* I would like to thank the Louisville Institute for graciously providing support through the Pastoral Study Project grant to make this reflection possible.
The Reason Behind Seeing Old Words with New Eyes
“Is this true?”
Our daughter took to reading early and has read many books well beyond her grade level. When she was in first grade, I recall giving her the Children’s Bible I had had as a child. Maybe you had one of these too. It was Bible stories and then every fifth page or so you were rewarded with a beautifully drawn picture to illustrate the story. These pictures weren’t the doe-eyed Fisher Price figurine found in my Precious Moments Bible but realistically rendered drawings.
I thought it was beautiful to get the Word of God into her hands.
Until she called to me one evening while I was making supper. These little words bubbled up with a crack in her voice, “Is this true?”
Is what true? Are you reading about the witch of Endor? Did you read about the violation of Dinah and her brothers’ revenge? What was in A Child’s Garden of Bible Stories that would strike this quaver of worry in her voice?
And then she showed me the picture. It was Isaac bond laying on the palette of dry timber ready to be sacrificed.
Who puts this stuff in a Children’s Bible? How do we understand ‘fear and love the Lord.” What message is this to communicate to a tender-hearted 6 year old?!?! Some children would read this story and say, “That’s weird.” and then move on to play Legos; untouched by the gravity of what God commanded; not experiencing the story in a personal way. That. Is. Not. Our. Daughter.
Instinctively, I knew in my mother’s heart what my daughter needed and a thorough arc of the Biblical narrative, wasn’t it. A theological explanation of how God was testing Abraham and God’s intent was never to do it, wasn’t it. Even explaining the contextual background that all the pagan religions that were surrounding Abraham and Sarah) offered children to their gods so this was really a way to show the neighbors the kind heart of God and how God provides, wasn’t it. Even though in the corner of picture there was a ram God had provided, wasn’t it.
She needed reassurance. She needed to know that would never happen to her. She needed to know that God won’t do this. Now. To someone she loved. To her.
My initial response went something like this as I was keenly aware pork chops would be blackened in the pan in about 3 minutes, “I know this is scary, sweetie. I don’t like this story, either. But this was a long time ago before God sent Jesus and Jesus shows us God’s heart of love for us. In your baptism God promised to never let you go.”
“But is this true? Did God ask him to do this?”
Fear oozed from every word. Why had I given her this remnant from my childhood? Why hadn’t I stuck to Strawberry Shortcake dolls and parachute pants?
She didn’t care about true in a theological sense or true in a historical sense or even true in a ‘the inerrancy of the Word of God.” kind of way.
She wanted to know if it was true in the the deepest sense of her fear. Was this true in a relational sense? Can I trust God? Will God ask this of my parents? Can I trust my parents? Why would God do that?
Is it true in that sense?
And thus, the seeds were planted in my heart to start growing a new reading of Scripture, mining for the little nuggets of God’s grace and movement that have always been there; they just don’t get the airtime. This isn’t superimposing something into Scripture that isn’t there; it is seeing with new eyes; Especially for us who have been raised in the church and have a historical understanding of what the story is ‘suppose’ to mean. As Robert Walter says, “There are no gaps in the Bible but there are gaps in our preaching.”
Now, I’m curious about things like:
- Jesus praying his disciples would have joy at the Last Supper (John 17:13). What would shift if we preached about this? John says this joy would keep the disciples from the Devil. We miss this because of the larger themes we are tasked with on Maundy Thursday - the washing of the feet, the Institution of the Holy Communion, the new commandment, then the betrayal and the Garden. A little verse talking about joy gets lost in it all.
- In Mark 5 - when the woman who had been hemorrhaging is at the feet of Jesus, she tells Jesus the whole truth. If God’s grace is Incarnational in the presence of Jesus, what does it mean that the woman got to share the whole story? And the crowd who, of course, worked on assumptions, got to hear it. Our whole story matters to God. Whole is complete. When we think about healing ministries, discipleship models, children’s education, how are we failing or supporting to welcome the whole person as Jesus did?
- In Matthew 5:48, can’t we just get a different word here for telios? The translation perfect? Think of all the negative baggage this can saddle those of us who already are geared to protect and hide ourselves in perfection. This translation can drive us to despair. Why do we codify perfect as the best translation when we have other options available to us that don’t carry the emotional and cultural baggage as ‘perfect’ does and that provide a more true, in my opinion, understanding of the Trinity? Whole, complete, fully formed. These three translations, I believe support a growth mindset. Carol Dweck has shown a growth mindset leads to improved student outcomes. This mindset is correlated with students taking greater risks and harder classes. Educators and innovators want to see emerging leaders with a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset that easily puts things in categories that are stagnant and unmoving. “I’m stupid at math.” compared to “Math is hard and I’m working really hard to get it.” which represents a growth mindset.
- Psalm 121 which quietly and humbly invites us to know what we know and to trust God for the rest. This chapter is just 3 little verses - what if this was a mantra we came back to again and again in those very moments fear of God’s wrath erupted.
What would shift? What would change? What would be made fresh and new in our hearts if we noticed these more? These reflections are intended to keep looking and asking.
But back to that lingering question, “Is this true?”
I said to our daughter, “This is a story. The Bible has lots of stories. God won’t do this; let’s focus on the stories of Jesus for awhile.”
I was still angry at the publishers of this edition - why this story? In a children’s Bible? If I could talk to these editors who worked in 1948 putting this together, I imagine a primary goal for them was to educate Christian children about our faith. To make sure they knew the story - the whole story. The good, the bad, the ugly. My sense is their lens would be knowledge and a cognitive approach leads to proper understanding and theology which leads to proper faith. Our culture loves living in our heads.
But when my daughter called, I wasn’t acting as a properly trained theologian because proper theology wasn’t going to grow my daughter’s relationship with God. It would have been a disservice to her in that moment. And that is the difference. I wanted her to have a relationship with God where she felt safe enough to ask again and again, “Is this true?” and not pretend it didn’t scare her. And not pretend she understood it or even agreed with it. And not pretend that is wasn’t offensive.
And not pretend.
Isn’t that a true living faith?
Methodology of these Reflections:
These reflections have graciously been made possible by the Louisville Institute who funded this Pastoral Study Project grant and I am deeply grateful. I am deeply grateful for the gift of hitting pause on my ministry responsibilities to dwell deeply in reflection, renewal, and wonderings. Perhaps I raise more wonderings and questions and acknowledge I don’t provide exhaustive answers to them. I believe this wholehearted life in Christ is an ever-unfolding and keeping of awareness. Thus, I find grace to let this be enough in this current moment; to put an amen to these current thoughts.
There has been the pull throughout writing these reflections to throw down an ecclesiastical soteriology, hermeneutical exegesis but that would just be to show off and puff up. Instead, I’ve written from the simpleness of my heart. I’ve cried a few times while writing these, not from the onerous task of writing but because the words that flowed from my fingers felt like truth and I knew I could trust that as God’s gift.
I’m grateful to the following theologians who agreed to spend a bit of time reflecting with me on the topics of shame, authenticity, and vulnerability in church settings.
Dr. Walter Brueggemann
Dr. Karoline Lewis, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN
Dr. Lois Malcolm, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN
Father Theodore Niklasson
Dr. Faith Ngugngiri, Concordia College, Moorhead, MN
Rev. Robert Walter