Monday, May 25, 2009

Peter's Sword

Just so you’re clear from the start, this blog entry is about two things. The main thing is an observation about how we read and understand the bible. The secondary point is a question about Peter’s sword – which is really an illustration of the first point.

So – about reading the bible. I guess I should begin by stating the obvious – even BEFORE we might read the bible, we have different views ABOUT the bible. Some believe – and believe very passionately – that Scripture is the inspired and inerrant (that is, completely accurate) word of God. Not that the bible CONTAINS the word of God but that the bible IS the word of God, in its entirety. On the other end of the continuum are those who dismiss the bible completely as being irrelevant to contemporary life or, even worse, an intentional pack of lies meant to deceive people – people, by the way who are by definition, not very intelligent - into believing all kinds of foolishness. And – clearly – there are lots of stops or points in between these two continuum “ends”.

As for me, I grew up going to a Sunday School that was structured around a catechism. We “learned” through repetition and memorization, basic Christian truths as presented in the Scriptures. It was pretty straightforward and, I have to say, pretty effective in laying out a basic framework of the Christian faith. I actually have fond, though somewhat indistinct memories of my early days in Sunday School. In terms of my view of the bible, the bottom line for my young mind was an understanding that the bible is God’s word. My vision of God was fairly limited and any questions I might have had about the likelihood that ALL Scripture – that is, every word of the 66 books (written by dozens of authors over thousands of years) that comprise the Old and New Testaments – is precisely as God intended it – would only surface later, long after I had completed the catechism and moved onto more interesting and dynamic methods of learning.

My current view – still somewhat under construction by the way – is that a lot of people in this day and age have dismissed the bible because of a caricature of the extremes on the ends of the continuum. And that’s unfortunate – no, it’s worse than unfortunate. It’s actually a tragedy. Maybe I’ll pick this thought up in another entry, but for now I want to get back to my thinking for THIS entry.

My first point, then (so far I’ve just given the preamble!) is that we read and understand and interpret Scripture based on all kinds of things, many of which we’re not even conscious of. There’s our culture, of course, and our own personality, and our experiences – as varied and thought-provoking or pain- provoking as they may be – and, in my view, the tutelage of the Holy Spirit. This is a critical point but I’m not going to even attempt to explain it here.

The point is, we read or hear Scripture and it interacts with us at a point in time and place. Many people over the years have marveled at the way Scripture can take on slightly (or radically!) different nuances and meaning on different days. The Psalms, for example, can speak to us a message of comfort and hope and then – on a different day or in a different place – the same Psalm can make us angry or can bring us to tears. Sometimes we have read or heard a certain passage dozens or even hundreds of times. Maybe we’ve even memorized it and think we’ve squeezed every bit of meaning out of it. And then, seemingly out of nowhere – there’s yet another nuance we hadn’t previously noticed.

Here’s where Peter’s sword comes in. The scene is the Garden of Gethsemane. The Roman soldiers, alerted by Judas as to Jesus’ whereabouts, have come to the Garden to arrest Jesus. Jesus, knowing the suffering that lies just around the corner for him, has gone to the Garden with his disciples to pray. He takes four of them with him, deep into the Garden and asks them to keep watch. Now, come to think of it – that’s odd. What were they watching for? Hm. Well – as you may know, the disciples aren’t very good at keeping watch. In fact, not once but twice, Jesus returns to them, only to find them asleep on the job. Now THAT must have been a tad discouraging, considering that Jesus was about to complete his “assignment” on earth and leave the ministry in their hands. But I digress.

Jesus has prayed – so intensely, in fact that he has sweat drops of blood (hm – is this where the expression “blood, sweat and tears” comes from?). He’s come to terms with the fact that the time has come for him to shed his blood at the hands of the Romans but due to the agitation of the religious leaders of his own chosen people – that must sting more than a little! The disciples have caught a little shut eye in the peace and quiet of the Garden. Then – somber and threatening music – the soldiers arrive, led by Judas who (boldly or reluctantly?) identifies and betrays Jesus by kissing him on the cheek.

So – here’s the thing. Peter – impulsive, passionate, decisive Peter – draws his sword and cuts off the ear of one of the soldiers. Wait a minute. Peter’s sword? Do you remember any scene in all of Scripture where Peter is bearing arms? Why does a fisherman turned disciple even HAVE a sword? He’s been following Jesus around the country for three years. JESUS: Miracle worker. Teacher. Son of God. Carpenter. If you’ve read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) which chronicle Jesus’ three years of teaching and living amidst a pretty oppressive and even violent society, you may remember various examples of Jesus’ non-violent nature and teachings. Remember that he’s the one that said we should love our enemies, turn the other cheek, repay evil with love. So what’s up with the sword?

When I have some time I’ll check out what’s been said about this – even though I’ve never heard anyone mention it in the various sermons I’ve heard on this scene from the Garden (and since we hear sermons about his every year on Good Friday, that’s a lot of sermons) – still, I’m sure commentators who dissect every verse, will have something to say. But in the meantime, I raise it for you to think about – or even better, if you have heard something or have some thoughts, PLEASE, feel free to post a comment! But more than that, I bring it up so we can reflect on the way we tend to reduce Scripture to our own limited experience and understanding. It’s one thing to interpret Scripture through the lenses we have – after all, what else can we do? – but it’s totally another thing to presume that that’s ALL there is, because that’s ALL we can see at this particular time.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Through a Glass Darkly

There’s this image from Scripture about seeing through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12). In other words, the idea is that we can’t see clearly – it’s like there are shadows and distortions and smudges that prevent us from seeing things as they really are. It’s an image that has always frustrated me, because I love to think things through and put things together to gain a deeper and clearer understanding. And it’s like, no matter how hard I try, I’m never going to really get it. So, it’s frustrating, but there are moments when it’s also liberating.

I just watched an episode of Numb3rs – it’s a show about two brothers. One brother – Don - is an FBI agent and the other – Charlie - is a brilliant mathematician. Charlie is always getting involved, helping the FBI solve cases by applying mathematical models to the investigation. In the episode I just watched, Charlie has convinced Don that he can actually anticipate the next drug to hit the streets and can manipulate the market by “dirtying the brand”. The idea is that by buying up the limited early supply, the market will respond by increasing the price and actually cutting the quality in an effort to meet demand.

Charlie’s actually so confident that his plan will work that he is giddy with success. Ah, but wait! He hadn't figured on the intelligence of one of the bad guys to also anticipate the effect on the drug market if the brand became "dirtied" by high cost and low quality. So - being unscrupulous, he foiled Charlie's plan by murdering a couple other bad guys and seizing their drug supply.

Anyway, the point is that the model - which looked good on paper - failed to take into account ALL of the variables. The result was near disaster for one of the FBI agents, but also a reminder to me - to us - that no matter how smart or clever we are, we need to be careful of arrogance. Life is wonderfully complicated!

Actually, it reminds me of a workshop my husband and I went to many years ago (about 23!) at Memorial Univeristy in Newfoundland. It was a workshop about fisheries and some economists presented a model to explain why a certain course of action should be followed in the Newfoundland groundfish fishery. As we listened, my husband - himself a commercial fisherman with an astute grasp of the complexity of life in general and of fishing in particular - noticed that the economic model seemed to be missing something. More specifically, it didn't take into account the fact that fishermen often are involved in fisheries for more than one species. When he raised the issue, the economists dismissed his concern, noting that the "model" couldn't allow for that. Bottom line was this: they were presenting information and suggesting strategies based on information they knew was inaccurate and incomplete. And yet the model looked very persuasive - scientific, rational, sophisticated. I think it fooled them and they forgot that, in all areas of human endeavour, we look through a glass darkly.

Some people may find that discouraging or disconcerting. But I love it. I love the fact that God is smarter than we are and he puts understanding just beyond our reach. I embrace the mystery and accept - sometimes a bit grudgingly - my limitations. For me, that helps me to "walk humbly" with God...