I forget how local the Bible is. But when I read that Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah who was one of the priests of Anathoth, (Jer. 1:1) or when I hear the poet express his romantic love by saying, “Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead,” (Song 4:1) or when John tells us that “there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades,”(Jn. 5:2), my memory recovers.
Learning a God Intended Locality
I am reminded that the Bible was written by local preachers, regional poets and neighborhood scribes regarding those parts of creation, providence and redemption that paraded down the streets of their own towns within the shadows of their own mountains, and with the speech of languages that are foreign to my own. God intentionally communicated Himself in this way. As a Missourian from Indiana who speaks English I am meant to consider not just the slopes of Rock Hill or of Floyd’s Knobs, but of a Hebrew speaking person and his scenic views of Gilead. By doing so, a phrase from the late novelist, Flannery O’Conner, comes to mind. I borrow it for this context and I think that in the Bible God teaches me the “possibility of reading a small history in a universal light.” (Mystery and Manners, 58) Small, not in the sense of worth, but in the sense of a local geography. Within all its particular limits, weathers, supper times and doings, God does a universal thing. I’m starting to think therefore that when I fail to remember this local flavor of the Bible, my ability to carry out my pastoral vocation begins to suffer. I need the Spirit of Jesus to illumine and recover me. At least three reasons come to mind.
1. What if God intended the local flavor of the Bible to graciously apprentice us in double-love? How genius! God has built the sum of the Law into the very way He has communicated Himself to us by this Word. After all, the Bible forces me to care about cultures, times, customs, hills, lakes, ways of life, and personal histories that are other than my own. I have to esteem others better than myself, I have to humble myself, be initially quiet about my own ways, and patiently learn just to enter the Bible. Likewise, I cannot escape the reality that God is carrying out His purposes among neighbors whose yards, surnames, vocabularies, and skin-tones do not resemble mine. I have to learn to love Him and His care for other peoples and places. When we say in seminary that when we study the Bible “context is king,” we are actually saying that “neighbor love and attention to their locality” is paramount. And we are saying that God has made it so if I am to hear from Him and know Him. As I surrender to the local flavor of the Scriptures, my daily pastoral work is re-centered upon loving people wherever they are found and loving the God who is there with them in their locality.
2. What if God intended the local flavor of the Bible to show us His way and therefore our path? Isaiah did not deny or hide the fact that his Dad was Amoz. Nor did he exaggerate his role. He let us know his limits of place. He served in Judah and Jerusalem under the reign of certain local kings and not others. (Is. 1:1) I am no prophet. But as a pastor I am Zack the son of Vern who serves in Webster Groves, Missouri during the reigns of Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama. If I write in this blog about Lockwood, North Webster, Llewellyns or Steger, I risk losing some of you, and therefore of losing my sense of making a large difference in my generation. And yet, as much as I may desire my influence to announce names like world-wide, big city or best practice farm, my daily vocation and faithfulness will suffer if I do not attend to the street Lockwood, to the people and issues of North Webster where I live, to local gathering places like Llewellyns, or to the sixth grade school called Steger just a couple of blocks from my rented house. Prophets, priest, kings, sages and apostles gave themselves, even as our Lord did fully, to their local names and times. I too recover my purpose to get on with global things by paying attention to Jesus for the businessman in Old Webster, or with regard to the hail that banged and fought against my window in the dark morning here in Webster Groves or to the food pantry in Webster/Rock Hill for those here who need. Small histories in the hands of God do more than we know. This is God’s way. The local flavor of the Bible reminds me of my path.
3. What if God intended the local flavor of the Bible to distinguish vibrant community from provincialism? Gentiles are grafted in. Every tribe and tongue and nation bows. Dividing walls are broken down. Jonah must go to Nineveh. Paul who loves his own people more than his own life has a purpose for a people who are not his own. The local flavor of the Bible, does not approve of provincialism nor does it stifle mission. The temptation of those who give themselves to a locality is to pay no mind to those “outside” and assume that those “inside” are better, smarter, faster. The gospel frees us toward locality and from idolatry of place. In Jesus, the Bible apprentices us. Well, I need to go meet with a man on West Kirkham (also known at that corner as South Brentwood). My global purpose awaits!