Tag Archives: hospitality

Remembering How to Read the Bible

15th century image of St. Benedict of Nursia. Courtesy WIkipedia.
15th century image of St. Benedict of Nursia. Courtesy WIkipedia.

An isolated reader of Scripture is as dangerous as a self-taught surgeon.  One of the presenting conceits of contemporary Christianity is that the isolated interpreter has become normative.  Few things are deadlier to Christian truth than exegesis stifled by personal idolatries and hidden prejudices. Princeton Seminary’s C. Clifton Black suggests, as a cure to such (mis)reading, bringing the saints alongside us as we explore “the strange new world” we call Scripture.  He takes a cue from Benedictine spirituality and encourages reading the Bible with both hospitality (welcoming strangers) and humility.

If you’ve never experienced Benedictine hospitality, you’re missing out.  Following the lead of both the Bible and the Rule of St. Benedict, this vision of hospitality recognizes that in welcoming the stranger, we welcome Christ himself.  This delightfully informs our reading of Scripture, for if we meet angels unawares when welcoming guests, might the Spirit also speak to us about the truth of Scripture from voices we would otherwise ignore or neglect?  Thus, Black concludes:

“If like-mindedness is our overt or tacit criterion for interpreting Scripture in community, then we shouldn’t be surprised to hear only echoes of our own biases while learning little. Does the theologically liberal reader shield herself from scholarship more conservative? Does the neo-orthodox read nothing of the liberationist? For as long as members of the three Abrahamic faiths read their Scriptures only within conventicles, ignorance and mistrust are bound to proliferate. None of us holds  the truth in Scripture by the ears, and none of us ever shall. Hospitable interpreters seek help in understanding Scripture wherever they can find it. ” (58)

An openness to others’ thoughts naturally tends toward taking our own ideas less seriously.  The resulting – or at least correlative – humility is also a great aid to the exegete who desires her reading to be not only accurate or insightful but also an act of worship.  Humility is a monastic virtue that is foreign even to many Christian ears today.  Readers of Scripture, lay or clergy, novice or doctorate-wielding, would do well to remember the distance between our thoughts and God’s thoughts – and treat our interpretation of the text accordingly.  Again, Black is insightful:

“Because we are frail creatures and not our own Creator, we beware of mistaking our own voice for God’s alien word.  We discipline ourselves to listen more keenly, assuming our ignorance and not our knowledge. We resist a constant temptation to control other interpreters and to manipulate other voices – including those within Scripture itself. When the Lord sounds just like us – when Scripture can no longer surprise or disturb or offend us – we should be very, very afraid: it’s likely we’ve locked ourselves in an echo chamber. And if, God help us, we are entrusted with teaching others about Scripture, we should remember that we too much someday give an account of what we have said and done (Jas 3:1).”

The world has seen enough of proud,  isolated, and eccentric readings of the Bible.  What is needed today, for the renewal of the Church and her witness, is followers of Jesus who are able to read the holy writ well.  A humble and hospitable approach to the sacra pagina holds great promise, for personal study and discipleship but especially for community worship, witness, and discernment.  After all, the Bible is the book of the church, and reading it wisely means reading in a way that does not create a scandal  or shipwreck with our neighbors in the Body of Christ.

Benedictine vespers, from a monastery in New Jersey. Photo Credit: John Stephen Dwyer.
Benedictine vespers, from a monastery in New Jersey. Photo Credit: John Stephen Dwyer.

Humility and hospitality don’t cover everything, but I believe they would certainly go a long way towards renewing our encounter with the God’s word, which is, “living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.” (Hebrews 4:12, CEB)  Such a gift from the Triune God’s treasury will not be opened to hearts ill-disposed to the humility and hospitality which mark a disciple of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word from all virtue and wisdom flows.

What do you think? What other virtues are needed to read the Bible well? Are there downsides to these?

 

Source: Black, C. Clifton, Reading Scripture With the Saints (Eugene: Cascade Books 2014).

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Generous Spaciousness [Review]

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“This book has never been about trying to convince you of a particular position on the matter of committed same-sex relationships.”

-Wendy VanderWall-Gritter

It is no secret that the church is consumed by debates about sexuality.  Further, it is widely known that Christians are often no better at debating sexuality than Congress is at crafting budgets, approving nominees, or making laws.  The sexuality debate, which demands our best resources, often brings out the lesser angels of our nature.

It is in that context that I greatly appreciate Wendy VanderWall-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness.  While it possesses some flaws, it is a valuable contribution to a dialogue that is too often as shallow as it is vitriolic.  Much of this has to do with the author’s own background.

VanderWall-Gritter spent many years in what is called the “Ex-Gay Movement,” a loose association of evangelical Christian parachurch organizations that sought to minister to gays and lesbians, though often in ways that were more de-humanizing than caring.  Probably the best known of such organizations is the now defunct Exodus International, an umbrella organization notorious for its affiliates’  attempts to re-orient gay and lesbians persons.  The author began her ministry following seminary in this kind of environs, but over time began to question some basic tenets.  She eventually changed her approach, and that of the ministry (New Directions Canada) she led.

Relationship is central to her ministry, and to the approach of Generous Spaciousness.  Thus VanderWall-Gritter is at her best here when sharing the experiences and stories gleaned over a career in ministry with gay and lesbian Christians.  Many of them are gut-wrenching.  She is also not afraid to discuss taboo areas of this debate, such as reorientation (“praying away the gay” in common parlance), the hypocrisy of conservative Christians who are disgusted by LGBT sexuality but repeatedly fail to live up to their own standards, and the varied views within the gay Christian community itself (which is often taken to be, or presented as, monolithic).  She has stories to tell of gay Christians who choose celibacy, and gay Christians who live partnered, and still others who agonize over their sexuality for whole lifetimes.  For those of us – like myself – who have a dearth of experience with same-sex attracted Christians, Generous Spaciousness contains a wealth of anecdotes and personal accounts.

Indeed, this would have been a better book if the author focused on stories, which play to her experience, and set aside matters out of her depth – such as exegesis.  This would have been a stronger work if it were about 75 pages shorter, shorn of some material that was simply not interesting or outside the range of the author’s expertise.  The chapter on Scripture is especially stultifying, and I was immensely frustrated at the butchered reference to the (unnamed and, yes, so-called) Wesleyan Quadrilateral in the chapter on interpretation, which made all the classic errors one is not supposed to make using that particular hermeneutic lens.

Nevertheless, if the strengths and the weaknesses played see-saw, the weaknesses would remain far up in the sky.  I especially resonate with VanderWall-Gritter’s desire to adjust what she calls the “posture” of those who participate in this conversation.  In most corners of the church, postures about sexuality are rigid, set, and borderline hostile (regardless of which end of the conservative-progressive spectrum one identifies with).  But Generous Spaciousness calls us to a different, caritas-shaped posture, one built on respect for the other, for their story, and for our shared need for and love of Jesus Christ.

The quote above, taken from the concluding pages, is especially instructive.  While VanderWall-Gritter certainly has her own views and the book leans in a certain way, it doesn’t read like the usual echo-chamber propaganda.  Instead, it represents what is for her a very personal journey, some of which may be familiar to her readers and some not.  But who else has written a book on this white-hot topic without trying to convince the reader of a particular answer?

If this is book is widely read, as I believe it should be, then I believe the church can move a long way towards a better posture regarding her LGBT children, and a better discussion along the way.  Sexuality is a complex and powerful reality, and confronting it demands our best efforts and resources.  Generous Spaciousness is one such resource.  I’ll let some of the author’s concluding words finish this review:

“I believe it to be crucial that…we focus our hearts on Christ, on his desire that a unified church would be a witness to the world of his reconciling love, and on being the extension of that love to all our neighbors. I believe that hospitality is central to the heart and ministry of Jesus and that to the extent we fail to extend this hospitality to gay people, the church will fail to walk in the way of Jesus.”

“A School for the Lord’s Service:” 6 Lessons from a week with the Benedictines

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An elderly monk-priest enters the sanctuary to prepare for one of the many prayer services of the day. Personal photo.

I spent last week at Belmont Abbey outside of Charlotte, N.C.  I was warmly treated by the Benedictine brothers who live and work at the Abbey, which is on the campus of a small Catholic college.  While the purpose of the week was to study and plan sermons for the upcoming year, I also enjoyed the rich prayer and worship practices of the Benedictine life and learned  much during my all-too-brief time with the community.  Here are a few of my takeaways from the week, along with some pertinent reflections from Benedict himself.  I would be interested to hear your own experiences with monastic and/or retreat communities as well, and discover what insights others have gained in such contexts.

1) Community is a blessing

Monastic life is built on the principle that the Christian life is a community experience.  As John Wesley – sometimes compared to Benedict – said, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”  In their daily prayers, the monks remembered their brothers who had most recently died.  Portraits of deceased Abbots (leaders of monastic communities) adorned the hallways.  They know that a personal search for the face of God is inextricable from a community dedicated to the same.  After all, these dedicated men possess a timeless social network; not one built on clicks, pixels, and limited to 140 characters at a go, but flesh-and-blood brotherhood established by a communal effort at what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction” over time.

2) Community is difficult

The only way to live a life without annoyances might be to leave human interaction all together.  This, of course, would not be without its own problems.  But the point remains that community is a discipline, and one that is sometimes more task than gift.  After just a few days I found myself picking out which brothers annoyed me during prayer times.  This one constantly rubbed his face; that one seemed to always be sneezing and snorting; another appeared to be giving me the stink eye from across the chancel; and WHY did the fellow behind me have have the LOUDEST ticking watch in all of Christendom?? (You get the idea.)

Last week I had to face, once more, that I can be a  rather petty creature.   I suspect I am not alone.  That tells me that we shouldn’t be too triumphalist about community, because human sinfulness affects even the most well-intentioned persons and reaches into the holiest places.  Community – any community, religious in orientation or not – is a challenge because it is always made up of flawed creatures.

3) Reverence is a rare treasure

Something that continually struck me last week, because of its ubiquity in the monastery,  was the absence of something significant in my life: reverence.  Awe.  Rudolph Otto called this sense the “numinous,” that deep intuition that something greater, something worthy of our highest adoration, is both accessible and yet not fully within one’s grasp.  I appreciate the incarnational nature of so much of today’s Protestant worship.  God is our true joy and our friend, and we should celebrate that with gladness.  But I fear we have sometimes so embraced these aspects in our shared worship that the transcendence of God, the holy Otherness of the “I AM” who gives life to Israel and the Church, gets lost.   We need reverence as much, if not more so, than we need comfort.  In his instructions to his Order, known as  the Rule, Benedict says,

“When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station, 
we do not presume to do so 
except with humility and reverence. 
How much the more, then, 
are complete humility and pure devotion necessary 
in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe!” 

4) Hospitality is a beautiful spiritual gift

UMC Bishop Robert Schnase has reminded us that one of key practices of a fruitful congregation is “radical hospitality.”  The Benedictines who welcomed me this week embody this virtue in a truly gracious way.  The Rule of Benedict, again, says:

“If a pilgrim monastic coming from a distant region 
wants to live as a guest of the monastery,
let her be received for as long a time as she desires, 
provided she…does not disturb the monastery by superfluous demands, but is simply content with what she finds.”

I especially appreciated the gifts of hospitality shared by the Guest Master, Br. Edward, and his assistant, Br. Emmanuel.  They were exceptional hosts, doing everything from eating with me, to making sure I knew how to follow along in the worship services, to simply making me feel welcome.  As I prepared to leave, Br. Edward took me in the chapel to offer a prayer for me.  He then told me how blessed they were to welcome me, and how much he loved his role in the monastery because, “God has brought you to us, and now, after you leave, I get to welcome two more Christs today.”  He is so shaped by the gospel call to see Christ in the stranger, that he refers to the guests in his charge as “Christs.”  What a humbling gift, and a saintly heart.

5) Obedience and freedom are connected

Because of certain things happening in my own tribe at present, I was curious to ask the monks how discipline works among them.  I inquired about how things are handled if a brother fails to live up to their obligations by, say, skipping prayers, being constantly late, or shirking their duties in some other way.  The reply was pretty simple: the Abbot gets involved and, if needed, so does the Bishop.  Eventually, if a monk is recalcitrant and refuses correction, he can be released from his vows and asked to leave and thus  avoid, as one brother put it, “harming the whole community.”

The Prologue to Benedict’s Rule reads, in part,

“And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.

But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity
for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity,
do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation,
whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14).”

Obedience and true freedom, order and charity, ultimately hang together.  Every healthy organism – and a community is an organism – has boundaries.  Though asserting such an interrelationship is anathema to the cult of “authenticity” and “self-actualization,” it is nevertheless true.  Obedience without grace devolves to legalism, and love without some sense of order will self-destruct under the weight of its own incoherence.

6) Silence is holy

Continuing in the theme of “things the 21st century has forgotten,” I will end with some thoughts on silence.  The Benedictines with whom I shared this week cherish the power of silence.  They know that cultivating the Spirit of charity requires space to listen, pray, and reflect.  This community kept silence from after dinner though lauds (the 2nd prayer service of the day, following vigils and breakfast).  The worship services themselves contain intentional silences, as well.

In the chapter on maintaining silence after compline, Benedict says,

“Monastics ought to be zealous for silence at all times,
but especially during the hours of the night.”

I confess am too often fearful of silence; I love “background” noise, whether from CNN, or Pandora, or some other source of distraction.  My week with the brothers helped me better appreciate how impoverished this cacophonous existence of ours – so full as it is of iPhones, tablets, and Beats headphones – really is.  After all, sometimes God is in the silence (1 Kings 19:11-12).

Concluding thoughts

This experience was a great blessing, both in terms of my vocation (I had a truly fruitful week) and my own spiritual walk.  I will certainly return to be among these simple, devoted men again.  They have much to teach the Body of Christ and, indeed, the whole human community.

Benedict concludes his Rule by indicating that his text deals with only the “rudiments” of the virtuous life, the bulk of which is found in the Fathers of the Church and, especially, the Old and New Testaments:

“Whoever you are, therefore, 
who are hastening to the heavenly homeland, 
fulfill with the help of Christ 
this minimum Rule which we have written for beginners; 
and then at length under God’s protection 
you will attain to the loftier heights of doctrine and virtue 
which we have mentioned above.”