This series began when two members of the congregations shared their faith, and challenged some “doctrines” that weren’t doctrines – in particular, one said that they didn’t think the Bible was the “Word of God” as they didn’t think it was literally true!
Where to start?
There is certainly a strand of Christian thought that would see Jesus as the Word of God (coming from John 1), although this does not necessarily negate the role of the Bible.
When it comes to the Bible I believe that we all approach it with our own assumptions and no one treats it literally literally! Whilst there are fundamentalists who will say that they accept the Bible literally a couple of examples will show otherwise:
When Lesley was debating homosexuality with someone of a much more fundamentalist viewpoint she was told that:
only to be told that his quote was true for all time, and mine was culturally conditioned.
When training the first lecture we had was about how we interpreted the Bible, and asked us to place ourselves on a spectrum from:
God uses human writings – despite their errors, failings and limitations
God dictates scriptures – they are without error, failing or limitation
One of the questions that I am sometimes challenged with is “do you believe in absolute truth” (the implication being that the challenger does, and knows what it is, and I don’t). I do believe in absolute truth, I just don’t believe that we can know what it is in this life.
For me, the Bible is humanity’s attempt to write down their experience of God using their imperfect knowledge and their imperfect language. For me, the challenge is to try to get behind what has been written down, and back to the original experience – which would have been mediated through society at the time. The next challenge is to work out what that experience looks like in today’s society. This leads to a very different approach to those who believe that the exact words of the Bible are true for all time.
A man was in a hot air balloon and lost, so he spotted a woman on a golf course below and reduced altitude.
“Hello”, he called, “can you tell me where I am – I promised to meet a friend and I have no idea where I am”
She looked up and said “You are in a hot air balloon about 30 feet off the ground, you are 51 degrees North and 0.7 degrees West”.
“Are you an engineer?” he called down?
“Yes” she replied, “but how did you know?”
“Well your information is absolutely true but I’m none the wiser” he replied. “Furthermore I am still lost and frankly you have wasted my time”.
So she thought for a minute and called up to him “Are you in Management?”
“Yes” he replied “but how do you know?”
“Well, you have made a promise you have no idea how to keep, you expect those beneath you to solve your problems and you have risen to where you are thanks to a large volume of hot air”.
I guess I tell that joke because I want to explore what we mean by the Bible being “True”.
Of course, first of all we have to determine what we mean by “true” in this context.
There is a statue of Abraham Lincoln at one of the American Universities and he is shown wielding an axe about to come down on the fetters that are binding a slave at his feet. It the statue true – yes. Did it actually happen – no.
I get fed up at the moment hearing about the rise of fundamentalism and in particular creationism at the moment. Since when did Christians need to leave their common sense at the door when they came to church?
And then, of course there is the problem of translation. When I was at vicar school I decided to try to learn Hebrew and Greek. Try being the operative word here. Anyway, we looked at some Hebrew texts. It is a rather tricky language for a few reasons, not least of all because they choose not to include vowels in the text. And then they seem to have dots here and there that mean something but get missed off a fair amount – the jots and tittles that Jesus was referring to. And then the language has only two tenses. Not like English which has loads – past, present, future, perfect, imperfect, conditional, and a load of others. No – Hebrew has two. And they aren’t a useful two like Past and Present – they are perfect (ie done and dusted) and imperfect. So we looked at the phrase when God says “I am what I am”. Well… it is in the imperfect. So it could be “I was being what I ought to be” “ I will be what I am being” “I was going to be what I could have been”. Truthfully, I think just about the only translation it can’t be is “I am what I am”.
You probably know that the New Testament was written in Greek and fairly early on that was translated into Latin, and later still the Latin version was translated into English, giving rise to the King James Version, which is quite a literal translation of the text, but carries quite a lot of errors because of the double translation.
Which reminds me of a story that Alan told me from when he attended a church that was debating which Lord’s Prayer to use – the traditional or the modern. One woman said that she wanted to use the traditional Lord’s Prayer which was in the King James Version because she wanted to say the very words that Jesus used.
So there are many translations now – I suggest that everyone should by one that they find easy to read. My personal favourite is the New Revised Standard Version, which is an update on the RSV which is a pretty faithful translation, I feel. My personal least favourite version is the New International Version, which I think has too much interpretation and anti-women interpretation at that.
However, whichever version of the Bible we use, we have to face the fact that it was written by men, for men. I was arguing with a man online a while back about gay relationships. He quoted Leviticus 18:22 at me – “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable”, so I thought about that. “Are you telling me that the Bible requires me to be a Lesbian?” I asked….
And of course you may well notice in the Ten Commandments, especially if you are a woman, that whilst men are not allowed to covet their neighbours’ wives, there is no prohibition on us coveting our neighbours’ husbands. Not that any woman would ever do that, obviously!
I guess, putting aside the problem of who wrote it and why, and putting aside the problem of translation, the question is where one sees the Bible – does God use it in spite of human failings, limitations and errors, or is it exactly as God wishes it to be? Can it be true without it being literally correct, without an actual Noah, or without an actual Adam and Eve, or does it either have to be all true or if not it is not worth reading?
Let me quote a few verses from the Bible and you decide for yourself whether they are true:
For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.
“All things work to the good of those who love Him”
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
So John the Baptist is born. They are going to name him after his dad, but his mum says “no – his name is John”. They don’t believe her and so his dad writes on a tablet that his name is John and they believed him.
How annoying is that?
I would venture that if you are not annoyed then you are probably male!
I moved house a little while back.. moved to a cottage in Wheatley. Before we moved my prime task was to make sure that my internet connection was going to be available on the day that I moved in. I did everything by internet – banking, chatting to my mates, working from home, finding out information… it was vital to me. So I rang up the week before we moved, and did everything they asked, and rang up on the day we moved, it should be all set. When we got there the phone didn’t work, and so we arranged for a service engineer to come in a couple of day’s time. He said that the line had been accidentally cut by the previous occupant being rather zealous with some shears on the bush around the door and he would put a new line in. He put a new box inside the cottage and took his cable outside but discovered that there was no way he could get it to the pole as there were trees in the way, and hence it needed to go under the road. I was dismayed… it had already been two days and there was going to be a further delay. He sensed my desperation, and booked the work in urgently and taped the coil of cable to the side of my cottage.
It was actually 115 days before we got our connection back and I won’t bore you with the whole story, but in the middle of this saga I rang up BT for the hundredth time to be told that the engineer had in fact connected the cable and there must be a problem with the exchange. I told him that the engineer had not connected the cable and it was still taped to the side of the cottage… at which point he said it wasn’t and the engineer had been and it would take a couple of days to trace the problem at the exchange. I then said that the engineer had not been because I could see with my own eyes the loose end of the cable. At this point the man on the end of the phone told me in a patronizing tone that I shouldn’t worry about it and they would soon sort it out at their end. In desperation I passed the phone to my husband who said ‘the cable is still coiled up and taped to the side of our cottage’, to which the man on the end of the phone replied ‘ok sir, I’ll send an engineer to sort it out’.
As a woman it is sometimes hard to be heard, sometimes hard to be treated as an equal. And I feel that, living in the 21st century in England… how much harder it is for women across the world and across the ages… how much harder it must have been for the women in the Bible.
I heard a talk given by John Bell at Greenbelt a couple of years ago…. He was asked to preach at Westminster abbey at Evening Prayer and was given a sheet with the readings on it. He thought it would be interesting to see what had been preached on at Morning Prayer. So he found that it was Exodus 1:1-12. This text is about how a King rose up that did not know Joseph and oppressed the people by making them work hard. John Bell’s text was Exodus 3:1-12, which is about the call of Moses. Now he was intrigued that so much of the text had been skipped over and looked at what the missing stories were.
There was the story of how the King had decided to get rid of all the Israelite boys, and he called in the midwives, two of which were called Shiphrah and Puah, and told them to kill the male children of the Israelite women. However, they disobeyed this command. So, when the King looked out of his window and saw all the little Israelite boys running around who should in fact be dead, he called them back in for an explanation. They said oh, the Israelite women aren’t like Egyptian women, you know. Oh no – Egyptian women make such a fuss, in labour for 28 hours, but not the Israelite ones, a huff and a puff and the baby is out before we can even get there. Guess what – God was so pleased with these two women who disobeyed the Pharoah and lied to him that he blessed them with lots of kids.
Then there was the story of how Moses was born and hidden until they could hide him no more, so his mum made a basket and put him in it, then his sister kept watch, and then the Pharoah’s daughter found him and took him in. Another story where three women are active in defying male authority and that gave rise to Moses, the saviour of the Israelites.
When John Bell got up to speak in Westminster Abbey he said that he was sorry to announce that between the 11.30 service of Morning Prayer and the 4.30 Evensong, five middle eastern women had gone missing in the abbey. This caused a certain level of blind panic amongst the security people.
I could go on about other women in the Bible – courageous women – dispelling the image that all women in the Bible are either virgins or whores… women who stood up to Kings, stood up for justice, defied husbands, ignored gender stereotypes and challenged Jesus. These are women that God did not denounce, but God rewarded them.
But I won’t. My question to us is “Why does God favour the weak and the despised?”
Why? After all natural selection favours the fittest. When we look for examples to follow, we look for the best – the most successful. What is it about the weak, the downtrodden, the poor, the women, the outcast. What is it about loving them that is good?
Obviously, I don’t know. I don’t know the mind of God. But instinctively in my spirit I know it is true that God reaches out to the broken-hearted, the broken reed – God will not snap, the guttering flame – God will not extinguish.
And I also think it is true that in loving that which is weak, loving the despised and broken outside of ourselves, we begin to love that which is weak and broken within ourselves. Jesus said that he came to give Life and Life in its fullness, the only way we can be fully alive is if we fully accept the whole of ourselves. When we live without fear or shame.
More than that, though, I believe that Life in all its fullness involves courage. And so many places where God commends the weak, it isn’t just that they were weak, it is they acted with courage in spite of their lowliness and weakness.
I have been told by a psychologist that there are two themes in the Bible, the first is God saying “I love you”, and for you and me, perhaps there are parts of us that are weak or despised that we find hard to accept are loved. Hence when Jesus loves the Leper or the adulteress we find it easier to accept that we are loved too.
The second theme is God saying “Grow up”. And whatever the situation is – an overbearing Pharaoh to stand up to, an unjust King, whoever, perhaps the weak in the Bible can show us that however overwhelming the problem, God is with us and we need to get on and face it.
I’m going to finish by reading some famous words by Dorothy Sayers. Perhaps we can use them to remind ourselves how we need to treat the weak in our society and indeed the weak in ourselves:
Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man. There never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as He found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.
One of my friend’s husbands called it the Holy Spook.
And also it can make us think about people who seem a bit weird:
In one church which was quite formal a woman who had just become a Christian, and she was really excited about what she’d experienced, about the Holy Spirit. And in the middle of the service she shouted out, `Hallelujah!’ And the churchwarden was standing at the back, and he came up to her and tapped her on the shoulder and said, `Madam, you mustn’t say that here!’ And she said, `But I’m so excited! I’ve got religion!’ So he said, `Well, you didn’t get it here, madam.’
It might be worth looking at the Bible to see instances of the HS.
The Holy Spirit was in creation – brooding over the waters… it is creative and brings change.
The Holy Spirit gives gifts – in Exodus one of the craftsmen was named as filled with the HS to perform all sorts of crafts – creative again.
Gideon was afraid until he was filled with the HS.
The HS enabled Samson to break free of his bonds.
In Joel it says that the Holy Spirit is for all people – all people – you, me, everyone.
It will result in old men dreaming dreams and young men having visions, and all of us, women too will have this fantastic sense of God within us and of God’s dreams and visions.
I was talking to someone this week who told me that she suddenly realised that she had faith, and with this realisation came this sense of God within her. Wow! It made me realise how exciting being a Christian is – sometimes we just take it for granted. We compared notes – I feel the HS in my heart, for her it was partly in her heart and in her gut too – this sense of God with us.
Remember the Holy Spirit is for us all – every one of us, those of us who are near and those who are far away, and it will cause something new to happen, something creative, something that frees us, something that gives us a vision for the future.
When we try to be Christians in our own strength then it is like a balloon filled with air –we have to hold it to keep it up. That is sometimes called muscular Christianity – we toil, we struggle, we do it in our own strength. But if we have a balloon filled with helium then it will rise up to heaven unless we keep it down. Perhaps it is our fears, or our sins or our circumstances that keep it down. Perhaps we need to be freed of some of this stuff.
I believe that the Holy Spirit come to give us freedom. The Bible tells us that it was for Freedom that Christ has set us free, no longer to be subject to a yoke of slavery. It seems to me that it is mostly the fears that stop us being free.
When I was preparing for this sermon I looked in a book that gives quotes or thoughts for each sermon and it used an essay about the film Shirley Valentine as the example for Pentecost. Which surprised me rather. If you haven’t seen the film then it is a gentle comedy of a woman, middle-aged wife and mother who is stuck. Stuck in her life. Rather unhappy. She goes to Greece, I think, on holiday with another woman who is her friend and meets a Greek called Costas and has a torrid affair. Then at the end of the film she calls for her husband and he comes out and walks past her on the beach. She calls to him and he doesn’t recognise her and she responds:
“I know. I used to be The Mother. I used to be The Wife. But now I’m Shirley Valentine again. Would you like to join me for a drink?”
The last line of the film is from him “Er… thanks”.
I was a bit non-plussed – I’m used to Christian books moralising at me. What was this story saying?
I think it is that the Holy Spirit frees us to be truly and wonderfully ourselves. And the real us is beautiful and happy and open and free and finding that person and letting her or him out of the cages that we put her or him in is part of the work of the Spirit.
Each night I use an Ignation style of prayer, and in this prayer the first part is Consciousness – becoming aware of God, then the second part is freedom – which still surprises me. God is not foreign to my freedom – God wants to set me free.
But the HS also is about sending us out. It is interesting that the HS enabled everyone to speak in languages that others could hear. It was like a reversal of the Tower of Babel curse, where people could no longer understand each other. The HS allows us to connect more deeply with others. Psychologists tell us that the most important thing for us all is to have connection. As Christians we might say love.
So where is the HS leading us as a church? It makes sense to try to see what the Spirit is doing and join in.
Unlike the vicar who enjoyed sitting at the bottom of his garden where a train line ran past. And when asked why he liked watching the trains he replied that it is the only thing that moved through his Parish without him pushing it.
It isn’t like that here – much is moving, it seems like loads of trains are happily moving and building up steam and it is nothing to do with me or Alan – we didn’t touch them!
Let us watch and pray and asked to be filled and freed and join in with what God is doing to serve those who we live alongside.
Serving the Villages North of Farnham: Badshot Lea, Hale, Heath End & Weybourne