Years ago I read the Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. I don’t remember much of the story - I could read it again and love it again I’m sure. But one scene always stayed with me. A Chinese-American woman named Rose went home to her mother An-Mei. Sitting in her mother’s kitchen, Rose saw the family Bible stuck underneath a leg of a wobbly table; an act of total disregard for the book, as if all its wisdom was just a shim for the wobbly moments.
Rose thought back to her mother’s loss of faith. It happened years earlier on a family vacation to the beach. An-Mei asked Rose to watch her four brothers. Three of them played together but Bing was too young for their games. He wanted to join his father out on the jetty where he fished. Apprehensively, Rose agreed. She watched Bing pick his way along the rocks but then a fight started among the other brothers. Turning to them, she missed the wave which swept Bing from the jetty. Everyone in the family felt responsible.
The day after Bing went missing, An-Mei took Rose back to the beach. The mother beseeched God to return her son; read and prayed and cried at the shore; in desperation, she threw a treasured ring into the sea, hoping her sacrifice would bring her son back. God remained silent. Bing remained missing. In frustration, and perhaps to punish God, An-Mei gave up on faith and stuck the Bible under the table.
Such a great metaphor. Tables are supposed to be stable. Faith too. But An-Mei’s table got so wobbly she needed to stick a two-inch thick Bible underneath the leg. That’s how unstable her faith became at the death of her child.
But as Rose looked at the abandoned book, she noticed something she hadn’t seen before. No dust or dirt lay on the Bible. Her mother carefully cared for the book she discarded in anger.
An-Mei’s story stays with me, long after I’ve forgotten the rest of the book, because her complicated relationship with the Bible speaks to my own struggles. I’ve yet to stick it under a wobbly table. But there are days and there are parts of the Bible I could cast aside.
I know I’m not alone with my “it’s complicated” relationship with the Bible.
This morning I want to parse out with you some of the ways I struggle with the Bible. But I also want to look towards cultivating a different kind of relationship with it; what we call the practice of “life-giving Bible Study” in our congregation.
One of the reasons I struggle with the Bible is on display outside of Pridefest. A small group of Christians stands outside the gates with signs quoting the Bible - “Sodom and Gomorrah.” And while most homophobic Christians have the decency to stay away, the sad reality is that more Christians than not find in the Bible support for prejudice and oppression. Not just of LGBT people, but for taking away women’s integrity over their own bodies. I’m tired of the Bible as a crutch to defend intolerance.
I also struggle with the way the Bible becomes confused with a scientific textbook, especially when it comes to the creation of the world.
And then there are the passages that just seem irredeemably violent. A few weeks ago we read of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal. Elijah and the prophets each tried to sacrifice a bull. We heard about the competition and Elijah’s success, but our reading stopped short of the most troubling part of the story. A victorious Elijah massacred the prophets of Baal, an ISIS level of violence, shockingly at odds with our ideas of interfaith cooperation. That divine word makes my faith wobbly.
We could probably all make our list of examples; and for many of us those troubling uses and abuses of the Bible have discouraged us from reading it at all.
Yvette Flunder, founder of City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco, once told a story that captures my problem with the Bible. As a child she listened to a local radio broadcast of a fundamentalist preacher. He called his show the “Bible Answer Man Hour.” Listeners would call in with life questions and he would give them chapter and verse answers.
I get tired of Bible Answer Man solutions. Because I don’t think there’s just one chapter and verse to the question of human sexuality. And I don’t think there is just one chapter and verse as women make reproductive health decisions. Nor do I think there is just one chapter and verse answer about all the questions we wrestle with.
But despite all the Bible Answer Man solutions, I treasure the Bible because of the questions these stories raise in my heart. Just take the story of Ahab which we heard today. This rich and variegated story can’t be reduced into just one answer. Instead, the story asks questions of me.
Ahab ruled the northern kingdom of Israel. Next to his great palace stood a little vineyard. The king wanted more real estate. So he asked his neighbor to sell. No deal, said Naboth. Naboth’s refusal to sell sent Ahab into a depression; he laid in bed unable to move. So his wife Jezebel stepped into the negotiations. She threw a party with a seat of honor for Naboth but sat false witnesses next to him; they claimed Naboth dishonored God and country. Naboth’s neighbors stoned him. Restored to good health, Ahab rose from bed to seize the land he wanted.
This week, when I read this story, I thought of the lies Ahab told himself to make his actions seem okay. After all, he didn’t personally kill Naboth. And he didn’t personally make a false witness. And do I do the same? Contracting out the dirty work of injustice? Living in suburban comfort without seeing the unfairness and hopelessness of poverty just a mile from me? And Naboth: his story sounds like too many in our own culture: a man losing everything on the basis of false witness; incarcerated on flimsy evidence. Elijah championed Naboth’s cause after his death; who will be Elijah for people in our day facing injustice and the abuse of power?
I keep treasuring the Bible because these stories make me think about myself and our times. Instead of reading the Bible for answers, I look to it for questions. The text questions our comfortable accommodations with injustice, questions the lies we tell other people and ourselves, and yet sits with us in the questions that keep us up at night.
Earlier I described how some particular answers people draw from the Bible frustrate me. But over time, I’ve found that for me the issue isn’t just particular answers. Simplistic answers on the right and the left appeal less and less. And instead, I’m finding I care far more for questions than answers. Indeed, I’m increasingly drawn toward a spirituality of questions instead of a religion of answers.
One blogger described the focus on answers as “churchianity.” I like it; churchianity vs Christianity.
But another way to tease out this difference comes from Eugene Peterson. He’s most famous for his paraphrase of the Bible known as The Message. In another essay, Peterson talked about the difference between being a “list-maker” and a “story-maker.”
The “list-maker” approach, as Eugene Peterson explained, involves “checking off moral rules I have kept, the doctrinal truths I believed, the good deeds I have done.” But life is more than a detailed to-do list. There no drama and no plot in a list; but there is control.
On the other hand, “Story-making lives have much less certainty and even less control, because story-makers happily live lives wondering what God will bring each day, expectant that God will bring something, maybe even surprising. Story-makers are willing to watch and wait and live with unknowing rather than knowing.” As Peterson says, “The Gospel pulls us into a story-making life where it is still made up of all the same material and same stuff that the lists are made of, but now we are making stories.”
In our Christian movement, the United Church of Christ, I think we’re about a spirituality of questions instead of a religion of answers, a discipleship of story-making instead of rote list-making. Many of us came to Plymouth and the United Church of Christ precisely for these reasons.
Recently the Board of Christian Education began to ask how to design a curriculum which reflects our approach to spirituality at Plymouth. We started with a commitment to teaching the great stories of the Bible, ones we want every child, youth, and adult in our congregation to know; stories that don’t provide simple answers but instead evoke wonder, awe, and questions.
But we didn’t want this to become another list. So we thought about the way to teach these great stories. This led us to two convictions. First, we want to engage children as agents in their own spirituality. And second, we want people to deeply engage the stories themselves.
Of course, these premises need to be unpacked. So what does it mean for children to be agents of their own learning? Too often education focuses on learning a set of content. Read the story; learn what the church says it means. This makes people passive recipients. But a different approach comes when we engage people - children, youth, and adults - in finding their own meaning. Instead of acquiring content, we cultivate experience, sacred experience.
This kind of change is happening throughout our culture. Just think of “Web 2.0.” There was a time when the internet provided information; people passively accessed it. But now people don’t just receive information; they actively engage in its creation.
Seeing children as agents of their own education means shifting our focus from “what do they need to learn” to “how can we wonder and reflect together.”
And this happens when we follow our second premise: engaging the stories themselves. Too often we focus on the answers a story provides; the abstract insights that support a conservative or a liberal reading. One essay the board read described this as “making meaning around the Bible.” Instead we want to direct our attention to the story itself; making meanings of the stories.
We can do this by shifting the kinds of questions we ask children, youth, and adults. Our old curriculums structured the kinds of questions teachers should ask students; usually this involved recalling elements of the story or responding to predetermined principles deduced from it. But we make meanings of the stories when we ask different kinds of questions; open hearted, open ended, wonderment questions. Or, to state it even more simply, we do our best teaching when we ask questions that we don’t know the answer to.
As a result of these reflections, the Board of Christian Education wants to embark on creating our own curriculum centered on seventy great stories. Because devising seventy new lesson plans for 5 classrooms is a daunting summer task, we’ll start by adapting a workable curriculum so that it will evolve over time into what we want. Eden Seminary will partner with us on this project by creating a seminary course around it. But we’ll need your ideas and insights too. I’m hoping you will join me in a conversation after worship about how we can work together to design a new curriculum, not just for children but for youth and adults too.
This work matters for our spirituality. Remember An-Mei from the Joy Luck Club? She wanted answers and when the Bible didn’t give them, she stuck it under a wobbly table. But what if a spirituality of questions shaped her heart? Could she have taken the question of her tremendous loss into the great stories of the Bible? I know for me that Biblical answers often fail, but Biblical questions open my heart to wonderment and awe.
Alleluia and Amen.