‘For I keep your statutes’

In the movie Luther there is a dramatic scene when Luther is overcome with grief and agony over his sin and the devil’s power. His father confessor comes to him and directs him to pray this terribly simple prayer to Jesus: Save me. I am yours.

I had not noticed until this morning that the prayer was from Psalm 119: 94.

The full verse in the NIV is translated like this: Save me, for I am yours; I have sought out your precepts.

Maybe it is what I have been reading recently — both online and in book form — but reading Psalm 119 for my Scripture this morning brought home to me the ease with which my ears are tempted by calls to set aside the law and the teaching of God. It is so easy to talk yourself into the idea that God’s law is fluid and defined by the culture of the day. It is so easy to lift up verse against verse in the Bible and melt any sense that there is something hard and fast and unchanging at the base of it all. It is so easy end up double-minded and hating the law (contra. 119:113).

Psalm 119 ends with this: I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten you commands.

May God’s grace give me the faithfulness to be able to pray those words in truth.

Purity and justice

See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow. You have despised my holy things and desecrated my Sabbaths. In you are slanderers who are bent on shedding blood; in you are those who eat at the mountain shrines and commit lewd acts. In you are those who dishonor their father’s bed; in you are those who violate women during their period, when they are ceremonially unclean. In you one man commits a detestable offense with his neighbor’s wife, another shamefully defiles his daughter-in-law, and another violates his sister, his own father’s daughter. In you are people who accept bribes to shed blood; you take interest and make a profit from the poor. You extort unjust gain from your neighbors. And you have forgotten me, declares the Sovereign Lord. (Ezekiel 22:6-12)

I was reading Ezekiel last night. Chapter 22 grabbed my attention in more than one way. In the latter part of the chapter when it talks about God’s wrath refining Israel like silver, I thought of John the Baptist and Jesus. I wonder if they had this chapter in mind when they preached.

But it is the quote above that opened up a question I wanted to share with you.

In the passage above, God lays out a list of offenses including things we divide into different categories. Some are things we might call concerns with purity — ritual or personal — and some are things we might call justice issues.

Jesus does the same in his preaching. The Apostles do as well.

It seems like we tend to separate these things. You find churches where the emphasis falls almost entirely on the need for us to purify our hearts and conduct. You find other churches where the emphasis falls almost exclusively on care for the poor and vulnerable.

Righteousness in the Bible strikes me as involving both things.

How do we hold these two things together and so honor God?

And some United Methodists?

Here’s the background I need to get to post this quote below. Sewanee Uniiversity gave N.T. Wright an honor. A professor wrote that Wright did not deserve to be treated as a serious biblical scholar. Internet hilarity ensued.

And then this piece was written that included this great bit:

Well, Wright is an Anglican and one thing about us Anglicans is that we regard Scripture as sufficient and supreme in the life of the church. In fact, I would point out that the majority of people engaged in biblical studies do so out of a deep reverence and high regard for Scripture as providing authoritative direction for the Christian faith. It is only unbelievers and perhaps some Episcopalians who  are dumbfounded as to why anyone would regard the Bible as somehow normative for their beliefs and ethics.

Why bone cancer does not shake my faith

British actor and comedian Stephen Fry caused a bit of a storm in some sectors of the Internet recently. In an interview he was asked what he would say to God if he met him at the pearly gates:

His language is powerful. He delivers his message well. I can see why it has stirred up people.

Of course, it is not original. Humans have been angry about suffering and death from the first. Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and Lamentations all give voice to the range of despair and anger that both atheists and the faithful have raised for as long as humans have drawn breath.

Fry suggests that bone cancer and other afflictions reveal God’s character — if he exists — as a cruel, selfish, and insane god not worthy of worship. What person who has lived any life at all does not understand the pain and anger expressed by such accusations?

I am writing this post on Ash Wednesday, when many Christians gather in worship to be reminded that from dust we have come and to dust we will return. It is a day we remember and are reminded that we will all one day die.

If faith is only possible to us in a world without suffering or pain, then faith will be impossible for us until the end of all days.

Of course, if a man is determined to face mortality and suffering by spitting in the eye of God, we cannot reason him out of his plan. We certainly don’t do any honor to God by getting angry at him or posting nasty things about him on the Internet.

If Fry professed to be a Christian and said such things, it would be cause for some church teaching and perhaps discipline. But he is not of our tribe. We can and should be ready to explain the hope that is in us. We should be ready to offer him Christ. We should pray for God to bless him. But we should not be surprised by his outrage.

Our Bible speaks of the same kind of anger and fear. We know suffering and pain. Ashes and dust await us all. And yet God is God.

Reading & living with humility

For a number of years now I’ve been attracted to William J. Abraham’s contention that scripture is a means of grace rather than a source of claims and facts to settle theological arguments. (He does not use those exact words, but I think that is fair to what he means.)

The longer form of his argument can be found in this book. A less exhaustive version can be found here.

As a means of grace, the Bible challenges us and calls us into the life of God. Its complexity and internal arguments are not problems to be solved. They are rather reminders that we see now only in part. The Holy Spirit uses the Bible to meet us in different ways at different times, calling us ever deeper into the life of God.

If this is true, then one of the things we are called to surrender to the Holy Spirit is our need for certainty. Not only is the truth the Spirit teaches me today not necessarily the same the truth you need to be taught, it may not even be the same truth I need to learn tomorrow or next year.

This kind of attitude toward scripture plays havoc with our desire for certainty and system. All those virtuoso tomes of systematic theology are beautiful but can never be the final word. No pastor — no matter how successful — can ever claim to have captured the final truth of faith. No blogger — heaven help us — has been given full access to the mind of God. We all must be more humble than that.

And this humility must extend especially to the forms of Christian life and faith that we find least comporting with our own. My theologically liberal friends who sneer at the Sinner’s Prayer and greet with incredulity talk of spiritual healing and demonic attack could be more humble, as could my theologically conservative friends who did not know how to comment on the recent death of Marcus Borg without first pointing out that they disagreed with a lot he wrote and find themselves wanting to put air quotes around the word “Christian” when they refer to some of their brothers and sisters.

I know these comments extend to me as well. In recent months, I’ve learned the hard way that things I once regarded as certain can quickly melt into nothing. I have been guilty as any of confusing what appeared to be clear for the whole truth.

Yes, to exist, the church needs borders and boundaries. It needs bishops to exercise discipline. I do not for a moment doubt that. But I am reminded these days that I am not a bishop, nor am I well suited for that office.

Part of humility may be leaving to those called to that office the tasks of that office, even when it looks from my vantage point as if they could or should be doing something differently than they are.

The great paradox I feel in all this is that while we are called to be humble about what we think we know of God, we are not called to sit on our hands. What we know only in part should still should shape the way we live and act, while we remain ever ready for the Holy Spirit to challenge and call us into new paths.

And so, today I find myself seeking to be more humble about what I know even as I — perhaps paradoxically — try to be even more intent on following the one who has called me.

Augustine on the many truths in scripture

Above all, I heard first one, then another, then many difficult passages in the Old Testament scriptures figuratively interpreted, where I, by taking them literally, had found them to kill. So after several passages in the Old Testament had been expounded spiritually, I now found fault with that despair of mine, caused by my belief that the law and the prophets could not be defended at all against the mockery of hostile critics.

The first time I read Augustine’s Confessions, I was reading for the spiritual biography. I was interested in the pear stealing and the sex and the word that came to him in the garden and his eventual baptism. It was a story I read as a type of conversion narrative.

In re-reading the book this month, I’ve been struck by the depth of engagement with the meaning, interpretation, and reception of the Bible. His concerns and struggles sound very contemporary, and his solutions do as well.

In his engagement with Genesis at the end of the book – a part I skimmed through without much attention the first time I read it – I find myself fascinated with the non-dogmatic nature of his conclusions about how to read the scripture. I hear the Wesleyan “think and let think” now as at least a partial echo of Augustine.

Here, for instance, is Augustine on how to reconcile that fact that different people read the opening lines of Genesis in different ways, some of them incompatible with each other, but none of them incompatible with a high view of God.

So when one person has said ‘Moses thought what I say,’ and another, ‘No, what I say,’ I think it more religious in spirit to say ‘Why not both if both are true?’ And if anyone sees a third or fourth or a further truth in these words, why not believe that Moses discerned all these things? For through him the one God has tempered the sacred books to the interpretation of many, who could come to see a diversity of truths.

I don’t want to either misrepresent what Augustine was really getting at here or oversimplify the point, but I do hear in this a basic impulse against a tendency we I often have – and I often feel – that if we can’t all read the Bible in fairly similar ways, then something is wrong.

Augustine opens up the possibility that there may be many truths within the text. I find this a fascinating thing to discover reading this book by this great church father.