My Fault and Her Choice

My Fault and Her Choice

I had a woman leave my church earlier this year. It was my fault.

Photo by Tim Graves

The first complaint came on the Sunday I suggested in my sermon that Christians do not have to love their neighbor alone. That is, because the golden rule crosses the boundaries of traditions we can work together for the common good.  I believe she expected me to repudiate the implicit message that human beings can reach the divine through many different paths.

I did not.

I told her that there are multiple ways to interpret her beloved John 14:6 in which Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 NRSV) Explanations of the historical context in which it exists didn’t soften her stance. Discussing the overall inclusive message of John didn’t change her view. Encouraging her to pray and reflect didn’t help.

In the end, I appealed to her own restoration movement church background, in which interpretive agreement is not required for fellowship. In short I said, we don’t have to agree on this point to live and love others together. That didn’t help much either.

Her tactics to convince me of my misguided ways included drive-by attacks on Facebook when I posted quotes or other items that were, frankly, innocuous by most standards. A Thomas Merton quote, for example, could degenerate into accusations that caused me to finally shut off the thread.

Over time her concern became more and more about me. She called me a “false prophet” or one who leads people away from the truth. The final straw that led to her resignation from membership was that the Central Pacific Conference of the UCC and I took public stances in support of marriage equality in Oregon. But let me be clear: her departure was about how we interpret the Bible.

I read the Bible as the expanding story and theologies of people of faith over centuries. To me, the Bible’s truths are not in the precise words on the page but in the loving God who inspired — and continues to inspire — people to grow into the image of God in which we are all created. She reads our shared sacred writings in a more constrictive manner.

I had a woman leave my church earlier this year. Come to think of it, it was her choice.


Watch the Golden Rules video I created and showed on the Sunday that prompted the first complaint:

For a good discussion of John’s “I am the way,” read this blog by Crystal St. Marie Lewis.


Related Posts

Characterizing the Truth, August 26, 2011
Aliens Among Us (sermon), July 25, 2014
Weary of Literalism, June 21, 2014


Characterizing the Truth

I wrote a three paragraph bio yesterday. The bio was for the families of the children in Tumbleweed House where I will begin a substitute teaching job next month. Before beginning to write, I reviewed previous bios I have written. I looked at the bio I had written for the online system at my seminary, which emphasized God’s call and claim on my life. I looked at the bio from my early childhood teacher training and consultant business. It emphasized the kind of person I am, the depth of my experience, and my approach to training. I looked at biographical material I created for the Commission on Ministry prior to my ordination and I looked at a short bio I wrote for the AERO Conference program. They, too, had their own emphases.

Each one of these narratives described an aspect of who I am. Each one of them also said something about the audience for whom they were intended and about the issues that concerned them. The families at the school are concerned about their child and my commitment to them. My seminary cohorts would be exploring the strange spiritual journeys which brought us all together and, so, my call to ministry was significant. The potential clients for my teacher training and consulting wanted to know why they should pay good money to listen to me.

Each one of them was significantly different and time-locked. That is, I wouldn’t write exactly the same thing today. Yet, each one of them was absolutely true. I simply emphasized the things important to my audience–and to me–at the time they were written.

The Christian canon is like this as well. Each segment of the scripture must be viewed in the context in which they were written. Knowing context, helps us to understand inconsistencies in the text. There is truth in the text but the different parts may literally contradict one another. This does not prevent truth from being discerned through the text. It does mean that we must consider to whom the texts were written, when they were written, who wrote them, and why they were written. In my bio for the new job, I wrote of the connections between my spirituality and the philosophy of the school. These are real and true but they are not how I described my spirituality to my seminary cohorts two years ago. This is because 1) I was writing to different people; 2) I am a different person than I was two years ago; 3) I have a different purpose in writing; and 4) Each of the audiences use a different vocabulary.

This is precisely why a literal, inerrant reading of the biblical text is a flawed approach. A literal, inerrant reading of the biblical text gives the written words a power and meaning for which they were never intended. A literalistic reading of the scriptures turns them into gods unto themselves. It is the Divine, the One I identify as God, who inspires those who wrote and read and heard the ancient texts. My bios were inspired by the events and feelings of my life and are my interpretation (meaning applied) of those experiences. The same is true of the scriptures: they are inspired by events, feelings, and experiences of the ancient peoples with the Divine. They are the meaning applied (interpretation, theology) by the authors to their experiences.

I am not suggesting that God did not, and does not, speak through the scriptures. God meets people where God finds them. Christians have imbued the canon with authority and meaning, so God meets us there. Some find the Divine in nature, God will meet people there, too. God also speaks through the lives of others. As we learn of the faith, theology, and experiences of our foremothers and forefathers through scripture we can use that to help us make meaning of our own experiences of the Divine.

The Christian canon is a tool for our spiritual growth. It is not God. It is inspired by, though not written by God. Sadly, when we take a literalistic approach we end up worshiping the text rather than the magnificent, loving One who is so much bigger than any one of us can possibly imagine.


Why Simply Quoting Bible Passages About Kings in Ancient Times is Not Useful

Why simply quoting Bible passages about kings in ancient times is not useful to the #DebtCeiling debate: Government was different in Bible times. This means we can’t take scripture about how to relate to government literally. We must prayerfully find God’s truth in it for our times. That is, we don’t throw scripture out. We read it expecting the Spirit to help us discern God’s word for our times. This is best done in community.