Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Romans 4:18-21) transports me to London’s North Greenwich Arena, where the drama of Olympic competition, complete with the thrill of victory and agony of defeat, played out this week in the gymnastics competitions. It is incredible what the human body can do on first one apparatus and then another. The bending and stretching and twisting and contorting never ceases to amaze. It just doesn’t seem like the body should be able to do what it does on the balance beam and the bars and rings and vault and floor. It’s back to Pilates class for me, so I can continue working on holding the plank for more than 30 seconds, and do a forward bend to touch my toes.
Abraham and Sarah were well past the age of Olympic athleticism, but they experienced some amazing bodily contortions nonetheless. These centenarians remembered a hopeful promise that they would have children and become father and mother to nations, but that hope seemed all but lost. The passage tells us that Abraham hoped against hope, though, fully persuaded that those good as dead bodies would once again twist and turn and bring about new life. Like one of the London gymnasts holding a still pose on the rings, we read that Abraham never wavered through unbelief regarding the promise of God. The promise was fulfilled; they gave birth to a nation, a people, and eventually one of those people, Aly Raisman, performed her gold-medal winning floor routine to the Hebrew folk song Hava Nagila, commemorating the lives of the 11 Jewish athletes killed by terrorists 40 years prior in the Munich Games.
Gymnastics are probably my favorite Olympic competition, partially because the moves are so far removed from anything I can do. I mean, I can run, swim, dive, play ping pong and badminton, row a boat, play volleyball, etc. But I can’t do anything that these gymnasts do. Just thinking about a backbend makes me hurt. In another sense, though, I am a gymnast, or at least I have been accused of being one. Several times, when I have written about a passage dealing with sexuality, or economics, or interfaith issues, someone has pushed back, accusing me of engaging in “hermeneutical gymnastics” with the Bible. It’s not meant as a compliment. The suggestion is that I am twisting and turning the text, contriving and bending it to say what I want it to say. I’ve thought about the charge, and have decided that it’s true. I am a biblical gymnast, but only in the sense that every one of us who engages scripture does gymnastics with it. The presumption of those making the accusation is that it is possible to live in this culture and read a passage that is 2000 to 3500 years old, that has been applied to various cultural contexts for the last 2000 years, and approach it in a simple and straightforward way, without any interpretive apparatus. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. That’s about as likely as me doing a double somersault with a half twist. It just doesn’t happen. We are all engaging in hermeneutical gymnastics every time we approach scripture. That doesn’t mean the conclusions we draw are any less true. The question for me becomes, what apparatus are we using? I’ve considered the options, and narrowed it down. The balance beam is out. I can hardly stand to watch this event, always fearful that someone’s going to miss the beam and break a neck. Trying to balance life and do flips over a thin beam of sacred literature is too dangerous. Then there are those bars. No, it seems like these gymnasts spend too much time just going round and round in circles. How about the rings? It’s a test of strength, for sure, but no, I don’t want to engage scripture with the goal of striking a pose and not moving at all. Or the floor exercise. As beautiful as the dance moves and leaps and flips can be, I don’t like the idea of having to fit everything within a box. That leaves the vault. That’s it. I love the vault. I love seeing scripture as a vault, as something we come to with great energy and enthusiasm and preparation, and when we hit it, it sends us flying, hopefully with a good landing. After all, scriptural texts are called passages, right? They take us somewhere. Even if we’re injured and limping, like the heroic Kerri Strug, we can still muster up the courage to run to scripture and see where it takes us.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.