Friday, July 31, 2015

The Bible Is Not Enough


I rarely use the phrase "the Bible" anymore.  This might surprise you coming from an ordained minister.  But it really shouldn't.  Especially if you know me.

I'll never forget the time a number of years ago when I, as an associate pastor, was preaching in my local church, and one of the primary texts I used for the sermon was from the book of Tobit.  Yes, Tobit is a sacred writing.  It's not in "the Bible" that many people I know use.  It is, however, in the Bible that many Catholic and Orthodox Christians use.  And I used it in a sermon, in a fairly conservative church, that did not use Bibles with Apocryphal works in them.  Let's just say that it did not go unnoticed.

The funny thing is, I hear (and preach) sermons all the time in which we use video clips from movies, audio from songs, quotes from current authors, and the like...and nobody seems to bat an eyelash at it.  But dare to use a quote from an...(gasp!)...Apocryphal, not-quite-sanctioned-by-100-percent-of-all-Christians-as-Scripture-book, and...well, let's just say it doesn't go unnoticed.

I have never really understood this contradiction.  But then, that could be said about many things in the church.  One thing I do know:  Although it is a 'funny thing', it is not so humorous as to shrug it off as no big deal.  Our understanding of Scripture, "the Bible," and sacred and spiritual writings is important, and far too few people have a good grasp on this, which leads to all kinds of problems.

I remember another time my wife and I were accused by people we had invested years of our lives into of "not following the Bible."  This hurt, but it was because of the relationship - genuine friendship - we had built with these people, and how they were now rejecting that friendship.  It wasn't because of what they actually said.  What they actually said was one of those funny things that isn't really all that funny: 

I am pretty sure Jesus did not call his disciples by saying "Come, follow the Bible" (after all, Jesus hadn't written the rest of the Bible yet.  Wait...)  Jesus did say, "Come, follow me."  Jesus, in fact, makes his thoughts fairly clear on this issue when speaking with the Jewish leaders (and that they were the leaders is a very important detail that should not be missed) as recorded by John in his gospel:
 "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39-40).  It is Jesus who gives life, whom we follow, who calls us to a life as disciples, being transformed into God's image. 

In much of Western-American Christianity today, "the Bible" is worshiped as if it were God (and not just a testimony about God).  Now, I don't really know anyone who has ever bowed to and worshiped a Bible, but I know many people who effectively treat the Bible not as Scripture, but as God.  How many times must we hear "the Bible says..."  The Bible doesn't say anything.  The Bible is silent.  But...God speaks!  And one of the most important ways God speaks is through Scriptures, and other sacred and spiritual writings.  But what is Scripture?

Scripture is what comes first when it comes to sacred and spiritual writings.  Scripture has supremacy (with a lower case 's'!).  Whatever clearly contradicts the Way of love in Jesus as outlined in Scripture must be put aside, and whatever agrees with the Way should be upheld, whether it is found in Scripture or in any other source.  Truth is truth wherever it is found, and all truth, if it to be truth, must be from God. 

Scripture is not what God beamed to us out of Heaven, nor is it words on paper that were dictated word-for-word by God and then perfectly preserved forever.  Scripture is the collection of writings that the Church believed were inspired by the Holy Spirit when written, and continue to be inspired by the Holy Spirit when read, to this day.  The Church decided these were authoritative for Christian life and practice, for living in the Way of love in Jesus, that these documents, and no others, would be considered as Scripture. 

There were heated debates over this.  There were vehement disagreements.  And truthfully, there still are (see my use of Tobit, above).  Some writings were really close to "making the cut" but for various reasons, just missed.  The Church does not dismiss these writings as uninspired, or unhelpful, or unorthodox, or spawns of the devil. They are very much sacred and spiritual writings. They just aren't Scripture.  They don't come first.  But many of them do come a close second, and can help us understand and interpret what comes first, even better.

One such writing is "The Didache." According to one commentary, Didache is the Greek word for "the systematic training that a mentor (or a master craftsworker) would give to an understudy (apprentice)" (Milavec, The Didache, 2003).  It is "teaching."  Or more specifically, as the first line/title of The Didache itself says, "Training of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles for the Gentiles."  The Didache is essentially the earliest teachings of the Church we have, formed in some of the very first Christian communities, as taught by the earliest apostles and disciples of Jeuss, and perhaps pre-dating even many of the New Testament Scriptures.

The Didache explores the question, "how do we live in the Way of love in Jesus in everyday, ordinary life?"  Sound like a valid question for those who are Jesus disciples today?  I think so.  In many ways, it is simply exploration of what Paul writes in Romans 12 as translated by Eugene Peterson is the Message:

"
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you" (Romans 12:1-2).

Comparatively few Christians or Jesus disciples in my historical-cultural context have ever heard of The Didache, much less read it, or tried to learn from it.  I hope to change that, if only for a very few readers, here, at least to some degree.  Last week's #AncientFutureFriday introduced the AFF concept.  This week's very briefly introduces The Didache, which will be a regular feature of AFF's.  It is a sacred and spiritual writing that is worthy of our time, attention, and reflection.

When it comes to God speaking to us through writings, we need more than "the Bible," for the Bible is not enough.  What we find in Scripture - the story of God and God's creation, and redemption and restoration of that creation in and through Jesus Christ - reveals all that we need for salvation.  But to work out that salvation, as Paul instructs us to do in the Scriptures, necessitates we do more than "follow the Bible."  We must, again as Paul says, "follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (I Corinthians 11:1). 

Life as a Jesus-disciple is never just about me-and-Jesus.  It is life in community.  It is life where we follow someone's example, as they follow Christ, and others follow our example, as we follow them.  That's discipleship, spiritual formation, transformation, and direction.  And that is what we all need.  The Didache gives us a gift of teaching formed in this very kind of community.  If you choose to journey with me and explore it together, it might just transform not only you...or me...but us.  I think that's a journey worth taking.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Stress and Tension

Stress is a word I used to refuse to acknowledge.  It's true.  I don't really know how one refuses to acknowledge a word, but nonetheless I did.  At least, I refused to acknowledge that I could, or should, have it. 

I can't say why this is - I can only remember my reaction when people, even people close to me, would try to talk about if I was feeling stressed.  

A person might say how a particular situation could be really stressful for me, and I would push back really hard against this - "I am not stressed!"  I would say, quite strongly.  Usually followed by "I don't get stressed."

Get real.

Everyone has stress.  Webster's first definition for stress is, "a constraining force or influence."  Stress can be positive (I used to work fabulously well under pressure and deadlines...I will probably return to that again, very soon...though life has not been that way for me, lately).  Stress can be negative (particularly that word, 'constraining' which I find to be quite similar to 'oppressive'...and oppression is what I've recently been living under for far too long).  But everyone has it, to varying degrees at different times in life, one way or the other (or both). 

But it is really important to acknowledge it.  It's OK to be stressed.  It's not inherently bad, or somehow evil.  Stress in a natural feeling and reaction that lets us know we need to respond in specific ways in order to alleviate the stress.  To borrow a word from another part of Webster's definitions, there is a "tension" involved with stress.

People don't like tension.  Probably because people don't like stress.  But they are both necessary.  The way many people seem to want to resolve tension between two things is to choose one or the other - we might, for example, have tension between our work and home responsibilities. So we choose one as the priority, to the exclusion, or at least the detriment, of the other.  We might have tension over relationships with friends and how much time we spend (or don't spend) with them as opposed to other important areas of our lives.  So we choose to either ditch our friend (or friends) altogether, or allow them to dominate our lives and squeeze out needed time for ourselves, our families, or God. 

There are hundreds of such scenarios.  I am not so concerned with specific ones as I am an underlying factor:  These tendencies are really the "either/or" dichotomous thinking that cause so many of our problems in this world, from the most complex international issues to the simplest interpersonal relationship.  For a long time now I have tried to embrace "both/and" thinking, rather than "either/or" thinking.  I call this the "Via Bothandia."  I'll probably re-post my original thinking on this from a previous blog/website, here, for a #tbt someday. 

To summarize for now though, it's sort of like the "Via Media" - the "Middle Way" with which John Wesley and the Anglicans would have been so familiar.  The difference is this, though:  The "Via Media" is intended to be a middle way between "two extremes" - essentially, a compromise.  That sounds good, but what often happens in compromises is that we lose the best of both extremes and wind up with a watered-down, muddied and muddled middle position, which really doesn't represent either of the other positions well.  It is certainly better than straight "either/or" thinking, but is still a derivative of it.

So when I coined the term "Via Bothandia" it was intended to take the concept of a "Middle Way" but ground it in "both/and" thinking rather than "either/or" thinking.  In the "Via Bothandia" rather than seeking a middle way between two extremes, we embrace all the best and good qualities of each extreme, and hold them in dynamic tension with one another.  Uh-oh.  There's that word again:  Tension.

It is my contention, that until we learn how to appropriately navigate dynamic tension in our thinking, belief, practice, and hearts - and hold on to the good, from wherever and whomever it comes - we won't be able to fully live a life of love for God, self and others, nor will be able to adequately and accurately proclaim, preach, and teach Jesus' message of the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  I think Paul's words to the Church in Thessalonica are important here:

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil (I Thessalonians 5:19-22).

Do you see the dynamic tension at work in Paul's words here as he advises the Church?  Do you see the both/and thinking?  Do you see how either/or thinking may be much more likely to "quench the Spirit"?  And how both/and thinking is how we navigate what is good and true, and dare I say it, holy?  After all, Paul's immediate words that follow the above are these:

"May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it."  There is something about testing for what is good and true in the midst of a fallen world that brings about...holiness.

It's time to get real.  It's time to get stressed (let's really hope it's mostly the good kind, for a nice change of pace!).  It's time to live in dynamic tension.  It's time to know the times.  And this is the time.  While I may not post every Friday, today is the first and introductory installment of #AncientFutureFriday here at philmichaels.org that will be published regularly (as always, my definition) on, naturally, Fridays.

#AncientFutureFriday posts (I am borrowing the "Ancient-Future" term from the late Robert E. Webber - for more information on some of the background of this term, click here) will focus on the often stressful work of navigating the dynamic tension of the present between what has been in the past and what will be in the future. 

Essentially the term "Ancient-Future" is meant to place the present and ongoing future life of Ekklesia (the Greek word for the community of faith established by Jesus and built on the foundation of the first apostles and disciples of Jesus (what has come to be called 'church' - even though that is an invented word that never appears in the Greek) in the holistic context of her nearly 2,000 year history (especially the first few generations, and centuries, after the life of Jesus) as well the historical Jewish faith from which she was born (thus, "ancient"). 

In these posts I'll delve into both ancient writings/topics and future writings/topics, in light of the present historical-cultural context we find ourselves in, as they pertain to theology, the Church, eschatology, semiotics, economics, prophetic and apostolic thinking, and more. 

Next week I'll begin an #AncientFutureFriday series on the Didache.  Some may be asking, "Did-what?" Others may be aware of the Didache but never have investigated it fully.  And still others I hope will have enough familiarity to offer unique insights.  I think working through these earliest of apostolic teachings from the infancy of the New Testament church, and translating and connecting them with how we live as the body of Christ today, particularly from a Wesleyan-Arminian theological perspective, is a great way to begin with #AncientFutureFriday.  I hope you'll look forward to it as much as I do.