It’s not often that someone’s interpretation and presentation of Scripture really opens my mind to a new way of understanding that leaves me breathless. What can I say? I grew up in the church, and after years of Sunday school and sermons, it’s easy to believe that I know all the answers, or that I have discovered all that the Biblical story has to offer. Some of these stories have become stale and boring, leaving me dissatisfied and longing for something fresh.
On a side note, reading Scripture for myself and in community has become one of the greatest ways for me to receive something fresh and life-giving. Even though I’m not always so disciplined in my Bible reading, whenever I do read, I always discover something I hadn’t seen before. That realization and that search for something new has made Bible reading exciting once again.
The speaker this year was Dr. J. Richard Middleton. He is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, NY. I have read one of his books, A New Heaven and A New Earth, and because I found that book so intriguing, I thought I just had to go see him speak. I was not disappointed.
Middleton’s recent work is centred around the topic of lament and how we use scripture to help us understand lament. His lectures focused on the Psalms, Abraham and Job. He turns these texts and stories on their heads, offering a new way of reading these texts that, in my opinion, stretch and refresh our traditional understanding of them. In each case, Middleton ventured deep into the content and structure of the text to reveal a grand narrative of God and our relationship with Him.
Lament is the tool given to us to confront the suffering and evil in this world. Part of the problem in the church is that we are unable to address real suffering because we don’t know how to lament. In lament, we cry out to God because of the evil and suffering we see and experience. This cry, seen all over Scripture, is a call to God to do something about it. In a sense, we are given licence to scream, to let God know how we really feel. And through the process of lament, God responds, often leading us into a new orientation and deeper relationship with Him.
But it's not simply any Deity that would allow their creation to talk back to them and question who they are. Not just any god would find it acceptable if humanity challenged them and cried out to them to live up to that god’s own standards. But through Middleton’s examination of the story of Abraham and Job, we find a God who not only allows this kind of dialogue, but welcomes it!
The God described to us in the Bible is like no other. He is one who really wants to hear from us and will challenge us when we challenge Him. He does not expect simple, blind, question-less faith. To live in relationship with God is to understand that God considers us important enough to listen to our cry. He opens Himself up to conversation. When we decide to engage with Him, we grow deeper in our relationship and understand of God.
God has given us the licence to scream and to call out to Him when things are not right. Sometimes the response “It’s all for the best” simple isn’t good enough. In those times, we are invited to turn to lament. As churches, we need to create space for lament in our services and church life and encourage each other to dig deeper into relationship with our Creator.
This is simply a short, surface level summary of Middleton’s lectures. I invite you to spend some time (even though time is hard to find) to listen to the lectures below. I am certain it will at least be thought provoking, maybe even life changing.
2016 J.J. Thiessen Lectures - Dr. J. Richard Middleton
1) Voices from the Ragged Edge
2) Abraham’s Ominous Silence in Genesis 22: How the Patriarch of Israel Lost Both His Voice and His Son
3) How Job Found His Voice: Learning the Wisdom of Lament from a Gentile Patriarch