Third in series: When the Bible came alive to me
(Sorry! This week's audio recording was lost due to technical difficulties, but you can view Kyle's transcript below. Pretend it's a strangely formatted blog post!)
This week I am excited to continue our current series, that we have called When the Bible Came Alive. The basic starting point for this series is that I have found myself throughout my life to struggle with two big pitfalls when it comes to the Bible. SLIDE If you want to hear more about it, please feel free to go back and listen to one of the first two sermons in this series, On one side, you have treating the Bible with such reverence that you don’t ask proper questions, on the other is dismissing the Bible as antiquated and not worth listening to at all. And this series is exploring that middles of thoughtful, informed engagement of the Bible that allows it to come alive.
So, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, after High School I spent a year in Australia.
And there was one point after I had been there for about three months And I hadn’t really developed any real friends yet. And so, I was feeling really, really lonely. And even more than that, I really felt like I had no idea what I was doing with my life, or even what I wanted to do with my life. As much as I have ever felt this, I felt lost, alone, and hopeless. And so this one night, it was late and I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to read some psalms from the Bible. Mostly because I thought they may help me fall asleep, And it happened to be that I came across a psalm, that growing up going to church, I had actually come across a few times in the past. But, on this occasion this psalm just came alive. Although I was reading the words of David as he was hiding out in caves in fear of his life as King Saul pursued him, I felt like it was written for me in that moment.
Read with me. SLIDE Psalms 86 1 Hear me, Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. 2 Guard my life, for I am faithful to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God; 3 have mercy on me, Lord, for I call to you all day long. 4 Bring joy to your servant, Lord, for I put my trust in you.
5 You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you. 6 Hear my prayer, Lord; listen to my cry for mercy. 7 When I am in distress, I call to you, because you answer me.
8 Among the gods there is none like you, Lord; no deeds can compare with yours. 9 All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, Lord; they will bring glory to your name. 10 For you are great and do marvelous deeds; you alone are God.
11 Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name. 12 I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart; I will glorify your name forever. 13 For great is your love toward me; you have delivered me from the depths, from the realm of the dead.
14 Arrogant foes are attacking me, O God; ruthless people are trying to kill me— they have no regard for you. 15 But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. 16 Turn to me and have mercy on me; show your strength in behalf of your servant; save me, because I serve you just as my mother did. 17 Give me a sign of your goodness, that my enemies may see it and be put to shame, for you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.
I felt a tangible shift inside me as I read this. Nothing had really changed about my circumstance, but I felt as the psalm says, I had called to God in my distress, and he had answered me and he had helped me and comforted me.
I had read this very psalm several times in the past, but it never really meant much to me.
It wasn’t actually a huge mystery to me why Psalm 86 suddenly came alive to me, it came alive to me because of how needy and small and lonely I was feeling in that moment, and Psalm 86’s starting point is neediness, smallness, and loneliness. The passage came alive because for really the first time in my life, I was in a place of life it was speaking to.
And in this experience not only did this passage come alive but it kind of unlocked something that helped the Bible as a whole come alive to me.
Which was understanding that our current life circumstances have a massive impact on how we understand and interpret the Bible.
And the more and more I studied the Bible and learned more about the contexts and circumstances of the original writers and audiences, the more it became clear that so much of the misinterpretations of the Bible I had been taught or came to on my own in my youth happened when I uncritically took something from the Bible and applied it to myself without considering how different the writer and audience’s circumstances were from my current circumstances.
And I don’t think this is unique to me, it is the human condition to see things from our own perspective, from the lens of our own circumstances. And just like this gets us in trouble when we interact with other human beings, it gets us in trouble when we read the Bible
That is actually what I want spend the rest of my time sharing with you -- something that has really helped me in this. A litmus test of sorts, that has helped me navigate this human tendency of seeing everything exclusively through my circumstances.
It actually comes from Jesus himself.
When he says in Matthew 23:12
For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
This truth from Jesus is a really good way to think about what the Bible is meant to do. SLIDE The Bible is not written to or from a static or neutral position. Its various writings are speaking to particular peoples in particular contexts and on a whole, across the hundreds of years of Biblical writings, Jesus’ truth is consistent -- when a Biblical writing is addressing someone in a position of power, or people who are exalted. It is usually delivering messages of challenge and humility And when a Biblical writing is addressing those without power, the humbled, it is usually trying to speak care and dignity, it is exalting them.
So for our own personal attempts to engage and be helped by the Bible -- We can use “humble the exalted / exalt the humbled” as a litmus test for our current circumstance (which can be harder than it sounds, but assuming we do that with good self-awareness...) If we are coming to the Bible from a circumstance of privilege, power, or comfort, chances are the helpfulness of the Bible to us in that moment is to humble us If we are coming to the Bible from a circumstance of smallness, limitations, lack of power, lack of protection, chances are the helpfulness of the Bible to us in that moment is to exalt us
SLIDE This all makes me think of something that happened to me recently A little while back in my other job we were doing some conflict resolution training. Now the team that I’m a part of is pretty diverse, it’s made up of two black women, two white women, a Latina woman and myself. And I was leading this training and was talking about what I understood to be all of the best practices for conflict resolution. And the majority of conflict resolution techniques that I have been exposed to have to do with relativising your perspective, as in avoiding objective statements and rather talking about how something impact you personally Now I still believe that those are incredibly helpful techniques, but there was something I was not considering when I was having that conversation. And that is the reality that not everyone in that room’s voice is treated the same. Graciously, one of the black women I work with was patient enough to explain her challenge with some of my suggestions. It wasn’t that she thought they were terrible, it’s that she thought it would make it easier for her to be not listened to. She explained that as a black woman she was frequently dismissed as not having anything important to say. And so relativising her statement and her experience only made it easier for people to do what they already tended to do, dismiss what she said She then told me she is too tired and has worked too long to have a conversation where what she means is anything but clear and obvious. She then went on to explain how even this in itself is a catch 22 Because, I’m her experience nobody listens to her unless she gets angry, and then if she gets angry they dismiss her as an angry black woman. We were able to jump off of that and have some really meaningful conversations about how we can do conflict as a team and make sure everybody is heard But, that was an eye-opening experience for me. I have never been in a conversation in my life where my perspective went unheard. As a white man I have experienced since I was a child affirmation & validation for how important my opinions and thoughts are. That is not the story for my coworker If we are to have both of our voices heard, which I believe is exactly what we need, then her voice needed to be exalted. That might mean she relativises her experience a little bit less, but the circumstances of our reality and where we are situated socially makes that necessary Whereas, my voice needs to experience some humbling, I do need to relativize my experience, I do need to be quicker to listen and consider others perspective And this is because as a white man my voice is naturally exalted, I don’t have to do anything to make it exalted, society has already done that. So to make all voices heard I actually have to have mine be lesser And in my experiences even with me intentionally humbling my voice, because of all of the social advantages my voice has, we are really at no risk of all of my voice getting overlooked
Just as my unawareness of the different places my coworker and I were coming from cause me to initially miss her
I think failing to keep this in mind when reading the Bible is at fault for many of our most damaging misuses of the Bible
SLIDE As in, people in power SLIDE applying Humbling passages to people who are already humbled and thus margelize those who are already marginalized.
Or perhaps SLIDE using the exalting passages in the Bible to maintain the status quo and boost their own ego and power
When an exalted person embraces the exalting messages, it almost immediately becomes about the fear of losing one's place to others, How do you exalt someone who is already propped up by society? You can’t elevate someone who is already on top of the social pyramid, so, it very quickly becomes about keeping down the outside threats, it very quickly becomes about protecting one’s place. This is only made more worrisome because so much of the language of exaltation in the Bible is addressed to people who are not only socially marginalized but are facing very real threats of violence So, you get language like from Psalms 86 “Arrogant foes are attacking me” “ruthless people are trying to kill me—” “May my enemies be put to shame.’ If you are someone who already carries privilege and power in society and you read that passage as if it is speaking to you? How to make sense of that? Who becomes the enemy? Who becomes those that you pray for God to shame. Now, if you from birth have had less opportunity, experience more violence, or experience a total lack of justice in your life, like David did, then those words are powerful. When I read those words and think of all the women that people like Harvey Weinstein victimized. I think those are some powerful words to hold up the suffering. But, to those who are already in power, what kinds of messages do you have to tell yourself to make that apply to you.
I think this is how you get White, Male, Christians in our country who feel like they are under attack. By reading these exalting passages full of persecution language as if it’s speaking to them.
They don’t face any real threats, they don’t have any lesser opportunity or greater risk of violence and imprisonment, so the perceived attack becomes about losing a way of life, losing their place in this social hierarchy to other people.
And I think even well meaning American churches and pastors bear some responsibility in this.
In their efforts to make the Bible seem accessible and relevant, in their sense of urgency to make it apply to our lives today, too often has the differences between our lives and those of the original writers and audiences been overlooked.
For, the reality is that the vast majority of the Bible is resistance literature, written from the perspective of minority and oppressed people.
And to just apply these writings to our lives without consideration of these different circumstances can have the same effect of white people in the Jim Crowe south thinking African American Spirituals apply to them. Thinking “We shall overcome some day” somehow speaks to them overcoming the challenges of integration.
If you ask me, The White, Male parts of the American Church need to hear the Bible’s humbling message right now, not exaltation.
The exalting messages of the Bible should be reserved for Women who are standing up against sexual misconduct, immigrants who are scapegoated as the source of all our problems, the members of the lgbtq community who have been excluded and shamed by the church, the 1 in 3 black men who will spend time in prison, the exalting messages should be reserved for any person or any part of us that is told you’re lesser, you should be quiet.
So, going back to my time in Australia,
I read that passage in the midst of the relatively small amount of challenge I was facing, I had lived such a privileged life that the loneliness and outsiderness that I felt there was more challenge than I had been familiar with.
But, just reading it from a position a little closer to the original audience made it come alive.
That God saw my loneliness, god saw my struggle, and he was with me and for me.
The self doubt and the questions I was asking about whether my loneliness was statement about me, that felt suddenly met by God. He took the small and hurt parts of me and he exalted them.
He lifted me up. I suddenly felt resolve to persevere, I suddenly felt as if my lack of friends at that time was not a reflection on who I was.
I felt poor and needy, I felt like someone who was calling for help all day long, and as I called in my distress, through this psalm, I felt like God Answered me.
And even that combative language felt comforting, the truth is, another statement of my privilege is that I didn’t really have any foes or enemies, no one was against me, I just felt alone.
But as I read that line, I felt like God was putting to shame the enemies in my head that told me that I would forever be alone.
And really this is the whole point of what I am wanting to say today. The Bible, and Jesus, is in a constant juggling act with us,
both on a humanity wide scale and on an individual in every person scale,
he is juggling the fact that we need to be humbled where we are exalted, because it is only by knowing our need that we receive the help in life we can’t give ourselves.
And if we don’t experience that humbling, the stakes are actually pretty high, for we don’t find the fullness, depth and connection we long for in life, but also if don’t experience challenge and humility where we are exalted, we humans will all to often injure and exclude, and oppress other people
And then juggled with that is the reality that God longs to exalt us when we are humbled. To give dignity where it stolen, to give voice where it is ignored, to meet needs where there is longing.
And so, this was a game changer for me that I want to pitch to you all: to realize that God is trying to both Humble and Exalt us at the same time. If you want to engage the Bible and see it help you connect with God and expand your life (as I believe it can for anyone), look at it through this lens.
The truth is, as a white, Christian, man who grew up with all the advantages in life that privilege offers me, the vast majority of the Bible should be humbling to me, challenging to me, If I read the Bible and it only supports my place in life, only maintains my comfort and the status quo of my life, Honestly, I am doing a terrible job of reading the Bible
But there are also some places inside of me, and there are some people here, that they actually don’t need to hear the message of Humility, they need to be exalted. To be told that you are as worthy and loved and beautiful and valuable as anyone on earth, and actually God wants to call more out of you, because your voice and talent and perspective, needs to be heard.
And both of these things can be true at the same time, because I need to be humbled where I am exalted, and exalted where I am humbled. I actually think that is what finding help in life that we can’t give ourselves is all about. We need the help of something beyond ourselves, God, to humble and exalt us.
Stand with me