June 16, 2019
I work as a volunteer chaplain at the Hebrew Home nursing home in Rockville. My biggest task there is leading a weekly Bible Study Class for Christians, which I’ve been doing for 3 ½ years now. (Yes, I teach a Christian Bible Study class at a Jewish nursing home!) I need to mention that I am NOT a Bible scholar, and I wasn’t even a regular Bible reader when this class started – I only started it because I was required to lead a group activity as part of my training, and I didn’t have a better idea.
Each week, with the help of one other able-bodied person, I bring 12-18 Christians in wheelchairs together for an hour to study a short passage from one of the Gospels. We spent 2 1/2 years going through the Gospel of Matthew; now we are in the Gospel of John, usually covering 10-15 verses each week that I print out in large print that most (but not all) are able to read.
When I started this, I thought I’d make it quick and easy – I’d select a text, read William Barclay’s study book on the passage, pick out a theme or two, and ask questions to get them talking. But it’s evolved into something much more for me. As soon as one class is finished, and start thinking about the next class. I read the passage in several different translations, I read one or two commentaries, I google and read other writing about it, and I mull it over in my mind until I get an “ah-hah” or two. In order to get the class excited about it, I must get myself excited about it first. I give the class the historical context, I offer different interpretations, sometimes I role-play or bring props, and I ask them questions.
The problem is, they also ask ME questions, and they expect me to know the answers. When I’m on my toes, I remember to turn the question around and say, “what do you think?” But inside, I am still confronted with the questions.
What kinds of questions? Questions like, “at the end of the world, will all the dead people come out of the ground?” “ How can we believe Jesus came to bring peace when there is still so much war?” “ Are all Jewish people really going to hell?”
Now, I was taught that my role as a Chaplain is to help people who are suffering to find their own source of spiritual strength, not to give them mine. My goal wasn’t to become a “Christian Chaplain,” but there was an unfilled need for someone to minister to the Christians at the Hebrew Home, and there I am.
About a third of the people in my class are Roman Catholics, a third are African-American Baptists, and a third are something else. I try hard to respect everyone’s tradition and help them find their own answers, but sometimes it’s hard. Occasionally I can illustrate the lesson with an example from my own experience, but the class is not really a place for me to talk about what I believe. To do that – to talk about what I believe, what I don’t believe, what I don’t understand – I preach sermons at Seekers Church.
Last week, Jacqie Wallen preached about the coming of the Holy Spirit. Because I also planned to talk about the Holy Spirit today, I listened closely. One sentence stood out for me. As almost an aside in her sermon, Jacqie said, “In all honesty, I take the Bible metaphorically rather than literally.”
For me, I take that belief even further: I believe that the content of all religions is metaphor, because it’s simply impossible for us as human beings to actually comprehend the realm of God. I mean, how do you explain or understand something that is present everywhere, all the time, in the past and the present and the future all at once? Science fiction aside, we simply can’t. That’s why Jesus spoke in parables – it was as close to the truth as the people of his time could understand.
If we can’t understand God, then why do we bother to study God? I offer two reasons:
- To get a sense of reality beyond the physical world, to nudge us toward the spiritual world
- To keep us humble, to remind us that there is so much beyond our limited power
Because the realm of God is beyond our capacity to understand, we develop metaphors to help us appreciate the incomprehensible, to help us think about the divine and the spiritual. Metaphors aren’t facts, but they convey a sense of God, just as music and art convey a sense of reality. Every Christian denomination and every other religion has its own metaphors to help us connect with the spiritual world that we cannot understand. None of them is the actual truth.
In the 1980s, I sought counsel from an Episcopal priest. He agreed with me that there are many paths to the one God. But I kept saying to him, “if there are many paths to the one God, how do I know which one is right? He tried to guide me to find my own answer to that question, without success. Finally, he said in exasperation, “Yes, there are many paths to the one God, Michele – but you have to follow one of them!” Today, I understand what he was saying: to know God, I have to follow a metaphorical path that works for me.
So, back to my Bible Study class. Toward the end of class I try to ask a question that everyone can answer, that will encourage each of them to remember what they believe, tapping into their own source of spiritual strength. I go around the room, giving each person who is able to speak a chance to give their answer. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it backfires.
Back in April, we were studying the tenth chapter of John, in which the crowd at the temple says to Jesus, “stopping keeping us in suspense. If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus replies, “I have told you, and you don’t believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me….the Father and I are one.” At the end of that class, I went around the room with the question, “What does ‘the father and I are one’ mean to you?” Most folks said Jesus was the son of God, or Jesus was divine, or God loves us. But one woman said, “No! I can’t answer that, I don’t understand it at all.”
She and I talked about it later. “How can anything be two entities and one entity at the same time?” she asked me. I offered a few possible explanations, but she didn’t buy any of them. Eventually I said, “the nature of God is beyond human capacity to understand.” She actually felt comfortable with that explanation for a while….but later, she hit me with the same question again.
As a result of this exchange, I’ve been dreading the inevitable point in our study of John’s Gospel when we come to the Holy Ghost and the Trinity — how in the world am I going to deal with the concept of “three in one”, when I had such a hard time with “two in one”?
That’s why I volunteered to preach today. Today is Trinity Sunday, and I was hoping that while preparing a sermon I would gain some insight that would help me in my class.
Fortunately, the metaphors of the New Testament speak really clearly to me at this stage in my spiritual journey. In terms of my personal struggles, today’s Gospel passage offers me some good news and some bad news. Let’s look again at John 16:12-15.
First, the good news: in verse 12, Jesus says, “I have much more to tell you, but you can’t bear to hear it now.” What does he mean, “we can’t bear to hear it now?” The Contemporary English Version helps me out with this; it says: “right now it would be more than you could understand.” At this point, I want to say, “Thank you, Jesus, for recognizing that I can’t understand everything!”
But then in verse 13, Jesus says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all truth.” My initial reaction is one of distress: I know I don’t understand “all truth” – does that mean I don’t have the Holy Spirit?
My second reaction is to go back and look at that verse again… it doesn’t actually say that the Holy Spirit will make you understand the truth, it says the Holy Spirit will “guide you into all truth.” I looked at over two dozen English translations of this verse, and they all said “guide” or “lead,” not “teach” or “make you understand.”
The metaphor for me, then, is that the Holy Spirit is a guide, not a teacher….I don’t have to learn it all and take a test on it, I just have to know where my guide is leading me, trust, and follow.
What, then, does our passage have to say about the Trinity? Let me re-read the next two verses: “She won’t speak on her own initiative; rather, she’ll speak only what she hears, and she’ll announce to you things that are yet to come… she will take what is mine and reveal it to you. Everything that Abba God has belongs to me.”
What I’m hearing in these two verses is that everything that the Creator God has belongs to Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit takes what Jesus has and reveals it to us. The metaphor I am hearing is one of three entities, sharing the same message.
So where does that lead me? What do I believe?
I believe in a Power greater than myself that created everything, that exists everywhere and in all times, and that is loving. I believe that Jesus walked on earth to help us know that loving Power. And I believe there is an invisible voice within me that guides me to know that power, to trust that power, and to follow that Power’s Call for me.
I cannot explain it factually. It’s not part of the rational, material world, it’s part of the spiritual world. I can’t explain it, but at the same time, I know it, I trust it, and I follow it.
And so my friends, I don’t need to know why I’ve ended up teaching a Christian Bible Study class at a Hebrew nursing home. All I need is to do is know that’s where I have been guided, trust that it’s my Call, and follow.
Our theme at Seekers Church for the current liturgical season is “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.” Working as a volunteer chaplain at the Hebrew Home is what is right for me at this point in my life. I am extremely grateful that I know this, that I trust this, and that I am able to follow it. And I pray that I will not grow weary. Amen.