Fifth in series: Leave Bad Faith. Find Good Faith.
This April we have been been talking about a challenging reality with faith That although faith is something that is incredibly meaningful and positive in my life and many people I know today, Not all experiences of faith are good In fact sometimes we can have experiences that leave us wanting to run the other direction.
A story that comes to my mind is from a friend here at BLV, Leicester (he plays drums a lot) -- he grew up going to church with his family in New Orleans. I asked him to share and he wrote this for us this morning:
I honestly don’t remember anything about the message of this particular sermon, just what made me walk away. During the sermon, the pastor played a clip from an event he and 2 other pastors had in New Orleans about a year earlier. During that event he began to talk about the lack of attendance.
He spoke about how important it was to hear the word of god, and that the low attendance at his event showed a lack of faith in the New Orleans community. Toward the end of his sermon for that event, he said that “something big would happen to New Orleans” for its low attendance. He ended the clip there, and talked to us about how Hurricane Katrina was the will of god. It was punishment for the lack of people going to church in New Orleans.
I was 16 or 17 at the time and dating someone who was displaced by Katrina. So when he started to talk about how New Orleans deserved it, I felt especially hurt. He was speaking about people I had dinner with weekly, a family I loved and cared for. He was speaking about a family I watched cram into a 1 bedroom apartment as they figured out how to replace everything they had in their home. A family that saw almost everything they owned under water. This Pastor was telling me that that family was punished by God because not enough people went to his sermon. I decided after that I wouldn’t go back to that church. It just didn’t fit with the God my parents taught me about.
One more story for us: I have been a part of a weeknight podcast group through this church (with Leicester too actually) We listen on our own to episodes of this awesome podcast — the bible for normal people, which dives into the Bible in ways that make you love it not run from it — and then we discuss the episodes together when we meet - it’s great! Anyway I was struck by one guest on the podcast Brian Zahnd, a pastor and author, who talked about experiencing the same sort of crisis as Leicester experienced after Hurricane Katrina... for this guy Zahnd, he talks about an experience where he suddenly felt ashamed for something he’d done over a decade earlier watching on TV and listening on the radio to the unfolding of the Persian Gulf war in the early 1990s Doing so as a consumer of entertainment... He came to the realization that he (and the Christianity he knew in his Evangelical context) had become desensitized to violence and a big part of that was the fact that: If you want to use the Bible to condone violence that is easy to do (there are accounts of cruelty, violence, even genocide, and not always carried out by villains, carried out by the so-called good guys) He says in the podcast: for him, that realization sent him on a long journey of re-thinking his read of the Bible, and in many ways he could boil all of his re-thinking down to a single question: “Would you personally harm a child if you felt like God told you to?” Zahnd said: we have a big problem when people of faith have to hesitate to consider that question on the terms of “being faithful or not”, rather than immediately reject it outright and say: hold on, if we’re even talking about this we took a wrong turn and need to re-think at a foundational level our read of the Bible and of God because we are sounding nothing like Jesus of Nazareth here. That feels dead-on to me!
The problem I think has to with Bad Authority These stories make us cringe because they are stories of bad authority -- specifically in the context of faith Not all authority is bad. There are authorities that are good, even in religious settings. And I think good authority is something we all actually want. But probably all of us have so many experiences of bad authority A bad authority figure for example: a parent, a teacher, a boss, a police officer, a pastor Or, in the era of social media and “fake news”, how about a bad source of information? It is challenging when in our Facebook News Feeds, a hot-take headline shared from some random blog looks exactly the same as a headline shared from actual institutions of journalism like the New York Times Many reputable news sources in our country right now have released tips for identifying fake news -- fake authorities -- bad authorities -- to help people distinguish those in their News Feeds from good authorities -- real sources of news with journalistic integrity
And when we think about this in faith settings, looking to The Bible or a sacred text as an Authority is no different... There are good and bad versions of doing this - reliable and unreliable ways of doing this To help us distinguish I want to suggest today that: what gets us the bad version of the "Bible as an authority" is unquestioned authority that’s what led to crisis for Brian Zahnd and for Leicester People claiming some extremely questionable thing with great certainty and then saying “the “Bible says I’m right” and acting as if that’s a reasonable argument On the flip side, good authority is the opposite of unquestioned — It is full of questions and back and forth. It’s interactive and relational
Within The Bible itself, actually, there is an allusion to this In the Gospel of Mark, there’s a moment when Jesus is questioned by the religious elite of his day about whether or not he is properly giving authority to the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament, as we call it today) Jesus and his disciples were not affluent, middle-class people in their society. They were poor (some voluntarily rather than as victims of society, but poor nonetheless), and they were basically nomadic for the three years of Jesus’ public ministry. And so there is this moment when they are hungry and they pick some grain to eat… But they do this on the Sabbath Rest Day (Saturday) -- something expressly forbidden in the Jewish Bible The religious elite are offended by this and call out Jesus on it. And Jesus says in response: “The sabbath is made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath.” Like: you are missing the point of the Sabbath Rest Day if you think that it just needs to be followed unquestioned-ly, even when pitted against the hunger of the poor A friend of mine who’s a pastor once suggested to me we elaborate on Jesus’ words this way: “The Bible is made for humankind, not humankind for the Bible” Just to lay my own cards on the table: I think the Bible is great. I love it. And we draw from it every week here at BLV. But why? Because it serves us. Not because we serve it as some unquestioned authority. I mean, let’s be honest about what is actually happening when people try to treat the Bible as an unquestioned authority What they’re actually talking about is their single, narrow interpretation of the Bible It’s absurd to think that anyone has a pure interpretation of the Bible that can hold up to being “unquestionable” -- that is obvious from the fact that there are like nine thousand different interpretations out there for any given Biblical theme Here’s what we can learn from the way Jesus treats the Bible: the Bible is no authority at all if it is never questioned Do you see how Jesus models that here? He is interacting with his Bible. Asking Questions of it. Of how to apply its ancient words to his current day. I think Jesus’ model applies quite well to that podcast guest Zahnd's point about Evangelical Christians even for a second considering “faithfulness pitted against harming a child” as a thing If you get there, you’re missing the point. You’ve got things backwards, and you’re falling into the trap of believing your narrow read of the Bible can be an unquestioned authority
But it’s important to note: Just because there is misappropriation of the Bible and fake news and bad authority doesn’t mean there isn’t appropriate use of the Bible and reputable journalism and good authority... And let me just say: Thank God! Because, personally, I need some good authority in my life. I am not always the best authority to myself And a good experience of good authority can be formative and life-changing! I remember working for someone who felt like an amazing authority to me. A guy named Dave, who remains a good friend to this day I grew as a person leaps and bounds working for Dave. I matured. I’m a less defensive person because of working for Dave. I appreciate art and creativity more because of working for Dave. I’m a better manager of people because of the way he was a manager to me. When he spoke, I genuinely listened. I didn’t pretend to listen because he was my supervisor. I wanted to listen. What he suggested, I took seriously. What he did, I followed suit. And why? Because in meetings with him, I felt honored and respected by him. Because he got to know me as a person, and didn’t just consider me an underling. Because I always felt like he wanted to hear my input and perspective. He invited me to follow his authority through interaction and relationship, not by demanding unquestioned obedience to his word.
This is what makes Jesus the ultimate good version of authority Jesus famously said he is “the way, the truth, and the life” A person is these things, not a list of ideas, not a creed, not a political platform, not a Ted talk... a person And, like I experienced with my supervisor Dave, a good person is the best sort of authority, because you can interact with a person, you can build relationship, you can experience back and forth. You can ask questions. What better good person to be an authority to us than Jesus, the God of the universe become a person?
There’s a trade off, to be sure! A person’s authority is not as clear cut as a list or a creed or an employee handbook. This means we don’t have written policies for every situation we might encounter If our authority is a person, we can’t go on auto-pilot. We have to interact with that person to be guided by their authority or get answers from their authority… we can’t just memorize some handbook I won’t lie. Auto-pilot is tempting to me, because sometimes I’m just really tired. Clear-cut is tempting to me, because it’s hard to express myself — Do I have to interact with someone else? Can’t I just keep to myself and figure it out? This is part of the human condition, I think. Throughout history humans have tried to make Jesus’ authority more clear cut and tried to put it on auto-pilot, because we like those things... And so we’ve developed versions of somewhat Jesus-like authorities that may work for a time... but inevitably they break down Early on in church history, it was creeds of belief - these are our unquestioned authority that will make us feel safe… but no written creed is perfect… eventually they broke down and we got the Great Schism of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Catholic Church around the year 1000 Then for like 500 years it was the Pope - that’s our unquestioned authority that will make us feel safe... but no pope is “God come to humanity in a person”… so eventually that broke down and we got the Protestant Reformation For the last 500 years in church history it’s been the Bible - that’s our unquestioned authority to make us feel safe... but, again, really that just means “each group's single, narrow interpretation of the Bible” so that’s breaking down now too Why have each of these things broken down? Because unquestioned authority is bad faith... it cannot in the long run communicate what Jesus is like or about, because Jesus is about good faith and uses interactive authority to guide and help people
Alright, a few suggestions I have for us along the lines of what we’re talking about Make Jesus your map-key for interpreting the Bible As I mentioned, I love the Bible, and do consider it an authority in my life. It has incredible stuff in it. But the Bible is not an easy read. I say this jokingly a lot, but I really mean it: my least favorite thing to hear in church settings is the phrase “the Bible clearly says...” The Bible literally can’t clearly say anything to 21st century Americans! It is a collection of writings from centuries-old eras and cultures totally different from ours today! It couldn’t even clearly say things to people in Jesus’ time -- that’s why the religious elite of his day needed to be told “the sabbath is for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath” -- their argument was basically “the Bible clearly says” — and Jesus had words for that BUT, through appropriate and sound interpretation, the Bible can say things to 21st Century Americans that are incredibly helpful! (just not clearly) - The largest burden in pursuing appropriate and sound interpretation of the Bible falls (and should fall) on people like me, pastors... and on professional scholars and historians and theologians BUT one thing any one of us can try to do if we engage the Bible is make Jesus our map-key You know, a map key tells you this is north, and an inch is a mile according to this scale, and this color means this Think of Jesus and the 4 Gospels that tell Jesus’ story as the map-key for the whole Bible When you encounter something in the Bible that doesn’t sit right with you, or feels like it puts you in a moral dilemma, or is just confusing… try to hold Jesus up next to it Whatever you know of Jesus and his story - put that side by side with the thing that’s not computing for you This won’t always answer all of your questions But sometimes you will feel things clarified — this for example is how I have come to the belief that it is NOT a faithful read of the Bible to use it to condone violence or racism or exclusion, even though some of its heroes perpetrate those things At the very least doing this means you will have engaged the Bible as an interactive authority, rather than as an unquestioned authority Even if you don’t get immediate benefit from that in “an answered question”, you will get long term benefit from that in the form of back and forth relationship being built -- with the Bible and with Jesus Interact with God on your own AND always run anything you sense by other people If you don’t already have at least a weekly time that you set aside to shut off distractions, put away your phone, be apart from the demands of your life (work, kids, household, whatever), and then to just be quiet and listen in your mind for God, I’d encourage you to step back and take a look at your weekly schedule How can you prioritize getting such a time at least weekly? If you do have this happening for you at least weekly, try to make it twice/week or daily I’m talking about quiet, set-aside space, like at least 10 minutes, during which you might say very little to God, but you’re paying attention for God to initiate with you AND THEN, here’s the key thing thing to insuring you’re experiencing “interactive” authority, anything you think you might sense or hear from God in those times, run it by other praying friends in your life This is key because (1) no person can perceive or hear God perfectly, so inviting others into your prayers is a way to help you course-correct And (2) since this kind of prayer is a private thing, inviting others in is a way to protect you against your own ego just becoming your authority -- This avoids the whole “I had an affair because God told me to follow my dreams” thing For good authority, the more interaction the better! Running your prayers by others can be as simple as: Hey so-and-so, here’s what I felt like God might be saying to me. How does that hit you? Does that sound like Jesus to you? What do you think? If a friend doesn’t come to mind for you, Kyle and I, or a small group leader, or someone on our prayer team here are all great people to do this with. Just the other week, I got coffee with a friend here in BLV and he asked me exactly these questions about something he thought God might be saying to him, and we had an awesome chat about it. Question our authority here at BLV I don’t mean disrespect us, I don’t mean undermine us I mean interact with us. If something doesn’t sit right with you, ask about it If we are going to be a place that helps people experience good authority from Jesus or good authority from the Bible in their lives, then we as pastors and leaders of this place better darn well act like good, interactive authority too. So interact with us, we invite you to!
Alright, I’d love to pray for us...