Saturday, November 30, 2013

Christmas Break

Once again this year I'm taking a break from blogging until after the presents are unwrapped and Christmas dinner eaten.  To get all of that ready and still post here would be more than I'm humanly capable of!  So I'll say Merry Christmas to my Christian readers and Season's Greetings to everyone else-- and since I've found that Susan Cooper evokes the holiday mood better than just about anyone else I've ever read, I'll leave you with some paragraphs from The Dark is Rising:
For this was Christmas, which had always been a time of magic, to him and to all the world.  This was a brightness, a shining festival . . . Indoors, the tree glowed and glittered, and the music of Christmas was in the air, and spicy smells came from the kitchen, and in the broad hearth of the living room the great twisted Yule root flickered and flamed as it gently burned down. . . They pounded up to their respective bedrooms and came down with packages to be added to the growing pile beneath the tree. Will had been trying hard not to look at this magical heap ever since they came in from carol-singing, but it was sorely difficult. . . . 
And it was the same as it always was, as he lay curled up happily in his snug wrappings, promising himself that he would stay awake, until, until. . . Until he woke, in the dim morning room with a glimmer of light creeping round the dark square of the curtained window, and saw and heard nothing for an enchanted expectant space. . . And it was Christmas Day.

I believe the church did well, so long ago, when it set this great festival of Christ's birth at this most significant time of year, when the time of darkness has at last ceased lengthening and begun shortening again with each passing day, and the light has begun to grow.  For He is the light of the world, and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not-- happy holy days!  I'll be back for the New Year.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Reading The Dark Is Rising as an Adult Christian

When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back,
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, stone;
Five shall return, and one go alone.

- Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising, 1973
I first read The Dark is Rising (a children's book series written by Susan Cooper, and also the title of one of the books in that series) when I was 12 or 13.  I can't remember exactly how old I was.  What I can remember is how completely I was enthralled; it was one of those books that I lost myself in, so completely within that world that I forgot who and where I was and simply lived in the book, emerging for a gasp of real-world air and a snack every now and then, or when my parents annoyingly required something mundane of me, like setting the table or going to sleep.  The Dark Is Rising series is about a young English boy named Will who finds he has a special destiny related to the myths and legends of ancient Britain, about three other children named Simon, Jane and Barney who help him, and about a mysterious old man named Merriman who guides the plot towards its ultimate end.

When I was 15 I became a Christian.  I described that experience earlier in this blog-- but one thing that happened as I became more involved in the church and more enmeshed in evangelical Christian counter-culture was that I learned to be wary and suspicious of all forms of literature, music and art that were not overtly Christian.  I remember pulling my copy of The Dark Is Rising off a bookshelf at my parents' house when I was temporarily home from college, and shuddering at a scene where the forces of evil ("the Dark") attack during a Christmas service at the village Anglican church:

Farmer Dawson said very quietly but clearly from the group beside the door, "No, Rector." 
The rector seemed not to hearing him.  His eyes were wide, staring out at the snow. . . He managed to half-raise one arm and point behind him: ". . . vestry. . ." he gasped out. ". . . book, on table. . . exorcise. . . " 
"Poor brave fellow," said John Smith in the Old Speech.  "This battle is not for his fighting."
And then the Old Ones, the more-than-human beings whose destiny it is to war for the Light, place the rector in an oblivious trance and then fight off the forces of the Dark and restore peace.  The rector and his Christianity are neither friends nor enemies; they are simply irrelevant.  Later Will explains to the rector that
"Everything that matters is outside Time.  And comes from there and can go there. . the part of all of us, and of all the things we think and believe, that has nothing to do with yesterday or today or tomorrow because it belongs at a different kind of level. . . . And all Gods are there, and all the things they have ever stood for.  And the opposite, too."
The college-age me got rid of the entire set of books and decided never to read them again.

But I always remembered the effect this series had had on me when I was younger.  The sheer beauty of the settings and descriptions, the honesty and loyalty of the characters, the poetic justice and fulfillment of the exciting conclusion to each segment.  Still, good Christians didn't read neo-pagan books, and there seemed little doubt that The Dark Is Rising was neo-pagan.

This year, though, in the spirit of "testing everything and holding fast to what is good" (1 Thess. 5:21), I decided to pick up the books again.  I know the context of that 1 Thessalonians passage is about "not despising prophetic utterances" and "staying away from every form of evil," but I think the principle can be applied to many things.  I don't actually know, now, whether Susan Cooper is neo-pagan or not; she is reticent about her beliefs on her website and in her interviews.  But she does say in The Camelot Project interview that in The Dark is Rising series
I had to move away from [too close a parallel to King Arthur] because it seems to me that the Arthurian legend is parallel to the Christian story of the leader who dies for our salvation. Whereas what my books were trying to say is that nobody else can save us. We have to save ourselves.
Still, is there really nothing such an author can say to me, nothing in her books worth reading?   Especially if the author is a critically acclaimed, award-winning writer, for obvious reasons? 

I can no longer accept such a simplistic view of reality.

The thing is that, both now and when I was a child, I could recognize that these books are not a "form of evil" to be avoided per 1 Thess. 5:21.  There is the homely goodness of a scene like this:
On Christmas night, Will always slept with [his brother] James. The twin beds were still in James's room from the time before Will had moved [upstairs]. . . There was something about Christmas Eve, they felt, that demanded company; one needed somebody to whisper to, during the warm beautiful dream-taut moments between hanging the empty stocking at the end of the bed, and dropping into the cosy oblivion that would flower into the marvel of Christmas morning.
Or the ethereal grace of this:
The mare wheeled towards him, snuffling a greeting, and in the same enchanted, music-haunted moment as before, Will was up on the white horse of the Light, sitting in front of Merriman.  The ship tilted and swung, fully afloat now, and the white horse wheeled out of its way to stand nearby. . . So the mysterious king lay in dignity still, among his weapons and gleaming tribute, and Will had a glimpse of the mask-like white face as the great ship moved away downstream. . . watching the light glimmer on the golden stag of the prow.
And there is the uncompromising commitment to preserving the dignity and freedom of the ordinary individual in the face of dark forces that seek to control and enslave-- a theme arising out of Cooper's childhood in beleaguered England in the midst of the Second World War.  There is a quiet celebration of the love of family and the friendship of dogs, of the small English village and the rocky Cornish coastlands.  And finally, there is the humor mixed into the magic like salt into soup:
"Too much punch," said James, as his tall brother stretched gaping [yawning] in an armchair.
"Get lost," said Robin amiably.
"Who'd like a mince pie?" said Mrs. Stanton, coming in with a vast tray of cocoa mugs.
"James has had six already," said Mary in prim disapproval. "At the Manor."
"Now it's eight," said James, with a mince pie in each hand. "Yah.". . .
"Ho-ho-ho," said Will sepulchrally from the floor.  "Good little children never fight at Christmas." And since Mary was irresistably close to him, he grabbed her by the ankle. She collapsed on top of him, howling cheerfully.
"Mind the fire," said Mrs. Stanton, from years of habit.
It turns out that my Christianity is not as fragile as the church once led me to believe.  I'm not going to leave the faith because I read a book by an author who doesn't share it.  And my disagreement with some of her premises need not negate my enjoyment of, and even edification from, the joys of life and love and the beauties of courage and hope which she depicts so well.

The Protestant doctrine of common grace says that God's mercies are over all the world and that God's gifts and talents are spread generously among all people.  There is nothing to fear from a manifestation of that grace in any person, whether they agree with my theology or not.  The world is wider-- and God is bigger!-- than the narrow conceptions I had in the youth of my faith.

So I'm happy to once again call myself a fan of Susan Cooper and The Dark is Rising.  To have come full circle back to the pleasure I had as a child in a really good story.

And to find the footprints of Christ there, as I may find them anywhere.

I really don't think Ms. Cooper would mind.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Forgotten Women in Church History: Jerena Lee (1783-1860?)

Jerena Lee was the first female African-American preacher and evangelist in the United States.  Born in New Jersey in 1783 to free but poor black parents, she traveled in her lifetime over 2300 miles and preached nearly 200 sermons to gatherings of men and women, blacks and whites.  Everywhere she went the power of her preaching overcame the considerable prejudices of her era against both her sex and her race.

Most people today have never heard of her.

Though not a slave, Jerena Lee was separated from her parents at the tender age of seven, becoming a live-in maid for a white family.  She didn't see her own family again until she was 21.  In her early 20s she was converted to Christianity through the preaching of Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  When she was 28 she married a black preacher, Joseph Lee, who died only a few years later, leaving her to raise two small children on her own.

According to the pamphlet form of her autobiography, which is available online, Ms. Lee experienced a "call to preach the gospel" several years after she had become a Christian, but before her marriage.  She described it like this:
[O]n a certain time, an impressive silence fell upon me, and I stood as if some one was about to speak to me, yet I had no such thought in my heart. - But to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understand, which said to me, "Go preach the Gospel!" I immediately replied aloud, "No one will believe me." Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say - "Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and you will turn your enemies to become your freinds." [sic] 
At first I supposed that Satan had spoken to me, for I had read that he could transform himself into an angel of light for the purpose of deception. Immediately I went into a secret place, and called upon the Lord to know if he had called me to preach, and whether I was deceived or not; when there appeared to my view the form and figure of a pulpit, with a Bible lying thereon, the back of which was presented to me as plainly as if it had been a literal fact.
When Ms. Lee told her pastor, Richard Allen, that she felt called to preach, he responded that "our Discipline knew nothing at all about it-- it did not call for women preachers."  Jerena Lee felt a certain relief, but she also "found that a love of souls had in a measure departed from me; that holy energy which burned within me, as a fire, began to be smothered."

Nevertheless, Lee submitted to Rev. Allen and did not try again to preach.  Instead she married, birthed two children, and was widowed.  Eight years after her initial call, she was in church listening to the minister (Rev. Allen, by then a bishop, was also present) when the call came again:
But as [the minister] proceeded to explain [give the sermon], he seemed to have lost the spirit; when in the same instant, I sprang, as by altogether supernatural impulse, to my feet, when I was aided from above to give an exhortation on the very text which my brother Williams had taken. 
I told them I was like Jonah; for it had been then nearly eight years since the Lord had called me to preach his gospel to the fallen sons and daughters of Adam's race, but that I had lingered like him, and delayed to go at the bidding of the Lord, and warn those who are as deeply guilty as were the people of Nineveh. 
During the exhortation, God made manifest his power in a manner sufficient to show the world that I was called to labour according to my ability, and the grace given unto me, in the vineyard of the good husbandman. 
I now sat down, scarcely knowing what I had done, being frightened. I imagined, that for this indecorum, as I feared it might be called, I should be expelled from the church. But instead of this, the Bishop rose up in the assembly, and related that I had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put me off; but that he now as much believed that I was called to that work, as any of the preachers present. These remarks greatly strengthened me, so that my fears of having given an offence, and made myself liable as an offender, subsided, giving place to a sweet serenity, a holy joy of a peculiar kind, untasted in my bosom until then.
Leaving her children in the care of her mother and other family members, Ms. Lee began to travel and preach, even going into slaveholding states, where many slaves walked miles to hear her and then walked all night afterwards to return to their plantations before being missed.  Consulting no man and guided only through prayer and the invitations she received, she preached her way across the United States and Canada. Prejudice and resistance to her preaching was overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit over and over again throughout Jerena Lee's preaching career.  Here is one representative example:
L. W., a respectable brother from Chillicothe, had never heard a woman preach, and was much opposed to it. An appointment was given me, and when I went into the desk and commenced reading the hymn to commence the worship, he looked at me a while, then got up and went out and stood until I had nearly got through the hymn, and then he came in, when I asked him to pray for us but he refused. I prayed myself, after which I took my text, and felt much liberty in speaking in the spirit indeed. And after meeting he came and shook hands with me in the spirit of a Christian, and next day he came and confessed to me his prejudices had been so great, so much like his father, that he could not unite with me, but now he believed that God, was no respecter of persons, and that a woman as well as a man, when called of God, had a right to preach. He afterwards became a licensed preacher, and we parted in peace.
Lee's autobiography also details her arguments justifying her calling:
O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. For as unseemly as it may appear now-a-days for a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God. And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to preach? seeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as for the man. 
If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one? as those who hold it wrong for a woman to preach, would seem to make it appear. 
Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour, and is not the doctrine of the resurrection the very climax of Christianity - hangs not all our hope on this, as argued by St Paul? Then did not Mary, a woman, preach the gospel? for she preached the resurrection of the crucified son of God. . .
If then, to preach the gospel, by the gift of heaven, comes by inspiration solely, is God straitened: must he take the man exclusively? May he not, did he not, and can he not inspire a female to preach the simple story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, and accompany it too with power to the sinner's heart. As for me, I am fully persuaded that the Lord called me to labor according to what I have received, in his vineyard. If he has not, how could he consistently hear testimony in favor of my poor labors, in awakening and converting sinners?
Jerena Lee disappeared from public life at the age of 66, having ended her preaching career and completed and published her autobiography.  The date and place of her death are unknown.  But I can't help thinking of Acts 10:9-48, where Peter was shown in a vision that his understanding of God's work had been too limited, and that he must not call the Gentiles unclean or refuse to associate with them, for God's Spirit could fall on them as well as on Jews.  Peter had to let the evidence of the power of the Spirit overcome his understanding of the "biblical" way he thought things were supposed to work.  He couldn't deny that despite what looked like the "plain meaning" of the Scriptures that only Jews could be God's people, the Spirit of God had fallen on a bunch of uncircumcised Gentiles.

I remember a former pastor of mine once saying something similar after visiting China in the early 1990s. When he had seen the congregations and heard the preaching of several different young women (all of whom said they were called into ministry, and through whom many people's lives had been changed), my pastor said, "Who was I to argue with God?  I could no more deny the truth of their callings than I could deny the truth of my own."

In a time and place bent more strongly against her than is even conceivable today-- a time and place where black people were considered inferior, and black women even more so-- Jerena Lee walked in power from the Holy Spirit that could not be repudiated.  To Christians and non-Christians, leaders and laypeople, white and non-white, men and women, free people and slaves, she spoke with authority the call to repent, believe, and live a holy life. As she wrote:
[B]y the instrumentality of a poor coloured woman, the Lord poured forth his spirit among the people. Though, as I was told, there were lawyers, doctors, and magistrates present, to hear me speak. . . the Lord scattered fire among them of his own kindling. The Lord gave his hand-maiden power to speak for his great name, for he arrested the hearts of the people, and caused a shaking amongst the multitude, for God was in the midst.
The only way around it is to forget it ever happened.  And we've done a pretty good job of that.

But the time has come to remember Jerena Lee.

I'm not saying Ms. Lee was perfect.  I'm not saying she was right in every doctrine or that she never acted unspiritually.  But I am saying God chose her-- and He never lets imperfections bother Him when He chooses a man, so why should imperfections disqualify a woman?

But if the Bible is really "clear" that God forbids all women everywhere to ever teach or exercise authority over men, then when God chose Jerena Lee and sent her out on her own, without even a "male covering," He acted in contradiction of His own word.

Either that, or a "poor coloured woman" who loved God with all her heart, brought people to Christ by some unholy power.  But didn't Jesus have something serious to say to those who believed the same thing of Him?  Matthew 12:26-28.

What if God actually acted exactly in keeping with His own word?  "God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful." (1 Corinthians 1:27, NLT version)

Maybe what's really clear is that church hierarchies and the gatekeepers of doctrine sometimes think they're wise when they're not, and hold onto power when they shouldn't.  Maybe God can and does do things that just don't fit into restricting, limiting "biblical" boxes, and when we read the Bible that way, we're doing Him and ourselves a disservice.

Let's let the witness of Jerena Lee speak to us once again.  The gifts and callings of God are for all.



Pamphlet version of Lee's Religious Experience and Journal, published online

University of Minnesota's Voices from the Gaps

PBS's Africans in America Resource Bank

PBS's God in America

Susan Ditmire's History of Cape May County, New Jersey

Daughters of the Church by Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld, pp. 259-60.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Why I'm a Jesus Feminist

Jesus Feminist is the title of a new book by Christian writer, blogger and editor Sarah Bessey.  She is holding a synchroblog this week for people who, despite or perhaps because of their fears about using this potentially controversial name, still want to say "I'm a Jesus Feminist."

I'm a Jesus Feminist.

Because this quote from Sarah Bessey's book is nothing more nor less than what I have been saying on this blog for the last two years. (I'm sure her book says a lot more, though, and I really want to read it!)

Because neither Jesus nor feminism should be defined according to how they are represented by vocal extremes.

Because my Savior came to proclaim liberty to the captives.  Because feminism, when not defined by extremes, proclaims the simple truth that women and men are equal in humanity, equal in dignity, equal in worth.

Equal, Jesus feminism adds, in Imago Dei, the image of God.  Equal in the pouring out of God's Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17).  For the sake of the gospel of Christ, who said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10), a woman must be free.

became a Christian at the age of 15.  But I think I've always been a feminist.

In 1963 when I was born, men were still firmly in charge of everything.  I remember my mother trying hard to make everything just right for when my father came home.  She'd have his cocktail and slippers waiting, and dinner on the stove.  I grew up understanding housework as a woman's job, and earning money as a man's job.  I knew that because I was a girl, I would not be drafted if the Vietnam War or some other conflict was still raging when I came age-- and that my parents were profoundly grateful for that.   And I knew my father had the ultimate say at our house, though my mother usually got her way anyway.

Yet I also knew to the depths of my soul that I was as good as any boy.  I was smart.  Schoolwork came easy for me.  I knew I was a person, as valuable as any other person, male or female.  And despite the non-verbal messages they were giving me, my parents also told me that if I worked hard and developed my skills and talents, I could be anything I wanted.  No one ever said, "That is, if you were a boy. . . "

Until I became a Christian.

Not right away.  Not when I was still a "baby believer," figuring out what it meant to have been born again. But soon.

"You are a woman of God," the church told me.  "Learn to be a submissive wife to the husband you'll have someday.  Learn to be a homemaker and mother like the Proverbs 31 woman.  You can speak in church, and even be a leader, but only a leader of other women.  Embrace your calling, and don't sin by wanting something other than you were created to be."

Created to be led.  Created to be restricted.  Created to be subordinate.

Equal, but somehow less.

And I learned to embrace this because I thought it was the only way to be a Christian. I took comfort in the idea that Jesus submitted to the Father's authority even though He was equal to the Father.  That my subordination was by choice, something an equal could choose to do, which meant I remained an equal making a decision, not an inferior accepting the inevitable.

Even though subordination was presented as the only choice, if I really wanted to follow Christ and obey God.   Even though the leader-follower relationship between me and the man I married in 1988 often felt forced, even hypocritical, as if we were giving lip service to a hierarchy we somehow couldn't seem to actually bring off.

Even though there didn't really seem to be anything about the women I knew that made them less suited to be elders or pastors.

I lived with this cognitive dissonance for years and years.  And then in February 2008 a scholarly blogger friend of mine who called himself Metacrock introduced me to his friends at the Egalitarian Christian Alliance and their Equality Central Forum.

Only five years ago.   And yet it changed so many things.

It felt like walking from a darkened room into sunlight.

I found out that there was a different way to read the Bible, that spent more time exploring its historical and cultural context.  A way that focused on finding, as far as possible, the original author's intended communication, as it would have been understood by the original readers.  A way that stepped back from individual bits of text to view the grand sweep of the whole story of God's revelation to humanity.  A way that looked at the new creation and the kingdom of God as things both now and not yet-- culminations of the gospel which will one day finally end all injustice and inequity.

And it didn't seem to be about subordinating or limiting or restricting people, but about setting us all free.  Men and women alike, free of restricting roles (you must be the conqueror, you the nurturer; you must always be the leader, you always the follower) to become fully themselves, whoever and whatever they were created to be.  And this idea, this radical release from categories and their fetters, seemed to anticipate the fullness of God's kingdom and the new creation that is and is to come: "Neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, not male and female."  Galatians 3:28.  Maybe we really could all be "one in Christ Jesus."   Maybe we really could stop viewing one another according to the flesh. (2 Corinthians 5:16).  Maybe instead of one leading and one following, a man and a woman could go where God sent them together, by mutual agreement, hand in hand.

And maybe this has always been meant to start here in this world, with Jesus and the way He treated people-- especially women-- as the first fruits.  Maybe that's why He chose women to announce His resurrection.  Maybe that's why He said, "The greatest among you shall be the servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."  Matthew 23:11-12.

In the end I embraced Jesus feminism because it was the only thing that made sense to me.  The way out of cognitive dissonance into a new phase of relationship with Him, dizzy with thankfulness and new-found freedom.  The way to rediscover what I had always, deep-down, been sure of.

Being female does not mean I am less.  That I'm "equal-but."  That I'm in the Imago Dei, but somehow not quite as much as if I were male.

No.  I was created in His image (Genesis 1:27) and recreated in Christ Jesus to do good works (Ephesians 2:10).  It is God's good pleasure to give me the kingdom (Luke 12:32) which we all enter in the same way-- as little children, without privilege or status greater than anyone else.

I'm still as good as any boy.  I wasn't born to be restricted and subordinated and led. And my sisters and I must be free.

For the Bible-- and my Jesus-- tell me so.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Christian Cliches: "Lean Not on Your Own Understanding"

When I was part of Maranatha Campus Ministries back in the 1980s, "Lean not on your own understanding" was a cliche they were particularly fond of.  I remember when they were teaching us that Genesis 1:28, where God told the first male and female to "have dominion. . . over every living thing that moves on the earth," was a divine mandate meaning that today Christians are to "have dominion" in society and government, to "take over" for Jesus and make Christian principles and morality the "law of the land."  I remember shaking my head in puzzlement.  That passage doesn't say anything about human beings ruling over other human beings.  According to that passage, there weren't any other human beings back then to have dominion over! I thought.  But when I tried to express some of this to others in the group, their response was, "Lean not on your own understanding."  We were to believe what the Bible said (by which they actually meant what the leaders interpreted the Bible as saying) without question.  We were to think as we were told to think. To do otherwise was not "trusting in the Lord."  It was "leaning on our own understanding."

Another way this cliche is sometimes used is to elevate ideology over practicality; to keep people clinging to a particular "conviction" about how the Christian life is best lived, even if life itself is increasingly showing that the ideological system just doesn't work.  Vyckie Garrison, a former Quiverfull movement member, wrote about this a while back in an open letter where she commiserated with a fellow member who had tragically lost a child during a home birth:
Although we both knew full well that a big part of what makes for better outcomes in natural childbirth is when fully-informed pregnant moms are in control ~ they are listening to their bodies and trusting their instincts ~ as Christian quiverfull women, we also learned to distrust our feelings and we daily practiced dying our own selves, surrendering control, leaving the decision-making to those in rightful authority. . . Looking back, I can clearly see now how verses such as “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart, lean not on your own understanding”. . . set us up as women to doubt our own perceptions ~ to dismiss our fears as irrational or as the devil sowing seeds of distrust. Our deeply beloved belief system denied us an important safety net ~ that of our own feelings. When our bodies and our minds screamed out, “Something is wrong!” our faith calmed us down. . . .
Both of these meanings of "lean not on your own understanding" are spiritually abusive, cliched versions of scripture that divorce the meaning from its context, both biblical and historical. I don't think either of these things is what "lean not on your own understanding" is really about.

The words actually come from Proverbs 3:5-6:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
This verse is part of a long set of instructions and counsel given by a father and/or mother to a son (see Proverbs 1:8).  Verses 7 and 8 of Proverbs 3 together form a poetic parallel-- a form of Hebrew writing in which two sentences say the same thing in slightly different ways:
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear [revere] the Lord and shun evil.
This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.
"Do not be wise in your own eyes," then, is basically a restatement of "Lean not on your own understanding."  The word "understanding" there is the Hebrew biynah, which refers to the grasp of knowledge. To put it in today's vernacular, what is being said is, "Don't think you have all the answers."

The problem is this.  When "Trust in the Lord with all your heart" comes to actually mean "Trust in what you think the Bible is saying without considering any other interpretation," or "Trust in the doctrines taught by the leaders of your particular movement without question" -- this is the exact opposite of the Proverb's intention.  If we really stop believing we have all the answers, this should make us more willing to question what we think or have been taught to believe. It should make us more open to the evidence and realities around us.  It should increase our sensitivity to such things as gut feelings, which are a different thing than "understanding" and which may very well come from God.

Also, the Proverb says "with all your heart."  What we mean by "heart" and what it meant in Bible times are two different things.  We think "heart" is only about feelings and instincts; we use the word "mind" when we mean our thoughts and reasoning processes.  "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding" thus is easily misinterpreted as advice to focus on our feelings towards God and to leave our reasoning out of it.  But the word translated "heart" is the Hebrew word leb, which refers to the whole inmost self: feelings, thoughts, conscience, memories, inclinations, decisions.  If our whole innermost selves are relying on God rather than on our own understanding-- whether it's our own grasp of knowledge or that of a church leader or an ideological group-- then we can listen to new input and our own reactions, learn facts and knowledge we may not have been aware of, and lean on the Holy Spirit to help us sift through it all.

I believe Paul was expressing the essential meaning of Proverbs 3:5-6 when he said, "Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God." (1 Corinthians 8:1-2.)   This part of Paul's letter is about how "knowledge" about food sacrificed to idols can be destructive to others-- as any form of knowledge can when it becomes elevated into an ideology that trumps actual human needs.

"Lean not on your own understanding" was never meant to support any such ideology. It was never meant to support trusting in our own grasp of knowledge-- even our knowledge of the Bible-- over trusting in the Lord Himself.

Our faith isn't supposed to be in formulas, or in how if we push the right buttons according to our ideologies, everything will be rosy.  It's when we treat faith like that that we're actually leaning on our own understanding.  Not when we're healthily questioning, listening and learning.

So let's stop acting like we have all the answers.  That way we can grow in our understanding rather than leaning on it.