Cultural Filters

I was on Twitter the other day and a quick post from someone I don’t even know hit home. It dealt with how often my interpretation and understanding of the bible – and everything else for that matter – is learned from my environment, culture, and involuntary biases.

The comment dealt with this passage in John 4:

A Samaritan woman came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” … So the Samaritan woman said to him, “How can you—a Jew—ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water to drink?” …

Jesus answered her, “If you had known the gift of God and who it is who said to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” “Sir,” the woman said to him, “you have no bucket and the well is deep; where then do you get this living water? …

Jesus replied, “Everyone who drinks some of this water will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again, but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” He said to her, “Go call your husband and come back here.” The woman replied, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “Right you are when you said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the man you are living with now is not your husband. This you said truthfully!”

We all know that passage, but the comment that made me stop and think was this — we have been so conditioned by our culture to read this a certain way that there is no way we would EVER consider that the five husbands left her.

We read this and presume automatically that she is a women with loose morals. This despite the fact that in this time and culture, only a man could divorce his wife; and one of the most frequent reasons was due to infertility.

So, even when the cultural evidence relevant to the text would suggest that she is very likely the victim and at the lowest levels of society, our interpretation of the text has consistently blamed her for her loss.

Interesting and thought-provoking. Where else might I be bringing my own assumptions to a situation and not seeing things for what they really are?

Selective Reading

I was reading Psalm 15 today as part of the weekly readings at our church and it got me thinking about how we like to pick and choose what the bible has to say to us.

Here’s the Psalm:

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

Now, most the time when we hear this Psalm used, it is simply the first couple of lines;

O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right

That is fine, but it is also incomplete. The Psalm goes on to list a lot of things that define those “who may abide” in God’s tent or “dwell on” his holy hill.

  • speak the truth
  • do not make false or damaging statements about people (“slander”)
  • do no evil to their friends
  • take up disappointment or disapproval of their neighbours (“reproach”)
  • despise “the wicked” and honour people who “fear the Lord”
  • keep their promises even when it hurts them personally to do so
  • do not gain interest when lending money
  • do not take bribes to mistreat people who are innocent

That is a pretty impressive list … and also one that each and every one of us fail at every single day. While many days we may not knowingly make a false statement about someone, we frequently make damaging statements. We also are very often disappointed or disapprove of our “neighbours” – if you don’t think you do, remember the question asked of Jesus, “But, who is my neighbour?”.

Even if we don’t do that very often, we would definitely struggle with keeping a promise when it personally hurts us, and lending money in order to obtain interest is at the very centre of our economy; it’s how the stock market, our retirement savings, and even daily banking and investment works.

The bible is not a simple series of pithy statements that we can spout off to order our lives. The bible is to be wrestled with. It constantly challenges us and moves us in ways we are not expecting. It disturbs the life of people who feel “in control” and offers a “solid rock” to people who feel pulled under by the waves of chaos.

It can do all this things at once and will never let you think you have it figured out or have a “manual” for a Godly life. It’s not a book that can be tamed because it tells the story of a God who refuses to be tamed or reduced to series of statements.

The bible is wild and disruptive.

And whenever it doesn’t seem to be disrupting my life, all I need to do is read a bit more …

It’s Just Business

My recent adventure in “light-reading” has been on the theme of Capitalism and our profit-oriented economy.

I’ll be upfront from the start of this post — I don’t really have anything to say yet; but I have some things to think about and that is always the first step for me.

Let’s start at the point of contention I have with the way our economy works: our economic system is built around the concept of “making profit” rather than ensuring the financial security of all citizens (or at least as many as possible). Businesses exist to earn profits for those who own the business. Those profits may (or may not) then be reinvested in the business in an attempt to earn even more profit.

So, the first issue I am grappling with is the concept of profit itself. Profit is waste! Profit is something that has no real value to a society. It has value to a very small percentage of a society, but it does not benefit a community, a region, a country, or its people.

Profit can be reinvested, but is only ever done so with the hopes of earning more “waste”. Profit is, by its very definition, what is left over when everything has been paid for. It is “more than is needed” for the operation of a business.

A company can earn a lot of this “waste” (profit) and still not meet the expectations of its owners and so “lays off” real people in an effort to reduce costs and therefore earn more profit. The quickest way to increase profitability is to reduce staffing costs … so real people are hurt in the pursuit of profit.

That’s my first issue, but if you’re ever interested in light reading, you’ll find that this issue is at the very heart of our economy.

The way our economy is structured, all businesses must do two things:

  1. Expand
  2. Exploit

The first thing that must be done to “grow” and become profitable is to expand. A local market is not enough for a “successful” business. You must be able to expand into new markets and new sectors and new …

Growth requires expansion is your goal is profit. If your goal is to “make a living”, expansion is not necessary, but most businesses do not have the goal of simply making enough money to pay their bills, their employees, and sustain their business operations. Growth is key.

The second item seems a bit more tricky – since most businesses do not appear on the surface to be exploiting anything – but is easy to understand once you look at it a little closer.

In order to earn profit, a business must produce more than the sum of its inputs. What that means is if you take the raw materials that you purchase at $___ and add the human resource (staffing) costs you purchase from your employees at $____, you must be able to produce something that you can sell for more than the sum of those two numbers (and in real life, all the other numbers that are “expenses”).

In order to do this, a business must;

a) Reduce the cost for the raw materials below what is their “going price”.

b) Push employees to produce more than it costs to use them.

In each instance, this is the definition of exploitation. You are using your position of power and influence to either pay less for something than it is worth or to push that resource (especially human) to produce more than you are paying for.

If a business was paying real value for its inputs, profit would not exist. Profit can only be achieved by exploiting the inputs of the process and therefore receiving a greater price for the “sum of the parts”.

This may not seem horrendous on the surface – because it is subtle and a normal part of life – but business is built on the concept of exploiting for profit as opposed to building communal health, wealth, and well-being.

And that is what I am thinking about. Is this a good thing? Does the system have any real value? Who are the people being exploited in the process of my attempt at creating personal wealth? What would a “better way” look like? How can I make a difference in my circle of influence? What would a kingdom of God economy look like?

Happy thinking ….

Correct Focus?

Anybody who knows me will know how I feel about the “successfulness” of Christians protesting against laws our nation(s) create that move in the direction culture is heading. (Spoiler alert: I don’t feel they are worthwhile or effective 99.9% of the time).

One of the “issues” people have asked me about in relation to this in the past is abortion – isn’t this an example of an area where a Christian SHOULD take a stand against the laws? I am always slightly amused by the reactions I get when I don’t jump on the bandwagon and agree we should.

And a new study released recently (see here for a summary and a link to the full study – http://www.relevantmagazine.com/reject-apathy/surprising-new-findings-could-re-shape-pro-life-movement) has given me some actual data to give my standard answer some added weight … so here goes:

The place I start is this: whether we are pro-life or pro-choice (which I don’t see how those two options became pitted as opposite in this debate), I think we can all agree that in a perfect world, the number of people terminating unwanted pregnancies would be greatly reduced. In fact, it would be great if there was never another terminated pregnancy ever.

So far are we on the same page?

This is something I believe everyone can agree with. The new report this week indicates that approximately one in every four pregnancies worldwide end in abortion.

This is not good news! And I don’t believe a single person who is “pro-choice” would disagree that this is not an ideal statistic.

Where I have always diverged from the standard “evangelical” reaction to this data is in my response. Almost all the “pro-life” energy has focused on finding ways to convince our governments to change the laws to make abortion illegal or far less accessible.

I have never agreed that this is the best course of action. It appears to me to be a losing battle – and this new study shows that even if we were to be successful in changing our nation’s laws, it would have a negligible effect on abortion rates.

According to the studies, countries where abortion is illegal do not have lower abortion rates. They also don’t have higher abortion rates. The rates are essentially unaffected by the laws of the land. In fact, while the international abortion rate is increasing, most “developed” countries are seeing declining abortion rates. This is in countries where abortions are legal and accessible.

So, what does have the largest impact on abortion rates?

The answer is as simple as the solution is complex; money! Poverty plays the single largest role in contributing to abortions. Lack of money leads to reduced access to contraception, reduced ability to care for a child, reduced access to sexual education … and the list goes on.

And this, for me, has been my answer for years. I am 100% supportive of fighting the root causes that lead to the termination of pregnancies. I simply believe the root cause is unaffected by our laws and that fighting those laws can tend to distract us from finding solutions to the things that actually contribute to and create the conditions that lead to the decision to have an abortion.

Dealing with poverty is much harder than protesting a nation’s laws, but it’s where the action and potential change happens.

Maybe it’s time to adjust our focus?

Boundaries

Boundaries are funny things.

Boundaries matter, but they are also completely arbitrary.

Boundaries are how we determine which side of a line we are on, but they are completely man-made.

By looking at a boundary we can say with certainty that we are presently in Canada … and yet we decided where to put that line and call this side Canada and that side the USA.

This doesn’t just hold true for geographical boundaries. The thing about a boundary is that it is always a human creation. We create a litmus test – a boundary – in order to determine who is in and who is out.

Who is loving and who is not.

Who is “in sin” and who is “righteous”.

Who is a Christian and who has not yet made that commitment.

… And the list could go on.

We think in a very dualistic way; you are either on this side of a line or you are on that side of a line.

But reality doesn’t work that way.

Things are much more complicated than we would like to believe. There is a lot more grey than black or white.

Life is more like a continuum than neatly divided halves.

——

Think about our judicial system for a minute. Many laws would seem simple. For example, don’t kill anyone!

Simple enough right?

Except when a court attempts to determine if person x is guilty of killing someone, they begin to look at the situation. The circumstances. What happened that caused this death.

The court attempts to determine if a sinister motive exists, or if it was self defence, or if it was an accident. In the end these discussions help determine if the person has actually committed what we call a crime (the boundary) or not.

A determination is eventually made, but the process of making that decision shows how complicated things can be. (And where that boundary exists changes with geography and culture – each creates their own line).

Or think about giving a teen an instruction to clean their room. At the end of the day, you go to their room and see it hasn’t been cleaned. It is clear that the boundary you setup (clean your room) shows that the teen is on one side of that boundary (the room is not clean and they need to be disciplined).

When he or she gets home you ask them why they didn’t clean their room and you find out that between the time you spoke to them and now they haven’t been able to get home because the bus broke down and they have been stuck on the side of a road waiting for hours. They didn’t purposefully disobey the instruction and so most parents would understand the mitigating circumstances and loosen the boundary.

——

We create and re-create our boundaries. Boundaries can be incredibly important – especially during developmental stages of our lives when we need more structure – but we also need to be able to recognize when to loosen or re-draw the boundaries.

While my children are young, I may need to draw tight boundaries in order to help my kids learn how to be decent human beings, but the goal is always so that they will be able to develop into people who can make good choices on their own — without the need to have someone dictating what they can and cannot do at every step of their day. I may have to tell them they cannot eat all the candy they want at age 7 or 10, but the goal is so that when they are 25 and able to make their own choices, they will choose wisely.

The fact that a boundary is a human creation will, hopefully, make us humble as we look at the binaries we create (right/wrong) – creating a line in the sand may be important to properly structure our lives, but it is still something we create.

It is imaginary in that it is not a physical thing and is not a universal truth. We decide where to place the boundary and, while this is fine, we are not the ultimate judge. We are instructed to leave judgement to God himself and only to him.

Our boundaries are great … but they are only ours.

God is not contained within our boundaries.

Lenses

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“A  lens is a simple technology. It either bends or blocks light … But lenses have another interesting feature. When working properly, a lens is invisible. It is not something we see, but something we see through. And it determines the way we see, what we see, and what we don’t.

No one comes to the Bible or life without a lens. Our lenses are mostly invisible to us, but they determine how we understand the Bible and the world around us …

Over the years I have found most of the debates about the Bible, doctrine, theology, and religion are not actually debates about what the Bible says. They are in fact debates informed by competing unconscious lenses.”

– “Selling Water by the River”, Shane Hipps

I read this quote in a book a couple days ago and I thought it was incredibly true and also helpful.

I have been involved in my share of discussions about God over the years. I would classify very few as all-out debates, but I have left a few wondering if I could have done a better job conveying what I was trying to say because it seemed like myself and the others involved in discussion weren’t speaking the same language.

I have also had the reverse happen where I have had people try to impress on me that their interpretation of a passage was the correct – and only – way to read scripture. (There may have even been the occasional suggestion that to not see this was tantamount to being deceived by the enemy …).

The reality, as described above, is that we all approach scripture with a series of lenses. We may not know what those lenses allow us to see or what they block from our sight, but they are definitely there.

Some we choose consciously. Others have been ingrained in our way of thinking and environment in imperceptible ways.

No matter how we obtain our lenses, they shape how we read the Bible and, because of this, how we experience God.

This can both be helpful in conversations with others and in understanding ourselves. It could help us not get so concerned with debating what the Bible “clearly says” while also forcing us to be humble in recognizing we may not currently be aware of the lenses through which we are reading and experiencing God.

May awareness make us more charitable and loving … Amen!

More. Then Enough.

More

If I could just _____ then I would _____

This is the essence of MORE.

More says, “I am not good the way I am. There is something else I need.”

More will never stop yelling this.

More is a glutton with an appetite that can’t be satisfied.

More doesn’t understand words like “satisfied” or “content” since these indicate pleasure with the way things are.

More insists that while things may be fine, they could be better and so satisfaction with what is is settling for less than what could be.

There is always more. More to imagine. More to dream. More to pursue. More to acquire.

Enough

I am enough. I have enough.

The essence of enough is that the life we have been given is good the way it is.

Enough says, “Things may not be perfect, but I have everything I need right here in front of me.”

Enough invites us to turn off the stress of pursuing an insatiable pursuit of ____ and instead see the beauty already around us.

Enough is easily satisfied.

Enough doesn’t understand concepts like “if only” or “when I just” since these indicate something is missing in order for us to experience enjoyment.

Enough insists things are fine. Enough with striving for impossible dreams that will only fill your life with unneeded things and hardships.

You have enough. You can be satisfied, content, and fulfilled just the way you are. You are enough.

——

“When we grew up,
Our shadows grew up too.
But they’re just old ghosts
That we grow attached to.
The tragic flaw is that they hide the truth
That you’re enough.
I promise you’re enough.
I promise you’re enough, I promise you.
‘You are enough.’
These little words, somehow they’re changing us.
‘You are enough,’
So we let our shadows fall away like dust.”

– Sleeping at Last, You Are Enough