Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Pew Pew

So, I went to a Sunday morning service the other day, for the first time in ages. When I woke up in the morning, I had no intention of going. But while I was praying and meditating, God made it clear to me that he wanted me to go. And after trying to reason my way out of it for awhile, I decided to obey. Why not, I thought. It's been so long, I hardly remember why I stopped going in the first place.

I remember now.

The opening verse--the basis for the sermon--was Ephesians 5:21-23.
21. submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22. Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. 23. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.
Now, I do not love this passage very much at all (or any of the other ones like it, for that matter). But I tried (maybe not hard enough?) to set aside my scepticism and listen with an open mind. I didn't switch off my mind entirely though.

Putting aside the content (a topic for another time, perhaps), the delivery of the sermon was, for me, a little alarming. The support for the opening verse came in the form of a metaphor. From this brief passage in Ephesians, the pastor asserted that the man of the house is like the coach of a team. He then proceeded to use verses from all over the bible to support the notion that the man of the house is like a coach. He calls the plays (Luke 7:8; 1 Corinthians 11:3), he teaches the team (Deuteronomy 11:18-19), he rallies for victory (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

While I may not hold the pastor's values or share his approach to biblical interpretation, let me make it clear that I do not doubt the sincerity of his good intentions. But the thing is, the initial metaphor--husband and father as coach/wife and kids as team--can't really be sustained that far from the initial passage. Furthermore, if you take away the overarching (and possibly misleading) metaphor of the coach, the relationship between most of these verses (except the one in 1 Cor.) is a bit muddy. Besides that, none of the verses were examined in the context of the passage where they were located (nevermind the book where they were located). And nobody said anything. I didn't say anything. The format of the Sunday morning service does not invite--does not permit--the congregation to say anything. I don't know if that's a responsible way to teach anymore.

Decades and decades ago, when a large portion of the congregation was illiterate, there really was no choice but to have one or more literate leaders to read and explain the bible to the Church. But that's just not the case anymore, and teaching methods and structures haven't kept up with that reality, from what I can see. Yes, one can join a small group (I'd highly recommend it!). And a large portion (though not all) of North Americans can read the bible and study it for themselves. But it seems that for many (if not most) people, the Sunday morning service is a primary--if not the primary--form of biblical education. Am I wrong?

We are all invited to question a sermon individually. I've often heard pastors say not to take their word alone for anything. That we should examine things for ourselves. And I have no doubt that most pastors ardently desire that from their congregation.  But the problem is, we don't really learn how to do that. Researching and studying, in my experience, are difficult skills to learn and develop. And learning about the bible for yourself requires a great deal of researching and studying.

So, how do we foster critical engagement with the Sunday service? It seems to me that either the format and structure of the Sunday morning service has to change, or its role as the primary source of learning needs to decline. Or maybe research and study skills need to be encouraged and taught more broadly and with more depth (and I'm talking for free--outside of postsecondary institutions). Heck, I wouldn't be opposed to all of those things happening simultaneously (and immediately). But that's just my opinion. What do you think?

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

And There's More

I'm sure it's not intentional, and I don't even think it's anyone's fault in particular. But it seems to me that Christian teaching (of the Sunday morning service and Christian Living book section variety) has kind of facilitated the oversimplification of God.

It makes perfect sense. The thing is, a sermon or a book is supposed to be focussed. Teachers and writers are taught to focus on one thing--to create a thesis statement or a learning outcome--and then organize all their information around that one thing.

So we have heaps of sermons and books that are wholly dedicated to one topic or one passage of scripture. And it's an effective way of teaching, because it facilitates learning. In order to process information, we need to organize it. Compartmentalizing helps us to retain information. Our minds are vast, but they are limited to how much they can digest at once and how much they can retain.

God, I believe, is far bigger than our intellectual capacity. He is bigger than mine, I know that for sure. So it helps to study one aspect of God at a time. But I think it also hinders, because we often keep those aspects separate. A handful of aspects resonate with us and we hold on to them ponder them (often one at a time) over and over again until we have what seems to be a fairly manageable concept of the divine. And we (if we are at all like me) forget to bring those aspects together all at once and to remind ourselves of all the other aspects of God that we don't think of often (He is jealous, He is just, He is Merciful all at once). And the God that we register in our minds--one aspect at a time--is kind of underwhelming.

It is crucial, I believe, to remember that God is bigger than our human minds--that he is beyond comprehension. In the book of Job, Job's friends gather, using their knowledge of God to admonish Job. Job answers them, defending himself, and revealing his own knowledge of God. This goes on for just over 35 chapters. They're intelligent men, all of them, and they have a lot of intelligent and reasonable things to say about God and life in general. Then God speaks up. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? He asks, in 38:4. He proceeds to ask a long series of humbling questions, revealing the both the limitations of human comprehension and the vastness of His own. Read it for yourself; it's really stunning.

God has given us teachers, but they are no substitute for communicating with him. Whatever we learn though our teachers and writers, it is imperative that we continually remind ourselves that there is more. I'm convinced that it is only through God that we can truly be overwhelmed by God--that we can catch a glimpse of his vastness. As soon as we try to communicate that vastness with one another, it is diminished by our limitations. I'm not saying we should stop learning together and from one another. There is incredible value in fellowship and in sharing our knowledge. But only God can overcome the limitations of language and learning to reveal something of His incomprehensible self.

So I would encourage you to remind yourself daily--if you don't already--that God knows more about God than anyone else. That all the learning in the world cannot substitute for hearing from God himself. Make time to seek Him and meditate on Him. Before you engage with the Word, ask him to be your teacher and to open your mind to the things you cannot comprehend on your own. And I'll try to do the same!