It seems to me that one of the cornerstones of Judeo-Christian philosophy is to remember the stories. I’m more than three-quarters of the way through the Bible (I’m stretching my One Year Bible plan across two years) and that’s really all it is: story after story of human’s relations with God. Friends have picked up this methodology in a big way. Our primary religious education is the journals elders have been asked to write to recount the trials and prophetic openings of a life lived in an attempt at spiritual obedience.
There must be a purpose to this constant story review, some way it deepens our own spiritual lives. One gift it gives to me is perspective. I was just taking an evening bath and found myself getting upset about a particular situation from my past and stopped to pick up my One Year Bible. The Old Testament readings for most of Tenth Month come from Jeremiah. Here’s a bit of God’s instructions to the prophet:
“Tell them all this, but do not expect them to listen. Shout out your warnings but do not expect them to respond. Say to them, ‘This is the nation whose people will not obey the Lord their God and who refuse to be taught. Truth has vanished from among them; it is no longer heard on their lips.’” (Jer 7:27)
“Jeremiah, say to the people, ‘This is what the Lord says: When people fall down, don’t they get up again? When they discover they’re on the wrong road, don’t they turn back? Then why do these people stay on their self-destructive path? Why do the people of Jerusalem refuse to turn back? They cling tightly to their lies and will not turn around.’” (Jer 8:4)
Here we are, Sixth Century B.C., and the spiritual state of God’s people is in a terrible state. It makes my aggrievements look petty. And maybe that’s the point. The relationship between God and His people have been in a rollar coaster ride for millennia. Sure, Jesus’ new covenant brought about a lot of changes but didn’t end hypocrisy or faithlessness. Protestants can point to the reformation and Friends to the new people gathered by George Fox but both movements long ago floundered on the shoals of human weakness. History hasn’t stopped. The trials of the spiritual don’t stop. We don’t get a free ride of spiritual ease just because we’re on the current edge of human history.
As early Friends were aware, a spiritual life still requires lifting of the cross. It’s easy to let disappointments lead to despair, and to retreat into the many temptations of the modern world has at ready supply. In that state it’s easy to put off worrying about our duties to our fellow humans, to life on earth and to God. Every once in a while I’ll get whiny about something and my dear wife will say “get over it and do what you need to do already.” We’ve remembered the story of Jeremiah for 2500 years for the same reason: “you think you’ve got it bad, you’re not being decimated and enslaved in Babylon!” Perspective.
* * *
I’m still thinking about one of the conversations I had the other week at Vineland Mennonite Church–about the difference between theology and Biblicism. I like theology and I like learning about the context of Bible stories I read. I enjoy hearing new theories about old paradoxes (for example, Martin Luther King’s take on the story of the Good Samaritan fascinates me in part because it reminds me that the story is set on a real road and is intended as a story about real people making difficult choices). But I’m also aware that it’s easy to spend so much time reading and talking about the commentary that I forget to read the original stories themselves. If stories are religious ed, then we have to remember to actually read the stories. Sometimes when I stumble on the cool blogs of the cleverest ministers I wonder if they stop to actually read the stories. So much energy seems to be expended on making up new words and giving messages of easy hope. I can’t see Jeremiah joining them at the local church brew pub fest to hoist a Rolling Rock. The current New Testament reading in the One Year Bible is Paul’s letter to the Colossian, which includes this gem:
Don’t let anyone capture you (Colossians) with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ.
I’m sure George Fox hooted in joy when he read that line! The stories remind us that all is not well and that all will not be well. Temptations still nips at our best intentions. The greatest temptation is self-reliance. Our test as individuals and as a people will be demonstrated by how we patiently and faithfully we bear the hardships we encounter and keep our trust in the risen Christ.