A few weeks ago I wrote about being stuck in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth for the duration of Epiphany. We’ve had at it in the little rural church I serve several times a month with the result that, as the congregation became more comfortable with Paul, they also became more willing to ask questions that they had always wondered about but, not wanting to look stupid or ill informed, they had never asked.
If, they asked, what I said was true, that Paul’s letter was written at about the same time that Mark’s gospel was being penned, then what gospel did he preach because he often says he preached it?
For that matter, when were the gospels written?
If Mark was written first, why is Matthew listed first?
Paul sometimes writes about ‘his’ gospel. Why isn’t there a gospel according to Paul?
You said that Luke was one of Paul’s followers, and you also said that Luke didn’t know Jesus and was not one of the disciples, so where did he get his information?
You said that Paul’s letter to the Romans is a later more mature rendering of Paul’s theology, so why does it come before 1st Corinthians?
What do you mean they’re not in chronological order? What order are they in?
That goes for the prophets too? What idiot made that decision?
How can other Christian traditions have books in a different order and even different books than our bible?
Back to Paul, this all things to all people stuff makes him sound like a chameleon. Who can trust what he says?
Yeah, he keeps contradicting himself!
We seminary educated clergy can too easily forget that these and other questions are constantly lingering in the minds of our parishioners, even if usually suppressed. They are lingering because they are the questions they’ve had since they were old enough to wonder. They are suppressed because they’ve been taught not to question the pastor out loud, in public, and because they’ve been taught that to question scripture is to question the authority of God, so it’s better just to sit on it.
I suspect that three conditions must be met for honest questions to rise to the surface. First, there must be a level of mutual trust that dumb or contentious questions can be raised without fear of humiliation. Second, there must be time and space made available for them to be asked. Third, there must be an honest invitation.
I don’t know; I don’t understand; That doesn’t make any sense: these are hard questions to ask, and only the brave are willing, usually prefaced with the obligatory, “this may be a dumb question but...” It’s not only a fear of being made to feel stupid, it’s also a fear of offending the clergy, the doctrines of the church and even God.
Memorizing a favorite bible passage is one thing. Reading the bible and being told what it means is one thing. Bible study with workbook questions is one thing. But wrestling with scripture, arguing with scripture, questioning scripture, well that’s another thing altogether. One role of pastor as teacher is to bring members of a congregation to the place where they can do that in a responsible way guided by well informed but not inerrant clergy.
Some months ago I sat in on a service in which the minister asked everyone to open their bibles to a certain place. Then he repeatedly urged them to underline a verse while he told them what it meant. I didn’t have my bible with me, something he made sure to notice with a disapproving look, but I looked on at the one my neighbor had. His was so underlined and highlighted that there was nothing left unmarked, yet he dutifully penciled in another line as the preacher harangued. He was satisfied. His job was to underline, maybe even to memorize. It was not his job to wrestle with the words, challenge them, let them “divide soul from spirit, joints from marrow.” It was sad. Would that he and others present had a better guide.
Well informed guiding is the key. We’ve been on adventures with a number of inspiring guides who have led us into bird havens, fern forests, reef dives, museum tours, deep canyons, and ancient cities. They don’t know everything, but they know what we have needed to open our eyes to new and deeper understanding. They walked with us, looked with us, waited for us, urged us on, and encouraged us to go farther than we ever would on our own. The best of them took the time to know us as individuals with stories of our own, and shared with us some of their story as well.
That’s what well informed guiding is about, and it’s what pastorally guiding a congregation ever deeper into scripture is all about. It’s about sharing the journey with them, using all one’s knowledge to guide with confidence, willing to admit the limits of one’s own knowledge, rejoicing in one’s own new discoveries, and leading onward with faith toward a goal always just beyond reach. It’s about knowing them and their stories, and sharing something of our own with them.
Small group settings are where that kind of guiding can happen. It isn’t possible to do it from the pulpit. Sermons, at least in larger congregations, can offer little more than words to incite questions and stimulate hunger for more. But what if small groups are not offered? How frustrating it must be to have one’s spiritual appetite ignited with no hope of food ever being served. Maybe that’s why many Christians are satisfied with a few jokes and some warm words in one church, and prurient recitations of sin sprinkled with threats of hell in another. Both are easily forgotten and neither promises more than they can deliver.