Bible stories your mother never told you

More than once in my Air Force career my boss assigned me to lead an investigation into charges of sexual abuse. It turned out that in each case, a predator used a position of power to hurt someone who was vulnerable. I saw up close the pain inflicted on victims and families.

As the massive scandal of abuse by priests, and its cover up, continues to devastate the Catholic church (no religious tradition is immune), where can you find the resources to even begin to understand what’s going on?

I suggest those resources are in the bible, in the stories your mother never told you.

David and Bathsheba isn’t exactly a bedtime favorite among parents. Neither is the story of David’s son Amnon, who became obsessed with his sister Tamar “to the point of illness” (2 Samuel 13:2).

My mother never told me the story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19).

Is the problem just men in power? Consider Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:7), or Lot’s daughters (Genesis 19:31). The bible stories your mother never told you encompass people in nearly every category imaginable.

So why are these stories in the bible?

Because they’re true, and because the bible is completely realistic about human depravity.

We tend to avoid the truth when it offends us. Not the bible.

We tend to take the protagonists of the bible and turn them into moral examples. We teach kids, “Be strong like David.” But ultimately that’s not the message of the Bible. The message of the bible is, even “the best of us,” even people like David, are capable of the worst kinds of evil. On our own, we’re helpless to save ourselves. We need someone who really was perfect to pay the price for the evil in us and save us from ourselves.

The bible stories your mother never told you are proof that the worst human behavior is no surprise to God.

The bible stories she did tell you—the miracles, the healings, the cross, the empty tomb—are proof that God cares, and is doing something about it.

What all the stories—the ones we love and the ones we overlook—point to is Jesus Christ. Jesus stepped into the world he created and took the worst kind of abuse on himself. And people in power were his chief abusers.

And he defeated them.

A story I love is the one from late in the day on the first Easter, of the risen Jesus showing his bewildered disciples his wounds. The wounds inflicted by his abusers were the proof to his disciples that he was who he claimed to be.

They’re the proof to us that our wounds matter to God, and that Jesus can take the worst things we suffer in this life and weave them into the new reality he’s creating.

Warnings, cautions, notes

People who fly jets sometimes do things with the airplane that the designer never intended, leading to accidents that cause injury or death.

When an accident occurs, it usually leads to a human solution, a change to the operator’s manual, so future crewmembers won’t repeat the mistake.

A “warning” is something that if not followed, could lead to injury or death.

A “caution,” if not followed, could lead to equipment damage.

A “note” is something that’s recommended but not required.

Operator’s manuals are filled with warnings, cautions, and notes arising out of accidents, hence the aircrew saying that the manuals are “written in blood.”

Sometimes an accident also leads to a hardware fix; airplanes retrofitted with a device to help keep crewmembers from making the same mistake.

What’s my point?

Our church is confronting a difficult situation. A few “guests” are using the building in a way that was never intended. Some sleep outside, and a few leave trash, human waste, and the occasional needle. It can be awful, especially for our staff who bear the brunt of the mess.

Does this call for a human solution, a “hardware fix,” or both? There’s a case to be made for all sides.

A proposed hardware fix is to install gates to help keep people off church property after hours.

A human solution might be to engage the folks who cause the problem. Most are mentally ill or addicted; victims of the epidemic sweeping our country.

Some proposed aircraft hardware fixes are too cumbersome or expensive. The fix might prevent the problem, but it would also keep the plane from working as intended. An airplane that doesn’t fly is safe, but what good is it?

In the church, my sense is that a human problem first calls for a human solution. We should work with the street teams who minister to the city’s homeless.

As crewmembers, we need to remember what the Designer has in mind.


Paradigm shift

After 18 years of service in the Air Force, I got my dream job to command a flying unit. It was the only flying command for folks in my career field, and I was fortunate to get it.

And then Congress voted to close the base.

Instead of making the squadron the best it could be (my dream) my role was to keep the mission going while the unit got smaller and smaller as people moved on to new assignments. Best I can tell, nobody ever dreamed of doing that.

Now I have another dream job. I’m the pastor of an amazing church in the heart of a transforming city. “Where would you put a church?” I ask. The answer is, right here, where ours has been for 245 years. I am truly blessed.

But there’s a challenge, and it seems to me it’s not unlike the one I had a long time ago.

For most of my time on the planet, it was normal for people to attend church. Attending church would lead people to serve and grow in faith. The church in North America worked on this paradigm for most of the 20th century.

Attendance led to engagement.

Now it’s just the opposite. Now the church has to engage people where they are and give them ways to serve. When people see the church making a difference, maybe they’ll attend, and some will grow in faith.

Engagement leads to attendance.

Churches everywhere are missing this paradigm shift, and when they do, they’re effectively voting to close.

The early church never built buildings and expected people to attend. It went to its neighbors and engaged them. People came to faith after seeing the church make a difference in their lives.

It turned out that my dreams for an Air Force career were too small. I was blessed to have more great jobs I’d never even dreamed about. I think it can be true for the church too, if we engage the folks to whom God is calling us.


We have an interesting situation in the church where I pastor.

We serve a meal on Tuesday nights attended by a lot of hurting folks, including the materially poor and homeless.

About the same number of people come to worship in our sanctuary on Sunday.

But few of our Tuesday guests worship with us on Sunday. And only a small number of dedicated members help serve the Tuesday meals.

It’s as if we have a Tuesday congregation and a Sunday congregation. Why is that?

Matthew 9 tells the story of the call of the disciple Matthew. Jesus saw him sitting in a tax collector’s booth and said, “Follow me.” Matthew got up and followed. That night, Jesus went to Matthew’s house for dinner, and some of Matthew’s tax collector friends were there too. The Pharisees (New Testament scholar Dale Bruner calls them the “Serious”) wanted to know why Jesus ate with “sinners.”

The Serious had a point. They’d inherited a tradition, much of it coming directly from God himself, which said a good Jew needed to avoid sinners. The entire concept of God choosing a people to bless all of humankind depended on the Jews keeping themselves separate from the pagan world. This separateness helped them relate to a holy God.

And did we mention? In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were considered the worst sinners of all, on par with murderers.

So, which is it Jesus? Do your followers hang out with “sinners,” or do they keep themselves separate?

Which is harder, for the Serious to see themselves among the sinners, or the sinners to see themselves among the Serious?

Jesus was able to hang out with the most hurting people, and take their hurts upon himself, without becoming one of them.

Somehow, with Jesus, it was never “either/or” but always “both/and.”

The extra mile

It’s one of the most famous sayings in the Bible. Jesus said, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

In Jesus’ day, there were few things people hated more than the Roman occupation. There were Jewish rebels who wanted to kill any Roman solider they saw. It was especially galling that Roman soldiers could order anyone to carry their gear for a mile. Jesus’ command that his followers should voluntarily go an extra mile would have seemed ridiculous.

We hear the phrase “go the extra mile,” as “push yourself, go above and beyond.” But in Jesus’ day, one of the most humiliating things that could happen to you was to have a hated, pagan, occupying soldier make you carry his stuff. Jesus was saying, “Accept the humiliation. Go with him two miles.”

We don’t think this way at all. When someone humiliates me, I usually start imagining what I’m going to say to put them in their place.

How many times have you seen a situation escalate into real violence because someone had their pride wounded?

How many times have you seen a situation diffused when someone refused to be goaded into a fight?

Don’t you wish our politicians today took Jesus’ sayings to heart?

Jesus never condoned murder or injustice; that’s not what this command is about.

If anyone was ever humiliated; if anyone had a right to be angry about the way he was treated, it was Jesus Christ. Instead, he turned anger and humiliation into grace. That’s what he’s calling us to do.

He didn’t carry the gear for a soldier, he carried a cross for us.