Friday, August 28, 2009

Texts and Contexts

Mrs. Morris drilled us in the multiplication tables, morning after morning, one hour per day, right after spelling. I hated it but I have never forgotten them either, at least not up through the tens. For me, it seems, rote is often the most effective form of instruction.

And so I remember, too, how my college and seminary professors were incessant in one particular insistence: “there are texts, and there are contexts.” It is a lesson I teach my own students in turn. Why? A Bible verse, or episode, ripped from its context may seem to teach one thing when, in returned to its nest, it presents a different meaning altogether.

Remember that time the disciples were in the boat? Matthew tells us that they are far from shore. A squall erupts. The boat is getting swamped. They are terrified. Then Jesus comes to them, walking on the water. “Do not be afraid,” he says. “It is I.” Simon Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, let me come to you.” Most sermons I have ever read or heard dealing with this story use Peter’s leaving the boat as an example of unsustained faith: he started out well but lost it. “Give me a church full of damp Christians!” I heard one preacher say. Uh, no.

“If it is you…”? If? Jesus has just given them a word of command and comfort: “Do not be afraid. It is I.” Peter, in effect, says, “Prove it. Prove it by a miracle. Prove who you are and prove it by me.” There is no faith there at all. In fact, in the greater context of Matthew, Peter sounds very much like the Tempter in chapter four: “If you are the Son of God, prove it: command these stones to be made bread.” Context reinterprets our thinking.

Likewise Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” A guy I know keeps a poster with that verse in his garage, just above his free weights. It helps him, he says, when he is trying to push himself to lift more or do more reps. It is a strong verse, he says, and taken out of context he is exactly right. No surprise then when Christians remind themselves one way or the other that they are to be strong, victorious, “overcomers.”

Indeed there are many “strong” images in the Bible. Christian schools love to take them as nicknames: Lions, Eagles, Crusaders, even (though that is not properly biblical). But remember the greater context! For every strong image there are other images: “dove” and “lamb” come to mind. Does any school take those for athletic inspiration? “Go Lambs! Go Doves!”

Even that “victorious” image on my friend’s poster, in context, is as much about weakness as strength, as much about losing as winning. Paul is writing from prison, after all, and says just one verse before, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want, I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Winning or losing, in strength or weakness, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health—I can do all those things in the context of Christ’s strength.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Is it too late, at 54...

to learn something significant about one's self?

Last week I wrote about the dread diagnosis we received, the awful prognosis for our English Bulldog, Chester. The whole thing has hooked me very deeply, more than I might have imagined. In the last couple of days I think I have stumbled onto why--which is to say, why beyond the obvious.

Of course people get attached to their pets--and Chester has been a singular joy for us. Of course people grieve when their pets suffer or die--they are, in very real ways, members of the family. And at a metaphorical level, some of our love for pets may come from the ways in which our pets counter all the the shearing forces, the atomizing and centrifugal effects, of economics and class and race. Even the powers and principalities cannot sabotage unqualified and unmerited love. We love our dogs, and they love us, and that whether we are rich or educated or whatever.

But for me I think it is something even more. Or less.

I began thinking about it this way: next week I am to be a resource person for young ministers in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. They are using one of my books, Every Disciples Journey, as a foundation for their discussion of vocation and the ministerial life. The book attempts to plot the life of Jesus according to the seasons of the Christian Year (sometimes known as the Temporal Cycle), and also the seasons of our own life and ministry as we see them interpreted in and by the life of Jesus. One of the questions the facilitators are going to ask is this: in what season of the Christian Year are you most at home?

My own answer is "Lent." I answer without thinking. But in reflecting on that I realize that Lent is the season of impending death. Shadows gather and death is a certainty: only the timing is in question.

And then I remember: Dad had his first bad heart attack when I was seven. The certainty of death came to live with us after that, sat in the corner of every room--like a grouchy old uncle who did not speak and did not have to: his disapproval was evident and it was only a matter of time. I came of age learning how to live in the valley of the shadow of death, learned to walk and talk under the glare of that grouchy old uncle.

I wonder if I have not created situations in my life to replicate that reality--the prospect of demise, whether of marriage or ministry--so that I would know what to do. Maybe I need that certainty to know how to go about a day, or a life. I do not know what it is like to live apart from death--it is a kind of mistress in my every relationship, personal and professional, demanding more and more attention, more and more energy, more and more of my resources, until she will have me at last.

Chester's death is certain. As is the death of any of the rest of us. He may yet outlive me, of course, but probably not. But the point is this: I think that this particular valley, the shadow of his death, has helped me to see my life in a different light, so to speak. It is not a pleasant place to be--and especially when folk think I am being silly, me a grown man and all, blubbering about my sick dog--but it is familiar. Age has little to do with anything, given that the only real difference between me at 54 and me at 7 is years.

And I suspect Chester's sickness has given me, or will give me, a bit of tonic as I try, keep trying, to understand my own various emotional malignancies, and what I might do to try to begin to get a little bit stronger, a little bit better.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Chester and Me

On Wednesday we found out that our beloved bulldog, Chester, has a very bad bladder cancer. The doctor is saying he has six months at most, which is to say that we have six months at most to enjoy and celebrate him. He has been a most wonderful pet, an important member of our family, a singular joy to us in so many ways. Some days he was all we could agree on. He has tended us when we were sick, brightened our darkest days, and we will do our best to return the grace.

We are all very, very sad. Jacob, our son, had to hear the news alone.

Those of you who have had "sp's," significant pets, know how heart-rending such news and loss is.

The good news is that Chester does not act right now as if he feels all that bad. We are giving him all the Bojangle's biscuits he wants, and plan to keep on doing so for as long as he will eat them.

It is a grace to love something so much that it hurts so much to lose it. It is hell all the same to know that we will soon be without him.