English As She Is Spoke

One day, a Portuguese-speaking man who understood very little English decided to make a phrasebook of spoken English. He had two language dictionaries at his disposal; Portuguese to French, and French to English. The result speaks for itself; translating idioms (idiotisms) like: “Strike while the iron is hot.” To “It want to beat the iron during it is hot.” And “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” To “A horse baared don’t look him in the tooth.” This very serious book – meant to help Portuguese speakers master English, is remembered as a comedic feat and a celebration of ‘earnest jest’. Because we’re so familiar with the English, we can see just how garbled the translation ended up being.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the messages we have about Jesus are just as confused. There are a lot of considerations – our different cultures, our different languages, our different beliefs about the world around us and how we fit into it. It’s a small comfort to read that even Jesus’ own people misunderstood his reasons for being there. It’s so very clear to us that Jesus is the suffering servant, but they were looking for a coming king who would rally the Jews to overthrow their Roman occupiers. Lucky us.
We also have the benefit of thousands of years of this message to be distilled at our level – filtered through countless individuals from different cultures who helped form our theology. Some additions are so highly regarded we tend to believe that they were meant to be there – like the chapter and verse notations we use to help us argue back and forth. When Jesus gave his teachings and Paul wrote his letters, neither of them felt it important to begin a new section: “And now, moving on to chapter four, verse one …”
I don’t know – I guess the expectation weighs heavily. Waiting as long as it takes for Jesus to return again – in full glory and power, to bring our world to a close and our chapter in it to an ending. We will see God in all his majesty and wrath, destroying wholesale human populations who have angered him. It’s a different message than Jesus’ “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus message was simple, it was for anyone and everyone – it was offering hope and community. That is something I wouldn’t mind – but I just don’t see how the Bible can be interpreted to teach it as a timeless truth when we’re dealing with a bit of a Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde God. Or as English as she is Spoke would put it: “Tell me whom thou frequent, I will tell you which you are.”

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Realization

Once a monk made a request of Joshu.
“I have just entered the monastery,” he said. “Please give me instructions, Master.”
Joshu said, “Have you had your breakfast?”
“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
“Then,” said Joshu, “wash your bowls.”
The monk had an insight.

Mumon’s Poem
Because it is so very clear,
It takes longer to come to the realization.
If you know at once candlelight is fire,
The meal has long been cooked.
— The Gateless Gate

candlelight

Christians have parables, Buddhists have zen koans. This one is the most famous – used from time to time in Stargate SG-1.

I’ve been feeling like I’ve walked into an empty room where the candle-light is out and the partially-eaten meal has long gone cold. There is a thick book on the table and I eye it suspiciously. I try to imagine what might have happened. Could they have started the meal, only to be interrupted and called away to an emergency? Could they have waited and waited – only to grow impatient and decided to eat anyway? Should I relight the fire and prepare myself a plate?

I think – no matter who we are and what we believe, we all seek something more. Different parts of the world have different teachings about what that more is. It’s not wrong to seek – because so very often those who seek eventually find what it is they are looking for – even if they don’t realize it at the time.

The Notebook

We were a bunch of unruly high school students – he was a high school teacher when he wasn’t our youth group leader. Having worked with us the last few years, he’d won our respect and we’d come to a reasonable understanding and generally got along well enough.

One day, he gave each of us a notebook. He told us how keeping a spiritual journal had really changed how he understood the Bible and he challenged us to keep one, too.

He taught us how to use this journal – it was simple:

  1. Write down the reference – the whole verse or series of verses as the case may be.
  2. List everything that stands out – explain to yourself why it sticks out to you.
  3. Summarize it and think about it’s application.

On the first page, he had one reference written out – it was the same in all the journals and it happened to be his favorite verse:

“… let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:1-2

From there – we could take it in any direction. We could start with that verse, or choose another. I guess because I was already a blogger, I never really bothered to use that particular notebook as a journal. Not that I didn’t put it to good use from time to time. There’s a handful of verses from the Bible copied from The Message, several of Murphy’s Laws, notes from The Truth Project, sermons, and other Bible Studies, as well as the lyrics to “All You Need Is Love” translated into Spanish, and the quote about our deepest fear from Akeelah and the Bee among other things.

I never really thought myself as much of a writer to be able to keep a journal or a diary anyway. But as I was reading that verse – the part about Jesus being the author and perfecter of our faith stood out to me. Faith – well, it always seemed to be to be something I had because of something I do – like when I pray or when I read the Bible, then I strengthen my faith just as much as anyone who walks or lifts weights strengthens their body by exercising. It always seemed to take some effort on my part. I’d never really though of faith as something that Jesus writes and perfects without any input from me whatsoever.

Coming from a “doing” church – it’s always been important to be “engaged” or “plugged-in”. There’s always the nursery asking for help or something to cook or clean a soundboard or computer to run – it’s never really been about “being” in the faith. Since I’ve been out of the church and not “doing” for a while, it feels like my faith is running on an all time low. I wouldn’t even know how to learn how to “be” if it doesn’t involve some “doing” to get there.

And honestly – I’m more than a little uneasy about actually journaling the Bible, I tend to deconstruct the text and look for meaning in the shades and hues of cultural context and not just take it for face value – which generally is the idea; to just accept God’s word, inerrant, infallible, and profound wisdom, and go from there. A question like: “What kind of racing was Paul using as an example to the Ephesians?” can send me off on a tangent trying to understand the things that went unsaid and unwritten in a culture that understood each other that didn’t translate into English.

I did pick me up a brand new notebook – it’s a blank slate … but I don’t even know where to begin.

Dreaming and Believing

It’s been awhile since I could remember dreaming – perhaps that’s why I felt this one was disturbing because I wasn’t sure whether or not it was a dream. I think I was going about my every-day sort of tasks – I don’t really remember them very well, which is why I think it really was a dream. But at some point I thought to myself. “I no longer believe in God.” And I caught that thought and was really overwhelmed by it. I felt guilty and wanted to take it back – but a lot like popping a balloon – I was afraid that there wasn’t an undo option. That heaven would be off-limits to me.
This last year has been a big change for me. Compared to the previous ten years – it’s the most successful one I had. But with my schedule being pretty much just working, I’ve found it nearly impossible to to fit church in. Some weeks ago I was invited to attend a church – and the first three weeks after that it was nothing but working on Sunday mornings. This was the first chance i had had to not work on Sunday Morning, but the whole church thing has just fallen out of the routine. I had meant to listen to churches on the radio – but totally lost track of the time and missed them all.
But there’s also the issue of the churches themselves. The ones that there are to belong to are the ones we’re pretty sure we can’t belong to. We don’t see things eye to eye – they’re Calvinist, we’re Arminians (sort-of), They’re complementarians, we’re egalitarians, they’re into hymns, we’re into contemporary music. We’ve tried attending Calvinist churches, complimentarian churches, and hymn singing-churches and they never seem to work out for us.
So without a formal connection to God through the church, my spiritual disciplines have been on the decline. It feels like the’re a lot of pressure that’s just gone. And that’s really great. No more having to tear through Bible Studies that really aren’t about the Bible. No more having to try to remember the difference between the Sacrifice on the Mount and the Sermon on the Mount. And no more food allergy issues with pot-lucks.
I’d still like to believe that what I was taught as a little girl still applies: “once saved, always saved (no matter what).” I’d also like to believe that everybody has been elected to be saved. I hate to see how some Christians spit the words “sinner” out of their mouths as if they’re gleefully anticipating the horrors of Hell for the unsaved and lost souls out there. Jesus never seemed to be like that.
In speaking of the big guy, I find myself more and more wandering around and hoping I’m following in his footsteps than I am walking in the shadow of the established faith. I don’t know if the Bible ever really said that Jesus read the Holy Scriptures into all hours of the night – though it did say that he went to synagogue and prayed a lot. He seemed to advocate for a simple kind of everyday faith – not flashy or showy, not isolated into a sub-culture with it’s own language or media. Maybe I don’t believe the God of the Church that has been transmogrified by Christian culture, but I do believe in Jesus’ God and that’s all that I truly need.

Undergoing Cultification

One Narnia book I like above all others is The Silver Chair. In it, Aslan offers a warning: “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.” Sometimes I think it applies as much to the Church as it does the World.

I remember when I learned about that cult that beat one of it’s members to death. It was sad and tragic and just plain wrong – but it also just some church over in another state and really had nothing to do with me. So I didn’t devote much thought to it and filed it away. Just the other day, I learned that another cult has been exposed for enslaving foreigners for at least two decades. Perhaps it sticks a little bit more with me because I picked up a little Portuguese just for the fun of it. (É uma linguagem divertida!) But both cults have this in common – the air is thick with confusion. It strikes me that any average church is not immune.

What do I mean? Well, it’s the tendency to shut down diversity of thought and opinion. When everyone is on the same page – there’s no checks and balances. These cults show us that just because everybody believes something to be true – it doesn’t make it right. The only reason why churches get a pass on it is that they’re not known for believing the wrong things. It’s funny – parents are known to criticize their kids for falling for popular trends: “If everyone else jumped off of a bridge, would you?” only to do just that come every Sunday.

We think: “that could never happen to us.” Not realizing that we’re just lucky we haven’t fallen for the sort of leaders who could do that to us. We were warned that the air gets thick with confusion. Teachings about that might not be from the true source – causing us to cling to whatever is popularly accepted – after all, everyone can’t all be wrong, can they? We don’t even realize that we’re beginning to conform when we put aside our favorite Bible translation in favor of the one the pastor uses or the bible study teacher reads out of.

But one cult that we all fall victim to is that of personality. You know that one teacher who you really admire? You have all his books and a number of his sermons recorded to listen to at your leisure? Do you remember the excitement when you heard that he would soon be in your area as you made plans to see him in person? All it takes is teacher that’s that charismatic, who seems to speak to God or have God speak through him or her, in order to separate you from the fallen world and lure you into the chosen few destined for true salvation if only you follow their precepts. Or perhaps, you’re at a regular church and the new pastor has decided to make a lot of wholesale changes. The old teachers are gone, replaced with his chosen servants who teach only his preapproved material. Slowly the liberals and moderates seem to vanish from the congregation. They weren’t true believers – or as true of believers as the rest of the faithful who remain. You might not end up doing bizarre practices like screaming at the top of your lungs or purifying sinners by beating them up – but you might end up losing a lot of spiritual autonomy and not even realize it until it’s too late and somebody happens to report you for having an unchristian book in your library.

I’m reminded of what Martin Niemöller wrote back in his day:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Having watched the Conservative Resurgence / (Takeover) – I’ve seen how many liberals and moderates were either sent packing or shown the door, many got the hint and just left. Those who remain have nobody left to go after but their fellow conservatives for not being conservative enough or as conservative as they are. The focus on evangelizing others is like a laser – aiming only for those who conform to the conservative worldview.

Jesus – didn’t come just for the conservatives. He came for everyone. He would want a diverse church … sort of like my old one. There was a time when it didn’t matter whether someone was Arminian or Calvinist, how many points they believed in, or if they didn’t really believe it at all – so long as they believed in Jesus, their foremost identity was as brothers and sisters in Christ. They were a good family to be around, sure, they’d get in some pretty crazy debates at the dinner table, but that was half the fun. The air was filled with different teachings, but it wasn’t thick with confusion – you could believe whatever and nobody thought you the lesser for it. But that’s not our church anymore.

More and more it feels like Christianity had begun the process of becoming more cult-like, isolating itself around charismatic leaders that answer to no one, celebrating conformity and erasing diversity, authoritarian leadership structures are common to both, isolation from the world, friends, and family members can result as easily in churches as it happens in cults. There seems to be a fine line that separates the two and fine lines are often the easiest of all to cross. Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time finding a church – I want one that’s okay with me unleashing my inner devil’s advocate and fostering diverse perspectives … and I really don’t think I’ll find one.

 

Giving Love and Compassion Every Chance to Change Things For The Better

I’ve been thinking of everything I’ve ever learned about God’s holiness. It can be this wonderful source of power – that is, when it’s not threatening to do serious harm. When I first heard the story of Uzzah’s death; how he reached out to steady the ark because the oxen pulling the cart had stumbled and that was something that God viewed as irreverent and so he smote him then and there. I would have thought God could have weighed his motives and intentions to see that all Uzzah wanted was to keep the ark from falling off the cart and smashing into pieces – that even though Uzzah wasn’t holy and pure, his intentions were and therefore he was worthy of not dying.

It’s like the time that Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized fire to the Lord who felt incensed that his instructions were not obeyed to the letter so he burned them. One guy told me this story as a warning not to go beyond what was prescribed because God never changes and one day he might decide that anyone who worships him in an unauthorized manner is guilty and deserving of the same punishment.

Or when Korah dared to speak up and ask why only Aaron and his sons were allowed to have the priesthood to the Lord when the whole Israelite people were also holy. “Isn’t it enough for you that as a Levite you’re more special than everyone else?” Moses asked him. The Lord gave them his answer to the question – in causing the ground to open up and swallow Korah and the families of the 250 men who were on his side – as for the men themselves – they were burned.

This is where I just don’t get God. He could choose to be consistent and our history could be littered with every single movement or denomination that angered God that he ended up smiting – with only one exception – the authorized form of worship that pleases Him. But the New Testament version of him only makes a few short corrections – as Ananias and Sapphira and Simon the Sorcerer discovered.

I wonder, how would Jesus have answered the questions, “Is it okay for just anyone to read the Holy Bible?” “Is it okay for just anyone to worship God however they please?” “Is it okay for just anyone who step into a leadership role in the worship of God?”

It’s true that Christianity doesn’t have a lot of holy relics – the kind that you’re not supposed to touch. My denomination was never one to believe in such things anyway.

It’s also no great surprise that modern Christianity has a variety of styles of worship, bluegrass, gospel, hymns, contemporary – some are rather toned-down and others are full of energy.

Now the God of the Old Testament was rather specific about who could and who couldn’t be a priest, priests had to be men who were descendants of Aaron, they had to be without any defects whatsoever (blind, lame, disfigured, deformed, crippled hand or crippled foot, hunchback, dwarf, eye defect, sores) – even their wives had to be virgins – any woman who had been a prostitute or divorced was considered disqualifying. God demanded nothing less than perfection itself. But today we would consider it an awesome testimony of our leaders to have struggled with disabilities and found faith in God. Some of our denominations have no problem with letting women be leaders.

Surely, if God hasn’t changed – then he’s waiting for the full measure of sin to be built up in the church before smiting them like he did with the Egyptians and Canaanites of old. Or perhaps, we’ve misread the playbook. God might not have changed, but his plans might have changed. I don’t know why people are so scared of the idea that God might not operate in the same way in the Old Testament than he does in the New Testament and that he might operate differently now than he did way back then. All of us are who we are regardless of what we do when, right?

Why is it we think that when it comes to God, his holiness and sovereignty are his most important attributes through which all of his other attributes (love, compassion, meekness) must be filtered through? “God is love” but love alone isn’t enough to keep him from acting in wrath in order to protect his holiness from us sinful, dirty, human beings. “God is love” but this love bows to God’s sovereignty by which his power can be used to harden people’s hearts and prevents them from loving him. Really? If anything, it seems that our New Testament version of God is all about love and compassion and tends to let matters of holiness and sovereignty slide. Perhaps that’s why the circumcision party wasn’t more harshly punished for their interference and various false teachers were left to their own devices. Perhaps God wanted to give them every chance to come to the right way of thinking – rather than outright punish them for having wrong beliefs.

I wish we’d do that – give everybody every possible chance to do their own homework and come to believe as they should in whatever ways that work for them than to take matters into our own hands and punish and shun people for not believing as we would want them to or in ways just like us. The thing is – we’re not God, I don’t know if we have the capacity to restore love and compassion as the highest attributes of how we worship God and how we view the world.