Text Wrestling

For the past year or so, the organist of Old South and I get together every few months to plan worship. I choose scriptures and themes and then the two of us talk about what music—hymns, anthems, etc.—will support and highlight the chosen themes and scripture passages.

When I looked at what I had chosen, in advance, for the Sunday following the Boston Marathon bombings, I discovered that I had chosen the passage from Acts where Peter raises Tabitha/Dorcas back to life from death. I squirmed. I thought about changing it. I really didn’t want to talk about it.

What family that week who had lost a loved one—from the Boston bombings, or the explosion in Texas, or the earthquake in China, or any of the myriad places where death had visited—wouldn’t give anything to receive a visit from Peter, or someone like him, and to have their loved one brought back to them, alive? The passage from Acts struck me as difficult, unhelpful, and unfair. Now, it’s not that I think that much of the Bible is the paragon of fairness, at least in terms of how human society generally thinks of fairness, but the Acts passage really got under my skin as unreasonably unfair, if such a concept makes any sense at all.

Instead of dumping it, though, I kept it and spent about half of my sermon talking about how much I disliked the passage. Whether the event really happened, or it’s rooted in a rumor that got out of hand, or it’s really offered as some kind of metaphor, it doesn’t matter. I don’t like the passage. And, more than that, progressive/liberal Christians like me (although I’m still trying to figure out which “label” fits me best) must have the discipline and the fortitude to raise up passages like Acts and talk about how much we don’t like them, how much we struggle with them, how much they make us squirm.

Being a Christian isn’t about having everything come easily and neatly, uncomplicated and simple. It’s sometimes about hard things too.

Our Holy Bible is not a textbook, nor is it an answer key to all of life’s difficulties. It doesn’t answer all of my questions. Some questions remain, and that’s not only okay, but it ought to be more out front of who we are and what we do, in the more liberal/progressive church. Questions, struggles, pointing to passages that we don’t like: these are all vital aspects of living faithfully.

We haven’t done ourselves any favors over the years, ignoring these difficult passages or declaring that faithful people must simply accept them, as a matter of faith. Plenty of people have left the church just for this reason. And, for those who remain in the church, our faith is stunted by these attempts at pushing away the difficult and complicated. People are intelligent enough, it seems to me, to be able to handle a little complexity.

We discover, especially when disasters happen, big or small, that a simple faith based on a limited engagement with biblical texts leaves everyone unfulfilled. No wonder people have left the church.

It’s time to turn the tide, to engage in difficult texts. We should not expect that such discipline will lead to tidy answers, but a fuller and deeper conversation with God—a faith that truly feeds the spirit and encourages the soul.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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