A reflection on the readings for Proper 8B by Janine Goodwin
2 Samuel 1:1,17-27
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Several times in my childhood I tried to follow the schedule of a little pamphlet entitled, "Through the Bible in a Year." It started at Genesis in January and went through, a few chapters a day, to Revelation in late December. I always bogged down and gave up somewhere around Numbers. The problem wasn't with reading, even with reading difficult material: I read Lord of the Rings through several times over as a ten-year-old. There were multiple difficulties, which included the existence of large chunks of text that weren't moving the narrative along: I was used to reading novels and had no idea how to read the many different forms of literature in the Bible. Looking back, though, I think the worst obstacle was my piety. The very urge that led me toward reading the Bible made me afraid to read it.
I had been taught that the whole Bible was the flawless and significant Word of God and that it was unspeakably holy. I was supposed to know it, preferably by memorizing isolated verses while reading the whole thing through. The only attitude that seemed to be allowed toward the Scriptures was one of unquestioning reverence. There was no room to question or to dislike: if I had a problem with the Bible, it meant there was something wrong with me. This kept me from engaging honestly with the Bible. If I couldn't admit my confusion or even revulsion in response to the stories of rape and incest, my disagreement with many of the laws, my skepticism about whether God really meant every word--and if God did, why weren't we Christians doing things very differently?--I could only feel shame at my responses. I could try to reason myself into compliant agreement with whatever I read, but in doing so, I found myself trying to be dishonest with God. I tried to believe only what I thought God wanted from me rather than what I really thought. That's no way to build a relationship.
Yet I believed that if I expressed open doubt, I would be a skeptic and a blasphemer like Mark Twain, whose Letters from the Earth I read with guilty pleasure yet, in the end, with the same discomfort. I couldn't share Twain's condemnations: I saw his points, but could not walk away from faith with him. There was much in Scripture I wanted to believe and live by. I loved stories like today's gospel, in which Jesus gives life to a dead girl and an outcast, daring woman, two female human beings who were not valued equally with males by their culture but who were brought to healing by a radically inclusive love. I wanted the love Jesus showed to each of them, the healing he offered. I wanted to share a life of faith with others who loved those stories and believed in caring for everyone, even when the magnitude of that caring and its consequences scared me.
In time, I came to condemn the views I'd been taught at first, and to interpret Scripture in multiple ways. It is good to have more ways to approach Scripture and more knowledge, but I moved from what Aquinas would term "servile fear" to a certain over-familiarity. I interpreted Scripture the way I wanted to read it. I didn't allow the texts to be strange and different, but read them without humility or respect for their uniqueness. I did not consider the historical context and the cultural differences that make some scriptures, like the full chapter of the reading from 2 Samuel, difficult for me. The lectionary tells of the love of David and Jonathan: the full chapter tells of two killings, one out of mercy and one deliberate. I looked down on a worldview that would allow a wounded king to call upon someone to put him out of his pain and then make it all right to kill the man who did what the king asked. As a child, I had wondered whether such a story meant euthanasia was all right. As an adult, I was scornful of the barbarians. In each case, I overlooked the difference between my culture and that of the story, and lost empathy with the characters in the story.
As a child, I sat in church feeling distress and puzzlement as the Scriptures were read: how were these pieces to be put together? How were violent death, summary execution, and miraculous healing to be reconciled? Why wasn't anyone else puzzled about this? Why didn't I dare speak up? As an adult, I tried to make everything fit into a different, equally tidy pattern for years. I was confounded by people like the Rev. Gordon Graham, then a seminarian, who would chide our Cambridge, MA Education for Ministry class with the sentence, "That was before God was a liberal."
Finally, I walked away from trying to make Scripture fit into anything but itself, and have worked to give up both worshiping the Bible in unthinking timidity and matronizing it by trying to stretch and push it into patterns that please me. It is a wild combination of voices from various times, societies, and viewpoints, some of them contradicting each other. It is as chaotic as an inclusive congregation, as a small town, as human life. It is to be treated with love and respect and reverence, but not with unquestioning worship. It holds within itself the stories of many people who struggled with God and faith. As I once heard a seminary professor say, it contains everything necessary for our lives and our salvation--and a lot of other things as well. I am living with the contradictions, the questions, the doubts, the beauty and ugliness, the hope and the confusion. Life with God is messy. Life with other people is untidy. Questioning and humility are allowed. Faith is not the absence of doubt, but an openness to continue with doubts intact.