For Sept. 11,2016
Numbers 35:22-28, Romans 12:2, Ephesians 4:1-16
Bizarre. So many bits from the Old Testament, like this Numbers piece, are full of ancient weirdness that can leave us feeling like the Bible is irrelevant. Our times, our culture, our ideas are all so different from what we read in Numbers. This idea of a "city of refuge"for innocent perpetrators of accidental deaths doesn't make sense in Canada, a lawful society and a culture of individualism Before we dismiss a passage like this, however, we need to remember that our situation and truth isn't the whole story of God's people.
We have so much to learn from our African brothers and sisters. Some of the stories I've heard from our South Sudanese brothers and sisters make me look at the Old Testament in a fresh way. South Sudan, in many ways, is a lawless place. Years of war and struggle have destroyed both physical and social structures. Corruption is rampant. People have to rely on their families, friends, and the church. because everything else has failed. Sudan is a multi-cultural country, with over 65 distinct (if I remember correctly) tribes. Tribal connections are hugely important, individualism doesn't function there like it does in Canada. This tribalism and heavy reliance on family connections for social security is much closer to the culture of the Old Testament than anything I've ever experienced in Canada. Feuds and blood-debt, like that mentioned in Numbers, still happen. They understand what the Old Testament is talking about because they've got stories of revenge killings. of retribution, of having to defend/run for their lives. Because of their backgrounds, they can read Numbers 35 and see the grace and newness that is offered. They understand this stuff deeply. That there is an option other than revenge. That there is a limit (the length of the priest's life) to how long a blood-debt is valid, that there is a starting place for ending feuds that are otherwise endless, there is a community decision making that could preclude family feuds. There is mercy that takes the place of revenge without ignoring the harm that was done. These things are good news. They are needed.
In many places in the world, these ancient texts don't feel old. Perhaps we need our Sudanese brothers and sisters to do the preaching on these so that we can gain in understanding, so they can make these pieces fresh to us. I think they have a lot to teach/remind us about when it comes to thinking as a community instead of as a bunch of self-interested individuals.
Romans 12:2 tells us to "not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your minds..." It's clear in Numbers that some renewing is happening, that fresh ways of thinking and acting are coming into practice. These ways of limiting harm and ending feuds are obviously beneficial to all the tribes.
So, in what ways might we in today's society and church need some new structures and ways of doing things? Who are our innocents who need places of refuge and limits to punishment? How can we discover communal ways to be refuge to those who are hurting?
I see some clues in Ephesians 4. Here the writer emphasizes the need for unity and reminds the church that the gifts held by various individuals are there for the purpose of building the whole, not for individual gain or fame.
This week I've been wondering about renewal for the church in our society. There are those of us who still cling to and value the "traditional" church structure. I mostly love the church I grew up in, it's structures, it's programs, it's regularity and dependability. It does, however, have problems too, and some of those have to be addressed, they have to speak into today's situations with refuge and healing. For me it feels like perhaps our old ways are not going to work for much longer. In post-Christendom, the church "ship" has downsized to a boat, and then a canoe, and now I wonder if we are sitting on a raft. A raft is kind of fun for awhile, but is pretty useless for navigating rough water or long distances. At least we have the raft right now, but what happens if it sinks? Does everyone have to swim only relying on their own power? How do we do things together? How do we use gifts for building the whole if the whole is completely scattered?
Many young adults don't attend church anymore (across all denominations). It's not that they don't value their faith, many have a strong faith. It's not that they don't value the church, many speak highly of growing up in the church and they return to it for their weddings, or to speak to a pastor when they have a crisis, or to check-in at Christmas. They want the church to remain, they just don't want to do all the administration and grunt work and politics that seem to accompany institutionalized faith. I don't blame them for that, however, how do we keep the connections, and ministry, and all the good stuff going?
The first generation to leave, (but still value and lean on), the church isn't the one that worries me much. They grew up in community and have that solid foundation that they fondly remember and draw on when needed. What about their children? How is their faith going to be shaped and expressed? Is faith of the future even more about individualism than it is at present? Is there some renewing of understanding or changing of ways that could get people excited again?
I don't think our traditional way of doing church has to be the answer, although it's hard for me to think of what might replace it because it's the way I have experienced a vibrant faith life. What renewing might be happening? What gifts might other cultures, old stories, and new ideas offer?