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"This contemporary prophet has touched lives and transformed hearts through her books and talks. Many centuries before Verna Dozier, there was Amos, from the country, speaking out in the market square against the corrupt practices of merchants who 'sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes.' In this century we have Dozier, a black female, spreading God's word in the nation's capital, across the country, and outside its borders." -- Washington Diocese
Again and again the Christian church has fallen away from the dream God has for it, a dream in which we are called to follow Jesus and not merely to worship him. Through adept storytelling and Bible study, Dozier reawakens our sense of calling and our desire for truth.
THE DREAM OF GOD
See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant. (Jeremiah 1:10)
Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. (The Book of Common Prayer, 816)
What is your book going to be about?" I was asked by a very intelligent and learned man whose knowledge and skill were sought after by universities on both sides of the Atlantic, and much valued as well in the councils and committees of his denomination.
"It's going to be about how I think the institutional church has missed the mark of what it ought to be about," I replied.
"The institutional church?" he puzzled. "What other church is there?"
"The people of God," I replied. "The baptized community."
"But how would they function without an institution?" he smiled.
Aye, there's the rub, as Hamlet would say. The little band, the church of St. Paul's day, needed an organization, a structure, an institution to maintain itself but the institution took over the little band. As Hendrik Kraemer wrote in A Theology of the Laity, most of us tend to think of the church in terms of ministers and clergy, not the people of God.
The prayer with which I began is a prayer for the church as institution, and the genius of this prayer for me is that it knows all is not right with the institution. The church can be corrupt. It can be in error. It can be amiss. Institutions, however, do not take kindly to having those possibilities pointed out!
Jeremiah's call to root out, pull down, destroy, and throw down is an awesome call. It can only be undertaken in the light of the complete call—to build and to plant.
The only reason for me to write a book about how the church has failed to be what it is called to be is to hold up again the vision of what it is called to be in the biblical story—the dream of God. The institution has missed its high calling because we the people have missed ours. This book is really about how the people of God have missed the mark, and the institution is only the starting point.
I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, he by whom the reign of God has been made known—and he whom the institutional church, from the resurrection community to the present day, has rejected since the day of his death in favor of something more reasonable, more controlled and more controllable, more human. In other words, I believe Christianity has journeyed far from what Jesus of Nazareth was about.
Of course I am not the first to think that, but my thesis is drawn from what I believe the biblical message to be: God calls a people to be the new thing in the world—the people of God. The new dispensation, the "people of the Way," as the first Christians were called, has missed its high calling even as did the first dispensation, the people of the Torah. The proof of that argument rests with what the church, the institution, has done to the ministry of the laity. The people of the Torah made the gracious gift of the law into a system. The people of the resurrection made the incomprehensible gift of grace into a structure.
Both the people of the Torah and the people of the resurrection were escaping from God's awesome invitation to be something new in the world. I think God was always offering the possibility of living in the kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world. Each time the frighteningly free gift of God to be the new thing in the world—a witness that all of life could be different for everybody—this gift was harnessed by an institution that established a hierarchy of those who "know" above the great mass of those who must be told. Each time the world where people lived and worked and had families and friends and wrestled with day-to-day decisions—this world was out of the sight of the holy places. A veil was in the Temple; a rood screen in the cathedrals.
It will take me some time to develop that idea, to trace what I believe is the sorry journey of the people of God from Us to Me, the privatization of religion, a movement away from the dream of God. First, we need to consider what I call the dream of God, what the biblical story is about. Second, we need to think about the rejection of that dream, the three falls. (Of course, human beings are falling all the time, but these three falls are, as I see them, the great symbolic acts.)
What I see as the first fall—what we have termed the Fall—is the moment recounted in Genesis when the First Man and the First Woman, Adam and Eve, chose to live another way than the way God had planned for them. That characteristic of any "fall"—the choice against God, the choice for the way of the world—is clearly evident in what I call the second fall, the choice of the children of Israel to have a dynasty of kings like the other nations, instead of what seemed to the people to be God's quixotic system of judges over Israel.
Perhaps because we are so involved in its legacy, my identification of the third fall will seem more ambiguous, but I see the choice for the emperor Constantine as a choice against the uncertainty, the freedom, and the risk of trusting God. God calls us to trust God. These three paradigms witness to our human refusal to live as God calls us to live, and the fall is a theological term expressing that existential reality.
Third, we will look at the institutionalization of this rejection in the church and, fourth, we will see the persistence of God's dream in the call to ministry. I define ministry as service in response to the dream of God, the restoration of the good creation that God brought into being at the beginning and that "groans in travail," as Paul put it, for the people of God to wake up to the reason why they are called.
Christians are not the first chosen people to lose the way. I think that is what the biblical story is all about—the people of God losing the way and a God who will not give up calling them back. Again and again God calls us to return. I think the calling still goes on today, but I believe the Christian church has distorted the call, narrowed it from a call to transform the world to a call to save the souls of individuals who hear and heed a specific message, narrowed it from a present possibility to a future fulfillment.
There was a time when the call was clearly heard—the memory of the covenant in the wilderness.
Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.... You shall have no other gods before me.... You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The ancient Hebrews, during the time of their establishment as a nation among other nations, distorted the call by turning it into law. The Christians, during the time of their becoming a structure among other structures of the world, distorted the call by turning it into institution.
But I am already ahead of the story.
* * *
This term "story" is important to me, because it says something about how I read scripture. The Anglican collect for Bible study, which in the liturgical calendar comes close to the end of the season after Pentecost, speaks very eloquently of the church's approach to Bible study:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.
First, the collect says God caused the scriptures to be written; it does not say God wrote them. Therefore, God will not be destroyed if learned scholars find that the word Isaiah used for "virgin" when he was warning King Ahaz against finding security in military alliances meant only "young woman" (Isaiah 9:14), or if they find that many of those red letters in certain editions of the Bible were not spoken by Jesus at all, but are instead the words of the early church.
God did not write the scriptures; human beings wrote the scriptures. But the faith expressed by the collect is that God caused them to be written for our learning. I find that word exciting beyond the telling—what a word to choose! Not for our inspiration. They may inspire, but that is not the purpose as the distinguished Anglican who wrote the collect saw it. Not for our guidance. We may find guidance there, but that is not the purpose of their being written. Not for our comfort, although we may be comforted and strengthened by the sacred history.
They are written for our learning. There is something we need to learn, and the only place we can find the subject matter for that learning is in the Bible. We need to know the story, the story the Bible—and only the Bible—tells.
The climax of the story is Jesus Christ, the collect says. And who is Jesus Christ?
In the mysterious and compelling Fourth Gospel, John the evangelist calls Jesus "the Word made flesh." What does he mean by that? I think he is referring to a poem of Second Isaiah, in which Isaiah has God say:
So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
The word of God is an image for the action of God, and that verse, very freely paraphrased, says, God will accomplish what God has set out to do. I think the story the Bible tells is about the activity of God to accomplish God's purposes. You will never understand the answer to the question of who Jesus is until you know the story the Bible tells. And that story is not immediately available.
In the first place, the story is not easy to comprehend. The collect suggests much activity has to go into knowing it—hearing, reading, marking, learning, inwardly digesting. It is the work of a lifetime, a study that never ends.
The Bible is not a book; that very name is a misnomer. It is a library of sixty-six books and it is arranged like a library into law books, the Torah, followed by history books, then literature—hymns and poetry and drama and aphorisms and philosophy—then prophetic works. The New Testament has a similar arrangement: gospels, then history, letters, and finally an apocalypse. Obviously reading the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation makes no sense, any more than it would make sense to read all the books in the library beginning at the front door.
Nor does it make any sense to read individual books with no reference to the situation out of which they came and to which they were addressed. For example, to read the prophetic books out of the context of the history books is as if you were reading the editorial pages with no reference to the news pages of the daily paper.
The eighth century was a very turbulent time in Jewish history, and the prophets were right in the midst of it. They were reading the signs of the times in the light of what they understood as God's ancient call to God's people. Hear Isaiah:
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help
and rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
or consult the LORD! (Isaiah 31:1)
This is a statesman (Isaiah) counseling a king (Hezekiah) against a dubious alliance, and 2 Kings 18 and 19 will suggest what was on the front page when these words appeared on the editorial pages of the Judean Chronicle.
As a part of the celebration of the completion of the Washington Cathedral, the cathedral staff sponsored a symposium on the story of creation as seen by the scientists and by the Bible. The keynoters were a learned astronomer and an Old Testament scholar, who saw no need to argue about which view was right. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann began his workshop by saying that the first chapter of Genesis was written during the sixth century B.C.E., the time of the exile. To a people whose whole world had fallen apart, the poet said, there is something, someone, on whom you can depend. A dependable world has been created by a dependable God. The God who delivered them from slavery and sustained them in the wilderness will be with them in exile. They can sing the Lord's song in a strange land.
How can we make sense out of the Bible? It is not easy, and we can never do it by reading any part of it out of the context of the whole story. I believe, however, that making sense of the Bible is essential to the religious enterprise in which we are all engaged.
If we want to know this story that is not immediately available to us, I think we must approach the Bible as we would a great painting. First we stand back and see the painting as a whole, and then we study the details, because however great the details, they are not the painting. If we spent all our time examining the adorable, mischievous cherubs at the bottom of Raphael's great painting the Sistine Madonna, we would miss the soaring image of the world's most sublime mother. Similarly, if we spent all our time focusing on the bright gentlemen in the foreground of Rembrandt's painting The Night Watch, we would miss the somber bustle of the guard in the background that lets us know who the gentlemen in the foreground are.
A word is needed here about how I approach the Bible before I tell you how I have come to understand and tell the story.
The ancient Israelites were a people of cultic memory, and in song and story and liturgy they kept that memory fresh. It was their memory of special events that had shaped them—the story of a nomad ancestor to whom God had given a great promise, deliverance from slavery, preservation in the wilderness, conquest of a new homeland. The memory included the interpretation of these events that God was acting out for them, that they had a special place in God's plan. Their scriptures kept alive for them the story of who they were.
In the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy we catch a glimpse of how the Israelites used the scriptures.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise....
When your son asks you in time to come, "What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the Lord our God has commanded you?" then shall you say to your son, "We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand—And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as at this day." (Deuteronomy 6:4–7, 20–21, 24)
The Hebrews began with the big picture—faith in a God who acted on their behalf. That is very different from the way we use the biblical record today. I recall a time I was a part of a small group of women who were studying the gospel according to Matthew, the liturgical gospel for that year. We were working with the story of Jesus walking on the water in Matthew 14. The evangelist puts the incident of the feeding of the five thousand before this story. Then Jesus tells the disciples to get into a boat and go before him to the other side while he stays to disperse the crowd. Then he goes off by himself to pray. By the time he is ready to join his disciples, it is late at night and a storm has come up.
In the early morning hours, the disciples are battling the winds and they look up and see Jesus walking on the water toward them. They are terrified, thinking they are seeing a ghost, but he reassures them. Peter cries out, "Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water," and Jesus replies, "Come." Peter starts out and actually walks on the water, but the wind frightens him and as he begins to sink, he calls out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and saves him, chiding him for his lack of faith. When Peter and Jesus are in the boat, the wind ceases and the disciples worship Jesus.
Looking up the same story in the other gospels, we found many differences, although only the incident of walking on the water concerned us. Matthew also differs from Mark in that Matthew has the disciples worship Jesus, while Mark (6:52) says they missed the point. Only Matthew includes the incident of Peter trying to imitate the Master and failing miserably. Luke does not have the story at all, and John suggests that the boat was nearer land and Jesus may have been walking beside the water. One of the women cried out in desperation, "Which one is right?"
Excerpted from THE DREAM OF GOD by Verna J. Dozier. Copyright © 2006 by Verna J. Dozier. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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|Chapter 1||The Dream of God||1|
|Chapter 2||The Biblical Story||21|
|Chapter 3||The Rejection of the Dream||39|
|Chapter 4||The Temptations of the Church||65|
|Chapter 5||The Persistence of the Dream||93|