No One Is Alone

Psalm 139

“You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight

I look behind me and you’re there,
Then up ahead and you’re there too—

Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?
To be out of your sight?”
The Message

The words of the Psalmist are calming, but also cautionary. On the one hand, it’s nice to know I am not alone. What greater comfort could there possibly be than to be assured that an all-powerful God is by my side? It’s like having the ultimate bodyguard!

But there is a catch. This constant companion knows me and my secrets, even the ones I would rather remain unknown. No, there is nowhere I can go to avoid the Lord. I am never out of the Lord’s sight. Those little things I think will not be noticed? They are noticed! Little transgressions I think I can get away with—I can’t.

I am reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant musical, Into the Woods. As has been the case with me and many Sondheim shows, I didn’t care for Into the Woods the first time I saw it. (I’m talking about the stage production, not the movie, which I still haven’t seen.) But I knew from experience that Sondheim sometimes requires repeated watching-listening-reading-thinking. You could easily see Into the Woods and come away with little more than, “Well, that was a fun retelling of some classic fairy tales!” That’s not wrong, but that’s also not all there is.

Take these lyrics:

“No one is alone
Truly
No one is alone”

Nice, right? Yes, but…

“Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.”

We are not alone, and that comes with a responsibility. Our words and actions act as guides to those around us, so we must be careful. No one is alone. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “We are who we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.” Children see. The Lord sees.

No one is alone. Be comforted, but also be careful.

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Old Testament

Israel Conquers Ai (Joshua 8), wood engraving, published in 1877

There are those who agree with Ned Flanders that the Bible is made up of two parts: the Old Testament, and the New AND BETTER Testament. There are people who would like to do away with the Old Testament altogether. But even though some of it is rough going, the Old Testament is worth keeping. And since nearly ¾ of the Christian Bible is devoted to it, plenty of other people must have thought so too.

There is no question that the Old Testament has its difficulties, or rather WE have difficulties with parts of the Old Testament. There’s the violence, which is seemingly everywhere, but here is one sample: “With their swords they killed everyone in the city, men and women, young and old. They also killed the cattle, sheep, and donkeys.” (Joshua 6:21). The mind-numbing strings of names (1 Chronicles devotes NINE chapters to this). There are the bits which are morally questionable in every way (Judges 19). And there are long sections that are comically repetitious. Numbers 7 gives a detailed list of the offerings brought by the tribe of Judah to the newly anointed Tent of the Lord’s presence, then follows it up with lists of the offerings from each of the other eleven tribes…even though all twelve of the lists are identical!

And everyone who has attempted to wade through Leviticus knows that it is sheer torture.
BLOFELD: “So you have decided not to cooperate, Mr. Bond. Well, read Leviticus in its entirety!”
JAMES BOND: “I’ll talk! I’ll talk!”

In spite of all this, we need to see the Old Testament as more than a lengthy introduction to the New Testament. The breadth and richness of the writing alone is staggering. The Bible has come down to us as a whole, and however messy the process of putting it all together most assuredly was, we need to accept it as a whole. It’s all there for a reason: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When confronted with a passage that seems pointless or just plain yucky, don’t skip over it Ask yourself why it’s there. What role does it play in the work as a whole? Who put it there and why? I come back again and again to the questions posed by Peter Enns and Jared Byas in their podcast, The Bible for Normal People:
What is the Bible, and what do we do with it?

The Old Testament is full of treasure—start digging!

Crystal Clear Bible!

crystal clear bible

“Are you tired of ambiguity? Sick of long passages of meaningless genealogies and obsolete laws? Embarrassed by sex scenes?

“Well, fear no more! The new Crystal Clear Bible is here! All the answers you seek to life’s problems and today’s hot button issues can be found in easy to digest, tweetable chunks. No more contractions! No more room for interpretation! It’s all crystal clear! In less than 300 pages!

“Your favorite stories are included, minus the nasty bits. Distracting tangents have been eliminated. Problematic wording has been glossed over with feel-good aphorisms. Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Ruth, and Job: Gone! Proverbs has been brought into alignment with current prosperity gospel thinking. Difficult foreign names have been Americanized because the Bible was written, after all, with the United States in mind.

“Take advantage of these helpful extras: Enjoy reading while you listen to your favorite contemporary Christian choruses using our handy praise tune concordance! Useful talking points are printed in red letters! Explanatory notes highlight allowable exceptions to the Ten Commandments. We have thoughtfully toned down Jesus’ anti-establishment rhetoric, and substituted family friendly quotes that we’re sure are what he actually meant to say.

“Buy now and receive a handy wallet card that puts the Bible’s main points at your fingertips. It’s all crystal clear!”
* * * * *
This was written after I attended a recent church meeting in which a contentious issue took center stage. One angry congregant rose to say, “Why are we even discussing this? The Bible is crystal clear!” This person went on to claim that opposing viewpoints were “dumbing down the Bible.” I would like to submit that dumbing down the Bible happens when we read it in a manner to make it appear crystal clear. To read it in such a simplistic manner is an insult to a tremendously complex and difficult book. It is also an insult to the reader. This is following sola scriptura to its logical and dangerous conclusion: that we set aside our brains whenever we open the Bible. This is, as Richard Rohr says, turning the Bible itself into an idol.

Bible study demands that we bring a lot to the table, including our experience, our knowledge, and our best thinking caps. To borrow a bit of advice from Peter Enns, we should ask ourselves two questions:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. What do we do with it?

Those questions are tougher than they first appear (They are NOT crystal clear!), but we ignore them at our peril.

Calling: Ministry? (shhh!)

Bibles 2

While I’ve experienced nothing as dramatic as a burning bush, a blinding light, or a voice from God, lately I have been feeling a most unexpected calling: to the ministry. There’s something I didn’t expect! Though I’ve long been interested in religion and theology, and fascinated by the Bible in all its sprawling messiness, an actual career in ministry has never been on my radar. So why am I now feeling the urge to go to seminary? I’m not sure I believe in God, and don’t even like people all that much!

Well, the first thing to recognize is that seminaries have evolved beyond what they were when I first attended college back in the primeval past. (I’m so old we had to run from dinosaurs on the way to school, dodging around pools of molten lava where the Earth’s crust was still cooling.) It used to be that if you wanted to be a Methodist preacher, you went to a Methodist seminary; if you wanted to be a Baptist preacher, you went to a Baptist seminary, etc. Seminaries were there to make preachers in whatever denomination they worked with. These days, seminaries (at least some of them) are much more academic and much more diverse. A seminary may welcome students from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds. This phenomenon was highlighted in a 2015 New York Times article called Secular, but Feeling a Call to Divinity School.

In my own case, after many years of avoiding church like the plague, I have oozed my way back in, first as a substitute choir accompanist, and now as an actual church employee. Though I initially looked on the whole project as “just another gig,” the experience has rekindled my earlier passion for theology. I’ve been enjoying a whole new crop of books, podcasts, and YouTube channels that prove “religious” and “intelligent” can be compatible terms. I’m absorbing—sometimes in agreement, sometimes not—the words of Miroslav Volf, N. T. Wright, Richard Rohr, Frederick Buechner, Rachel Held Evans, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and others. And I’m wanting to dive deeper.

But seminary? At my age? Really?

At this point, everything about the endeavor feels like a long shot. Applying to school, being accepted, paying for it, juggling that along with job, family, and other commitments—these are all big hurdles. Not to mention navigating the many side-effects such a radical life change may bring. It feels, with only minor exaggeration, as dramatic as Ebeneezer Scrooge’s transformation. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.” I keep thinking of how Scrooge’s acquaintances and family reacted to the new Scrooge with shock and disbelief.

It’s too soon to think about any of that. For now, I am still in a period of exploration and contemplation. There will be much private meditation and many conversations ahead.

Stumbling Blocks

I recently read the book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. As I did not know much about the author, I did a little online research on her. Among other things, I learned that Held Evans died tragically and unexpectedly at the young age of 37 from complications involving allergic reaction to medication. I also learned that I think I would have liked her, and am now curious to read more of her writing.

As is not surprising when looking up anything remotely involving religion online, I found widely polarized opinions about her. For example, an article from a conservative religious website claimed Held Evans was leading people to hell for daring to harbor and express doubt. (To put things into context: This same website condemned contemporary Christian singer Lauren Daigle for NOT condemning homosexuals.)

On Goodreads, reviews for Inspired tend to be raves or rants. In the latter category, one reviewer went on at length about what he or she considered Held Evans’s flawed theology, even putting the book on a “false teaching” shelf. (The possibility that this person’s own theology might be flawed is apparently out of the question.) Near the end of the scathing review, comes this line: “I advise readers to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care and in light of the scripture.” In other words, scripture itself is not to be questioned nor is this person’s interpretation of it. I would like to advise the reviewer “to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care,” INCLUDING scripture! (I opted not to engage in argument in the Goodreads comments.)

This highlights a very real problem for Christianity. How does a tolerant person deal with intolerance? How does someone willing to harbor doubts and ask questions confront someone who would never entertain the possibility of their own fallibility?

If you want to find ways to weaponize the Bible, it’s not hard. Want to keep women subjugated to men? Plenty of justification for it in scripture! Want to condemn homosexuality? Got it covered! Support for slavery? Too easy! Xenophobia, genocide, polygamy, incest? Check, check, check, check. Any pet prejudice can probably find support someone in the Bible, given the proper spin (sometimes requiring very little spin at all!)

For those of us who want to follow the Jesus we hear preaching the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), this poses a stumbling block. It is hard to support the Christian church when so many of its loudest voices are those preaching intolerance, bigotry, and hate. It’s hard to admit to being a Christian when so often the church has come down on the wrong side of history. How does one stay inspired?

Engaging With Doubt

Growing up in a church with a strong liturgical tradition, I used to be annoyed by the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. As the congregation mumbled through call and response prayers, I was sure I could detect the same unthinking recitation in the voices around me that I was feeling myself. I enjoyed singing hymns because I would challenge myself to try to sing a different part of the SATB hymnal arrangements on every verse, but I rarely felt the message of the lyrics

Now I attend a church in which liturgy plays a very minor role in our Sunday service. This in spite of the fact that our church’s Reformed denomination supposedly follows a number of creeds (Wikipedia lists 22.) Curiously, I find that I miss those liturgical elements. Maybe it’s the comfort of familiarity I miss. Maybe it’s the link to the past provided by a traditional worship service. Maybe it’s simply that I’m not wild about the contemporary Christian praise songs that have pushed the old hymns aside.

Or maybe it’s that the doubts that often made me feel hypocritical when reciting creeds are not being given anything to push against. Even though it sometimes felt like I was coasting through creeds and prayers on autopilot, one of my quibbles with mouthing someone else’s words was that I didn’t always believe them. Ironically, the thing that most kept me engaged, whether I was consciously aware of being engaged or not, was doubt.

In the April 20, 2010 issue of The Christian Century, there is an interview with Nashville songwriter David Olney in which he says, “There’s a lot more doubt than faith that goes on with me, but I just can’t dump the whole thing. It’s much harder to do that than to accept it on some level and just bite my tongue in a church service when the Apostles’ Creed is recited.”

Rachel Held Evans says nearly the same thing in her book, Inspired: “There are days…when I mumble through the hymns and creeds at church because I’m not convinced that they say anything true.”

Cynicism, of which I have certainly been guilty, is not helpful. It is a kneejerk dismissal of whatever I’m hearing or reading. Doubt is more nuanced. It allows for the possibility that what I’m being asked to believe may be wrong, but it also admits that I might be the party who is wrong. Doubt is not afraid to ask questions. When I feel doubt, that is a signal that it’s time to pay attention. I need to let the question in. What’s more, I need to listen for the answer with an open mind, especially if it’s an answer I don’t expect or don’t want to hear.

Has Sunday morning become to casual?

I am old enough that I can remember when going to church meant dressing up. Men wore jacket & tie; women wore a nice dress. Older folks wore hats. By the time the organist (who happened to be my mom) finished her prelude, the congregation was in place, ready to stand and sing the first hymn.

These days, jeans and a casual shirt are the norm for all genders. In the summer, flip-flops and shorts prevail.  People likely dress up more for work during than week than for church on Sunday. Our mainline Protestant service begins with two or three contemporary Christian songs from the praise team. For the first ten to fifteen minutes, people continue to chat in the narthex, refill their coffee, grab a donut, and slowly filter into the sanctuary.

There is something comforting in the relaxed atmosphere, but I wonder: Has Sunday morning lost its specialness? There is something to be said for traditional hymns, a choir in robes, a minister in clerical attire. These things used to set church apart. Sunday morning was not like other mornings. Its differentness put people in a certain frame of mind—a knowledge that this time and place had a meaning beyond the everyday. If the church is trying to reach more people by becoming just another entertainment, it is not only going to lose to secular pop culture, it also risks losing its identity.

There are ways to be inviting, to foster a “come as you are” openness, while maintaining a sense of ancient otherness. I once attended an Episcopal church in Boston that discouraged dressing up, because it was an inner city church that wanted the area’s homeless to feel they could join in worship without feeling out of place. The service itself, however, was High Church. Sung liturgy, a censer with incense, rectors in vestments, traditional hymns accompanied by organ. The idea was to allow people from any station in life to attend casually yet be treated extraordinarily.

This type of compromise is not going to work everywhere. A church is more than a fancy building and elaborate accoutrements. Furthermore, church isn’t something to be done for an hour or two on Sunday morning in isolation from the rest of the world. But I think Sunday morning worship deserves to be both delivered and received as a special occasion.

“Oh wanderer come home
You’re not too far
Lay down your hurt
Lay down your heart
Come as you are”

– David Crowder / Ben Glover / Matt Maher