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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

LEARNING TO READ, part 1
Luke 18:1-8

From the earliest age, I was taught to sing, “Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” We sang about God’s love for us, our love for God, and obeying God by loving others. A great deal of the gospel came through those songs. We sang them at home, and we sang them at church. We listened to Bible stories and learned to say short quotations from the Bible, such as “God is Love,” or “Love one another,” or “Honor your father and mother.” We sang songs about Bible characters and stories. “Only a boy named David . . . ,” but he was used by God to save the sheep and the people. “Round the walls of Jericho” the people walked, and when they shouted, “the walls fell down.” “Zaccheaus was a wee, little man,” but Jesus found him and went to his house. “A helper I will be,” “Praise God all ye little children,” and “I like to go to church” were songs that helped to shape our developing moral vision. “Love one another. Love one another. This is the happy way. . . .”

Another thing I learned from Southern Baptists as I grew older was that the main message of faith was for people to have Jesus in our hearts. We called it accepting Jesus as Savior. This core teaching was a partial articulation of the gospel message. Sometimes we got glimpses of the fullness of the gospel. But mostly we were too focused on the afterlife, and not enough focused on what the message of God’s Kingdom might mean for changing the world we live in. It was a mostly individualistic message about making peace with one’s situation and being assured of eternity with God. It put a heavy emphasis on being happy because God is with us. God could work in our lives to help us do what is right, to help us with emotional struggles, and to help us do our best. We were confident that with faith in God and with striving our best, there would be a reasonable expectation of success in life.

It was the age of the Cold War, when the nuclear arms race was at a frenzied pace. Everything that happened in the world was judged by its relation to the worldwide struggle between the Soviet Union and its allies and the United States and its allies. People in this country had to be careful what we thought and said. Any questioning of the goodness and rightness of the American way was automatically judged to be a sign of the influence of godless communism. We were told about, even intimidated into believing that the order of things in the USA was for the good of us all. Of course, you know by looking at me and by the history of the Southern Baptists, that we found this more believable because we were white, and for the most part, the deck was stacked in our favor.

So it is no surprise that when I read or listened to the parable at the beginning of Luke 18, I thought that judge, the one Jesus calls “the unjust judge,” was an anomaly, the rare case. I knew that police officers could give you a ticket for speeding, and for that reason they might be feared, but for the most part, I was satisfied to believe that law enforcement and the judicial system were to be trusted. Therefore, the parable seemed to me to be an odd way of talking about prayer. To my teen-aged and young adult mind, it seemed to be saying to keep on praying for something even if it seems like God is saying, “No,” to the prayer. Just like the sorry old judge in the story finally came through, God might come through, too, after a while.

I’ll admit, it was pretty weak theology, but then again, most of the theology of prayer that I hear in Bible study and preaching is pretty weak, if not completely off base. When we treat prayer as some kind of input-output machine, a time to beg for our wish list, a visit to the great heavenly Wal-Mart, a test of our positive thinking skill, we are about as far from Christian faith as we can be. But since that was and still is the popular view of prayer in many churches, it’s not surprising that I did not stop to think very hard about this story. Keep on praying. Keep on praying. It is an important basic truth. What this interpretation leaves out is reflection on how to pray. Learning to read the Bible in larger segments than one verse or a few isolated verses is the skill that I still needed to acquire.

The reason I am telling a story about my upbringing is to demonstrate that, for better or for worse, we learn to read scripture in community. Before I even knew how to read at all, I had already learned what the Bible says. “Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” How did the Bible tell me? It was not by my looking at a page and reading John 3:16. It was not because I had studied the sentence structures and narrative structures of biblical texts. The Bible was telling me through the people who had taught me about it. The Bible was telling me through the people who had known Jesus’ love for a long time, through hard times and good times. By the time I learned to decipher letters and words on a page, I had already learned to read the Bible as a love letter from God to humanity. This basic message of the love of God, manifest for us in the life, work, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and poured out in our lives by the Holy Spirit, stands at the heart of what almost all churches teach about the Christian faith. When churches are doing what they are called to do, children learn that they live in a world created, sustained, and loved by God. And many of us learned to read the Bible that way when we were very young.

Of course, reading abilities and reading subject matter change as we grow. Much of what we need to know can be learned in kindergarten, but those basic truths have to be enlarged, expanded, and enriched as our mental and emotional capacities grow. New experiences, whether joyful or hurtful, may prepare us to read with greater maturity. Yet as we keep reading, we cannot lean only on our own understanding. We must acknowledge God. Acknowledging God means recognizing that God is at work in the world. God is before us and behind us, above us and below us, within and without. Jonathan Edwards said that the Christian stance toward God and God’s creation is “consent.” As the gospel song puts it, it is to “say, ‘Yes,” to God. “I’ll say, ‘Yes, Lord. Yes,’ to your will and to your way.” I consent to your presence in all that I encounter.

Don’t go running ahead of me there. I did not say that everything I encounter is the will of God. Everything may happen for a reason, but not every reason is from God. When a bullet penetrates the head of a nineteen-year-old, it happened for a reason. It happened because someone else’s passions were out of control, or because someone had become so hardened to life and love that it just seemed like the thing to do. It happened for a reason. It happened because all the hope had been squeezed out of a family or community and life had become hell on earth. It happened because of selfishness, greed, revenge, or ambition. It happened for a reason, but not God’s reason. A bullet taking a life is not God’s time. Recognizing and proclaiming that God hates murder is saying “Yes” to God. Saying “Yes” to God is to recognize that in any situation, God is present. Even in the tragedy of a life cut short, God has not deserted us. Saying, “yes” to God is recognizing the handiwork of God, the image of God, in the killed and the killer. But I’ve gone astray from the topic at hand. Let’s get back to learning to read.

Saying “Yes” to God is learning to listen to God speak through others. Saying “Yes” to God is listening to the Spirit speak through each person as we gather for Bible study and worship. Learning to read the Bible requires us to read in community. God’s great mission of love to the world is far too vast for any one of us to grasp alone. That is why Paul told the Corinthian church to take their time in trying to discern what God would say to them. Let one speak, and all others listen attentively. Then let another speak. Listen to one another, and seek the Spirit’s leading. Reading the Bible well means letting go of our private interpretations so that they can be tested in community. Sometimes the process breaks down, but that only makes it all the more important to keep working on it.

One way to keep working on reading in community is to keep opening our doors to hear what others might have to say. I have spent a good deal of time reflecting on the way that the Open Door Community in Atlanta reads the scriptures. I contacted them about having the opportunity to interview one or more of their leaders about their approach to ministry. They invited me to join them in feeding breakfast to the homeless as a first step. I showed up very early and found quite a few people at work getting breakfast ready. I was given an orientation, then we gathered in a circle to study the Bible. We spent about fifteen minutes looking at a passage, going over the background and a few key points, then we prayed and started serving the meal. After an hour and a half, we had served well over a hundred people. We did the basic cleaning up, then sat down to eat our own breakfast. Over the meal, members of the community, along with some of the homeless persons, and various volunteers, returned to discussing the scripture passage.

Reading the Bible with homeless people shed a new light on it. People who had not lived their lives in the comfort and privilege of the middle class saw details of the scripture that some of us were blind to. The Latin American liberation theologians had also come to recognize this truth as they sought to understand the Bible as they observed the impending demise of the era of European world domination. They saw that reading the Bible with the poor and marginalized masses, created by colonial domination, gave a whole new meaning to the life and work of Jesus. They came to see that this one often depicted as a remote, cosmic monarch had lived as a homeless Jewish man who had no place to lay his head, who hung out with the folks on the margin and at the bottom, and who had good news to give to them.
(Continued.)

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