CW: Ordination exams, trauma, abortion, abuse, hazing, genocide, violence, murder
“There are two myths of humanity” I like to remind people, from the pulpit, “The myth of human progress, and the myth that everything is getting worse. The reason that the Bible still speaks to us, is that humans remain humans, a mix of good and bad, and we are still struggling with how to follow God in the mix, and we need that reminder. In fact, God suggests we get that reminder, at minimum, weekly, so here we are reading those stories, and trying to do with this complicated thing called life.” I feel like a preach this kind of reminder at least once a year, because the Bible, and humans and life is a complicated text, and the mythology of humans or the Bible being either perfect or completely terrible are both so easy to run with
“Your baptism is sufficient for your calling” we also tell each other–even as we make each other confess our faith publicly, or run a bunch of tests or learn creeds. This one, we are not so good at. My middle child who is twelve has autism, if we run a membership class (in my teeny-tiny church), we will have to do something completely different for him, which is kind of silly if you think about it. He loves church, for him communion is holy. He loves to participate in the ritual of belonging to God. He knows he is completely part of the community in that moment. He gets it. Plus, he is completely focused on the moment and teeters in anticipation for the bread and cup, unlike the rest of us who are thinking about grocery lists and the like. But he is partially nonverbal, so I don’t know if he will be able to confess his faith (at least that day) Is his baptism sufficient for his faith? Of course it is and my church will accept him with open arms, but I know that the hoops that we have set up are ridiculous, because he has grown that awareness in me.
So when we argue about the ordination tests, and talk about how difficult the texts are for translation, I think about a. our baptism is sufficient for our calling and b. we will run into difficult texts in life. Of course we will, that is the point.
The people who say that the Bible is full of terrible texts are completely and absolutely right, because the Bible is about the tapestry of human life: child abuse, genocide, queer abuse, sexism, rape (of all genders), infertility, xenophobia and more. (I mean you don’t need me to name them all, but I feel like I have to demonstrate my awareness here, which says something in itself, doesn’t it?)
There are times I say this is the good news of the Bible, thanks be to God after reading the text and my voice shakes. I have told my congregation that sometimes I am nervous to preach, and they have displayed surprise that I, a confident extrovert with much experience get fearful sometimes, that sometimes the text is very important, because life’s text is so important. I have explained to my congregation, that if I am not afraid of doing a difficult text justice after another Black or Brown person dies in the context of genocide; or talking about someone being exiled right after another terrible anti-LGBTQIA law has passed; or calls for peace when another mass shooting has hit the news or a healing text comes forward and great tragedy has struck the congregation; or the texts that call to bring down demagogues right after Jan 6th–if I am not awestruck by the timeliness of the texts and a little afraid I am probably not doing God justice.
And at those times, I try to say, publicly, look God I don’t know how this is good news. I am struggling with this text. I am reading this story this week and I am saying “really, really this one God?” (I really do voice this, out loud from the pulpit, I do not hide my reactions when I preach) and the difference is, I’m talking and questioning with my congregation in a sermon, not doing exegesis in a test for my very ordination, alone. I am getting nods, and murmurs, and sighs and catching their eyes. I can do all of that in a sermon: ask the hard questions, leave things unresolved, get reactions and encouragement from the people around me. I try to model that we are in this messiness together.
And I should note, something really important, that we end by praying for things to change, together.
The Bible is a difficult text, because human is difficult. The older I get, the more human Jesus becomes.
I used to take comfort in Jesus being holy, now it seems to be the opposite. I imagine Jesus Christ as a human being. I am able to see him struggling as a human being and find that oh so comforting. I understand that God became human to get closer to us, that the Bible is a difficult text, but Jesus is God contextualizing God for us. And so I write and and I write and I write Jesus into human form, easing Jesus into our lives in ways that I can understand. Because I do not always understand God, but I believe God always understands us, and that brings me comfort.
I love words, I love translating texts, I love the Bible, and I love to hear people’s stories and how God has contextualized them. However, mostly I love wrestling with them all together, in community. I love telling one another, yes being human is hard. Yes, God loves you still. Yes, there is still good news in your life even after that trauma.
And yes, I am advocating looking at all our systems, and figuring out how to be less traumatizing, and still how to evaluate good pastors. And no, I do not think telling people if you have not worked through all of your trauma you cannot be a pastor, because we are human, therefore, we have trauma. The church is one of the least supportive places for trauma, I am sad to say. We can do better. There are ways to understand that human life is a trauma text, and not ask us to produce, produce and produce, and say, your baptism is sufficient for your gifts. It would be good to find spaces for safety for all.
I want to tell people who are wrestling with being human, the church is a good place for you to do that.
I want people who have done all the work to become pastor, to find ways to be competent without being broken.
I want us to be faithful, together.
Katy Stenta is a writer, Student of Creative Writing as Public Theology at Pittsburgh Seminary, and creator of liturgy.
Addendum on Listening: I want to add this in but could not figure out where. I am trying to listen carefully to my colleagues who are LGBTQIA and Black and POC who are stating frankly that the whole Bible is triggering, and that trauma figures in differently. I am sure that the scripture is weighty in a different way for them, and that majority culture has been ignoring what they have been saying and why for basically ever about the ways we talk to them in addition to how we evaluate them, their ministry and what they do. I am also hyperaware that these conversations on social media can be easier or harder depending. Thus I am just trying to observe and listen. I have no doubt that these colleagues are right. It definitely further complicates these conversations–especially as we can fall into demanding Cis-Hetero-White-Norm-Patriarchy Majority reactions without realizing it.