O ancient doors!

Scripture invites us to join a conversation about what matters most

The Jaffa gate outside the Old City of Jerusalem. — Leo Correa/Associated Press The Jaffa gate outside the Old City of Jerusalem. — Leo Correa/Associated Press

My love of the Bible goes back many years. At about age 7 I connected with the adventures of the children of Israel as my dad and I mapped their wilderness travels. I can still feel the weighty words of Psalm 24 as my class of 10-year-olds recited them in a Bible school program: “Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors!”

As a teenager I carried with me the richness of favorite biblical images:

“. . . good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap” (Luke 6:38).

Living in rural Lesotho as a young adult and pondering the injustices of colonialism and racism, I decided I could avoid the danger of religious domination by rejecting words and choosing silence as my religious medium. But I couldn’t make it stick. Bible words kept coming back to me, and me to them.

I noticed that Jesus’ summary of the law as “love God and neighbor as yourself” put my village friends in the role of my mentors. I noticed that the Bible was part of the structure that upheld apartheid in South Africa — and that it also energized the struggle for liberation.

Before I turned 40, I left English language teaching to pursue seminary and pastoring. Being a bit of a language nerd, I was eager to study the Bible in its original languages. I fell in love with Hebrew and the stories and prayers of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

Now that I’m retired from 27 years of pastoring, my life is still richly nourished by biblical words as I chant psalms, translate stories and ponder Jesus’ gospel message.

I also think about why the Bible is so suspect these days, even among churchgoers. There are good reasons for this.

People have been hurt by the way the Bible was used in their families and churches growing up. They are troubled at how the Bible is used to justify domination and violence. It is disturbing that there is so much violence in the Bible and that the God of the Bible at times promotes violence, even commands people to conquer and colonize.

Is it possible to find truth in a book that opposing factions use to say opposite things? How do we look for guidance from prescientific tales of visions and miracles?

I’m grateful for these questions, which the church is overdue to take on. I’ll offer some thoughts as part of the conversation.

A source of hope

Jesus combines one verse each from Leviticus and Deuteronomy to summarize the heart of the Hebrew Bible: “Love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” After Jesus’ death he comes back not to scold or shame the followers who abandoned him but to tell them, “Don’t be afraid. I’m with you. The Holy Spirit is coming.”

Again and again, I come across the biblical command, “Do not fear.” I see people deeply rooted in their own tradition heeding the Spirit’s call to boldly reach beyond barriers of ethnicity and religion. This keeps me hopeful about the Bible’s message for me and the world and helps me approach it in good faith.

The problem of violence

I’ve come to see violence in the Bible as a gift rather than a liability. Violence is a human reality that touches all of us. It is a central question in the Bible, beginning with Cain’s murder of Abel and continuing through matriarchs and prophets, to the crucifixion of Jesus, to the victory of the Lamb in the Book of Revelation.

What will we do with human violence? Can we attribute violence to God? I have been deeply influenced by Carl Jung, who taught that on the question of violence each of us must first face our own shadow. I believe the Bible can help us acknowledge that each of us is not only wounded by but complicit in violence.

Is God violent? Although the God of the Bible at times condones violence, it is long before Jesus that we see God showing up on the side of limiting retaliation and warfare and demonstrating nonviolent power.

And yet, God will never be completely known or predicted. That means to me that no single Bible verse, not even one that claims to represent God, can be wielded as proof of who God is or what God wants.

I have been influenced here by James Brenneman’s doctoral thesis, Canons in Conflict, where he points out that even true prophets disagreed on God’s approach to violence and suggests that biblical writers during the exile may have questioned the earlier narrative of violent colonization.

The Bible was written as a conversation over time. Editors added points and counterpoints. Stories were carefully crafted with gaps that pose questions. Sometimes contradictions are left to stand without judgment.

A living conversation

The Bible is alive because it invites us to join a conversation about life and what matters most. Anabaptist tradition emphasizes that interpretation of scripture happens in community. The conversation expands as we share perspectives and understandings.

Further, interpretation happens under the guidance of the Spirit. Each of us individually and in our gathered circles has the possibility of direct encounter with God’s Spirit — an encounter that illuminates our biblical understanding. Meditation and ­exploring my dreams have opened this reality to me in fun and life-changing ways.

Since retirement, I’ve delighted in translating Hebrew narratives of human-divine encounters and finding commonality with the joys and foibles of my ancient forebears.

Biblical conversation, however, is not an end in itself. However much it might stretch me to see new possibilities, in the end it calls me to decision and action.

What is the path to life for me? How am I called to be part of God’s way of healing and wholeness for the universe? I have to act in faith because I can’t point to any one Bible verse to prove or justify my action.

This kind of faith is rooted in a multitude of wit­nesses, both ancient and present. It comes out of an experience of the Divine that assures me I am loved and invited to the wilderness journey, the lapful of generosity, the lifting of ancient doors.

Brenda Hostetler Meyer is free to explore her interests in new ways since retiring from pastoring last year and finishing a term of service on the Missional Leadership Team of Indiana-Michigan Conference of Mennonite Church USA this summer.

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