Writing Over a Messy Past - thrive UMC Official Blog

Writing Over a Messy Past

Now Jericho was closed up tightly because of the Israelites. No one went out or came in. The Lord said to Joshua, “Look. I have given Jericho and its king into your power, along with its mighty warriors.Circle the city with all the soldiers, going around the city one time. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry seven trumpets made from rams’ horns in front of the chest. On the seventh day, circle the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets.

“Have them blow a long blast on the ram’s horn. As soon as you hear that trumpet blast, have all the people shout out a loud war cry. Then the city wall will collapse, and the people will rise up, attacking straight ahead.”

[skipping ahead; Joshua and the Israelites follow the instruction; on the seventh day, they march around seven times.]

20 Then the people shouted. They blew the trumpets. As soon as the people heard the trumpet blast, they shouted a loud war cry. Then the wall collapsed. The people went up against the city, attacking straight ahead. They captured the city. 21 Without mercy, they wiped out everything in the city as something reserved for God—man and woman, young and old, cattle, sheep, and donkeys.

There was a song I learned as a child at church, which was about this very story we read today.  It was called “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.”  Are any of you familiar with the song I’m talking about?  The title was half the chorus; and the other half just went: ‘and the walls came tumblin down.’ If you don’t know it, I just want to say that it’s a song that’s so repetitive and catchy that, try as I might, I still can’t read this passage without that song looping in my head –and that’s after almost 28 years of trying to forget it.

“Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho.  Joshua fought the battle of Jericho; and the walls came tumblin’ down.”

It’s still startling to me: of all the possible stories and lessons in the bible you could choose from to teach your children, why pick that one?

After all, as we just ready today, what immediately happens after the walls come down is a tremendous slaughter!  Man and woman, young and old, cattle, sheep and even donkeys, it says, all put to the sword.  To read the story itself, this was no thing to be called a ‘battle;’ this was a bloodbath!  And somebody, somewhere went: let’s make a kid’s song about it!

And then soon after that, lots and lots of churches all across the country –especially in the 90’s went- yes, and let’s have all of our children sing it, to remember it forever!

Have any of you ever bothered to stop and wonder what’s going on when we try and teach our children about the Bible?

Think about it; here are the top ten stories we teach them:

  • Adam and Eve, but always with very strategically placed shrubbery
  • Noah’s Ark –the story of God deciding to kill just about every living thing on earth (because look at all the cute animals on the boat, kids!)
  • Moses gets the 10 Commandments since kids need rules (but let’s skip the part where Moses slaughters about 3,000 of his newly-freed people)
  • Joshua pillages a city, decimating everything and everyone –and let’s all be clear boys and girls, if you were all living in Jericho on that day, not a one of you would have been spared! [Shrug]
  • Young boy David kills huge bully with rock, then chops his head off and feeds it to animals
  • Jonah gets swallowed by a huge, scary fish–because kids need to know not to be stubborn with God (a tale not nearly as intimidating when you live in the Midwest)
  • A bad king tries to feed Daniel to a pride of lions, but good news for Daniel: God makes them temporarily vegan.

And then the other big three are about baby Jesus in a manger, then Jesus hugging little children, and then, skipping over Good Friday: it’s Easter!  So at least we end on a positive note, right?

So really, what is it that we’re trying to teach our children as we introduce them to what are, so often, horrific tales?  We might as well throw in Elijah calling to heaven to have two she-bears emerge from the woods to maul 42 little boys to death, or the bit in 2 Kings 6 where a woman is so hungry while their city is under siege that she boils and eats her own son, and we’d have ourselves a winning Sunday School curriculum!

What’s the message here to pass on from when those walls around Jericho came tumbling down?

Here in 21st Century Christian America, we treat our sacred stories differently than they did in the ancient Hebrew tradition. Our relationship with these holy revelations is different.  When we read the Bible, we’re reading stories that essentially haven’t changed in the last 1700 years, excepting the new languages into which they have since been translated.  Because, when the scriptures were written down and finally canonized, the words themselves became fixed.  No more additions, edits or new revelations: God’s inspired word effectively became a thing, almost like an inanimate object.  And in some traditions of our Christian faith, we can find even a reluctance to interpret what the Bible might have to say to us today –because God’s word is, they say, eternal and unchanging.

But this is a perspective the ancient Hebrews would have found bewildering and perhaps even heretical, because for them, God’s word is a living entity.  It’s alive and these old stories can and will always continue to tell God’s people new things. For them, God’s word wasn’t a thing that exists on scrolls, but it was a spirit that lived in the people, sprouting forth in them a sense of meaning and renewing purpose.  Thus its true medium was their collective heart.  And so we can see the telling of these stories change and even evolve over time, as their collective wisdom continued to increase, and as they grew to learn more and more about the grand mystery of the God with whom they shared a living covenant.

It’s just a little like this guy I knew it college.  He was, at the time, probably the craziest person I had ever met: he partied all the time, and he had a campus-wide reputation for pulling ridiculous stunts.  Like this one time he showed up party in College Hall, which is in the middle of campus wearing a bright-orange women’s bathing suit … that was like 3 sizes too small. And this party was in November, meaning I think he must’ve walked about four blocks in the late fall, in that thing.  It was a sight you couldn’t not notice, and try as I might, even after like 15 years, it cannot be unseen.  I won’t paint a mental picture for you; but let’s just say there are very good reasons men’s and women’s swimsuits are cut differently, in certain places.  Reasons of legal, public decency.

Anyway, there were lots of stories to tell about this guy.  And when I used to talk about him to people like my high school friends, I would always depict him as being like the character played by John Belushi in Animal House. He was just the wild, goof-ball party guy who could drink incredible amounts of alcohol without dying, and in such a state would do just about anything on a dare.

But then one night, because I lived down the hall from him, he asked me to proof-read a paper he was going to turn in the next day.  So I kind of rolled my eyes, wondering how many of my brain cells were going to wither and die reading this clown’s paper.  But when I sat down to skim through it, it turned out to be an essay about his ongoing, agonized struggle with depression.  And I read it slow and carefully, because what he had written was so powerful. And I could relate to so much of it, because that was my struggle then too.

I don’t think I had ever had an actual conversation with this guy before; but that night I sat on his futon and we must’ve talked for close to two hours about our messy, desperate struggles just to feel alive.  And I told him things I had never told anyone before –that I too thought of killing myself sometimes.  And we talked about the things we had done to try and make the feeling of that terrible loneliness go away. But mostly we talked about God, because that was the hope both of us also shared: that God was somehow still there in the messiness and the pain, just waiting for the right moment to save us from ourselves.  It was a conversation that played a big part in my own healing journey, and also probably in my call to ministry.

But I bring that up this morning because that simple invitation to proof-read a paper radically changed my understanding of who that person is.  No longer could I tell any king of story about him being some kind of frivolous, simple-minded party animal. Even the time he showed up to the party wearing a women’s bathing suit changes, because I now have more insight into what was going on invisibly behind the scenes that night.  And more than that, I have a real relationship with him.  To this day, we’re still friends, and we still try to carve time out of our busy schedules to sit and talk over coffee at least a few times a year to catch up.  Today I would describe him as one of the most genuine and generous people I know.

And isn’t that kind of how our experiences with God go too?  Where we start off with certain vague impressions –like God is powerful and God makes life, but then more things happen, and we see new stuff that radically alters our apprehension of who God is in our minds.  We witness some of the horrible things that people do to one another, and we know God did not stop it.  We foster some form of a tremendous hope and build our whole lives around it; but then something happens to totally flatten the future we were building.  And we get this haunting suspicion that God was somehow involved in the event we experienced as an enemy.

That’s the story of the Bible.  Part one is a tragic tale of a whole people who received a great and wonderful gift.  And that gift was agonizingly taken away from them in a storm of dust and blood.  And the version of the story that was immortalized for us in writing is plagued by the unresolved question: how did it come to this? Look!  Our people were set free from slavery!  Look: our people were given a land, a home for themselves, where we could grow in our relationship with this living power.  See how they became a great nation! Then, traumatically, they lose it all in a flash.  What can we then say of the God-given promise when the Promised Land was stolen out from beneath them? The covenant between Israel and their God became ashes in their mouth.

Joshua is a part of that story.  This strange, horrifying bit about smothering all life from a grand, ancient city is a part of it.  And there’s even more: a few lines after the part we read, Joshua curses anyone who would try and build a future on that site, at the expense of their children.  This is a story most of us learned as kids.

But my primary concern in all of it for today is: do you still tell this same old story in the same way that you learned it as a kid?  If you had to be thrown in to a classroom with a bunch of runny-nosed first graders, would you just try your best to regurgitate the same lines and lessons you were taught at that age?  What if the class was for high-schoolers?  Would you still let the moral of the story remain: “well kids, you’ve just got to do whatever God tells you!”?

And what if they responded with: ‘God doesn’t tell me anything’?

What would you do?

Today we’re celebrating Youth Sunday, because our youth are our future.  They are our new and most precious story-bearers.  Our tradition, if it’s going to survive, is going to be carried and brought to life by them.  They are our good news bearers.  They are the hope of the world. So we celebrate them because they are, without a doubt, our greatest gift, and most precious resource.

But even as we celebrate, we’re also reminded of a frightening part of our lived story right now: less and less people are going to church.  Less and less people are being taught the good news.  And this is especially true of young people.  The number of people who are raised in the church, but who stop going after high school graduation is staggering.  It’s heart-breaking.  We’re literally watching our future walk away from us.  And why?

That’s what I want you to wrestle with this morning.  And let me give you this little piece of insight here –because worked  with teenagers in ministry for six years- if you have an answer to that question; but you have not sat down to have face to face conversations with at least ten young people in the last year or two, you’re wrong.  Whatever answer you have is wrong.  Because your approach is wrong.  You can not know what’s going on with young people unless you have a relationship with them.  And if you don’t have a relationship with young people  then the lesson you’re teaching them is that they don’t matter to you.

And that points to a problem lots of American Christians have with their faith: that we love our youth too much like we love our bibles: sitting still and quiet and closed in a corner.  But God’s word is a wild and living thing, just like our young people are.  It’s filled with messiness, and grace, and problems and revelations not yet brought to completion. They are also the sources containing our greatest hope.  And our temptation is –that rather than letting our youth and our bibles speak to us and change us- we try to tame and stifle them and reduce them to a dry moralism.  And so the effect is that, in defense of the “eternal, unchangeable truth of the scriptures”  we just keep on saying the same old thing about this same old book.  And there’s the law of diminishing returns at work here, where once powerful wisdom, through rote repetition becomes mindless and cliché and worst of all: boring.

Don’t ever commit the sin of letting God’s word become boring.  It’s not listed in the scripture, because it was almost unthinkable.

Instead, let us come to God, and the Bible, and most of all, to one another with a profound spirit of life.  May we embrace the messiness of the past, and may we equip our youth with the integrity of spirit to have a living faith, and a place in leadership, of their own.

Let’s pray.  

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