April 24, 2013

IYMC Midyear Meeting 2013: The Bible In Our Midst

20-21 Fourth Month 2013

During my years among Friends, I often have shied away from topics that are explicitly Bible-focused or Christ-centered, given my Jewish upbringing and the more recent baggage I have accumulated about how "right-wing Christians" have co-opted Christianity in recent years.

But it has been Conservative and Conservative-leaning Friends whose comfort with Scripture--and how they use it to guide or affirm their spiritual lives--that has made me curious to understand more deeply why they value the Bible as much as they do.

A few months ago, I saw that Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)'s Midyear Meeting session was going to focus on the Bible. Then when I saw that the session's usual three-segment format was going to break the topic into "The Bible among Friends," "What the Bible has to say about sin," and "What the Bible has to say about love," I felt my heart soften, and Way seemed to open for me to attend.

The evening before the Midyear session was to begin, I joined a group of local Friends and a few early arrivals for supper at a nearby restaurant. Some of these Friends I've known now for six or seven years, and their kindness, friendship, and spiritual hospitality is something I treasure.

At the meal was also the presenter for the sessions, Doug Bennett, past president of Earlham College. First things first, I greeted my friends with warm hugs, broad smiles, and hearty handshakes. Then I looked over to Doug, and introduced myself. He smiled when he heard my name: "Are you the Liz Opp who blogs?!" he asked excitedly. I was humbled to think that after such a long lapse of my own activity online, my name and blog are still recognized by some beyond my local Quaker community...

And when I said that a presentation on the Bible was not something I ever would have thought I would attend, Doug chuckled and nodded, adding that it wasn't a presentation he ever would have thought he would give!

I settled in that night with a good feeling, being among these fFriends again.

Opening questions

On Seventh Day, Doug started off addressing the gathered Friends by saying he was no scholar or expert about Scripture; that he had little or no knowledge of ancient Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew; that he didn't have a clear understanding of just what he was to share over the course of the weekend, so he would be taking some of his cues from us.

His humility seemed genuine, and I appreciated that. I saw a few other Friends nodding in appreciation, too.

In each of the segments of his presentation that I was able to attend--I was with the children during the final one on First Day morning--Doug began by sharing some of his own thoughts, then allowed Friends to ask questions, make observations, and otherwise add to the discussion. Doug closed the first two parts by asking Friends to write on an index card one or two "honest sentences" in response to a question he posed. I include those questions below.

(Overall, I'd say Doug raised more questions than he offered clear answers.)

Questions from Part 1: The Bible among Friends

Should we think of the Bible as having authority among us? Why or why not?

How should we make use of this important Book?

To what extent do we as Friends talk with one another about Scripture; or if we don't, why not?

What does the Inward Light have to do with the Bible?

Doug didn't just give us questions to consider, he also shared with us some of his own thoughts that he's wrestled with or wondered about:
Since the New Testament wasn't available all the time, what parts of Scripture did folks wrestle with way back then?

The issues of slavery, the role of women in the Church, and homosexuality [sic*] are part of this book's unpleasant history that we need to be honest about. The Bible has been the source of division, wars, and religious schisms.

The Bible can pull us apart, so why do we need the Bible if there's an indwelling of the Spirit?

Doug answered that last question by offering us this:
Because it's the best source for learning about Jesus that we have. And because the Hebrew Scriptures are the only source that Jesus considers and uses as teaching texts.

Part 2: What does the Bible have to say about sin?

Doug started us off by reading some of the things that Friends wrote down regarding the authority of Scripture, and then began Part 2 by offering this:

There is a reciprocal relationship (my word) between the concept that "The Light Within helps me make sense of Scripture" and the concept that "Scripture helps me make sense of the Light Within."

Doug also suggested that Friends generally are more tolerant about our views on the authority of Scripture than we are about how sin is defined and what behaviors are considered to be sins. He suggested we only have to look at recent developments within Indiana Yearly Meeting and the issue of homosexuality [sic].

We then reviewed together a few of the "lists of sins" that are enumerated in the Bible, such as Exodus 20, Proverbs 6:16-19, Galatians 5:19-21, and Galatians 3:5-6.

During the discussion portion of that part, a respected Friend stood and offered a story of an interaction he had had with a rabbi quite some time ago. The rabbi pointed out that Exodus 20 itself isn't about enumerating sins against God: it's about how to live in community. By telling the truth; by honoring our parents; by not killing or stealing...

On a related note about Exodus 20, for my time with the children at Midyear Meeting, I was preparing to tell them the Godly Play story that's based on how God gave the Ten Commandments to the people. It's a story called The Ten Best Ways To Live.

These are the questions that Doug lifted up, for Part 2: What does the Bible have to say about sin?
What makes something a sin?

Should we rely on the lists of sins that are in the Bible? Or are there some general characteristics of sins that help make sense of why they are sins?

Does the Bible tell us all we need to know about sin?

Since I wasn't present for the final section, I am offering here what was on Doug's handout, and then will wrap up with additional remarks and thoughts I was able to capture.

Part 3: Scripture references and questions on What does the Bible have to say about Love?

Matthew 22:34-40
1 Corinthians 13

What does loving your God "with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" have to do with loving your neighbor as yourself"?

How do we know that "loving your neighbor as yourself" means in specific circumstances? Should we always do what our neighbor wants us to do? If not, what makes an act loving?

Does the Bible tell us all we need to know about love?

Other remarks

Earlier in the weekend, Doug spoke on a long tangent about the nature of divine inspiration. He ultimately asked--and this is my Most Meager Attempt To Paraphrase--"Is that which inspired a beloved Friend of mine who offered precious vocal ministry the same thing which inspired people to write long ago what is now known as Scripture? Did such inspired writing emerge from a community gathered in worship?"

Our experience with the Bible today is that it was already codified into a whole, into a "closed book," which we received without question and without understanding that it arose out of a context of community... There are layers of inspiration out of which the Bible emerges, but the initial power of divine inspiration that was available back then simply isn't believed to be available today.

...To which I say: Friends don't believe this! Doug and I (and other Friends) seem to unite with the belief that the original inspiration of the Bible--the Living Spirit--is still available to us today.

Doug brought up an important excerpt from Robert Barclay's third proposition of his Apology, reminding us not to mistake Scripture as the Source; that Scripture only points to the Source; that the Spirit is the primary rule of faith.

Doug compared the Bible to "starter yeast" for Friends: It helps connect us back to the original inspiration, the inspiration of the Divine.

Doug also ties in Woolman and his ministry and witness to abolish slavery. "Woolman doesn't argue with the existing verses in Scripture that were used to justify enslaving human beings," Doug offers. "Instead, Woolman looks for a deeper message of Providence that would point to how slavery wasn't Gospel Order."

Hmmm, yes: much of our work for social change in which we rail against religiously conservative brothers and sisters who rely on individual verses of Scripture will hear from us the larger arc, narrative, and theme of the Bible, lifting up concepts like love, redemption, liberation, and reconciliation.

To close this blog post, I'm including below what I wrote and submitted on the index cards in response to the questions Doug asked:

From Part 1, about the Bible among Friends:
Q. Should we think of the Bible as having authority among us? How should we make use of it?

My A. The Bible has authority for me when someone with whom I have a meaningful relationship tells me how the Bible--or a part of it--has spoken to her or his condition. It's a relational authority, not a creedal one.

From Part 2, about what the Bible says about sin:
Q. What makes something a sin?

My A. Anything that breaks a relationship--with God, with oneself, with another person, with a community (or with the earth--added later)... especially after a person/individual tells us that our "good intentions" are harmful or are part of a harmful system and we don't look at it critically from that person's perspective, or we don't change our behavior, knowing it is causing harm.


*In 2011, I stopped using the word "homosexuality." To me, that word is loaded with history of a time when members of the dominant group regularly pathologized and stigmatized an oppressed minority group of people.