On the Bible and Tradition

I distinctly remember sitting in my ‘Introduction to the Old Testament’ class one day, during the Fall of 2010. We were discussing ancient creation myths and other Mesopotamian mythologies that seemed eerily similar to the accounts in Genesis 1-4. I don’t recall what exactly we talked about regarding the 1st or 4th chapters of Genesis, but I do remember talking about Genesis 2-3.

I was absolutely awestruck. Dumbfounded, even.

We were exploring the views of ancient Egyptian stories, Canaanite religion, Babylonian myths, and Sumerian epics. It was incredible the amount of similarities between these narratives and the Scriptural accounts. What struck me, however, was that all of these stories predated the Hebrew texts. Some by several thousand years.

Chaos_Monster_and_Sun_God

Marduk vs. Tiamat in the Enuma Elish – just before Marduk creates the expanse called “Sky” to separate the waters, and creates dry ground

I simply didn’t know how to handle what I was studying. Surely if the ancient accounts of Scripture were to be historically true, as I had assumed, then the earliest chapters of Genesis should predate every other telling of the stories.  However, if traditional interpretations are to be correct, then Moses wrote down the texts. But, therein lies a problem… Moses didn’t exist until around 1450 BCE, with the oldest surviving copies dating to around 400 BCE. These other ancient accounts existed well before 1500 BCE, with the earliest surviving physical copy of a creation myth dating to 1600 BCE (The Eridu Genesis of Sumerian origin). So, either Moses didn’t write parts of Genesis, or oral traditions survived hundreds (if not thousands) of years without change, or there’s something else going on here…

I want to pause for a moment, because I don’t want to get into interpretive methods of Genesis 1-4. That’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that I struggled, for years, on how to reconcile the authority of the Scriptures with the fact that the Scriptures mirror ancient mythologies.

That was a serious crisis point in my life. My faith was built upon the notion that the Scriptures are wholly unique, and stand unopposed by any other religion or anti-religious movement. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I have come to see as a very weak foundation for my faith.

It’s a funny irony, I’ve noticed, that Protestant traditions tend to look down on catholic practices. We – speaking as a generic protestant of the American variety – say, “Look at those catholics and their traditions! They worship ancient practices that serve… what purpose? Don’t they know that traditional practices for the sake of traditional practices is pointless? Our faith isn’t built upon the Church! They need to stop worshipping tradition!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about church practices, we tend to embrace them.

At the same time, we stick to our own traditions. Mainly, traditional interpretations of Scripture. We can apply the same criticisms to our hermeneutical methods: “Look at those protestants and their traditional interpretations! They worship the church fathers, and even figures of the Bible, and what they said about Scripture! Don’t they know that clinging to traditional views of Scripture for the sake of those traditional views is pointless? Our faith isn’t built on the Scriptures! They need to stop worshipping traditional interpretations!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about Biblical interpretations, we feel threatened by them. Oh, wait…

And here I want to make my first point: If the Bible is what we believe it is – the inspired word of God – then we shouldn’t feel threatened by scientific, anthropological, or archeological findings. Could these discoveries have an impact on our Scriptural interpretations? Absolutely! Would studies in language, ancient cultures, and biblical criticisms challenge our traditionally-held beliefs about Scripture? Quite possibly, yes. But why should we be afraid of that? Just like we shouldn’t be afraid to switch-up the practices of church, or explore alternate structures to a worship service, we can apply the same logic to our treatment of the Bible. After all, our church services and Scripture fulfill the same role: to be a vehicle for communicating the Gospel.

Now I want to awkwardly shift to my second point.

About a year ago, I was asked if I believe the Bible to be true. My response needed clarification, so this was how I answered: “Do I believe that the Bible is true in that it points to Jesus Christ, and accurately portrays his character, and accurately tells of the necessity of being in right relationship with our Creator and how we do that? Yes! Absolutely!  But, do I believe that the Bible is true in that every claim it makes about every subject is 100% scientifically, historically, and philosophically accurate? No.”  (I’m paraphrasing, but that was essentially my answer. And I stand by it).

The truth is this: The Bible contains contradictions. It even points some of them out (see Daniel’s conversation with Gabriel in chapter 9, where Daniel asks, ‘Hey, you told Jeremiah “70 years until Judah’s restoration.” It’s been 69, so what’s going on?’ and Gabriel says, ‘um… that was a mistake. It wasn’t 70 years. It’s actually 70 times 7 years.’  Jeremiah’s scroll autocorrected, I guess.).

In all honesty, I’m not concerned about how anyone interprets the Bible for themselves. If you want to read everything literally, and treat it all as historical, political, scientific fact – go right ahead! If you want to believe that the Bible has no contradiction and interpret your way around ‘supposed contradictions,’ be my guest. I won’t question your faith, nor would I want to. What I struggle with, however, is the historic failure on the part of clergy and church leader to help us develop solid views of Scripture that do not devolve into worship of the 66 books.

I know this, because I experienced it. I experienced having a relationship with God that was based on words instead of the Word (and I don’t mean the Bible with that, I mean Jesus Christ).  I experienced having a crisis of faith because of challenges that were posed to a book – not challenges that were posed to my Creator himself. Yet, I had intricately woven the two together. I had confused the medium with the message; the Scriptures with the point of the Scriptures; the Bible with the Lord. Our faith isn’t built on the Bible. Our faith is built on Jesus Christ, whom the Scriptures point to. But the Bible is not Jesus Christ.

It was a long road to unravel and differentiate the two, but it was a road well worth embarking upon.

 

End note:

This is something I’ve been meaning to write on for a while, but unfortunately this type of conversation is one that can quickly get a minister ‘black-listed,’ either by members of a local church community or  other clergy.

Some may wonder, then, why I chose to write on this when it poses some risk. My answer is simple: I have always seen it as a responsibility of the minister to not simply maintain a status-quo of beliefs. If we are to grow in our faith, we need to face challenges and experience dissonance. What I try to do, then, is help people encounter those dissonances and process their way through them. What they conclude is up to them. This is one of the functions of my blog, after all.

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On Plans and Trust

Last week I attended the Global Leadership Summit with a very good friend of mine.  During one of the breaks in the Sessions I remained in my seat, while most everyone else was walking around looking at books, using the restroom, socializing, etc.  I felt like I should open my Bible and start reading it, and I happened across Proverbs 19 and 20.

I like planning things out.  I guess you could call me a classic “over-thinker” because whenever I see possibilities I follow every rabbit trail as far as I can in my mind.  It’s almost a gift, in a way, because I’m able to quickly assess the possible consequences of certain actions and choices.  But, unfortunately, I’ve recently begun to discover that whenever I do this I actually limit myself.  “Well, if such-and-such happens, then this will happen” and so when “such-and-such” happens, but “this” didn’t, I keep going on as if “this” did, and I miss out on so much that I could have experienced because I am too focused on the consequence I was expecting.

I am also a worrier.  When it comes to planning things out I tend to worry if I see things going in a different direction than what I intended.  This isn’t always the case, but mostly this happens when things are out of my control and in the control of someone else.  Honestly, I have a difficult time trusting people when it comes to my future.  I think, “God is in control of my future, and if He meant for such-and-such to happen then He would be directing me in that way.  But, He hasn’t said anything like that to me, so then such-and-such person is being a hindrance to God’s will in my life.”  Normally I don’t say something that extreme, but God’s been showing me that my actions say that quite often.  And, I’ve noticed that it’s happened more than I care to admit in the last few years.

“Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lords purpose that prevails.” -Proverbs 19:21

At least once every day since I read this passage last Thursday in Detroit God’s been reminding me of this verse.  Not a whole lot is going on in my world right now, so I’m slowly being consumed with just a few thoughts running through my head and there are a lot of “what-if”‘s.  I’m in Band Camp right now, and sometimes during the practices I completely miss the instructions being called out to us because I’m thinking, “God, what if…..” and I begin to worry.  So, I plan.  “Maybe if I do this, then…”, “I know! I’ll try doing this, so that…..”, or sometimes I don’t even know what to do to manipulate an outcome, so I spend way too long trying to figure out a plan.

Then I hear my Baba: “Why do you think you need to do that?  Isn’t it enough that you love me? isn’t it enough that I’ve shown you, through My Word, that it is always My purpose that prevails?  You keep trying to change things; trying to achieve your own dreams, and you truly believe that what you see if My will for your life.  I love how zealous you are for My Will, but my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.  If you really are seeking after me, and want to see me glorified in your life, then you need to be okay with these outcomes and trust that I know what I’m doing.  And stop worrying about how other people are affecting your life.  Don’t you think that I love you enough that I wouldn’t have let those things happen if I thought they were going to separate you completely from the plans I have for you?”

“A man’s steps are directed by the Lord.  How then can anyone understand his own way?” -Proverbs 20:24

More and more I see how little I’ve surrendered to God.  I pray and I read the scriptures and I seek His face, and I still believe that I can know where He is leading me.

Recently someone was talking with me about what I was planning on doing once I graduated Olivet.  I gave them what I knew to be the best explanation, and then said, “But I’ve learned that I can only see the next immediate step.  Everything else is in God’s hands.” 4 years ago I was going to be an architect and had the next 10 years of my life planned out.  3 years ago I was going to be a pastor in the Michigan.  2 years ago I was going to be a pastor anywhere BUT Michigan.  Last year I was going to be a pastor overseas.  Now, I’m sensing a call to international missions to train/teach/disciple pastors who lack access to good education and training.  Next May, I graduate.  After that? Only God knows.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him who have been called according to his purpose.” -Romans 8:28

I have no good reason to worry.  Sometimes I find myself trying to justify my fears and doubts.  But, whenever that happens, I hear my heavenly Baba say, “If you’re seeking my face, and humbling yourself before me and surrendering everything, then the only thing you need to know for sure is that everything that is happening in your life is leading you where I want you to be, and that is a good thing!”

Other times I see an opportunity and think, “certainly this must be where God is leading me.  I mean, see how beautiful this is! I’m so excited to see what God has in store for me in this!!”  Then the door closes shut, and I have a hard time believing that God could possibly have something better in store for me than that.  I usually respond to those situations with a little bit of aggravation and say, “Well, if that wasn’t your will for me because you have something better, then whatever your plan is for that part of my life must be something that falls straight out of Heaven.”

…”Exactly!”

Let’s leave this one untitled.

Took a nap today, and had a nightmare.  For some reason all it did after I woke up was remind me of some parts of my life I’d prefer to not dwell on for too long. I almost forgot that I mentioned a little of this in my first blog post.  It’s not often I’m reminded of those moments, but they always sober me up pretty well.

Few people can claim to have experienced genuine human friendlessness.  Especially for an extended period of time.  If you’ve ever looked at your cell phone and truly had no one in your contact list to text or call about anything not work-related, or if you’ve ever gone to sleep weeks on end without having one conversation with someone that was deeper than, “hi! how are you?”, or if you’ve had imaginary conversations with people that become so intense it feels like you’ve actually talked with someone and been shocked to realize you’re alone, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Welcome to my life 2007-2009.

It was a slow series of events that dragged out for a few years before, at one definable point, I had no friends.  It wasn’t that I was a jerk, or that there was major drama involved.  People moved away.  I lost contact with some after graduation.  Life takes us in different directions, and apparently I wasn’t permitted to have a traveling companion where I was going.  The only people I knew were either clients at work, my boss, or my church family; who all lived at least 30 minutes away.

I spent my 21st birthday with my mom and dad at Applebees.  I was hoping to have a party, but I could only think of 4 people who I was close enough to to invite.  The first two were my parents, and the other two were spending that weekend with their young kids.

It was a time that was dark, lonely, cold, and empty.  But I wouldn’t trade those years for anything, because I discovered something that has changed my life: there is a unique form of comfort to be found in deep-seated pain.  I’m not talking about any physical pain, or your boyfriend/girlfriend of 2 months breaking up with you.  I’m talking about the kind of pain that wracks you to your very core; that makes a home for itself somewhere inside.  This pain comes in many forms, and this was one of those forms for me.

But along with the misery comes an unexpected warmth.  It’s definitely comforting.  It doesn’t make things easier to bear, but it keeps things from breaking you.  It doesn’t numb the pain, or distract you.  It gives you just enough strength to breath, enough focus to get your through the day, enough patience to make it through, and enough wisdom to keep you from becoming self-destructive.

A prominent 20th-Century theologian held the notion that the person of Jesus Christ, the true reality of who he was, was fully realized on the Cross.  What he meant by that was this: the poor, the destitute, the maimed, the broken, the down-trodden, the prostitute on the corner, the homeless child, the murderer in jail…when you see these people you see Jesus.

Since my two-year ordeal, I’ve firmly held on to the idea that people generally have an extremely twisted view of discomfort.  Sure, we declare that to be a Christian is to allow ourselves to be in uncomfortable positions.  I’m not talking about being in uncomfortable surroundings, around weird people.  I’m talking about internal discomfort.  We avoid it.  We have entire belief systems dedicated to this strange idea that, “if it hurts, it’s wrong. if there’s pain, avoid it.”  Hedonism and Apathy are two main things I can think of right now that embody what I’m getting at pretty well.

I’ve seen this idea seep into the Church.  It’s like God’s ‘out there’ somewhere on the mountaintops, ushering us to Himself.  We see pain as moments of trial, and actually endure them for the sole purpose of coming out the other end of it a better person.  Pain is just something to get through.  Discomfort is simply one of the negatives to this whole “live like Jesus” thing.  We dedicate so much time to finding ways out of pain.

I find this so unusual when I really take time to think about it.  If we are, in fact, growing into people who will be like Jesus, and if the reality of Jesus is hanging on the Cross, then pain and discomfort of extreme degrees is going to become the identifying marker of our existence.  The Cross is where the nails are.  The Cross is where the blood-letting happens, where the spears pierce sides, legs are broken, throats are strangled, and our friends leave us.  And therein lies our one point of solace: here is Jesus.

Christ came to earth to identify Himself with us.  God came to earth and become a human.  The only thing I have found to be the grand unifier is pain.  The one thing everyone on the face of the earth can relate to is pain.  Not everyone has been poor, or experienced “need”.  Not everyone has experienced “wealth”.  We’re all different nationalities, backgrounds, life experiences, skin colors, etc.  But the one thing we all have in common is our shared understanding of “pain.”

Since we all know what pain is, and since we will all continue to experience it through our lives, I feel it’s important to keep reminding myself that the best thing to do in those instances where pain arises is to embrace it.  That odd comfort in the midst of pain I talked about earlier, it only came about when I embraced my situation; when I accepted its reality gave up looking for a way out, but I didn’t ignore it either.

For a long time I believed that God really was somewhere else.  Like I was in my demoralized position and God was watching, and He did feel my pain, but it wasn’t true association.  It was like (and I don’t have experience with this, but I picture it like this) I’m in prison, and God stays on the other side of glass as a visitor, talking to me through a phone on the wall telling me everything will be okay.  Truth is, that’s not how things are at all.

God’s not looking in on what’s going on.  God’s right there with you in those times, sharing every single emotion, carrying every single scar.  Literally, He is walking in your shoes.  That is the comfort I find when i go through times like that.

Fellowship with God is the single greatest power we can experience, but it only comes when  we choose to live in the reality of our circumstances.

Does it take the pain away? Nope!

Does it distract you from the pain? No

Does it make things easier? Not really

Does it make you happy? No, and sometimes it might not even make you joyful.

But, it is enough.

Yes, there are ways to avoid pain.  There are things we can do to keep ourselves from staying “there” for longer than we would like.  When we do that though, I think we miss an opportunity to see Jesus in a way we may have never seen Him before.  Not that He can only be seen in those instances, but it’s a side of Him we miss sometimes.

Maybe some people are in a place right now they’d rather not be in.  Maybe it’s a loss of a loved one, a prolonged season of some sort of situation you feel like no one else can identify with (and you may be right), depression… whatever it is.  I encourage you to not look away.  Where you’re at… it hurts.  I know.  Let it hurt.  Cry yourself to sleep.  Don’t try to convince yourself everything is “okay.”  Everything is not “okay” – you’re suffering.  I won’t even ask you to keep your head up.  Just do one thing: never forget who is sharing your pain.

Obviously, I say all of this out of my own personal experiences.  You always hear about the lights at the ends of the tunnels, the happy endings, yada yada yada.  After everything I’ve gone through, I’ve come to this conclusion: The only happy ending is Heaven, everything else is just a series of transitions.  So why is it we try to fool ourselves into thinking otherwise when times get tough?

On Retrospect and Thankfullness

It’s always found in the aftermath.  It is as if, in those moments when I’m caught in the midst of chaos – or what seems like chaos to me -, I shut down and only focus on what light there may be at the end of the tunnel.

Recently I’ve tried to stop doing that because I have noticed that I miss the smaller, seemingly insignificant displays in the middle of it all.  Even though that one moment of awareness never fails to take place, it simply does not do justice.  I’m talking about the sovereignty, the power, the mercy, the love, the benevolence, the grace, and the sheer vivacity of God.

I spent a lot of time today looking back over the last 7 or so years; from the time I was becoming a senior in High School until now.  Yes, there were those bold highlights when God’s omnipotence was on full display; giving me a driving passion for Architecture, and then a driving passion for His Church; sustaining me though 3 (soon to be 4) more years of schooling through Olivet Nazarene University; providing a new place for my family to live; bringing a godly man into my sisters life; etc.  -The big moments.

But what is going through my mind right now is not just the big moments.  What’s nearly driving me to tears in awestruck amazement and wonder are those little moments.  Hundreds of them, maybe even thousands of them.  The time when I took a year off after High School and then, out of nowhere, my uncle in Colorado needed someone to come work for him during that time.  The time when I graduated ITT-Tech at the top of my program, having had interviews with drafting companies, and watching God blow the hinges off doors as I drastically changed directions in life to pursue His calling on my life into the Ministry.  All those times my parents and I had no idea how we were going to make it through the next year the way finances were, and witnessing the power of prayer as God moved in mighty ways to sustain us.  Those private moments locked away in my apartment room where I was feeling cold, lonely, barely hanging on, and then feeling the overwhelming presence of God overtake me in a graceful and wholly intimate manner.  All those times I questioned my impact, even questioned my very existence, only to watch God bring into view all that He has used me for.

Even now I feel forcibly driven to humility, and I haven’t even touched the surface of all that God has done in my life.  And all of that happened in barely more than half a decade.  At times I have felt on the verge of losing my faith, or slowly walking away from my calling.  At times I have been bombarded by pain, by sorrow, by despair.  At times I have felt God’s own breath intermingled with mine.  And at times I have watched myself as God moves me, as if I’m not even doing anything; just watching it all happen.  In all of those times, God was always the same.  In all those moments, God was right next to me feeling my pain, drawing myself closer to Him.

The original story of Thanksgiving as referenced by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, cataloged in William Bradford’s ‘On Plymouth Plantation’ is an amazing moment in one of America’s early colonies.  It is not a story of racism, or theft, of murder, or anything like that – no matter what your teacher told you.  For years, the pilgrims of Plymouth had fought malnutrition, starvation, and disease.  But one year, those pilgrims decided to change their entire system of government.  Their new system of society was one no one had practiced before.  It was uncharted territory for them.  But, they trusted their Heavenly Father who led them to this strange new land, away from the persecution and constant migration in Europe, and they knew He did not bring them this far only to suffer death and starvation.  Later that year, at Harvest time, their crops yielded immeasurably more than they had ever hoped to get.  In response, they held a feast for one simple purpose: to thank God, the one and only God, who broke into their moment of desperation and refused to let His people succumb to the tragedies which surrounded them.

Thousandth of years, and God has never acted any differently.  He is faithful.  He is good.  He never abandons His people whom He loves, no matter what situations arise.

I, a single individual in a sea of billions, have attracted the attention of my heavenly “Baba”, and have become a LIVING example of His faithfulness and goodness.  Yet, so often I look around and see so many Christians living in worry.  I used to live this way myself.  There are plenty of reasons to live a life saturated with worry.  life is unpredictable, hard, uncomfortable, and we don’t know what tomorrow holds.  Who, logically, would not worry?  But, I have finally realized that the only real reason a Christian need worry is if they don’t believe that God is who He says He is.  And the only reason people would believe that is if they have never truly allowed God to be who He said He was in their lives.

I know times are difficult.  I understand the fear, the uncertainty that tomorrow brings.  However, by all rights I shouldn’t be here right now.  I should never have been able to be at ONU as long as I have been.  I should never have been able to go to Africa not once, but twice!  I know me.  I know what I’m capable of.  I also know that I should not be living this life.  It is by God, and God alone, that I can exist in this manner.  This story, my life, is a story only God could have authored.  It truly, deeply pains me to see people live their lives not knowing what this is like.  Yes, it is risky.  But, it is an adventure. A great, mysterious, vivifying adventure.  I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.  If I would, I’d be an architect right now instead of a minister!

All in all, what I’m really trying to say is this: Thank you, God… asanti sana Mungu. Asanti sana tene baba yangu (thank you again my daddy).

Bwana Asufiwe Wa Milele Na Milele (Praise God forever and ever)