One of the critiques of this movement that I've heard is that we don't do spiritual formation well. We make a difference in our neighborhoods - but we don't really form ourselves as holistic spiritual beings connected to a God of intimate, welcoming love as well as liberating justice.
So one of the first things I've been working on as a pastor in my neighborhood is a book of prayers I'm calling "Prayers for Morning and Evening in Everett." It will be a collection of scripture readings, quotes, prayers, reflections on historic saints, reflections on neighborhood saints, hopefully some art work, and an invitation to root ourselves in the depth of the Christian story and tradition as well as on the streets of Everett. I hope it will become a source of spiritual formation and nourishment for those seeking to live in the liberating love and justice of the way of Jesus in my neighborhood.
Anyway, that's all a side note to this: I've been reading the Psalms and writing prayers based on them as a first step in this work. And sometimes reading the Psalms makes me want to throw the Bible away or shout angrily at the people who taught the Bible to me as a child. Flight or fight. Or, if I am held in the moment of reading the Psalms and not fighting or flight-ing, I just want to weep.
You see, I was taught as a kid, at my "bible-believing" church, that the things God was interested in were, in order:
- Did I believe the right things about Jesus?
- Did I say the right things to Jesus?
- Did I believe the right things about how the world came to be?
- Did I convincingly tell everyone I knew the things that they were supposed to believe about Jesus, say to Jesus, and believe about how the world came to be? Bonus points for being Jiminy Cricket and also telling them all what they should do and not do.
- Did I believe (and do) the right things about myself as a woman:
- That I could not be a leader
- That I must marry a man
- That I must not have sex before I marry that man
- That I must obey that man
- That we must have children together
- And that if I'm really good, I'd have lots of children and homeschool all of them so that they also learn to believe all the right things about Jesus, how the world came to be, and what limitations and responsibilities are prescribed by their binary gender.
- Did I go to church every Sunday?
- Did I read my bible every day?
- Did I stand out like a maladjusted sore thumb in the evil culture that surrounds us?
- Did I support my country, a Christian nation?
- Oh! And did I vote republican - or would I if I were old enough to vote and of course if that man I married told me to.
But then every time I find myself doing #7 in that American Christian decalogue, I found a completely different set of priorities for God. As I read the psalms, again and again, I see a God who was interested in:
- Caring for widows (women made vulnerable by a lack of income and relationship)
- Caring for orphans (children made vulnerably by a lack of income, provision, and relationship)
- Caring for outsiders (people from other countries who have come to ours in desperate search for the things they need to survive)
- Caring for the poor
- Economics that are fair
- Uplifting the downtrodden
- Welcoming sinners
- Liberation or the radical equality of a thing called Jubilee
I love the Bible. I love what it says. I love the stories of a God bent on love and justice going back and forth and round and round with a people who don't get it but are often trying. I love the commandments to care for those who are experiencing need. I love the promises that those who take advantage of those in need will one day get theirs. I love that there is a poem to tell us how the world came to be and that it is laced with goodness! I love how the stories always go so dark that Nigel of Spinal Tap would ask how much blacker they could get and the answer would be "None more black" and then from out of nowhere comes light! Redemption from death. Justice from injustice. Equality from abuse. Dear God I love the Bible!
But dear God it hurts to even look at that book!
I have been so mislead, malformed, and deceived by those teaching this book to me.
I have received so. much. harm. at the hands of people holding my favorite book.
I have enacted so. much. harm. at the instruction of people teaching my favorite book.
I spent years excluding neighbors who were gay or lesbian because of some lazy interpretation people handed me at church. (If you don't think it's lazy interpretation, we can have a whole different discussion about that. I'm honestly quite happy to share the intellectual stops along my journey toward being welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ+ folks in the Jesus community).
Collectively, we have fought wars, defended broken American ways of living, shamed women for their gifts, forced men into a box of masculinity that fits few if any at the hands of people interpreting my favorite book through broken lenses. We have even used it to persecute the outsiders it tells us to care for!
At the church I grew up in, my mom was looked down upon for working outside the home. She was a teacher. At a low income school. With refugee and immigrant children. With children experiencing disability. She spent her days loving and teaching kids some of whom could not complete homework because the "home" they went "home" to was a car and when the sun sets, the lights are out. She spent her days with the exact kids the Bible tells us to care for. My mom, according to what the Bible actually says, spent her days "outside the home" working as a saint. And, in doing so, teaching her children what it means to be a responsible citizen of God's Kingdom of love and justice. And my church told her the Bible said she shouldn't do that.
How do I even come to that book without anger? It's as though someone took Theo chocolate and made an atom bomb out of it. Theo chocolate is possibly my favorite thing on the planet, but if it were employed for destruction, I would lose all appetite for it. The Bible is my favorite book in the world and yet, when I see it, I am reminded of gut wrenching evil.
And so I toss and turn every morning as I read the Psalms. And so I listen to their beautiful call for justice and exquisitely raw honesty. And so I come to the Bible for morning and evening prayers every day and hope it roots me deeply in the Christian story and tradition but also on the streets of Everett. And so I hope every morning as I push back against the impulse to flight or flee and sit with that great and greatly abused book, it will become a source of spiritual formation and nourishment as I do my best to live in the liberating love and justice of the way of Jesus in my neighborhood.
And every day thus far, my hope is met and I am nourished to fall deeper and deeper in love with the Creator and to live in the way of Jesus among my neighbors. To worship by living in radically inclusive love and holistic justice...for the Bible tells me so.