“Most folks use the bible the way a drunk uses a lamppost:
more for support than for illumination.”
– William Sloan Coffin
The late, great Methodist mystic, philosopher and Civil Rights leader, Howard Thurman, who as a boy read the bible to his illiterate grandmother, once asked her why she wouldn’t let him read from Paul’s letters. “What she told me I shall never forget,” he writes. Grandma Nancy said the master’s minister would conduct services for the slaves and invariably quote from Ephesians: “Slaves be obedient to them that are your masters . . . as unto Christ.” She continued,
Then he would go on to show how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would never read that part of the bible.
The master’s minister was preaching from the bible, yes? But Grandma Nancy wasn’t having any of it. Born into slavery, Nancy Ambrose had a hunch that the God of love who created all human beings equal wouldn’t stand for it either. Parts of the bible simply are wrong. The bible has been used as a tool to enslave Africans and sanction witch-hunts (where literally thousands of innocent women were slaughtered in the name of God). The bible is at the root of apartheid, anti-Semitism, the oppression of women and LGBTQ+ persons, and divine sanction of the exploitation of the natural world.
Written by many individuals over many centuries, the bible is bound by cultural norms. So it must be read with caution and care. Yet the bible also transcends the times and places in which it was written. It is the bedrock of our faith tradition and the primary way of learning about Jesus Christ.
Author Frederick Buechner uses the metaphor of a window to illustrate how we can maintain the importance of scripture along with our ability to read it carefully and critically. The bible is like a window through which we can glimpse the Divine. Buechner notes that we look through the window, we don’t worship the window. And just because there are smudges, swatted flies, and hairline cracks obstructing our view, we don’t throw out the window! We learn to distinguish between the window with its flaws and what lies beyond. Although a flawed and imperfect window, the bible is a source of inspired (not dictated) guidance and wisdom, fashioned by people of faith who have helped generations of seekers catch a glimpse of the mystery beyond.
On Sunday, September 15th, we will be presenting our third-graders with bibles. May we recommit ourselves to read this very human book that has revealed the Divine to countless generations with care and prayer, recognizing how it can be used and abused.
Blessings, Pastor Jeff