Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

     Teddy Roosevelt was raised a Presbyterian.  His family was part of Madison Square Presbyterian Church in New York City.  As a very small child, however, Roosevelt (“Teedie” as he was called at the time) developed a peculiar fear of the church.  He refused to set foot inside if he was alone.  When his mother pressed him, he said he was afraid of something called the “zeal.”  He said it crouched in the dark corners of the church, waiting to jump out at him.

     His mother asked what a “zeal” might look like, and Teedie said he wasn’t sure.  He thought it was probably a large animal like an alligator or a dragon, and said he had heard the pastor read about it from the Bible.  Mittie (his mother) pulled out a concordance and began reading to the little boy every passage that contained the word “zeal.”  Suddenly, very excited, he told her to stop.  The passage was John 2:17, “And his disciples remembered that it was written, 'The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.'”  No wonder he was scared.

     We forget, sometimes, how literal children can be.  I remember standing in the hallway outside of Mrs. Glass’ art room with the rest of my class.  It must have been kindergarten or perhaps first grade.  We were being a bit rowdy, and Mrs. Glass suddenly announced, “The next one to speak up will be on the playground bench before you know it.”  The bench was a well-established punishment for bad behavior; sitting beside a teacher while the rest of the class enjoyed their recess.  It was the phrase “before you know it” that caught my attention.

     At that magical age when anything is possible and Santa is still real, my thoughts immediately went to the idea of standing in the hallway one moment, and the very next (“before I knew it”) sitting on the playground bench.  That, I thought, would be fantastic.  So of course, I spoke up.  Mrs. Glass was incredulous.  It was maybe the only time I ever saw her angry.  I didn’t help my cause when a few minutes later, very disappointed to still be around, I approached her and said, “I thought you said I’d be on the playground bench before I knew it?”

     There are those who believe that every word of Scripture should be taken literally.  We are not among them.  One of the great church fathers, Origen, famously took a literal approach to that part of the Sermon on the Mount which begins, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…”  Only it wasn’t his right eye that (much to his later regret) he cut away.

     There are some teachings that are meant to be taken literally – the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) or Jesus declaration, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  But Scripture is also full of poetry, hyperbole and metaphor, and there are occasions when it clearly reflects the culture of the time at which it was written: the view of the cosmos, for example, evidenced in the opening chapters of Genesis; or the instruction in 1 Timothy that women should not have their hair braided when they enter into worship (1 Timothy 2:9).

     Does that mean there are some passages that we should ignore?  Thomas Jefferson simply cut out the parts of the Bible he didn’t like.  But no, we don’t do that.  What it means, rather, is that sometimes we have to dig beneath the surface – the literal take – in order to find the truth that is offered there.  We don’t discard 1 Timothy 2:9, and we don’t take it literally.  When we dig down, rather, we find that the real message is about worship: worship is not the place to be parading our wealth or status (at the time 1 Timothy was written, wealthy women would sometimes show up with elaborate braids that could only have been created by servants or slaves).

     Sometimes, taking a passage literally, as Theodore Roosevelt once did, is to miss the point entirely.  Simply skipping over it, however, can mean missing a truth we need to hear.

“All Scripture is inspired by God…” (2 Timothy 3:16).

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