Sunday, April 14, 2013

It's God's Story, Not Mine!

As a child, I never missed Sunday School. I wasn't allowed to.  My parents got me to church before "Big Church" (what I called the regular service) in plenty of time for Sunday School with the rest of the little Baptist boys and girls. If church started at 10 a.m., Sunday School was from 9-10.  It usually involved a Bible lesson, an arts and crafts project, singing (with or without guitar/piano depending on the talent of the teacher) and a snack.  I enjoyed all four activities, but mainly the last one. As for the Bible lesson, I think these were the lesson plans of most of my Sunday School teachers:

  1. Spend several minutes telling kids to be quiet. Remind them Jesus is watching them.Take a deep breath as they simmer down under Jesus' watchful eye.
  2. Open Bible to today's passage.
  3. Ask the kids to open their Bibles. Give a disapproving look to the kids who forgot their Bibles (except the new kids and the Catholics.)
  4. Read ________(Passage of Scripture). Use the King James Version. It sounds more official than the NIV.
  5. Talk about what the passage means to you as a 30/40 something year old. Confuse kids.  (If you have flannel graph, prop or a picture, now is a good time to use it.  At least make it interesting!)
  6. Ask kids what the passage means to them. Be patient with blank stares. Call on Suzie to answer as usual.
  7. Ask kids "How can we apply this passage to our lives?" Be patient again. Ignore Suzie's hand in the air. Rephrase question. ("What does this mean to you?") Give up and call on Suzie again.
  8. Lead the class in prayer.  Include a line about how we all will apply today's lesson at home, at school, in Big Church, with our non-Christian neighbors, and last but not least--everywhere.  
  9. Dismiss class. Ignore the cheers.
  10. Scrape glue from the tables and vacuum glitter off the floor. Ask Susie if she wants to take her Popsicle stick replica of the Sistine chapel home.

I am discovering in my own study of the Bible, in my own "Sunday Home-School" if you will...and in reading the works of various other people of the faith -- Dare I say it?
God bless 'em. Their intentions are good. They mean well. They are the wives, widows, young college students, retirees, stay at home Moms of the world who want kids to know about Jesus. They pour hours and hours of their heart and soul and often their own money for glue and Goldfish crackers into every lesson.  They pick up countless scraps of colored construction paper, wipe snotty noses, pat backs and encourage little ones in the faith. They pin up pictures of Jesus knocking at the door of your heart and they take down holiday creche displays after the 3 Little Wisemen have taken off their crowns and headed to the bathroom. They have to deal with "Suzie Know-It-All" and "Boistrous Billy" all the while keeping their Christ-like poise and patience.
I respect and admire them.
I had lots of them and was one myself for awhile. And I fell into the same trap --Where did I do wrong?
I took everything I read in the Bible and made it ALL ABOUT ME.
What is Jesus saying to ME?
How does the story of Moses and the burning bush apply to ME?
Jesus rose from the dead.  What does that mean for ME?
Would I have the courage of Daniel in the lions den?
What about Joseph?  See how he fled from sexual immorality?  Look what happened to David when he didn't? What does that mean is going to happen to ME if I don't?

In other words, I study the Bible to see how I could fit it into my life. I need God's story to be MY story.  And as I study it for myself now years later, I discover that it is not MY story. It is God's story. The Bible tells me about God - who He is, what He did and how He reaches all of His creation, how He will and does redeem it, how He loves it.  Man is in the Bible, but man is not the focus of the Bible. In fact, as far as I can tell, we couldn't even know God, let alone respond to Him without help from God. (Read the two chapters of the book of Ephesians to start.)

So what does it mean to read the Bible as God's story, not mine?  It doesn't mean that I am an inconsequential part of the story. It just means the focus isn't on me or mankind. When I read, I am not reading myself into the Bible, into every passage.  I am reading the Bible to find God, not myself.  And in finding God, in learning about Him through the stories and words of the Israelites, the prophets, the life of Christ and the early Christians like Paul, I find my place.
And my place is secondary.
I am not in the lion's den, in the belly of the whale or in the crowd at the trial of Jesus. I am not a disciple. When I put myself in those places to try to see how those stories or lessons relate to me, I am missing the point.  Why not just read the story and ask, "What does this tell me about the story of God? What does this story reveal to me about God?  Who is He?  What is He like?  When Daniel, Noah, and Pilate acted a certain way, how did God respond?  What does this say about Him?
THEN, WHEN I UNDERSTAND GOD, when I see that it is HIS story, I can see where I fit in.
But I don't think I should start with me. That feels a little bit like putting the cart before the horse. (Or the chariot?)
My job is to RESPOND to God's story. If God is________(patient, loving, righteous, just, long suffering, etc.) how do I respond?  Possible responses include:  thankfulness, repentance, relief, service.

Let's use the story of Moses parting the Red Sea as an example. (Exodus 14) Read the Story Here
The usual personal extrapolation of this story is that I should obey God, trust God and when I do he will do miraculous things. If I come to a tough time in my life, I should raise my staff (a symbol of asking for God's help) and God will part the troubled sea of my life so I can walk through on dry ground to better times.
All about me.
Here's another story that I re-read recently and is probably the reason I wrote this blog entry:
Jesus clears the temple of the money-changers and animal sellers (John 2:13-22) (Read the Story Here)  I remember this story from Sunday School.  The lesson from the story was usually that we should not turn God's house into a marketplace.  Another lesson I often heard for this one was that it was OK to be angry if you were angry about the right things (righteous anger). My 3rd grade Sunday School teacher would say something like this -- "See even Jesus gets mad sometimes! But he was mad at the right things, not just mad because he didn't get his way."
Hold on a minute.  Why was Jesus mad?
Because the temple looked like the Pasadena Swap Meet?
In my 3rd grade mind I could not imagine why anyone would want to sell animals in the church foyer and what in the world is a money-changer anyway?  Is that like the people at the airport who take your dollar and give you 20,000 pesos? What are they doing in the temple?
"Never mind, kids. The point is that you need to know that it is not right to turn church into anything but church. You need to be reverent, quiet, focused on God when you are in church, never loud or boisterous, except when you are angry in a righteous kind of way, but if possible, don't do that in Sunday School, save that for when your parents are around."
As it turns out Jesus wasn't mad simply because the temple had been turned into a noisy, bird poop covered flea market. He was mad because of the injustice and dishonesty going on there--the social injustice being done in the name of religion.
Every Jew over the age of 19 had to pay a temple tax. The tax helped keep the temple going. The money changers were there because you could only use "special coins" (shekels) to pay your temple tax. You brought your ordinary silver coins from home and had to trade them in for the "proper" coins. And if you had a full shekel, you had to turn your coinage into the exact 1/2 shekel tax amount. As you can imagine, this cost you some coin.  So, you might bring ten common coins and in trade, you would get 8 special coins, then you got to break one of those coins down into half shekels. This is going to cost you. Guess who keeps the 2 coins? Guess who keeps a little for himself to break your coin in half? Yup, you guessed it. The IRS. Uh, I mean the temple money-changers.
And as for the animals in the temple?  They were there because you not only needed special coins to pay your temple tax, you needed a special animal for your temple sacrifice. Here's how it worked. You would bring a bird from home and the animal vendors in the Temple would flip him around, lift his wings, stare into his eyes and declare him unfit for sacrificing. You would need to purchase a different bird.  A perfect, spotless bird.  Here, how about this one? Good ol' Polly here is ready to go. Perfect for killing. Problem is - she is 10 bucks more than any bird you could easily find just down the street in the bird district or at Birds R Us. But you're here. You don't want to have to go back outside, get on your camel, fight through the traffic and go get another bird.  Plus, you figure no matter what bird you manage to find in some discount store, no matter how perfect you think Tweetie is, they are not going to accept it. So you plop down the extra ten bucks for your fine feathered friend and move on. (At least when this type of gouging happens at the movie theater, you can eat the overpriced popcorn. You can gorge after you have been gouged. Polly is just going to get her head lopped off, but at least you will be cleansed for another year.)
Understand why Jesus was mad now?  Me, too.  But it took reading the story behind the story to understand. I didn't try to read myself into it.  I just read it.  I didn't try to make a quick lesson out of it for my life, pray and then get ready for "Big Church." But the story did teach me a lot even though I wasn't in it.  The story tells me about Jesus - about God. He is righteous. He is fair. He hates exploitation. Whoa. I need to find a perfect bird.  Oh, wait no I don't because He sent the perfect LAMB, Jesus, to take care of all that.  Back to YOUR story God!  Thank you!  I love your story God!

It is natural to make God's story all about me. We do this with every story we hear and Bible stories are no different.  If someone tells us about their Aunt is struggling with cancer, we immediately think about someone we love who is struggling or who was lost to the disease.  If someone at work complains about a dangerous intersection in town, we immediately think of the last time we drove through it and if we had the same experience. We look at the vacation photos of others and think how much we would like to go there, or if the place looks like a barren wasteland, we think "not for me." If our neighbor describes a problem with their teenager and we have a teenager, we immediately chime in with our recommendations based on our experience. It always comes back to me. What I think. What I know. It is human nature to be this way.  Try this experiment:  See if you can go one whole day without talking about yourself.  If someone brings up a topic or subject, resist the urge to turn the conversation to you.  Ask a question. Keep the focus on them.  You will soon see, as I have, that it is very difficult to keep the focus on someone else.
And the same thing happens in Sunday School. Only this time the story is more profound than my last family trip to Yosemite. The story is about God. The story continues today--God is still speaking, still working, and I am a part of the story because I am his child, but it is not all about me. It is all about God. Every story.  Every Sunday. In Big Church and in Sunday School. That is one heck of a lesson.
Is it snack time?

-Hope Horner, 2013
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