“Born again, again,” by Bob Melone, Chapter 3, part 3 of 3

21 04 2016

When I say that my reading of the Bible has changed over the years, I in no way mean that I read Scripture with any less intensity or integrity! In fact, reading Scripture has never brought me closer to God than it does today! And that is because few things continue to speak truth into the life of the Church and the world like Christianity’s holy writ. In spite of its historical inaccuracies, flawed theological arguments, and blatant racist, sexist, and homophobic passages, the Bible still has much to say to the world today. Like so many pieces of literature, it can be misread and misunderstood so as to justify all kinds of evil and injustice; but at its core it offers the Christian community a beautiful history of how many people of faith have understood God over the past 3000 years. Further, I would contend it even offers many outside of the Christian faith a great deal of wisdom, that when applied to one’s life, can greatly enhance one’s health, relationships, and appreciation of the world in which we live.

The Bible’s call to be good stewards of creation and to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, has the power to positively inform the trajectory of human growth and development; and Jesus’ call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked has the capacity to transform creation to better reflect the best and brightest side of the human spirit. Scripture’s challenge to love . . . unconditionally; to rejoice . . . in all situations; and to forgive . . . again and again and again, is good council for anyone seeking to live a healthy life; and the command to love our enemies, as well as to speak truth to power, both have the capacity to bring balance to our lives and peace to our world.

But here’s the thing: God didn’t just speak 2000 years ago. God speaks today as well. God didn’t just inspire 2000 years ago. God inspires today! And the practical and theological implications of such beliefs are extremely transformative. The Pentecost event is not a historical event from the first century. It is a story communicating an important reality, that being the unifying presence God and power of God’s people; for the movement of the Holy Spirit is both a historical, AND a contemporary experience, that always has and always will have a profound impact on the Body of Christ.

This means that while we value and treasure the ancient texts of Scripture, for few works have survived the test of time as they have, we also acknowledge and seek new revelations of the holy, remembering that God is still inspiring people to write, preach, produce, and create in a variety of ways that edifie and build up the human family. The words and works of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Mother Theresa, and Maya Angelou are important vessels in which one finds ‘the Word of God’ and we must continually watch for all that God is seeking to do in the world today.

And this work is being carried out through people . . . inspired people! And they are inspired NOT because something or someone spoke into their ears; but because they are so in touch with the beauty that exists in the universe, and with the beauty that can be found in the human heart, that it explodes all over the pages of their lives! Somehow, in ways we will never fully understand, they are able to capture and translate certain aspects of that beauty with paint and brush, note and harmony, pen and word. And the result is a piece of art, music, or poetry that is nothing short of holy – a human product indeed, but profoundly and wholly, sacred! We might even dare to call it God’s living word!

Further, this means that we hold past inspirations, whatever they might be, very gingerly and gently. We can never be rigid in our understanding and interpretation of such holy inspirations, particularly inspired texts. For just as Bible passages were copied and recopied, time and time again, so that they might be passed down from generation to generation and shared with others throughout the ages, the meaning of all inspiration will at times be misunderstood, agenda’s will invariably change, and context will shift and adjust with time. You see, God less about supernaturally preserving stories from yesterday, and more about writing a new reality for tomorrow. God is less interested in protecting fables that have been passed down from our parents, and grandparents; and rather, more interested in growing fresh ways of living to be shared with our children, and our children’s children.

God is speaking all the time, and in all kinds of ways. Holy words come to us through the Bible, as well as through the holy writ of a variety of religious traditions; and divine inspiration did not cease with the writing of Christian Scripture, but continues to be poured out upon humanity. To say God’s Word is living and active, implies and certain degree of movement to it and in it. Statis is not an option; at least not an option for the living. Because – to borrow the language of Spanish philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno – God is more interested in being the parent of the future, than the offspring of the past. And the living Word of God is more about shaping a new vision for tomorrow, than recapturing an idolized vision of yesterday.

“Born again, again,” by Bob Melone, Chapter 3, part 2 of 3

19 04 2016

In the spring of 1983 I was baptized in the Holy Spirit – whatever that means! I don’t want to minimize peoples’ personal experiences of the holy, but sometimes emotional experiences need to be named and regarded for what they are . . . emotional experiences! Not all “God” experiences are emotional; and what I learned in 1983 was that not all emotional experiences are “God” experiences.

After Dallas Holm called me to ‘come unto Jesus’ when I was in high school, many people began telling me that there was a second important step in my journey toward God. Not only did I need to invite Jesus into my heart, but there was also a ‘second blessing’ that needed to occur – the Baptism of the Holy Spirit! And so began my second search! I longed to be ‘slain in the spirit’ and ‘baptized from above’, so that I might speak in other tongues and know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I truly was part of the family of God.

Fortunately, in college, I had a dear friend who was on a similar journey, and while we both were striving to seek after God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, this baptism never came. At least we weren’t aware that it had! The outward sign of speaking in an unknown language was not an experience that had come our way. All we could manage was the little bit of French and Spanish we had learned in high school, and we knew that didn’t count! But we weren’t about to give up; and the end to our searching came in a way that we had not planned!

In an attempt to convert all the Jews at The American University, my friend and I decided that we need to bring Sid Roth to campus. Sid is a ‘completed Jew’ who continues to live in the DC area, and to this day is still preaching and evangelizing, primarily through a Christian talk show titled “It’s supernatural.” (Please know that many of the ‘terms’ I am using, like ‘completed Jew,’ are not my own; but rather ones passed on to me by others. I continue to use them here so that readers might be able to identify the parts of my journey that are similar to their own. And . . .ok . . . I’ll admit it . . . I also continue to use them to be a little sarcastic!)

Anyway, Sid Roth came, and spoke to a gathering of not more than 2 dozen students, most of whom had already been ‘saved.’ There were no Jewish people present to accept Jesus as their Messiah, and Sid knew this. As a result, he was ‘led’ to modify his talk; and because my friend and I were struggling with the Baptism of the Spirit (we had told him this ahead of time!), that was the direction in which he believed God was leading him to move. So rather than a call to conversion, Sid’s call was to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Once again, as far as I can remember, no one went forward . . . except for my friend and me! When invited to come and to receive God’s second blessing, we were on our feet in a minute . . . waiting . . . wanting . . . wishing . . . for God’s touch, one that would finally confirm that we had done everything we needed to do to be on the good side of eternity.

Trying not to laugh – this had always been a problem for me, but should in no way lead anyone to believe that I didn’t take what I was doing seriously! – my friend and I stood before Sid, listening to his words of ‘wisdom.’

“Just open your mouth, move your tongue around, and let the sounds come out!”

So . . . that’s what I did!

And that’s what I did for several years after that event!

And friends, that is all it was – opening my mouth, moving my tongue around, and letting the sounds come out!

I know these words will be offensive to some, but sometimes ‘religious experiences’ need to simply be named for what they are . . . nonsense! People may be extremely sincerely, and the event may be extremely emotional. But spiritual? Not so much!

When a mother tells the world that God told her to drive her mini-van into a lake and take the lives of her children, we are quick to say that such a mother is NOT hearing the voice of God, but rather the voice of something inside of her that is simply not right. Many would even say that she is mentally ill.

And when a man tells us that the God he worships and serves has called him to fly a plane into a building in order to murder the infidels inside that building, the world is quick to say that any god that would demand such action is simply not a god worthy of anyone’s worship! The man is devout, and passionate, but also tragically and horrifically misled.

Extreme examples? Not fair comparisons to something as personal, and private, and personally edifying as the gift of tongues? Perhaps. But the differences can only be found in terms of their consequences. Having spent most of my high school, college, and seminary years in Charismatic and Pentecost circles, I know first-hand how theologically and intellectually flawed their teachings really are, and have come to believe that sometimes, some religions just need to be called out and labeled for what they are – emotional crutches; run by misled, albeit sometimes well-intentioned, charlatans; that may at times accomplish much good, but that never the less are rooted and grounded in teachings that are factually wrong, and spiritually misguided!

HOWEVER, having said that, in spite of my criticism of, and negativity toward, so many of the teachings of Pentecostal and Charismatic communities, the one thing I willingly and enthusiastically embrace is the whole idea that the Spirit of God is indeed living and active in the hearts and minds of people today. I don’t think that movement is evidenced by speaking in unknown tongues, nor is it made manifest in prophetic predictions of future events, nor is it witnessed in the miraculous finding of a parking space in a crowded Walmart parking lot. But if God is indeed God, and if the Church of Jesus Christ really is the resurrected ‘body of Christ’ in the world today, then the Holy Spirit must be working and moving in the world around us – today, just as powerfully, and in the past!

All of this is to say that for hundreds of years, the Church has been under the mistaken notion that the Spirit of God ceased speaking after the words of Scripture were written. But I can no longer logically advocate for such a teaching! The Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches rightly speak of the Spirit’s movement in the world today; and while they may be misguided in their understanding of how that Spirit works, THAT the Spirit works, must be realized! For the work of informing, and revealing, and disclosing, and instructing . . . these are the ongoing works of the Spirit; and to think such activities ended once the Bible was complied, grossly thwarts the development of a mature understanding of God and God’s actions, in the world today.

“Born again, again,” by Bob Melone, Chapter 3, part 1 of 3

3 04 2016

As I reflect on my spiritual journey, my understanding of prayer and original sin are only two of the concepts that have been . . . born again, again . . . over the years. Because much of what I believe and how I attempt to live my life are rooted and grounded in the Bible, and because the Hebrew and Christian Testaments remain foundational to my faith, I am unable to speak about the changes in my walk with God without also speaking about the changes in the way I read and interpret the Bible.

Several years ago my wife and visited the National Gallery in Washington, DC for a Rembrandt exhibit; and his piece, “The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel,” painted in 1661, had a powerful impact on me. The evangelist is seated in thoughtful repose, while apparently listening to the voice of a curly blonde haired woman who looks as if she is seductively speaking into this right ear.

Really? I remember thinking! Is this how it happened? Because somehow, the visual image of what I had been taught for years, seemed grossly simplistic and naïve.

Rembrandt’s work prompted me to consider how many artists, musicians, and writers I believe to have been “inspired” by God – meaning that they were able to capture accurately, although incompletely, some facet of the character and nature of the Divine in their work. Somehow, their paintings, music, or poetry offered us a glimpse into the beauty of holiness – that which is at that same time both transcendent and immanent. They were able to give witness through their work, to that which is beyond us, and inspired to transport us to a place where we might have an experience of God. And that is what Scripture does – it points us to the Divine. It is a human account of how the faith community has understood God to be working in the world, and thus has the capacity to move us to consider God’s ways in the world in every day and age. The words and phrases are not in and of themselves sacred, or holy, but rather they point us toward that which IS sacred, and holy.

And this is where the “Doctrine of Inspiration” is so often misunderstood. It’s where the phrase ‘inspired word of God’ becomes somewhat problematic. You see the Doctrine of Inspiration is meant to affirm that the authors and editors of the Bible were inspired by God, NOT the actual words that they wrote and edited! And the difference is important; for God, however understood, does not inspire things. God inspires people! God did not inspire the work that is found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; God inspired Michelangelo to create such a masterpiece. God did not inspire “Ode to Joy”; God inspired Beethoven to write his classic 9th symphony. And God did not inspire “Hamlet”; rather, God inspired Shakespeare to pen the story of the fictional Prince of Denmark.

Now when the Church realizes that God inspires people and not things, it becomes easier to grasp the idea that Scripture is a product of the culture it which it was written. Evidence abounds that the Bible was written and assembled NOT by individuals (Moses, Matthew, or Paul) but by groups of people, with agendas, and cultural biases, and limited scientific medical and knowledge. This is why the book of Genesis speaks of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son — NOT because God would ever play that kind of game with a father, but because that is was the people practicing Canaanite religions understood faithfulness. The writers were products of their culture, and so the point of that passage is NOT that we need to be willing to sacrifice our children to God, but that that is NOT what faithfulness to God is all about. The point of the passage is that sometimes, peoples’ religion may call us to things that are in fact far from God, and so we need to be discerning as to what we embrace as faithfulness and obedience.

And when the book of Joshua speaks about the sun standing still, and the moon stopping in the heavens, it is revealing itself to be a book bound to a culture with an incomplete understanding of science. Similarly, when speaking about dietary regulations, demon possession, or homosexuality, it should be clear to any honest and informed interpreter that the Bible that such passages were penned in an age when knowledge of issues related to health, mental illness, and sexuality were extremely limited.

Further, the discrepancies that are found in Scripture are also evidence that the Word was never meant to be read literally! Bart Ehrman, in his book “Misquoting Jesus” writes, “Mark says Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal was eaten (Mark 14:12; 15:25) and John says he died the day before it was eaten (John 19:14) . . . Luke indicates in his account of Jesus’ birth that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth just over a month after they had come to Bethlehem, whereas Matthew indicates they instead fled to Egypt (Matt. 2:19-22) . . . Or when Paul says that after he converted on the way to Damascus he did not go to Jerusalem to see those who were aposted before him (Gal. 1:16-17), whereas the book of Acts says that that was the first thing he did after leaving Damascus (Acts 9:26).”

To Biblical Literalists these issues, and countess others, are extremely problematic, posing questions for which they have no answers. But when we read the Bible through a slightly different lens, such contradictions are simply unimportant. We all have different ways of telling stories, and more often than not the meaning is not found in the minute details.

All of this is to say that for me, my ‘born again, again’ experience has been one that has helped me find Scripture’s deeper meaning; for that is what can occur when we learn to let go of reading God’s word as a scientific textbook , a manual for daily living, or an ‘inerrant’ historical account of things that happened thousands of years ago. Genres do exist: history, poetry, letters . . . but like any good pieces of literature, we hold to the factual nature of the words loosely and gently.

God did not give us the Bible. People did! And it needs to be read accordingly.