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Delight in This?

Part of last weekend was spent in Calgary at a provincial gathering of Mennonite churches and organizations where our time together was focused upon the theme of “Delighting in Scripture.” It’s a very pious sounding theme, isn’t it? Good Christians are supposed to love the Bible, aren’t they? It sounds like something we should all be doing all of the time. It calls to mind impressions I had in my childhood that if you were a follower of Jesus, you couldn’t wait to read your Bible and eagerly did so whenever the opportunity presented itself.

It also calls to mind the uncomfortable reality that for most of my childhood—and even beyond!—Scripture was not exactly a source of delight for me. Something to wrestle with? Certainly. Something that provided a mixture of comfortable, reassuring passages and uncomfortable passages that made me squirm and had to somehow be forcibly reconciled with the other ones? Um, yes. Something that contained stories and people and cultures and often horrific realities that seemed to come from another planet, and seemed to have very little to do with my everyday life? Regrettably. Something that, at times, made me wonder exactly what kind of God I had cast my lot with? Undeniably. But a source of delight? Not so much…

I’m hardly alone, I know. While Scripture has certainly been a source of wisdom, insight, comfort, illumination, and salvation for many, it has also produced uncertainty, confusion, anger, and apathy. Indeed, during at least one of the plenary addresses at the conference the simple reality that even Mennonites—people of the book!—often have a very hard time living with Scripture was openly acknowledged. We don’t always know what to do with these curious words, these strange stories that simultaneously speak of the love and grace of God alongside harsh words of judgment and rebuke. The Bible is not always the easiest thing to delight in.

Well, the conference came and went. The sessions offered some good and helpful lenses through which to look at Scripture, and it was good to have been there. It was also good, as always, to come home. Later in the weekend, I was having a rather rambling conversation with my daughter that ranged from a permission form we were supposed to sign to allow our kids to attend a sex-education class (eww!! gross!) to kids in her class whose parents are split up to how many kids God must have with Jesus. I groaned inwardly. God and Jesus as co-parents?! “Well, there you have it,” I thought. Exhibit A in the category of decidedly non-delightful theological/biblical minefields that we get to wade into as Bible-people. Sigh.

Being generally exhausted and mostly wanting to steer the conversation in another direction, I said something to the effect of, “You know one of the really neat things about God’s family is that it’s all full of adopted children!” She paused (our kids are adopted and have always had fairly well-tuned radar for adoption language). “Really?” “Yeah,” I said. “No biological children in God’s family—we’re all adopted kids. That’s how God works.” “Huh,” she said. “Cool.”

Yeah. Cool. Delightful, you might even say.

It’s good, I think, to periodically lift up our eyes from the proverbial trees to the forest. Because whatever difficulties we might have with this or that part fo the Bible, the big-picture story of Scripture is of God creating and redeeming an adopted family. It’s about all kinds of different kids coming together under one roof to learn how to love each other and their adopted Father better. It’s a story about a big, diverse, colourful family that is loved, graced, forgiven, and learning and growing into what that might mean for themselves and for the world.

This big picture doesn’t magically make the nasty parts of Scripture more intelligible or palatable. It doesn’t make all of those strange names of people and nations any easier to pronounce, nor does it make the endless lists of laws instantly exciting or compelling. It doesn’t make the parts we disagree with any more agreeable. It doesn’t make God less gloriously strange. It doesn’t even make the parts that we do understand but don’t have the will or desire to put into practice any easier to incorporate into our lives. But it does, I think, give us a safe place from which to ask these questions, express these struggles, work through these issues. It is a big picture that can accurately locate us, whether we are delighting in the story, raging against it, or, more likely, we find ourselves somewhere in between.

Last Sunday after the conference, I returned home to preach a sermon from Jeremiah 31:31-34. It is a beautiful, poetic passage about the coming day when YHWH will write his law on his people’s hearts—where confusion and disorientation will give way to forgiveness and knowledge of the Lord. It’s a powerful hope—all of God’s adopted kids being healed and forgiven, and having new hearts and minds that naturally reflect the beauty and goodness for which they were made.

A hope worth delighting in, if ever there was one.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tanya Duerksen #

    I have just started reading a book called “Orphanology” and it starts out talking about us being adopted and how that should make us see the world. This seems a timely Post. Adoption into God’s family is something I have heard lots about but have not meditated on enough. Thanks Ryan.

    March 27, 2012
    • Thanks, Tanya. I’m obviously biased, but for me adoption is among the most significant themes of the narrative of Scripture.

      March 28, 2012
  2. Ken #

    Re: “It calls to mind impressions I had in my childhood that if you were a follower of Jesus, you couldn’t wait to read your Bible and eagerly did so whenever the opportunity presented itself.”

    That is quite different from my childhood. I learned, instead, to not take the Bible literally or seriously in any other way. At the same time I learned to think of the Bible as a mystical work – one that transports one to another place and time. Perhaps this is part of the reason I grew up to consider the Bible myth.

    Now, I do enjoy reading the Bible. I still read it as myth. Delightful myth. (Even though it is patriarchal.)

    On the other hand, I have no doubt that my feelings would be like yours if my childhood and church experiences had been like yours. So I don’t mean to invalidate your feelings or thoughts here at all by pointing to this difference. What you describe is more common than mine for sure. Even long ago, when Josiah read the scroll, and later Ezra, they, and their audience, read it not with delight. They read it and wept.

    March 28, 2012
    • I find it fascinating that despite being taught not to take the Bible seriously, you have obviously spent a significant portion of your life reading and wrestling with Scripture. Our approaches and backgrounds may differ, but I think we can at least say that this book has exerted a kind of life-long hold on us, however differently this may be understood or expressed.

      I fear that many today are taught (explicitly or implicitly) not to take the Bible seriously or do much of anything with it really. Biblical illiteracy is pervasive and comprehensive, even in the church. We probably have no idea what we are losing with our cultural indifference to the Bible. Just yesterday I was reading some article where it referred to a person who had received an award as someone always “willing to go the extra mile.” As I read that I thought, “I wonder how many people even know or understand the origins of that expression?” There are countless other examples, no doubt.

      For me, part of what it means to “delight” in Scripture is to somehow allow ourselves to be shaped by this story. Yet in postmodernity, as is so often said, we are “storyless” people—or, at best, we selectively access a wide variety of stories in the ongoing project of individual identity formation. It’s a pretty interesting (and challenging!) context within which to promote a “delight” in Scripture…

      March 28, 2012
    • Ken #

      Re: “I find it fascinating that despite being taught not to take the Bible seriously, you have obviously spent a significant portion of your life reading and wrestling with Scripture.”

      I owe a great debt to my friend and mentor David Noel Freedman who showed me how interesting and delightful the Bible is. And also to another friend and mentor, a Jew, and Hebrew scholar who showed me how mystical Hebrew itself is, even the alphabet.

      Re: “We probably have no idea what we are losing with our cultural indifference to the Bible.”

      It is a huge loss.

      Re: “part of what it means to “delight” in Scripture is to somehow allow ourselves to be shaped by this story”

      Yes, and we are shaped by it in the west whether we have read it or not.

      In my experience, when someone reads the Bible closely, taking care to avoid preconceptions, as we did at the university, it is a delightful experience for the religious and the merely curious as well.

      March 28, 2012
      • In my experience, when someone reads the Bible closely, taking care to avoid preconceptions, as we did at the university, it is a delightful experience for the religious and the merely curious as well.

        Do you think it’s possible to read the bible “without preconceptions?” I don’t think anyone does this—or even can, for that matter. My experience at the university reinforced this. The methods and conclusions advocated there certainly weren’t the result of avoiding preconceptions. They were simply the fruit of adopting different ones.

        March 29, 2012
      • Ken #

        I know what you mean. It is hard and maybe impossible to set aside preconceptions completely. That is certainly the claim made in postmodernity. Still, the university attempted to do this as best as it could, always aware that perfection in this respect is impossible.

        A researcher here in California recently discovered that chocolate appears to lead to lower weight. That finding challenges our preconceptions. What I found in the university was a willingness to challenge preconceptions, like that one, and even its own. In that sense, it took care to avoid preconceptions. (Seminary, by the way, did not.)

        I think the result was a greater understanding of the ways the words in the Bible made sense long ago in a different place. It was in that way, perhaps ironically, supportive of readers who sought a connection with the beginning, whether for spiritual reasons or not.

        March 29, 2012
      • I experienced a bit of what you talk about here (attempts to set aside preconceptions, etc) in university. I also came across many students (and professors) who were unwilling to consider perspectives other than the reigning (mainly secular) orthodoxies of the day—when it came to the Bible, as well as in other areas. Perhaps ironically, I encountered at least as much as, if not more openness to other perspectives in theological graduate school than I did in university.

        But I do think there is great profit in continually striving to be aware of how what one expects to see/find affects what one does in fact see/find in Scripture. We have to at least try to figure out what these strange words meant to their first readers/hearers before we move on to what they might mean today. Surely this is at least part of the task of seeking “a connection with the beginning.”

        March 29, 2012
      • Ken #

        I was probably just unaware of the tendency in the university that you experienced. I was so in sync with the university, I guess. We read the Bible as if God was a character in an ancient text without addressing the question of whether or not God is real and whether or not the Bible has any contemporary value in a religious sense. I think it was an attempt to suspend modern disbelief so that we could try to hear the words as they were once heard. I think the effort was avoid a preconception that we have in modernity that God is not real so that that preconception would not interfere with our reading. Some students and faculty believed in God in one way or another, and others did not. That did not seem to be an issue that interfered with our common effort.

        March 29, 2012
    • Larry S #

      Ken wrote: “That is quite different from my childhood. I learned, instead, to not take the Bible literally or seriously in any other way. At the same time I learned to think of the Bible as a mystical work – one that transports one to another place and time. Perhaps this is part of the reason I grew up to consider the Bible myth.”

      Ken, Ryan’s and my backgrounds/childhood are quite similar.
      Your comment about the Bible being seen as a mystical work that transports us to another time and place has similarities in my background.

      We would talk about “back in Bible times” where everything happened on a Sunday (ie: everthing was dressed up and holy).

      (Hello to Ryan, Ken and others – I have been reading Ryan’s blog but my real life has been busy – greetings).

      March 28, 2012
      • Ken #

        So perhaps this is in all of our backgrounds and is why we have found ourselves in discourse with each other here.

        This is the essence of Eliade’s theory of religion – in the beginning everything was and is holy and that is why we seek to go there. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be. The holy realm is eternal.

        March 28, 2012
      • Larry, I’d never thought of my background in that way… While we certainly would never have used the word “mystical,” there was that similar impulse to always be looking back at (and exhorting ourselves to recapture) some imagined pristine time when the church was pure. As it was in the beginning… Interesting.

        March 29, 2012
  3. Larry S #

    Ryan – it wasn’t just trying to recapture the myth of the early church’s wonderful life. It was a way of dressing up the OT stories – back in Bible times people apparently had a real easy time ‘hearing’ from God. We read super-spirituality into the impulses of the characters.

    Then we grow-up and read things like King David setting up his ‘hit list’ like an old-style Mafia Don….. and we move on to the Psalms where babies get thier head bashed against rocks – the nasty bits don’t read that easy – ‘bible times’ don’t look quite that great.

    March 29, 2012
    • Yes, what you say here is certainly true, Larry. So many of the human elements squeezed out in attempts to understand/present Scripture as some kind of whitewashed spiritual manual… Ironically, I find it much easier to find myself in a messy, confusing story full of ambiguity, compromise, and strange characters than I do in a book full of “super-spirituality.”

      March 29, 2012

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