Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sitting with Scripture

Their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on God’s law they meditate day and night. (Psalm 1.2)

O LORD, You have searched me and known me. (Psalm 139.1)

A Monster Whose Rampage Could Not Be Stopped

In the mid-1930s a group of dissenting pastors broke with Germany’s national church to form the Confessing Church—which, in name and credo, proclaimed their intention to uphold confessions of faith in keeping with New Testament teachings. Under Nazi pressure, the state-sanctioned German Evangelical Church had morphed into something radically opposed to biblical Christianity. The Reichskirche (“Reich’s church”) embraced anti-Semitism at its extremes, banning anyone of Hebrew lineage from the faith community and disregarding most of Scripture as “Jewish superstition.” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was no more, replaced by a pagan entity that reflected the Nazis’ Teutonic ideal. It stuns us that millions of Christians could be seduced by such heresy, especially one that encouraged shameless persecution of innocent people, many of them major contributors to Germany’s cultural and economic life. But the Nazis knew the force of fear. They crafted a very convincing myth that only purebred Germans could be trusted. They fabricated elaborate conspiracy theories in every arena of life, suggesting non-Aryan contributors to society were laying in wait to destroy the German people. The nation, struggling beneath the weight of economic hardship and uncertainty, bought it hook, line, and sinker. In short order, big-city cathedrals and village parishes rang with newly minted hymns and preaching that more closely resembled a berserk Wagner opera than anything found in the “polluted” Hebrew Bible or its successor, the New Testament.

Confessing Church leaders reached out to the European ecumenical movement, pleading with Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians to rise up in protest against the Nazi perversion of faith. Support for their mission was strong at first—until Hitler became a political threat to Europe’s stability. Then, as always, the Church took a back seat to seemingly more expedient matters that overlooked Nazism’s most potent weapon: Hitler’s hand-picked clerics were extolling racism and violence as acts of faith. Arresting and murdering Jews, the disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christians who didn’t toe the party line were presented as the right thing to do. The confabulation of church and state spawned a monster whose rampage could not be stopped by purely political means. The Confessing Church realized this. The rest of the world did not.

Faith Discipline

At first, Confessing Church dissenters felt confident the Reichskirche madness could not last. Germany’s cherished Christian tradition would quickly reassert itself and expose the Nazis as impostors. But the people—broken, living under economic duress, and still nursing the Great War’s wounds and bruises—evidenced no will to oppose Hitler. The battle to restore Christianity's integrity would take longer than expected, possibly continuing for decades if the Nazis weren’t defeated. In addition to its immediate protests and extramural efforts to free the German church from heretical bondage, the Confessing Church also turned its attention to training young ministers to carry on the fight. For this task, its leaders chose a brash theological prodigy named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1935, the Confessing Church opened its first seminary and entrusted a handful of eager pastoral candidates to his care.

Bonhoeffer’s techniques were nothing if not unorthodox. Rather than found his seminary on the longstanding academy model, he substituted a community framework that emphasized a faith discipline over academic rigor. He challenged seminarians to nurture their belief in Christ and God’s Word, from which would spring their intellectual mastery of Christian doctrines and practices. With prophetic vision, Bonhoeffer saw that his students’ faithfulness would be tested in ferocious ways—that they might very well pay for it with their lives. (And many, including him, did.)

One of the core disciplines Bonhoeffer instilled in his pupils was something he called “sitting with Scripture”. Each week, he gave them a single verse and carved out 30 minutes in the middle of every day for them to meditate on it. A few of the seminarians balked. How could they gain anything by spending more than three hours on a sentence or two? But Bonhoeffer didn’t want them to settle for reading the text. He urged them to listen to it, to open their minds so it could speak to them. Bonhoeffer insisted that God’s Spirit breathed life into Scripture—life that could only be discovered by sitting patiently with the text, allowing it to hang in the silence, and most of all, permitting the silence to soften one's heart to accept what God would say through God’s Word. In light of their troubled times, Bonhoeffer knew his students would need deep roots to withstand the Nazi antichrist’s pressures. He drew his novel technique directly from Scripture, Psalm 1.2-3: “Their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on [God’s] law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all they do, they prosper.” To a one, seminarians who survived Hitler’s atrocities credit this discipline with securing their faith.

Perilous Times of Indecision

While one resists any suggestion that our times could give rise to the kind of horrors perpetrated by Hitler and his followers, we must nonetheless be alert to signs that the same spirit of antichrist is at work in our world. We live in perilous times of indecision. Economic security remains just beyond reach. Wars drag on mercilessly until the loss of life becomes so unbearable that we retreat, leaving nothing but scorched earth and moral fatigue in our wake. Politics has eroded into merchandising fear and wild-eyed conspiracy theories. Our religious leaders have bedded down with unhinged candidates and special interests, giving birth to bastardized preaching and worship that declares “war” on Christ’s doctrines of love and inclusion.

Hatred, prejudice, and flagrant disregard for the least among us are fast becoming institutionalized as acts of faith. And an alarming majority of Christians are swallowing this swill because they’ve been seduced by false logic. The irony is nauseating. They’ve been told they're “protecting” their faith, when in fact they’re destroying its very foundations. Why are so many listening to idolatrous voices that extol the virtues of wealth, conformity, and self-service? Bonhoeffer’s instincts would call us to a sobering realization that we’re reaping the woes of a lack of faith discipline. God’s Word no longer speaks to most Christians, in large part because most Christians no longer take time to sit with Scripture. The Church is drying up at the roots because its people have got so preoccupied with worldly things they’ve forsaken meditating on God’s law “day and night.”

If ever a time called us to sit with Scripture, it’s now. We must tear ourselves away from the constant churning of news cycles and rants and fear-inducing hype to permit God’s Spirit to speak to us. We must carve out daily periods for silent contemplation of God’s Word, allowing the quiet to soften our hearts and clear our minds so we can accept what God would say to us. We must deepen our roots in God’s righteousness, so that we can bear nourishing fruit in a world given over to fruitless pursuits, so that our faith will not wither, so that we will prosper spiritually in an era when the lunge for material prosperity yields nothing but poverty and pain.

We Must Be Rooted and Grounded

We who know the truth of Christ’s Gospel must live it out in a very particular way that transforms confession of faith into disciplined lives of faith. This is especially true for LGBT and other alienated Christians, along with those who support them. While we thank God for the move of the Spirit that is calling the Church to reject false doctrines of exclusion, we are also aware that, like the Confessing Church, we have enjoined a battle that won’t be easily, or quickly, won. For this reason, we must be rooted and grounded in Christ’s love and certainty of God’s presence and purpose in our lives.

Partly in honor of June’s designation as LGBT Pride month, but mostly out spiritual urgency, Straight-Friendly will spend the next four weeks sitting with Scripture. Day by day, we’ll consider a single verse—in some cases, a portion of one verse—from Psalm 139, a powerful text that I believe every inclusive Christian should embrace as his/her faith manifesto. The daily posts will be brief—a few sentences at most to provoke thought and reinvigorate our fellowship with God through God’s Word. In the best of all worlds, the texts would arouse dialogue here, at the podcast, and on the blog’s Facebook page, as we share what we’ve “heard” with one another. But that’s not necessary to claim success as we journey through this amazing passage together. The prayer here is that we use this time to deepen our roots in faith and find our place in God as we confront the faithlessness seeking to overtake our world.

Psalm 139

Before we set out on this verse-by-verse, phrase-by-phrase journey, suppose we end this introductory post by reading the psalm—and praying it—together.

O LORD, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to You; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to You.

For it was You Who formed my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are Your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from You, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In Your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are Your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with You.

O that You would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—those who speak of You maliciously, and lift themselves up against You for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?
I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Sitting with Scripture—meditating on it, allowing God’s Spirit to speak through it—is how we become rooted and grounded in our faith.


Sherry Peyton said...

Tim, this is wonderful indeed. We live in a time when fear is used by politican and their corporate masters to exact allegience to ideas that having nothing to do with the actual teachings of Christ, but of course, it is termed that way. All these folks pretend a Christianity that is so self-serving and directed toward ends that merely support personal goals. It is sad and one wonders when folks will wake up.

I am also so happy that you have chosen Psalm 139, my favorite to start this process. No doubt, this sitting with scripture, which in Catholic practice is akin to lectio Divina, is so helpful in trying to discern God's true desire for us. I am so excited to join in this process with you, since at this chaotic time, it is perhaps the best thing I could do to bring a sense of balance in my life. The churches here have proven to be a bit of a disappointment, and I have no idea how it shall all work out. Thanks for helping me settle down and withdraw from such decisions. Surely I shall be in a better place after practicing like this for a while. Blessings, Sherry

Tim said...

Sherry, of late I've been steeled by the conviction that our response to the fear-mongering and mis-leadership of church officials (in cahoots with self-serving politicians) must surpass alarm. We must reorient our minds and spirits to truth that can only be found in God's Word. Rather than going through the faith motions, we must put our faith in motion. And that can only come about by taking the time to commune with our Maker in contemplation of God's Word.

I believe we are all in need of clarity of some kind, whether internally or in terms of our place and role in community. In the coming months we in the States, as well as our brothers and sisters abroad, will be assaulted with every kind of propaganda attempting to manipulate our opinions about where we're headed as a people, as well as how we regard one another. Our moral compasses will require fine tuning to withstand the clever machinations of those who would make up our minds for us. Only by practicing this discipline of listening to God would say to us can we be sure that we're not being led astray.

I too am very excited about this undertaking. I have no idea where it will lead. But isn't that how it always is when we set out on journeys of discovery with God?

Thanks so much for your comment. I trust that, in some way or other, the road before us will bring to you the insight and direction your seek!

Many blessings,