Horrock's Pass, Wilmington 2016

Wondering How to Read John

I always have to struggle about how to read John before I can work on a passage for preaching. Here is the struggle for this week.

Years ago I visited two badly frightened uni students. Doors were opening and closing in their house, utensils were swinging on the kitchen hooks, and they had determined that no one was winding them up. There was no one there, but things were moving. All their friends and family were laughing at them.

We said the prayers, and the phenomena stopped. There was a profound healing of the situation. That is what happened.  How it happened, what the mechanisms were which caused the phenomena, and which caused them to stop, remains a mystery.

I think we are far too ready to state our often unverifiable hypotheses of how something has happened as being ‘the facts of the matter.’

We do this in theology, whether it be in the writing of books, or whether it be in personal testimony in church gatherings. I’ve never been able to shake the sense that when it comes to church, we are making a lot of it  up.

D’Arcy Wood, who lectured me in theology, once said he felt people in his Youth Groups shaped their testimony, and remodelled their experiences to fit the way everyone else was talking about things. We do the same with scripture. Either, by forcing our interpretation over the words and squashing the meaning of the author into the corset of our own situation, or by subtly changing the events of our experience; we highlight some things and ignore others, for example, so that we fit the norm.  

My colleague Greg Crawford said recently, “we can [not] really hear a book of the Bible addressing us until we first realise it is not addressing us." I began to write that we ignore this insight; in fact, I think we mostly don’t even realise the truth of what he is saying. We assume it addresses us!

16:2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 

There is absolutely nothing in my life that can understand this experience.

True, I have friends who were  beaten up by the Taliban, and others who were beaten in Iran for not being Muslim, and fled for their lives.

And it’s true that I stood up and shouted out against evil in a community meeting many years ago. And yes, 400 people started shouting and screaming back; I sometimes tell the story saying it was like I could hear the spears rattling!  But in truth, my tribal mother caught my eye across the grass, put her finger to her lips and shook her head. She sat listening to the ruckus, and at just the right moment nodded to me to stand and speak. The place went silent, and I stumbled through a few ill prepared, not very coherent comments. I had been more surprised than scared, and it was all over in ten minutes.

Did the Spirit give me words to say? I don’t know. But I’m certain my experience of “persecution” is not what John was talking about, and that I dishonour the martyrs by drawing a comparison. I know only a glimpse of the experience of my refugee friends; it is not my experience.

My wife and I were ‘rolled’ by a parish. It was terribly destructive; echoes of that experience are still around twenty years later. But we also had people on our side, people who found us a place to live, and income. Although it took me twelve months to regain some health, it seems nothing like the facing of death.

What was notable in that experience was the lack of glory and power that we so often read into John, or into the experiences of imprisoned disciples in Acts. The Spirit was silent. My experience was of a few faithful friends who found us a house and a job, who stood by me as I wandered hopeless and useless around the streets of the suburb, good for nothing, and who visited me when I was sick, and who helped my wife survive me.

It took 12 months of drugs and false starts, before I had any real energy and confidence. Mostly what I gained was confidence to leave parish ministry! It took me nearly a decade to come back. And I still have to take the tablets.

I have been richly blessed through those 20 years. I have gained some wisdom. I think I can sometimes preach with authority. But I do not have the experience of John, or of Luke. (Luke 12:11-12)

Sometimes I find startling words to speak as I am preaching. But this is to friends, not before the courts, and those words come after much preparation. It’s not what John and Luke describe.

I have new truth and understanding, but it comes from hard work, persistence, and just living life. The Spirit has not guided me into all truth. Whatever John meant by that, the statement does not work in our culture and with our understanding of truth, hypothesis,  perception, and knowledge.

All I can say is that as the people of John persisted in their struggles—enormous struggles I thank God I do not face—they survived. They were able to hand down their scripture and their witness that God does not leave us alone.

As I have persisted in my very different struggles, I too have survived, and have something to share. But drawing neat connecting lines between my experience and the experience of John does harm to us both.

If the Spirit of Truth is to guide me into all the truth then I need to listen to the experience of walking down a freeway bound by a cliff rather than a footpath, in the dark and the rush hour. Or of being run over by a truck. John does not understand these things; they did not exist.

“All truth” comes from the honest listening of what happens to me, not forcing my experience to conform to what I think some other person meant, or pretending I know their experience.

Then, maybe, I can read John, struggle with him, and sometimes think, “Mmm... I think I get that feeling about God, too.”

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical! 

Trevor 22-05-2012
I wonder why so many good church-going folk seem reluctant to accept mystery. Is it because of our reformed church's embrace of logic, rationalism - a consequence of modernism perhaps? What's wrong with a bit of mystery every now and again?
Andrew Prior 22-05-2012
Well, at the risk of being facetious, ministers hate it for two reasons. To begin with, they are supposed to have the answers and mysteries are short on answers. It's hard to answer people's questions, or "be the one who knows," when you face a mystery. Secondly, ministers suspect a lot of mystery is really a cover up for dodgy theology or for getting one's own way. And... we often want to get our own way. Materialists and Physicalists don't like mystery because it's not supposed to exist. I think we are sometimes infected with part of their disease, which is that we want to own ourselves and be our own God. Mystery contradicts that. We also don't like mystery, because genuine mystery can be very, very scary, if not dangerous. It's a good reason to stay away from spiritual practice which is not well accepted as good and healthy by a religion which is hallowed by time and practice. (Also, the johnny-come-latelys will empty your wallet, even if they don't have cool-aid.) It is not for nothing that we say it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. Aslan is not a tame Lion. Some mysteries are to be left on the other side of the fence, albeit appreciated for the beauty they may shine on life. When we try to explain them (away) or deny them, I think they slide out of our grasp and disappear so that we are left with nothing. Or maybe disease we need never have brought upon ourselves given proper reverence.
Kathy Donley 23-05-2012
Andrew, There's lots of depth here, really good thoughts. I am sorry to hear of your experience of being 'rolled' by a church. I'm not sure exactly what that means in Aussie speak, but it doesn't sound good. And if it took you 12 months to recover and to some extent, you're still recovering, I wouldn't minimize it. It might well be akin to the facing of death. I had an experience with a church that took me a year (and more) to recover from. Part of my experience included depression that led to thoughts of suicide and death. I am grateful for your writings and what they had to my life. Thank you for sharing so personally.
Andrew Prior 23-05-2012
Yes, know about the suicide stuff. I wrote about the experience from the depression angle here: http://onemansweb.org/men-s-business/depression.html
Janet 24-05-2012
Wow, Andrew, I really liked what you had to say here. Especially this, perhaps: D’Arcy Wood, who lectured me in theology, once said he felt people in his Youth Groups shaped their testimony, and remodelled their experiences to fit the way everyone else was talking about things. We do the same with scripture. Either, by forcing our interpretation over the words and squashing the meaning of the author into the corset of our own situation, or by subtly changing the events of our experience; we highlight some things and ignore others, for example, so that we fit the norm. Yes, I think we do this; I know I've experienced it many times. And while you detail your own experiences as NOT being like those of John, our experiences can NEVER be like that. I, most probably, can';t have the same experience as you--even if we were together in Australia. Our past experiences would, to some degree, color how we experienced our new experience. So what do we do? Initially, I think, we "mimic." We read someone else's "take" and figure it sounds pretty good and so we use it. We are almost fearful of venturing into new territory. How dare we think we can have some new, original thought when others more brilliant or more scholarly have been discussing these same texts for over 1500 years? So, what's the option? Do we just continue mimicking? Maybe that's why so many folks use stories from today instead of addressing the text: maybe we simply can't and so we avoid it. Maybe it's a reason to consider that the Bible was an incredible collection of writings but that they simply don't pertain to today. Oh, I suppose some jottings do: "Neither life nor death, nor angels nor principalities, etc." might bridge the gap of millennia. But stories of healing, of tongues of flame, of walking on water? Do we really think we can relate to many of those stories through our 21st century eyes? I'm not sure I can ever relate to John. There may have been a time I could--to some degree--when I had "absorbed" the idea that Jesus = God. But if I no longer believe that, I can't relate to him, no matter how I try. We are simply in parallel but never-touching universes. Sorry I have rambled. But you touched a chord. Janet
Andrew 24-05-2012
Let me ramble back, Janet! I remember us feeling that when we had exegeted a passage in class, that we somehow destroyed its power. I think what we were discovering was some of what you are describing, Janet. We exposed our distance from the text. We very clearly laid out what we could understand about the intentions of the author, and, if we were alert, we realised we were laying out an even larger blank area where we had no idea what was going on. I suspect that the process often showed us that our preconceived or pre-critical notions of what the text said, were incorrect, or at best, only partially true. It’s deflating and depressing to keep finding that what we held dear was a misconception. Where I have ended up after this experiences, is with the understanding that Jeremiah, say, had an experience of the living God which he understood imperfectly, and could only partially communicate anyway, even to his peers. He writes his experience, and essentially invites others to make a connection with their own experience. Some of them say, “Yes! That matches what I feel!” And sometimes, when we read Jeremiah, we say the same. “Yes... that’s the God I know.” Out of this recognition we get energy and encouragement to go on. Sometimes we find direction; we are able to more wisely discern issues we are facing. So I agree with Kathy in her email that we can “Absolutely... find some point of connection between our lives and the Bible.” I also think most of Jeremiah’s book, like much of this email, is words I forget. Some parts of it may “stick,” and become foundational for me, but most of it remains Jeremiah’s experience. I will never understand some of it. This approach forces me to say that if Jeremiah has only a partial understanding of the Living God, then sometimes he might be wrong, and I might have a better understanding of an issue! Or, at least, perhaps his apprehension of the situation does not quite “fit” with the situation in which I live. So I have to find stories that connect his experiences to mine. When I preach these, I should be inviting my congregation to enter into the “Andrew-Jeremiah" story. Some will, some won’t. Some of the congregation will be vignerons or olive growers and shine more light on the story for me. It’s a very different approach to finding a connection between God’s Word and us, than the old paradigm which said, “The text means this:....” And as you said, “How dare we think we can have some new, original thought when others more brilliant or more scholarly have been discussing these same texts for over 1500 years?” That feeling can paralyse our creativity and deafen us to the touch of God. I feel the weight of “How dare we think.....” but I also wonder if we do not perhaps over rate what we are doing in a sermon. After church we have tea and coffee at Greenacres. The building of the people of God happens there, as much as in the sanctuary. People chat, talk about needs, work out how to help each other, even come to significant decisions about directions for the congregation and for their own lives. I’m wondering if preaching is not really the same process of conversation and entry into each other’s stories, except that we are being a little bit more focussed and intentional. People don’t make cracks about who’s eating too many chocolate biscuits during the sermon. When I look at it this way, even though I am specifically tasked with the preaching, and take it very seriously, it removes some of the pressure. I am not saying “the be all and end all” on Sunday, but being one more part of an ongoing conversation. I relate to wilderness and agricultural imagery. I don’t relate so well to the mystical imagery of John. “Them’s the breaks.” Although we may say privately “I'm not sure I can ever relate to John,” our parish expects us to. The old paradigm expects I will relate to John as well as I relate to the parable of the sower; for example. I am supposed to be the one who knows. And because I relate rather well to the story of the sower, being a farmer, they expect even more of me from John! In the conversational model of preaching, perhaps this does not matter so much. I have written three posts for the lectionary this week, and received a number of comments on the pages and in emails. Most of them relate this post, which has to do with not understanding John, which the old paradigm says means I am failing at the task! The conversation has spilled over into phone conversations. Here and there, sometimes in unlikely places, we gain a little insight into the kingdom and being people of God. What more could we ask?! We paused in an Old Testament lecture when someone asked what the point of all this exegesis was, given that it so often seemed to take the life out of the passage. The lecturer, Dr. Charles Biggs, suggested that exegesis was only half the task. Now we had to imagine how the purposes of the writer, that we thought we had discovered, might apply today in our situation, and try to get that message across. He waxed lyrical on this point, as they say, and I complimented him at the time. It was a life changing moment for me. Suddenly, “I got it!” I tried to thank him again, years later. He has no memory of the incident! In our little conversations, bits stick for different people, and bless them, even when we have no idea! Andrew

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