THE RIGHT TOOLS

I love tools. I watch the sales fliers from various tool sellers and drool over the tools on sale. When I can, I buy tools, everything to tiny screwdrivers to work on eyeglasses to drills, saws, clamps–you name it and I probably want it. And, unlike some people I know, I enjoy using my tools. Having just the right tool on a shelf or hanging on the wall when I need it is one of the little joys of my life. I don’t often need a right angled Robertson number 2 screwdriver–but when I do, I have one in my tool box.

Given that reality, it is probably not strange that I look for tools in all areas of my life, including my faith. So, in this post, I am going to share some of my favourite tools that I use in the context of reading, studying and understanding the Bible. Just as in my workshop, so in dealing with the Bible, there are times when having the right tool can make the difference between success and failure.

The first and most obvious tool is the Bible. And here, the best advice I can give is to get as many different translations as possible. Every translation is an attempt to express the original Greek and Hebrew in the language of a particular time and place. The more such attempts we read, the better our overall understanding of the Bible. Some may even want to learn Biblical Greek and Hebrew to help with the process but for most, using a variety of translations is a cheaper, easier and less time consuming substitute.

A second tool that I find valuable is a way to search the Bible. Back in the pre-computer days, these were called “Concordances”. You looked up the word you wanted and it gave you a list of verses where the word occurred. The difficulty was that each translation needed its own specific concordance and not every translation was popular enough to warrant the production of a concordance.

Today, the concordance has basically been replaced by electronic versions of the Bible, which allow for quick and easy searches. I have Bibles on my phone, my tablet and my laptop and can quickly find any word or topic or verse I want. I can follow themes through the Bible, look at how word usage changes in the Bible and so on. Whether using a paper concordance or an electronic search feature, the ability to find words and ideas is an extremely valuable tool.

A third tool is books that help understand what we are reading. Christians have been reading the Bible in its present form since about 300AD and have written handbooks, commentaries, study guides galore. Whether it is an entry level Bible Handbook or the latest scholarly multi-volume commentary, these books are a valuable tool. We need to be discriminating and careful since not all books have the same value but the thoughts and comments we read can make a big difference in our ability to understand the Bible.

A fourth and often overlooked tool is the church. As believers, we are joined together with other believers to form the church. One of our tasks as a church is to help educate each other, a task that includes helping people better understand the Bible. Through the church and its Bible study groups, Sunday School classes, preaching, special classes and other things, we are all helped in our understanding of the Bible’s message.

Making use of the church and its resources helps us avoid the all too common trap of getting stuck or fixated on some interpretation that is wrong or misguided or incomplete. It is a mistake to think that any one person can understand every part of the Bible perfectly.

The purpose of the tools is to help us understand and follow what we are reading in the Bible. I am convinced that a lot of people who would like to read the Bible are stopped by their inability to understand what they are reading. Having and using the tools mentioned here can make the process of understanding a lot easier. In my mind, anything that enables people to understand the Bible and therefore read it more is a important and valuable.

May the peace of God be with you.

I CAN’T UNDERSTAND IT

After the boredom factor, the reason many people stop reading the Bible is the inability to understand what they are reading. They may find themselves the ideal translation, one that does everything possible to make the language of the Scriptures fit their cultural and linguistic context but once they begin reading, they are confronted by things they don’t understand.

The lack of understanding comes for a lot of reasons:

• The Bible is written from a very different cultural perspective–or better, it is written from many different cultural perspectives. These cultural differences often confuse the point of the story. For example, in Matthew 17.24-28, Jesus and Peter have a discussion about the temple tax. Jesus asks Peter is citizens or foreigners pay tax–and the answer is that foreigners pay tax, a very real cultural difference that makes the passage hard to understand and deal with from our cultural perspective.

• The Bible is written using many different styles and approaches. Some, like the Psalms is poetic. Some, like the Gospels and Acts, is more factual. Some, like Revelation is highly symbolic. Each style and approach needs to be read differently because the meaning is understood as much from the style as the actual words.

• The Bible is a gift from God to all people of all time. But what is vitally important for one people at one time isn’t always significant for another people and time. The agricultural laws from Leviticus were vital for a nomadic people looking ahead to becoming farmers or former African refugees learning how to farm again but are probably confusing for an urbanized, highly technology culture.

• Some parts of the Bible were actually written to be confusing and hard to understand. Revelation and parts of Daniel and Ezekiel, for example, were written for believers struggling through tough times. The writers used symbolism and references that the readers would understand but which outsiders would not understand in order to communicate hope to the readers. Even though we read these passages as believers, we are from a different time and culture and don’t always get the references.

• The Bible was originally written in Greek and Hebrew, languages that exist today but which are very much changed from the actual language of the Bible. Even translators who are expert in these languages struggle sometimes to understand what the words are trying to communicate–just look at the notes that accompany any newer translation of the Bible

• At times when we read the Bible, we don’t really want to understand what it is saying. The Bible has the ability to reach into our lives and touch us right where we don’t want to be touched. We read that we are supposed to love our neighbours, for example, but like the man in Luke 10.29, we want to know just who is our neighbour, rather than dealing with the truth that Jesus provides in the parable that answers the question.

So, with all these difficulties, is there any point in reading the Bible? Most definitely. There are ways to deal with most of the difficulties encountered in reading the Bible and we will look at some of them in future blogs.

But we also need to realize that there is a great deal of Biblical material that is totally comprehensible with even a quick reading. We may not understand the all details of Roman taxation practices in New Testament times but we can understand the Biblical message that we are not what we should be; that God loves us; that Jesus is the supreme sign of God’s love; that God wants us to be with him–these messages come through very clearly and forcefully.

Sometimes, I think we prefer to struggle with the parts of the Bible we don’t understand because of the parts we do understand. The challenge of the understandable parts is sometimes a threat–when I really understand that even at my best, I fall short of what I could be with God’s help, that is a real challenge and even threat to my self-understanding. It is less painful to try to work out the symbolism of Revelation than it is to surrender myself to God through Jesus so that he can make me what I was meant to be.

So, in the face of the hard to understand parts, always deal first with the parts you understand. The understandable parts are there for a reason–to speak to the reader. The parts that are hard to understand can speak as well–but first, we need to deal with the parts we can understand.

May the peace of God be with you.

BOWELS AND MERCIES

The title of this post isn’t an indication that I have reverted to pre-teen male humour. The title is actually a Biblical quote, taken from Philippians 2.1 of the King James Version. I often use this quote to deal with another of the significant problems that keeps people from actually reading the Bible. Many people tell me they started to read the Bible but stopped because they couldn’t understand it.

When I explore the issue with them, I discover that some have started to read the Bible in the King James Version. Now, I happen to have spent my formative years in the faith reading the KJV. Many times when I am thinking of a Biblical passage, it comes to me from the KJV. Often, when I am looking for a verse in a concordance or with an electronic search program, I end up searching the KJV first, because that it how I remember the key words or themes.

But as a pastor and teacher, I encourage people new to the Scripture to avoid the KJV. Since I am part of the conservative Church, that advice occasionally produces some criticism from people who like me were raised on the KJV but who, unlike me, still insist on its use.

I am not against the KJV–but I do believe that trying to help people understand God’s revelation by forcing them to read it from a book that uses 400 year old language is counter-productive. The English language has changed and developed significantly over those years–what the translators in 1605 meant by “bowels and mercies” is better expressed by words like “tenderness and compassion”, as the New International Version translates Paul’s words.

I think is makes much more sense to encourage people to read God’s Word in a form they can access, rather than have them engage in the process of learning what amounts to another language first before they can understand what God is saying to them. And we who speak English are blessed with a wealth of translations to choose from. From translations directed to people just learning English to translations for regional variations of the English language to translations appealing to Biblical scholars, we have a wealth of translations available. A person who speaks English and wants to read God’s word can find a translation that is tailor made for his/her version of English.

As well as translations, there are also paraphrases of the Bible which have proven very popular over the years. A translation sticks close to the original wording while a paraphrase seeks to express the meaning of the passage using concepts and ideas that are familiar to the reader. A translation is much better for serious study of the Scripture while a paraphrase can help the reader capture the meaning better. Paraphrases become dated much faster than translations, though, because they are an attempt to put the Bible into the English of a specific time and place.

So, when I encourage people to read the Bible, I tell them to use a modern translation, which I offer to help them choose. Over the years, I have been a collector of translations and have read through the Bible in most of the modern translations and many of the older ones as well so I feel I can help people find one that helps them.

What I am trying to do is help people access the Word of God in a form that speaks to their mind and heart. I want them to have the ability to understand as much of the instruction book as possible. Like many, I get really frustrated trying to understand the instruction books that come with things manufactured somewhere that uses a language other than English and which are very poorly translated into English. I want to be able to understand the instructions so I can use whatever I have bought. When people want to know about God, I want them to have as clear a direction book as possible.

Short of learning Greek and Hebrew, our best way of reading God’s word is to find the translation that speaks directly to us. If the person speaks English, we help them discover the English translation that speaks most clearly to them. If they speak another language, we help them find–or create–a translation in that language. In the end, we want people to hear God speaking to them through his word–and the wealth of translations assures people that God speaks their language.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE DIRECTION BOOK

My last post (Read the Directions, Feb 19/16) was written earlier and I had intended it to be a standalone post, one in the string of stories I was writing. But after I had written it and moved on to another one, I realized that I didn’t want to leave that idea alone. For most of my ministry, I have been encouraging people to read and study the Bible. I have always led Bible Studies as a pastor, I have developed Bible reading programs in churches, I have helped people get free or low cost Bibles. The more Biblically literate Christians are, the better it is for the Faith.

However, there are some annoying realities that people run into when they begin reading the Bible. Often, we in leadership try to gloss over the problems, perhaps hoping that we can get people reading the Bible and that an excitement will develop that will keep them going. All too often, the very leaders trying to use this technique to encourage others to read the Bible are guilty of not actually reading much of the Bible themselves.

The Bible is God’s revelation to us–it is filled with things we need to know, things that will help us in our faith journey, things that bring comfort and peace in hard times, things that inspire and excite–but all these wonderful things are scattered randomly among the pages of a book that can be very boring, hard to understand and difficult to follow.

A lot of believers make commitments to reading through the Bible. They begin with great enthusiasm and excitement and make wonderful headway. The more devoted might even make it through Genesis. But even the most faithful and committed often begin to stumble in Exodus and if they make it through Leviticus, are pretty much finished by the time they reach Numbers.

The end result is that perhaps the majority of Christians get most of their Scripture from what they hear in worship on Sunday morning. They also have some stories they remember from Sunday School but would likely have a hard time when asked to place the stories in context. (Does Moses come before or after David?) A few, those who attend Bible Study, get a bit more but I think it is a fair statement to say that for most Christians, including a depressing number of Christian leaders, the Bible is a revered, respected and unread book.

So, for the next few posts, I am going to look at some of the problems that keep people from reading the Bible. I have discovered a few techniques to help overcome some of the problems which I will offer and I will eventually get to the real secret of reading the Bible. I can’t guarantee that these ideas will help you or anyone read the Bible more consistently but I offer them as a help in the process.

The biggest issue I have found with reading the Bible consistently is the boredom factor. I know the Bible is the word of God–but there are vast sections of it that are just plain boring. I have a friend who wrote a large commentary on the Book of Numbers–but I can barely stay awake when Numbers comes around in my Bible reading scheme.

In the face of people trying to tell me that the Word of God can never be boring, I offer the long lists of laws and penalties in Leviticus. They might be fascinating to a Jewish historian but to a busy Baptist pastor, they are often a road block to reading through the Bible.

There is an easy solution to the boring parts–we can skim them or even skip them. I advocate skimming rather than skipping because every now and then, something interesting pops out of even the most boring parts. As heretical as it might sound, not all parts of the Bible are equally valuable to all people all the time. The Bible is God’s gift to all humanity for all time and as such contains stuff that is vital to some people someplace at some time–but not every section is vital to every person at every time.

And because of that, when we get bogged down, skim through it. There are going to be enough passages that catch and hold your attention that the fast skim of the laws of Leviticus or the histories of the kings isn’t going to distort or damage your spiritual growth. And, should you ever really need the skimmed stuff, you know where it is.

May the peace of God be with you.

READ THE DIRECTIONS

At one point when I was growing up, I learned a very important lesson, one that I try to remember but frequently forget–and when I forget this lesson, I generally have problems. The lesson came one Christmas Eve after I had reached my teen years and was considered mature enough to understand the real truth about Christmas. That truth was that the toy assembly workshop was not at the North Pole but at our kitchen table and Santa and his helpers were Dad and me.

That wasn’t the key lesson though. The key lesson came as I watched my father try to assemble various Santa gifts from the “that looks like it goes there” perspective. After a significant tension developed which put the expensive potential gift at serious risk, I began to sneak peeks at the direction sheet and make suggestions based on the revelations I saw there. It helped–we got the toy assembled and the tension dissipated. In my mind, I wrote down a rule: Read the Directions!”

The rule worked well, when I remembered it. But I am male–and we have a well documented dislike of reading directions. I am also a tinkerer and think that I can figure things out because there are really only a few ways things can work. Overall, reading directions works better.

I discovered a few years ago that I needed to revise my rule. Instead of just reading them, I need to read them until I understand them. Again, a good rule and one that works well when I remember it–and always causes problems when I don’t. I recently got a new tool for my workshop, one that I had been wanting for awhile. I opened the box, grabbed the instructions and read them–well, I actually skimmed them because what could they say that I didn’t already know?

I mean, I have been working with tools for most of my life and while I have never owned this particular tool, I know lots of people who have it and I have stood beside them a lot and seen the tools in action–so a quick skim of the directions would fulfill my prime directive–but I didn’t really need to do much more than that. I wanted to use the tool.

So, prime directive finished, I unpacked the tool, found the power cord and was ready to plug it in when I realized that when it had been packed for shipping, it was secured in a strange position and would have to be released to use it. I poked and prodded, loosened and tightened stuff, pulled and pushed–but nothing worked. I skimmed the directions again but found nothing to help so in frustration, I left the tool–that was a better option than throwing it in the garbage before I used it.

Eventually, I went back to the instructions, slowed down my reading and discovered the line in the instructions that told me how to release the tool from its shipping position. In my defence, the instructions were a bad translation from some other language, the illustrations were poorly drawn and the relevant line was hidden in brackets in a long paragraph. But with some work, I found it, followed it and used the tool as it was meant to be used–to make nice boards into sawdust.

So now, I have three prime directives: read the directions, understand the directions, follow the directions.

On another related topic, a significant percentage of Christians have never read the whole Bible. Many don’t read it at all. Even some Christian leaders haven’t taken the time necessary to read the whole Bible. Some of those who do read it don’t actually seek to understand what they are reading–something that becomes painfully obvious when they quote the Bible in inappropriate contexts.

There is a direct connection between Biblical literacy and effectiveness and value of personal and corporate faith. The more we read, study and follow the directions, the more we are able to make our faith an effective part of our lives. Certainly, we believe–but when we don’t give the directions the time and effort they are due, we aren’t able to experience the full benefits of our faith. It will still be more useful than my unpacked tool but it could be much more valuable to us and others if we remembered to read the directions, study the directions and follow the directions.

May the peace of God be with you.

LOVE YOURSELF

One day early in my pastoral career, I was out visiting people. I believe a pastor needs to spend time with people on a regular basis–it is hard to do effective ministry without a basic knowledge of what makes people tick. This particular day saw me visiting people who were dealing with grief.

As a pastor, I have a informal schedule of visits that I make after a death to keep an eye on people and be able to provide help when and if they need it. There are frequent visits right after the loss, less frequent ones as time progresses and then follow up ones later on. This particular day, the informal schedule resulted in a three visits to people at different stages of their process.

As the afternoon progressed, I was feeling more and more tired–the coffee and cookies I was offered during the visits wasn’t doing much to overcome the fatigue. I was getting more and more tired but I had more visits to do. The temptation was to push through and hope that the next cup of coffee at the next visit would make a difference.

But after the third visit, I made a decision. At the time, I was taking a course dealing with depression and I realized that I was slipping into a depression state, something I am prone to. While I can and do get depressed because of a variety of reasons, my depression that day didn’t come from inside me–I was actually picking up and internalizing the depression of the people I was visiting. Grief and depression often hang out in the same place.

My decision was to recognize that I was in danger of slipping into a deeper depression of my own as a result of the visits I was making. I could continue working and let the depression come or I could do something that would help me avoid the depression. This isn’t an uncommon decision for me to have to make and a lot of times, I make the wrong one.

That particular day, it would have been easy to keep going and allow the depression to develop. I had other people to see, other things to do. It was also snowing and windy and if I didn’t see the people I needed to see, it might be a while before I could visit again because of the snow. But in spite of all that, I decided that I needed to nip the depression in the bud. I went home, changed my clothes and went cross-country skiing on the marsh in the blizzard.

Some might accuse me of skipping ministry to go have fun. But I think I was engaged in some very important ministry when I was skiing on the marsh. I was ministering to myself. That is a ministry that many of us never learn how to do. We become so focused on helping others, identifying and ministering to the needs of others, giving of ourselves to help others that we push ourselves and our own needs so far into the background that we get lost.

We are often taught as believers that this is the goal–to make ourselves less and less important. And while there is a long history of this self-denial being associated with “good” believers, it is neither healthy nor particularly valuable spiritually. While we are to have a strong focus on ministering to others, we are also required by our faith to minister to ourselves.

There are many possible Scriptures that back this up but one of the clearest and most pointed comes from Matthew 22.39, where Jesus tells us the second great commandment is “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” (NIV) I think we miss the point of these words. Ultimately, Jesus is making it clear that a healthy love for others can only grow out of a healthy love of self.

If I as a pastor had encountered someone on the verge of a depression, I would have counselled them to follow the path that would help them deal with the depression and avoid the path that would deepen the depression. Doing that would be an appropriate expression of loving my neighbour. And if that is a good expression of loving my neighbour, it is also an appropriate expression of loving myself–what is good for my neighbour is also good for me.

May the peace of God be with you.

SHANNON

I had originally planned on using the current story theme for a few days and then move on to something else but I kept thinking about stories that meant something to me so the string has been extended a bit. Shannon’s story has given me a lot to think about since it happened so today, I want to share it.

Shannon was one of our students during our last time working in Kenya. Because of the interesting process of translating English names into an African language, her name is actually pronounced something like “sha NAN”. Shannon, like the majority of our theology students, came from a small, rural church. I didn’t know her pastor but my African counterpart, Mwangi, knew him and described him as a very conservative and very opinionated individual.

Shannon seemed to have happily followed in his footsteps. Almost from the very first time I stepped into the class room, it felt like we were at war. As a teacher, I feel it is part of my task to stretch students by showing them other ideas and other ways of thinking. Whether they accept these new things is up to them–but if they don’t accept them, they at least need to be able to explain why they accept what they accept.

So, as I threw out some ideas and thoughts, Shannon began making it clear that if we disagreed, I was wrong and she was right. Her logic and reasoning was simple and blunt–she was right because she believed what Christians believed. While not every class ended in a debate over whatever theological or Biblical or practical point I was trying to get across, it did happen with great regularity.

At first, I thought it was because I was not from the ABC and not Kenyan. But then I watched the same thing happen to Mwangi during the courses we taught together–and Mwangi was much closer to her thinking than I was.

Now, technically, both Mwangi and I were guilty of breaking one of the cardinal rules of the Kenyan education system. At various assemblies of students during my time there, school leadership made it clear to the students that teachers were the experts and students were supposed to listen, accept and regurgitate on the exams. Since I really can’t teach that way and Mwangi didn’t much care for that approach to education, we ignored the rule in our classroom, allowing debate and discussion and requiring that students support what they believed, even if they disagreed. We were careful to warn students that different rules applied to our class and while they could say what they wanted in our class, they had to obey the rules in other classes.

So, for two years, going to teach Shannon’s class was an adventure–I never knew what would set off a debate. After a while, I learned some of the triggers and only opened the topics if I felt the debate would enhance the teaching process. Shannon consistently disagreed, debated and in the end, generally refused to budge even one word from her position.

Anyway, we reached the end of our time in Kenya. My last day at the school, I decided to visit all the classes I taught, thank them, have prayer with them and say goodbye. The students were studying for exams and so appreciated a break. As I expected, the visits were emotional for all of us, with wishes that we could stay, thanks for what we had taught, some tears and some prayers.

When I got to Shannon’s classroom, I entered thinking that probably the only person happy to see us leave would be Shannon. I talked with the students, they expressed their sorrow, asked me why I couldn’t stay–just like the others. I asked them to join hands in a circle so we could pray together and prayed for them. At the “amen”, the circle broke up and I noticed Shannon heading for her seat–obviously in tears. She didn’t want us to leave.

It seems that the debating and discussion and even argument was more important than I realized. I think the freedom to disagree and debate and not be forced to adopt a position touched something in Shannon. Her tears, more than anything else, made me feel that I had actually accomplished something in the classroom.

May the peace of God be with you.