly while you talk; they don't like it when their mouth drops in astonishment. And it’s almost impossible to change the average person’s mind with facts and reason and common sense -- even though we Episcopalians say that our faith is based on Scripture, Reason and Tradition. My observation is that Reason sprouts wings and flies into cubbyholes and covers its eyes and ears when faith encounters doubt.

One of the most valuable experiences I have had in life as a Christian was/is EfM. “Education for Ministry” is a program of scriptural and theological lay education by extension, sponsored by our seminary at Sewanee and offered in parishes all over the world, in seminar groups that meet weekly. I’ve learned far more about the Bible in EfM than I ever learned at seminary, because seminary was only three years and I’ve been involved with EfM more than twenty-five years of study and experience and reason. There is lots of reading and lots of discussion, and EfM helps people approach the Bible critically as explorers instead of fearing it as unapproachable and untouchable. But I think it’s my prime duty, main responsibility, to help and encourage people to learn. Bible study is, to me, a flight from ignorance into the knowledge and love of God. As long as I know one thing about the Bible that parishioners don’t know, I’m not doing my job as priest and pastor. 

These things occur this morning as I'm mindful of Wednesday noon Bible class tomorrow. Coming up is Transfiguration Sunday, Last Sunday of the Epiphany Season. We'll read Matthew's version of Jesus' transfiguration on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah as Peter, James and John watch terrified, and as Peter famously says things that sound ridiculous. Matthew gets the story from Mark, and enhances Mark's version because Matthew, with his agenda and his intended audience, understands Jesus as the new Moses, and sees the promises and prophecies of the Hebrew Bible happening again and coming true in Jesus. In the mountaintop experience, like Moses and Elijah, Jesus converses with God. As Moses conversation with God comes after six days, Jesus goes up on the mountain after six days. As Moses took three men to Sinai, Jesus takes three friends with him. As Moses face glowed, the face of Jesus shines like the sun. As a cloud descends to enshroud Moses, so with Jesus and company. Nothing about Jesus, or that happens in Jesus' life, is coincidental for Matthew; Moses is happening again. Bible study that notices these things doesn't call Matthew a fabricator, but rather helps me better understand what Matthew is trying to teach his audience two thousand years ago, and also me today, about who and what Jesus was and God's Christ is. 

As well as the gospel, we also will read the epistle lesson for Transfiguration Sunday: beautiful words and testimony at 2 Peter 1:16-21, "the Word of the Lord," our reader will proclaim. But the fact that Second Peter is canonized as Holy Scripture, the Word of the Lord, doesn't exempt it from intelligent, critical study and perhaps discovering a second century teaching not from the hand of Peter the Apostle, named in the second century, coming so late that it wasn't known to early church fathers, with Christology and social concerns and saying theological things and using terms about Jesus that reflect a generation of church development long after Peter's time, and that it does not evidence the close personal relationship that we believe Peter had with Jesus of Nazareth. 

To me, Bible study is about seeking the truth. If I don't share issues, questions, bits of scholarly discovery, differences and knowledge with others, I will have failed. This is so although knowing that even as we bring them up, offense may be done, mouths may drop. Still and nevertheless, one of my seminaries had, I suppose may still have, inscribed in the lintel over the library door, the proverb, "Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will." The "cost" is not only the risk to the "sure and certain faith knowledge" that folks who study with me arrived with, but the equal and to me even greater personal risk of my credibility with them. People of certainty are seldom open to reason. But this is the Episcopal Church where Reason is one of our main ingredients. We are not sola scriptura with Luther and the rest of the Reformation, but Scripture, Reason and Tradition. And perhaps adding the rest of Outler's Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Experience.

Which to press now: publish or delete.


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