I’m an unashamed liberal Christian whose thirty-six years of Episcopal priesthood make me deeply grateful that the Fundamentalist Protestant tradition I grew up where I learned how to love Jesus and the Bible.
The church I belonged to from infancy until I was twenty was officially Presbyterian, but we identified ourselves as Evangelical and sometimes Fundamentalist. A lot of stalwarts including some of my Sunday School teachers proudly called themselves “non-denominational
conservative Christians.” That we were conservatives in a mainstream liberal denomination was a contradiction everyone just lived with.
But the Bible, so we were told, didn’t have any contradictions; through the human writers, God had spoken every word of it, and each word was there because God meant it.
Our indoctrination was unstained by contradiction. Indoctrination came from sword drill (memorizing Bible texts) and from singing songs like,
Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so,
Little ones to him belong
They are weak but he is strong…
[Yes, for anyone else who grew up with this one, I know more verses
Yes, that’s the book for me!
I stand alone on the Word of God,
The Sunday School teacher who taught us to sing ‘Jesus loves me’ had been a missionary in China in the 1930’s. She told us how just hearing about poor little Chinese children who worshiped idols had made her to go China to offer them salvation, because idol worship was
really devil worship. I think she spent the war in a Japanese concentration camp with other missionaries to China.
When Mao’s Communists swept across China, she fled. Communists, she explained were atheists, another kind of devil worshiper. The day she was getting on the boat to leave China and come home to America, a Buddha statue in the market caught her eye. She thought of buying it to show children like us what a real idol looked like, BUT before spending God’s money it, she realized Satan was tempting her to possess it, because Satan knew if she brought it home he could compel her to bow and serve it. She felt glad she’d recognized the
temptation for what it was, because God’s anger could flash in a moment to destroy us, “‘For his wrath is quickly kindled,’ Psalm 2:12.” My Sunday School teacher delivered her Bible quotations with chapter and verse.
I was more confused than frightened by the Buddha story. I really wanted to see that statue she’d left in the marketplace, and I wished I could touch it. That Monday after school I asked my mom about it.
We talked and thought about it together. Mother reminded me I’d seen Buddha statues in Japantown and a large one in San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden. Countering God’s dangerous short temper in Psalm 2, my mother quoted “God is slow to anger and of great mercy.” I noticed that she didn’t add chapter and verse - I liked the way that
just let the words speak.
We talked about hell and how hard God worked to spare people from condemnation. She got her Bible to read to me from Romans, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, indivisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the
things that he has made…so they know God.” With missionary relatives in Africa and Latin America who I knew she was very proud of, mother was telling me she believed that people listening for God could hear the Way even without missionaries.
I marveled at how Mother quoted Bible verses to argue with other Bible verses and was glad for her gentleness questioning the Sunday School teacher’s teaching. I had begun to see how I could love the Bible (and the Christian community) by wrestling with contradiction.
I left that church when I left home for college and seminary. Wandering a bit through more mainstream Presbyterianism, I was drawn to Lutheran and Episcopal liturgy. In seminary mother’s teaching moved me to notice how rabbinic tradition valued argument. A teaching
tradition that thrived in contradiction formed Jesus as a teacher.
Also thanks to mother I could hear Jesus loving the Book even when he flat contradicted, using words like “You have read…but I say to you…’ to overturn God’s law.
Mother and dad flew across the country to be there when I graduated from General Seminary and again when I was ordained an Episcopal priest.
About five years after I was ordained, my mother started taking seminary extension Bible classes to enrich her teaching of adults at the church. Even people who didn’t believe women should teach in church acknowledged that she was a good teacher. There were people in
that congregation who had known and loved her since she was a child. The congregation was as passionate and dense with contradiction as the Bible itself. Mother's her generous, hopeful listening and interpretation of people and text refused to turn aside from fear, confusion, and contradiction. And she wanted to give them her best.
What a joy it was to this Episcopal priest ten years later to receive an invitation from mother’s Presbytery to help ordain her a Presbyterian minister. It pained her that some good, old friends from her church stayed away from the ordination. She expected more of them. The congregation didn’t teach loving contradiction, though more often than not, the people there practiced it. Arguments didn’t keep them from coming week by week to Sunday morning Church, to Sunday evening Praise and Testimony Meetings, and to Wednesday Potluck and
Prayer Meetings. And as fiercely as they argued about the Bible, quoting different verses to support different interpretations, they stood by one another in crisis, suffering or grief, helping each other as they could.
The Bible itself (like my first experience of church community) embraces contradiction. If we were willing, mother, me, the Sunday School teacher, Jesus, all those rabbis, and the writers and editors of Old and New Testament could be a community hanging together through
I’m grateful for liberals and conservatives (what inadequate distinctions!) who keep offering their best to the church, struggling to live into the communion that God is making, and I’m impatient and frustrated with conservatives and liberals who welcome the division and estrangement it takes to make enclaves of unanimity. How do people change except by contradiction? Writing this I realized that for the last forty years, the two-thirds of my life I’ve lived in the
Episcopal Church, I’ve followed a lead my mother gave me that afternoon in second grade.
• Keep loving Jesus.
• Love your church (even that returned Chinese missionary).
• Try not to judge (her or anyone).
• And keep reading the Bible so you can make up your own mind about what the Book really says.
This post originally appeared in the Daily Episcopalian column at Episcopal Cafe