Word of the Week

We all grow up with rules. Rules like:

Don't color outside the lines.

Don't hit your neighbor even when they bug you on the playground.

Don't leave the house without telling someone where you are going.

There are some of us who grow up liking such boundaries. They are like a blueprint that lead us to unlimited affirmation.

Then there are some of us who come out of the womb hating rules. We weren't born on our due dates and we've never been on time to anything a day in our lives. We love the joy of finding ways to do our own thing no matter what.

And there are those of us who land somewhere in between. We frequently drive above the speed limit but we wouldn't dare go against unspoken family rules of who speaks up at gatherings.

(For much of my life I've been in the rule loving group).

But, if you've been following my recent posts about vocation, you know that living a life without professional rules is something that I'm experimenting with. And in this journey, I'm realizing that I can be a happy and fulfilled minister without a church, without a retirement plan and without someone with authority providing constant praise-- imagine that?

Jesus' ministry on earth could be summed up in his relationship with the rules of the day.

In my preaching the past couple of weeks, I've noticed this: Jesus did not follow the rules. Not to the point of arrogance and not to the point of disrespect of persons, but he never was afraid to go against what was accepted or commonplace in the cultural context.

Jesus was the guy who had the audacity to submit himself to the waters of baptism (when he was God come to earth after all) and needed no affirmation by human hands.

Jesus was the guy who had the audacity to tell fishermen that they would do more with their lives than spend all their nights on smelly boats.

Jesus was the guy with the audacity to tell the crowd that gathered around him on the mount that "blessed" was not about earthly esteem but about peacemaking and meekness.

Jesus broke the rules because the rules themselves had become such a skewed parameter of what God's intentions for humanity were!

Or simply put: rules can keep discipline in and joy out. Rules can focus us on the expectations of others, not who we are as beloved children. Rules can hold us back from God wants to be in us. So Jesus showed a new way-- a way of freedom.

Don't get me wrong. Rules can be good. They can keep us safe. They can help us better live in community peacefully.

But there comes a time when all the big questions of life emerge and when we take a step back and evaluate the deeper meaning of things and we realize that rules aren't all that. They are just rules. And like the Dali Lama XIV once said: “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”

What are you doing lately to break the rules?

Recently, I finished reading Rachel Held Evans' second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself.

I did not read this book because I think there is any such ideal of Biblical Womanhood as these folks claim. What a crock!

I did not read this book (as others have done) seeking to criticize Rachel's theology. Leave her alone, mean ones.

I did not read this book to be enlightened that Proverbs 31 should be read differently than the Christian bookstore trinkets want to make it to be. I am a female pastor after all.

I read it because it seemed like an important cultural text within the religious circles in which I travel.

And then Rachel was on The View last November, so how I could I not read it?

As I quickly turned its pages, I was delightful surprised at the reasons why I enjoyed it so much.

The sub-story of this memoir is Rachel's willingness to get out of her comfort zone and try new things-- again and again and again.

She cooked Martha Stewart meals. She learned to sew (sort of). She visited an Amish community in Pennsylvania. She wore a different style of clothes. She celebrated Jewish holidays with her family. She studied passages of scripture she'd never thought much about before. She traveled to new countries.

I resonated with this aspect of the book because it has become so easy as I'm firmly grounded in my 30th decade of life to already be stuck in a life ruts as far as my daily habits are concerned.

We cook similar meals every night.

Kevin and I participate in the same weekend entertainment activities.

We clean (or lack thereof) our house in the same way each month.

But, in reading Year of Biblical Womanhood, I was challenged to start shaking things up a bit.

Cooking with a new recipe instead of making dinner from a box.

Going to see a play or visiting an art museum instead of just going to see a movie.

Cleaning the kitchen sink with vigor not dread.

Thanks Rachel, for the many gifts you gave the world in The Year of Biblical Womanhood.

For me, it's the gift of a gentle nudge to get off the couch and do something new!

Continuing with my series of questions about the life of faith. Up today: why do you read the Bible?

When I was a child, I was told that the Bible was God's word, no errors in it at all. Moses, you know, wrote the first five books and Jesus said word for word everything we find in the red letters.

I was taught to read scripture regularly because this helped me to live a life pleasing to God. I was told to have a daily scripture readings in my routines, to memorize scripture, and to use scripture to help me figure out what it was that I was to do in my life, finding a life verse to guide all my days.

I was encouraged not to stray from the morals of the good book (no drinking, fornication, or wearing two piece bathing suits were among the favorites of my youth pastor)-- for if I did, then bad things might happen to me  the pastors said. And who wants that, right? I needed to follow orders!

In fact at my church, an extracurricular activity for us church kids in elementary school was Bible drill. "Study to show thyself approved unto God" we were told over and over again. The implied message was God would like us more if we knew this Word.

On Sunday afternoons before choir practice, we'd memorize the books of the Bible-- learn to say the book before, the book after (for example, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus). We'd memorize scripture passages-- 25 a year. And, after a school year of prep, we'd go to competitions-- local and statewide. In 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th grade in fact, I was a state champ in Bible drill in the state of Tennessee. Bible drill seemed to take well to me and I to it. I knew scripture well, at least the lections I was taught, verse by verse at a time.

When you are taught the Bible this way and encouraged to think of the Bible this way-- as something to be conquered as something to be read in chunks, you can easily begin to take scripture out of context. For example, verses like I Timothy 4:11: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission" can be used destructively, destroying the self-confidence of an entire gender of the human race. As as I heard Brian McLaren say at a conference this year on children, youth, and a new kind of christianity: "Scripture can easily become loaded time bombs ready to explode."  Yet, when your faith begins to beckon you to ask the bigger picture questions where there are no easy answers, confusion, disillusionment, and apathy can easily set it.

I've been reading this week, Rachel Held Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town and she speaks of her personal journey of just this. (A great read, I might say. Check it out). After growing up in a conservative home in the South, Evans finds herself  as a young adult wanting to love scripture, knowing it well, but being repulsed by it and the community she reads it with  for they have great distaste for her questions. My story is similar.

There came a point in my life when I stopped reading the Bible for devotional reasons. It was the second month after I was ordained as a pastor. What should have been the most joyous junture of my life was one of the lowest. I wondered what in the world I'd gotten myself into, being a "professional Christian" who now was not allowed to question her faith?

Regardless of any fears, cold turkey one morning I gave up devotions. My morning routine changed for years from what it had once been. Again, not something that you expect a preacher to admit but it's the truth. It was just so hard for me to reconcile the faith I was taught in small chunks of Bible drill with the God I wanted to love, the God I thought I knew, and the faith that I knew had the power to do something for good in the world.  I was upset that the church wanted to condemn all of my friends of other faiths without even the chance to know their hearts.

I could have very easily lost my faith. I could have easily lost my job if my supervisors knew it. It ate me up inside not to be a space where I could be honest. But, I knew I needed rest. I needed to find another way. And, soon I found myself into the loving arms of Washington Plaza Baptist Church.

Preaching every week has saved me.  By making it a point to preach in context with an eye for the "non-tradition" interpretation, with eyes open to apply to my own life-- step by step I've come back. For in having to wrestle with scripture every week no matter how I felt or didn't feel, God has spoken to me, guide me to center again. Preaching has helped me engage with texts that have just been what I needed to see God's presence in some difficult situations of my own life.

And though there are those colleagues of mine and naysayers who want to say, "Shame on you. How can you be a preacher if you only read your Bible in preparation for your sermon?"I say thank God I had at least sermons to preach regularly for the last several years! And, at least I'm being honest.

I'm now beginning to read scripture again, but never like I did in elementary school or even college when I used to spend hours doing Beth Moore expository studies on the back porch of my dorm room.

I read scripture to see God's story-- to see how God has faithfully guided humanity into relationship with the divine. I read scripture to know who God is-- to gain a countercultural view of the world where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. I read scripture to be reminded of God's inclusive love for all people-- to see how even in the passages I want to throw out for their harshness of cruelty, there's a message of hope, justice and concern for all. I read scripture to remember who I am and who I'm not-- I am a beloved child of the great mystery of the divine.

I'm glad for how the gift of weekly preaching has saved my faith over these past four years. I'm thankful for a congregation who has entrusted in me this privilege, having no idea what kind of gift they were giving me to grow alongside them. I'm glad that the memory verses I learned as a child were not wasted on state trophies long past, but have come to be a part of the larger picture of faith I keep finding a way to make my own.

For I believe, all of us are on a journey with scripture-- a journey that is unique as the fingerprints on our hands-- and who are we to judge the quality of one another's faith by the sheer number of times we pick up the book? Who are we to ever say 100% that we know what a passage means? Who are we to say that the revelation of God through scripture will not continue to find us, no matter what we do? Even preachers need to hear the good word too. Church everywhere: give us grace to grow-up too.