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Last month I was part of group representing the Reformed Church in America at an ecumenical discussion. Along with the three other “Formula of Agreement” churches—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) and the United Church of Christ, we were there to discuss “Biblical Interpretation and the Moral Life.” Also around the table were representatives of the Christian Church (Disciples), the Moravian Church, and the Christian Reformed Church—each related to different “formula churches” in various ways.
“Biblical Interpretation and the Moral Life” sounds pretty big and daunting. And it is. How is it that different churches, let alone individuals, can read and apply the Bible in such drastically different ways? Of course, the issue looming behind this broader discussion is homosexuality. This is especially true for the Reformed Church in America, now that the other three formula churches all have, in varying ways, more progressive stands on issues pertaining to homosexuality.
At this first gathering, we only began to scratch the surface, to map future discussions, to build trust. No doubt in future blogs I will share more about how our discussions unfold. Here I simply want to say how pleased and hopeful I was when I left our first gathering. I know many are cynical and disparaging about formal ecumenical discussions–talking head bureaucrats speaking ecu-babel to one another, totally unaware of and irrelevant to the “real world.” This unfortunate caricature was not my experience.
I found the group interesting, energetic, cooperative, fun, and very much aware of “real world” concerns. That’s not to say we will achieve some monumental breakthrough on the subject of “biblical interpretation and the moral life.” But in just our first hours together, it quickly became apparent that we all shared a deep commitment to Jesus Christ. We love and gladly serve Christ’s church. And while we may reach different conclusions on ethical questions, much of the way we interpret the Bible is very similar. What we share dwarves where we may disagree. Just as high school exchange students will not someday usher in world peace, but in small ways build bridges and help humanize the “other,” so these ecumenical conversations provide helpful, face-to-face reminders of our great similarities.
From that meeting, I headed to Our Lady of Grace Monastery, a Benedictine monastery in Indianapolis, to pick up my wife who had been on a weeklong retreat. I spent one day with the sisters there, participating in morning, midday and evening prayer. These brief services are full of Psalms, about five or six per day. They chant or recite the entire Psalter every four weeks.
At one of the services we chanted Psalm 109—a prayer for vindication and vengeance.
When he is tried, let him be found guilty…
May his days be few;
may another seize his position.
May his children be orphans and his wife a widow.
May his children wander about and beg;
may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.
May there be no one to do him a kindness,
nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.
As we chanted, the imprecations seemed to never stop. Sitting among the “amateurs” and Protestants, I could sense our discomfort rising. Some stopped chanting. I felt an uneasy smirk on my own face. Now the New Revised Standard Version inserts “They say” before the curses begin (verse 6), suggesting that these terrible words are the words of the Psalmist’s enemies about him, not the words of the Psalmist about his enemies. I’ll let you Old Testament buffs sort that one out. That is not the way we sang it.
Yet as I looked at the sisters who chanted that Psalm so comfortably, I saw no evidence that it caused them to be vindictive, hateful people. Instead, they are so welcoming and warm. The inclusion of Psalm 109 in the Bible seems to cause them no distress. By my math, some of the older members of the monastery have probably chanted that psalm over 700 times.
I wonder how that may impinge on our biblical interpretation and the moral life. No doubt there are more than a few things in the Bible that are odd, cruel, treacherous, and just plain hard to understand—Psalm 109 among them. But when people are so immersed in scripture, when they read it broadly and deeply, when they chant, recite, and read it habitually, they are able to hold the dark and mysterious passages lightly, to keep them in perspective. Not to dispose of them. Not to fixate on them. But simply let them be, albeit quietly, in a way that they are hushed but not erased by the greater, truer voices. Scripture is indeed the best interpreter of scripture.
Maybe we should start chanting the entire psalter every month. Maybe we should not pay so much attention to just a handful of verses in our efforts to understand and live the moral life. Maybe we should invite the Benedictines to our ecumenical discussions.