Reading the Bible in a loving way

I recently got into a heated discussion with a friend of a friend via Facebook, about Biblical responses to a current political issue. Based on what I was saying, my conversation partner quickly pigeonholed me as a particular type of Christian who could be discounted, and I in response came to the conclusion that this was not someone who was going to listen to what I was going to say.

Like a lot of people in our globalised world, I spend a lot of time on social media. I can remember that when I was kid it was expected that the ‘information superhighway’ of the Internet was going to unite the world and help us understand each other. However, my experience on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter has been that the two things happen:

1. we surround ourselves with people who have similar experiences and views to us
2. when we do come into contact with people with experiences or views that are really different to ours, we end up in big, horrible, ugly arguments

I think it can be especially ugly when we end up in arguments about the Bible, and I’ve had my fair share of responsibility for them. It can be so easy to end up just pushing what I already think the Bible has to say on a given topic, rather than listening to what God might have to say to me through my sister or brother who is reading the same scripture. Because I have been bothered by this experience I have made a conscious decision to try to engage in discussions with a posture of love. When I tried that in the discussion, and invited my friend-of-a-friend to do the same, I was pleasantly surprised. When we agreed to read the scripture together and listen to what the other saw we were able to have a much more respectable discussion. But this required putting aside our own presumptions for a moment in order to make space to hear the reading of someone else.

Throughout Paul’s letters he uses the body as a parable for the church. He says that all the different parts of the body have different functions but they all need each other. Each part will fail if it is separated from the whole. So I wonder what we might miss if we write off the Biblical interpretations of the people we disagree with. I think that whether we differ in denomination, political conviction, class, gender or culture we need to be listening to each other so that we can receive a fuller picture of what God’ Spirit is saying to the church through the Bible. These differences mean that we see what is going on in the Bible from different angles. If we can come to the text from our different directions in a posture of love, I think we have a better chance of hearing what other parts of this diverse body are saying.

Whether we’re reading together on Facebook or at an evening Bible study group, I think that in order to do this we need to prepare to read together through prayer. What I have been trying is taking some time before approaching the text to direct love toward the people I will be reading with, through prayer. I start off by praying for someone who is close to me, by wishing goodwill for them. After a while I will take some time to pray for love for someone who I feel less close to. Finally, I take some time to pray for love for someone who I don’t get along with well, as see if I can wish them goodwill as well.

You carry the DNA

image

This Sunday will be the last dinner at Credo

Café and on Tuesday will be the last lunch. I’m sad to hear that Credo

Café

will be coming to an end after over twenty years. During my time at Urban Seed we often acknowledged the parable that says, 

‘… unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ We would often question whether it was the time for a project to die and something new to grow. However this doesn’t make death any less sad or painful.

In the sadness and the pain, in what way will we continue on? My suggestion is that Credo continues in the practises we have learned at Credo. I’m encouraged by the idea that the group in the city will be returning back to the basic practises that Credo emerged from – inhabiting the streets and sharing hospitality at home with neighbours. I believe that the DNA of Credo has been written into each of us, and that each of us carries gifts from Credo that we can continue to nurture. I see those gifts being nurtured in places like Footscray Salvos, Cassidy’s Place, Indigenous Hospitality House, Gembrook Retreat, Gracetree, The Cave, People’s Pantry, The Longroom, St Matt’s Long Gully and a heap of other groups that have no need or desire for public profile.

Not everyone would use this language, and it is not language I currently use often but I could still sum up the practises that have been written into us as,

Knowing the Word
Taking the time to discern what is really going on in the places we inhabit. This involves paying attention to what is going on in our neighbourhoods, our broader society and the wider world, and bringing what we see into dialogue with what we know of history, scripture, community development, mysticism, visual art, poetry and other disciples.

Growing Home (through slow food)
Growing a sense of community together, particularly by setting aside more time than necessary, so that as we eat, walk, play, work, whatever we have time to share and listen with each other. Often the practises that have brought us together in community around Credo have been around the production, distribution and consumption of food, but I think other practises of necessity like art and sport have also provided this kind of space.

Going and Engaging
As we grow a sense of community together, as we discern the truth of what is going on in our worlds, we will be called to engage in our wider society beyond our little groups. This might mean engaging in conflict. It might mean walking the streets together on a Friday night and being open to others who are inhabiting public space. It might mean getting involved in political activism around issues such as homelessness or asylum seeker detention.

At the present time it is important that we make time to grieve well what is dying, to reminisce through stories and songs and shared food. But I also think it’s important to consider how we are continuing the practises we have learned through Credo, and I particularly look forward to hearing how the DNA of Credo is replicated and adapted in the city. I’m keen to hear from you what you have learned through your time at Credo, and how you might continue what you’ve learned.

Is offering prayers unhelpful?

image

In the wake of the recent attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, one of my friends posted an article suggesting that the important thing to do in this situation was to pray. A couple of people responded saying they were unhappy with the post, and my friend asked my perspective. I thought I might also post some thoughts on the topic here.

I often find that people are upset by the idea of offering prayers or ‘prayers and thoughts’ because it seems very inconsequential when what is needed is practical change in gun laws and in people’s treatment of each other. Especially for people who don’t believe in prayer. It can also come across like we are trying to push faith on others. I note that in Jesus’ advice about praying he said we should keep quiet about it.

I wonder whether we also need to consider what we mean by prayer if we talk about prayer. When we talk about prayer we might mean that we are asking God to intervene in a situation, it might mean lighting a candle for someone, it might mean lectio divina, it might mean praying in tongues, it might mean directing loving thoughts. However, I have a sense that when we talk about prayer many people will presume that we are talking about asking God to intervene in a situation, and I think this opens up a can of worms, especially in the wake of tragedy.

If we say we believe that God intervenes in the world, why did God not intervene to stop Omar Marteen on the weekend? (Indeed, why does God not intervene to prevent the suffering and death that occurs every day?) The most obvious answer seems to be that either God is not able to intervene or that God can intervene but doesn’t. If we are saying that we are praying for the situation, I think it’s likely that this will come across as though we believe God could have intervened but didn’t.

What I think people often mean is that they are directing loving thoughts or ‘good vibes’ toward the people effected by the situation, and I think this is less problematic. I think a less confusing and upsetting way of talking about this is to talk about about keeping the situation in our thoughts or minds – and that is the kind of language I normally use. This isn’t about being politically correct, but about observing what different language communicates.

Lastly, James (generally understood to be the brother of Jesus) more or less says that our faith isn’t seen in our prayers but in our work. So I think that it is fine to be seen offering spiritual support, but it’s also important that it goes along with working for fair treatment. It’s not okay to just meditate or pray, we also need to listen to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people who have been attacked in this extreme way but have also been discriminated against in much more mundane ways from day to day. We need to listen and consider how we have contributed to this treatment, and how we might change our behaviour.

Call no-one pastor?

image

The last few weeks I was working on an assay about whether or not the metaphor of shepherd is helpful in pastoral care. (I wrote some more about this here.) I was really interested in some stuff I read from Alistair Campbell in his book Rediscovering Pastoral Care. Campbell says he agrees with other critics of shepherd symbolism, saying that it comes across as paternalistic. He still thinks that the shepherd metaphor describes the pastor
as a leader, but he doesn’t think should be understood as an authoritarian leader. He thinks it is more appropriate to associate the shepherd with
courage. In ancient Palestine shepherds needed to move flocks over
large arid areas in order to find good pasture. Safe places to rest
had to be found on the way. In
valleys there might be lions or thieves lying in wait. This
is how we should understand the context of Psalm 23, where
YHWH is described as a shepherd leading a flock of sheep to safe
places of nourishment. 

These
aspects of shepherding presented by Campbell lead me to wonder. We
aren’t actually sheep. I think that often we are used to treating
parables like the shepherding parables as tight allegories where
every detail corresponds to a detail in real life. We
aren’t actually sheep, we’re people. If the shepherd symbolism is
saying that a person can can help others to navigate the landscape,
avoiding and protecting from dangerous situations and directing
towards places of safety and nourishment, why can’t another person
also learn to do that? My hunch is that we can all behave like
shepherds in the sense that we can all help each other out by sharing
this kind of knowledge with each other.

Listening to the smaller voice

image

This morning I was speaking at the Melbourne Welsh Church. I thought I’d post here a little of what I spoke about. I spoke about the parable of the seed, which Jesus shares with some Greek visitors at the Jewish Passover. We’ve been talking about that parable a lot at the Indigenous Hospitality House, and I’ve written about it previously here.

In our reflection on this story we’ve wondered a bit about how Jesus had become familiar enough with the Greek culture to be able to engage with their theology as he tells the parable. (I think his talk about the seed dying in order to reproduce itself might be referring to the myth of Persephone and Hades.) Jesus would have been familiar with Greek culture because his country had been part of Alexander the Great’s Greek empire, and when the Romans took over they appropriated their language and mythology. Jesus grew up close to the Greek colony of Sepphoris where there was a Greek theatre where Greek stories would have been performed. As a colonised man, Jesus would have been familiar with the culture of the colonists.

Likewise, in our own country, the European culture of Settler people like myself is familiar to our First Peoples. But as a Settler person, being ignorant of Aboriginal cultures isn’t a handicap in navigating Australian society, so many of us aren’t familiar with Aboriginal cultures. For that reason I think that if we find ourselves part of the majority culture seeking to understand another smaller cultural group we need to start by listening to the minority culture – it’s likely that they’ll have an understanding of both cultures.

The questionable shepherd

I am thinking about the idea of the pastor as shepherd and ways that this metaphor is helpful and unhelpful. (I’m writing an essay on the topic.)

One of the things that I think is problematic about that image is that it is generally associated with a hierarchical and authoritarian style of leadership where the pastor tells the (stupid and helpless) flock of sheep what to do. One pastoral theologian actually says something along the lines of, ‘You’re not supposed to teach them, you are supposed to guide them,’ as though it isn’t important for the people to learn anything – just to do what the pastor says.

Anyway, one of the things I have been struck by is the fact that it seems shepherds weren’t actually considered to be very trustworthy people. Because a lot of shepherds were hired to do dangerous work, there was often a high chance they’d run away if there was danger. There was also a reputation for stealing sheep or trespassing on neighbours’ pasture. In a world where pastors have betrayed the trust they have been given, I wonder if it is actually helpful to recover the idea that the shepherd has a questionable reputation?