DON’T MESS WITH THE BIBLE

When I was about seven or eight, my mother began a short-lived practise of reading the Bible with all of us kids at bedtime. We would sit together and read the KJV—those of us who could read would get a turn and the rest would squirm and listen. The custom didn’t last long—there were too many of us kids and not enough time in the day and a million other things that got in the way. But I have actually been reading the Bible pretty much continually since that point. Sometimes, my reading has been hit or miss; sometimes it has been forced; occasionally, it has been in aid of learning a new language—but there have been very few stretches of my life when I haven’t been reading the Bible.

I also have a deep desire to understand what I am reading so I do a lot of study, discovering the meaning, contextualizing, looking at the original languages (sort of), reading commentaries. My appreciation for the Bible and its wisdom is an essential part of my spiritual development. I read it, I study it, I teach it and most of all, I try to understand and practise it.

And so I find myself getting angry and upset with people who trivialize the Bible and its value. I don’t get really upset with people who want to deny the Bible or turn it into a collection of fairy tales—I tend to be more concerned with the underlying reasons for their ideas, the emotional, cultural and experiential things that lead them to deny the truth and value of the Bible.

No, what really ticks me off are the people who claim faith and who seek to use the Bible as a club or weapon to defend their particular view points. My latest frustration was a politician who attempted to use an out of context Bible verse to defend his very controversial political stand. The fact that I think his stand is wrong and unbiblical itself doesn’t bother me as much as his casual and opportunistic treatment of the Bible.

We who are part of the Christian faith have a tendency to approach the Bible from a very wrong perspective. We are often guilty of looking to the Bible for some sort of divine backing and support for what we want to do or believe or advocate. We begin with who and what we are and want and then comb the pages of the Bible to find God’s words of support for our position. Armed with this divine backing, we can club our opponents into submission because God is one our side. Unfortunately, the other side probably had another verse that they have discovered that they use as a shield against our club.

Along the way, we seriously mistreat and disrespect the Bible. We take passages out of context; we interpret the truth out of them; we bend and break applications; we massage and tweak words; we ignore the inconvenient places that disagree with us; we even lie about what it says. It seems that as long as we can find some words somewhere that can somehow be forced to say what we want it to say to support what we want, we are fine.

I am pretty sure that isn’t what God had in mind when he gave us the Bible. The Bible’s beginning position is that we are separated from God because we are imperfect and sinful. The words and ideas and themes and teachings of the Bible are there to help us overcome this sinfulness and its consequent separation from God. The Bible exists as a mirror to show us our failure to be what God planned us to be and at the same time, to provide us with a way to get to where we are what God planned is to be. (Hint—we get there by trusting God, not ourselves).

Reading the Bible as anything but God’s revelation to us to help us become what God knows we can be and actually wants us to be is to risk distorting and even destroying the value and purpose of the Bible. God didn’t give us the Bible to defend our narrow, bigoted, partisan, selfish and sinful ideas—he gave it to get us out of that rut and into his love and grace.

May the peace of God be with you.

Advertisements

WHAT DO I DO?

I often find myself in a bit of a quandary when it comes to recommending ways to begin reading the Bible. I have a plan and process that has been working very well for me for many years. It allows me to read through the Bible in about a year and ensures that I am going to get my reading done. But since my particular plan involves reading the Bible while I am using the exercise bike, some people think it is too difficult.

And to be honest, I can understand their problem—my particular plan for reading the Bible involves two things that most North Americans talk a lot about doing but rarely do: exercise and Bible reading. This particular plan works well for me but I don’t actually recommend it for others. Just like a lot other plans don’t work for me, I know mine doesn’t work well for others.

One I saw suggested a few years ago, for example, involved the use of coloured highlighters. A person would read and then use the highlighter to categorize different parts of the reading. It might work well for some people but given my colour blindness, I didn’t even bother giving it consideration.

But I am a pastor and even more, a pastor who encourages people to read the Bible—and so I need to have something to recommend to people. Since I don’t have workable plan that will enable everyone to immediately fall in love with reading the Bible, I offer suggestions that they can use to develop their own plan. My suggestions include:

• Picking the right translation. We live in a age where English speakers have a wealth of translations to pick from. Every type, style and level of English has a translation these days. Everyone has the opportunity to pick a translation that uses their words in their way. That is important because as much as I love the traditional King James Version, it is a foreign language to most people. A comfortable translation choice allows God to speak the language of the reader, a very important consideration. By the way, audio Bibles are also an option.

• Pick the right time and place. Strange as it may seem, not everyone finds an early morning session on an exercise bike the ideal Bible reading time. Each of us has the best time of the day to concentrate and the spot that works best for us. If reading bits during the commercials of a TV show works and allows someone to read the Bible, no problem. I really don’t care when or how people read, I just want them to read.

• Begin with the Gospels. I often suggest the Gospel of Luke mostly because the reader can then move on to Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts. Beginning with the story of Jesus and the story of the church helps us understand the basics of the faith and provides a gentle and interesting introduction to the Bible. The thickets of Leviticus and Numbers are somewhat easier when the reader is grounded in the Gospels and letters of the New Testament.

• Set goals. As has often been said, it we aim at nothing, we are sure to hit it. Setting goals for our Bible reading gives us some incentive to keep working. I would suggest modest goals to start with—rather than committing to reading the whole Bible in a week, commit to reading Luke in two weeks or something like that. When that goal is accomplished, move on to another, more demanding goal until the whole Bible is finished. Then, start over again.

• Make use of resources. There are lots of valuable Bible reading resources. There are reading plans that give readings that allow the whole Bible to be covered in 1, 2 or 3 years. Some publishers actually print Bibles based on these plans. There are Bible handbooks that give brief summaries and commentary on the books of the Bible—these help us know what we are reading and give some help with understanding. A Bible reading group could also be a good resource.

For me, the ultimate goal is to encourage everyone to read God’s words to humanity. A lot of our spiritual struggling and confusion and difficulty becomes less of a problem when we know what God has carefully written down for us. And, it you find it easiest to do that while on an exercise bike, that is even better.

May the peace of God be with you.

ITS TOO HARD TO UNDERSTAND

Because I am continually beating the drum about reading the Bible, I occasionally have people tell me that they are going to start reading the Bible. I get excited and based on past experience, give them some advice that I hope will help them. Generally, I tell people not to start with Genesis 1.1 and plan on reading through to Revelation 22.21. That method is pretty much doomed to fail. The reader often gets lost in the swamps of Leviticus or founders in the depths of Numbers. If they somehow heroically make it out of the first five books, they tend to lose interest in the repetitious history books.

There are other ways to approach reading—but that is a post for another day. Today, I am going to deal with another issue that often comes up when people make a commitment to growing their faith by reading the Bible. The initial stages go well—but then, things slow down because of a serious problem. The would be reader often comes back to me with a serious complaint—they are reading but they really can’t understand what they are reading. The Bible is just too hard to understand. It may be okay for people like me, who have been to university and have specialized in Bible stuff, but they are lost. It is too hard to understand.

That stops a lot of people. And they have a valid complaint. The Bible is hard to understand, or at least some part of it are hard to understand. We need to remember that the Bible was written and compiled by people from a very different time and culture—or rather times and cultures—from ours. There are references and allusions and details that make absolutely no sense to us when we read them because they come from the realities of people living at least 2000 years ago in places from away, speaking languages that most of us will never encounter, dealing with things that we only read about in the Bible. Of course parts of the Bible are going to be hard to understand.

As part of my spiritual journey, I have come to realize that not only are there parts of the Bible that I struggle to understand but also I don’t actually need to understand. If I don’t understand the ins and outs of the Levitical law code, my personal spiritual growth doesn’t suffer. If I can’t break the poetic message of some of the Psalms, it isn’t going to keep me from coming closer to God. If the symbolism of Daniel and Revelation confuses and irritates me, I am still going to have a spot in heaven.

The bottom line for me is that I don’t think I need to understand the whole Bible. God has given the Bible as his message to all people of all time and that means that the revelation that was so vitally important for the wandering ex-slaves who would form the nation of Israel probably isn’t all that vital for me. I confess to finding Leviticus interesting but if it disappeared from the Bible, my faith wouldn’t really suffer. Some of the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand are perfectly clear to my Kenyan friends. Some parts that neither of us understand will like be very clear to the Martian colonists sitting in their domed shelters 200 years from now.

I don’t need to understand the whole Bible. The whole thing isn’t written for me. What I need to deal with are the parts that were written for me—and to find those, I need to read the whole thing. There isn’t a specific part with my name on it—my parents didn’t give me a Biblical name so I can’t claim one of the books as mine and mine alone. But I have discovered that as I read through the Bible, I keep running into stuff that I do understand because it speaks directly. If I hadn’t systematically read the Bible, I would never have run into Psalm 13, which has and still does provide me with tremendous help during my depressions.

I read a comment one time but can’t remember who it come from. Essentially, the writer said he wasn’t worried about the parts of the Bible he couldn’t understand. He was worried about the parts that he could understand. That works for me.

May the peace of God be with you.

GROWING IN FAITH

One of the consistent themes of my ministry is that people should read the Bible—not occasionally but regularly. And the reading shouldn’t be restricted to “best of”, “favourites” or stuff that we understand—it should be a systematic approach that covers the whole of the Bible within a reasonable time frame. It is relatively easy to read through the while Bible in about a year, although some plans allow for two years.

Because I have a fascination with history, I look at the whole Bible reading thing through a slightly different lens. Because I live in a time and place where there is almost universal literacy, it is difficult for me to imagine a time and place where this wasn’t so. But the truth is that for most of recorded human history, the ability to read and write has been the preserve of an elite group of specialists. Ordinary people generally didn’t have access to nor much need of reading and writing.

Most people were dependent on others to tell them stuff and they then had to either memorize what they had been told or continually return to the teller for refreshers. The person who could remember well generally became a powerful and important part of the culture—an organic library. When Judaism and later Christianity were graced by God with written collections of divine instruction, the majority of believers only had access to those materials through others.

At times, even those who could read didn’t have access to the Scriptures because written materials were scarce and expensive. At some points in history, most churches and leaders probably didn’t own a Bible—and if they did, it was often chained up with carefully controlled access. The open Bibles on the table at the front of many sanctuaries are likely a holdover from the days when that Bible would be the community Bible, the only Bible and maybe even the only book in the community.

So, with that on mind, my historian side prods my Bible reading encouraging side with some questions. No doubt the prodding is encouraged by the side of me that loves to ask difficult questions. Anyway, the question that I look at now and then is something like this, “Why bother to encourage people to read the Bible when the church has managed to survive so long with so few people being able to read the Bible?”

The historian asks and the encourager admits that it is a very good question. And because I am who I am, I can’t put myself off with one of the traditional Christian answers like “because” or “I said so”. I can point out the fact that during those times of restricted access to the Scriptures, the church suffered and struggled with heresies and got off track and wandered in theological wildernesses. However, I also have to remind myself that with almost unlimited access to the Bible, the church today suffers and struggles with heresies and gets off track and wanders in theological wildernesses.

Probably the best reason I can give for reading the Bible is because we can. I don’t like second and third hand sources. I am openly skeptical when someone makes a claim about something they heard from a friend who knows someone whose cousin was there. I am not going to take the latest wonder supplement because “they” say it works miracles. I want more than that. I want to go to the source and find out for myself.

And with my faith, I am no different. I don’t want someone else’s predigested and edited understanding of what God says. I want to read it for myself and spend time with it and work at understanding it. I appreciate the thoughts of others, I enjoy spending time in other understandings of what I am reading—but in the end, I want to spend time in the source myself.

My faith is important to me—too important to let it depend only on what someone else tells me about what they understand about what God is saying to me. I want to head—or read—it for myself. I read my car manual, I study my computer instructions, I read and sort of follow directions—and for the same reason, I read my Bible regularly and systematically. I will pay attention to what someone else tells me, but I still want to get back to the source and because of God’s grace, I can do that.

May the peace of God be with you.

A SUNNY DAY

Question: What do you call a bright, warm, sunny day after two days of rain and cool weather? Obviously, the answer is Monday. Rainy, cool weekends are the ultimate indignity for most normal people, those who work Monday to Friday and count on the weekend to rest, recreate, work and play doing all the stuff that there is no time to do during the work week. Or at least, that is what I understand—I have never actually had a job where I had the weekend free.

For me, the weekend always involves work. I am aware that this is true for others as well—lots of us work on the weekends while others have the time free to do what they want. In fact, those of us who work on the weekend make it possible for many others to do their thing on the weekend. A popular weekend activity for some is weddings—and although the number of weddings is declining in our region, most still happen on Saturday. If I didn’t work on weekends, the wedding would be a lot more difficult to organize and carry out.

Of course, when I work a Saturday wedding, I don’t have the option of sleeping in on Sunday as most of the wedding goers do. I still have to get up and lead worship and preach—and since I have two services on Sunday, that doesn’t leave much time on the weekend for much more than eating and collapsing in front of the TV.

The bottom line for me is that a rainy weekend often doesn’t make a lot of difference in my plans. It does mean that the arthritis in my knees makes its presence known a bit more; the church building will likely be seriously over-heated; the congregants will be somewhat down because of the dark and dreary weather and a few may develop a phobia about getting wet and stay home from worship. But in terms of getting things done, well, most of my stuff on the weekend involves work and my work can be done rain or shine. Even outdoor weddings always have an indoor back up plan—that is one of my requirements for the couple getting married.

So, when it rains all weekend, I am not as bent out of shape as the members of my congregation since I am not really missing anything. But when a rainy weekend fades away and Monday dawns bright, sunny and warm, well, then I am all set. I generally have Mondays off—nobody ever gets married on a Monday; not much goes on in churches on Monday; my personal work schedule calls for study to begin on Tuesday. So, Mondays are mine, except for the occasional funeral or must have meeting that can’t fit anywhere else.

This Monday morning is bright and sunny and warming up—and it rained yesterday and was cool on Saturday. So, what am I going to do with this day everyone wanted yesterday and didn’t get? I don’t actually know. I am going to work on my blog—an activity that parks me in the living room with a perfect view of the sunny day illuminating the emerging leaves on the trees surrounding the neighbourhood.

I might get out and plant a few seeds—some to produce plants that the deer will probably eat and some that just might produce something that we can eat. I might go for a walk, depending on how much the drive to be out in the sun overcomes the anticipation of the pain it will cause. I might do some preliminary work on my next woodworking project. I might enjoy the sunny view as I finish that book I started last week and am enjoying. I will definitely take a nap—I may actually combine that and reading the book.

It is something of a frustration that my time off is generally at odds with the majority of people I know. But it isn’t frustrating enough that I am going to give up the time off I do have. And to be honest, while having a day off on a nice sunny day is a plus, I can and would enjoy the day off even if it is raining and dreary. For me, the bottom line is that I recognize I need to take time to relax and rest. It is nicer to do that on a sunny day but the sun isn’t a requirement.

May the peace of God be with you.

SITTING DOWN

A long time ago (in this galaxy, not one far, far away), I was interviewed for the weekly paper published in the community where I grew up. We were getting ready to leave for work in Kenya and that was newsworthy back in those days when the story of the hour trip to the city was worth a free cup of coffee at the local gathering place. When I was reading the article later, I discovered that I was described as an active and avid outdoorsman—I suppose that today, that would be written as outdoorsperson.

And that was fairly true then. I liked walking, biking, and being in the woods. I could set up a campsite and have a fire going in less than a half an hour and have a camp meal ready shortly after that. Sitting around—well, I liked and like to read so I did that. And given that my work involved both study and people, I sat a lot inside at other times. But ultimately, I had to get outside, to walk around. Even puttering in the yard was an acceptable reason to get outside and move around. At several points in my ministry, I managed to combine ministry and being outdoors be being involved in camping ministry, including a several year stint as a wilderness camp counsellor and co-director.

Let’s move forward to today. I am currently sitting in the living room, a posture which will pretty much define my day. Today, every 2-3 hours, I will be heading to the basement to put another coat of varnish on my woodworking project. At some point, I will spend an hour or so on the exercise bike. I will be outside sometime today—maybe to get some groceries and definitely to go to the play this evening that a friend is directing.

But mostly, I will be in my chair, either writing something, catching up on email or reading news. We won’t mention the fact that there might be some YouTube videos along the way. I definitely won’t be walking all that far. If it were drier, I might be tempted to dig out the bike and go for a ride but today, well, the best and safest trail is still quite wet from all the rain we have had.

So, why do I spend so much time sitting? The answer is relatively simple. I am 65 and my arthritic knees set serious limits on what I can do. I can actually go for a walk—but going for a walk involves a complex set of decisions as I weigh the value of the walk against the consequences: serious pain that leads to limping and possible a sleepless night. To be completely honest, often the results of the calculation indicate that sitting in the chair is the best solution.

I do need to move some—I can’t sit all day. Sitting too much also causes complaints from my knees so most days, I struggle to find the balance between sitting and moving that results in the most manageable amount of pain. There is a solution—knee replacement and that is coming, although for a variety of what I think are valid reasons, I am putting that off for a while.

The aging process is interesting and frustrating for me. I have to learn and live with limits imposed by an aging body. Some limits have fixes and some don’t. All of them need to be realistically addressed. And all of them need to be emotionally addressed. It is sometimes depressing to realize that I likely won’t ever be a counsellor at a kids’ wilderness camp again. It is even more depressing to realize that I probably won’t even go wilderness camping myself. But that is reality and even though I have a good imagination and am somewhat creative, I have also learned that I need to keep a close connection with the realities of my life, including the realities that come with accumulating years.

There are good things about the aging process and I embrace them as well—if some business wants to give me a discount just because I have managed to live a certain number of years, I am going to take it. When the local seminary asks me to mentor a student because of my accumulated years of ministry, I am going to do it. I may have to sit down a lot more than I used to but I am going to be actively sitting.

May the peace of God be with you.

GIVE ME A GOOD BOOK

I have always been a reader. I discovered books early on life and began reading them as early as possible. There were some rough early years when books were hard to come by—we didn’t have much money and the town we lived in didn’t have a library. Books came to us through the same route as clothes and most other things: a few gifts, a lot of hand-me-downs and the occasionally purchase. I remember that a lot of the money I earned splitting and piling wood for neighbours or picking and selling blueberries ended up being spent of books. A significant part of my first steady income ( a newspaper route) also went towards books.

At one point, I was suffering from frequent headaches, which was automatically attributed to my reading too much. That, and the fact that I preferred reading to actually doing chores meant that there were times when my reading was on a timer—I could only read a certain amount a day. That was a powerful stimulus to change the behaviour that lead to the restriction.

I have enough understanding of people to know that not everyone shares my love of reading. Very early in my life, I realized that for some people, reading was a chore, something they did only when they had to and then only if someone was actually watching them. I discovered that many people would rather read a commercially available summary of books we had to read for school—the summaries were shorter and pre-digested. Given my love of reading, I probably read the assigned book and then read the summary also—reading is reading, right?

These days, I do most of my reading via an electronic platform. If there is a debate over the merits of paper versus electronic books, I am firmly and completely on the electronic side. When I have to sit at the car dealer for a couple of hours while my car is serviced, my ereader is a vital necessity. The hundreds of books I can carry that way mean that I will never run out of reading. And if the battery runs down, well, I still have access to the books through my phone, tablet and computer. As an added benefit, moving electronic books involves far fewer boxes and much less muscle power than print books.

There is something about a well written book that goes well beyond the actual words. Reading at its best involves my whole being and even all my senses. I read and the reading draws me into the material. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, I can enter the world of the writer and live in the material. I can get to know not just the topic but also the author. I become a part of their world and they become a part of mine. I read—but at the same time, I see, I feel, I understand, I grow—I become different because of having spent time with Stephen Hawking, Tom Clancy, Martin Noth, Isaac Asimov, Jurgen Moltmann—the list goes on and on and will continue to go on and on. I fully expect that on my deathbed, the doctor will have to move a book of some sort to listen to my fading heartbeat—and me being me, the book will probably be describing the process I am going through or be something totally and completely unconnected to anything.

Because I am a Christian and a pastor, a good part of my reading involves books about faith and ministry. And no matter what else I am reading, I am reading the Bible. I have read through the Bible more times than I can count in more translations and versions than I can count. And that isn’t an exaggeration or literary conceit. A few years ago, in an effort to make life simpler before moving to Kenya for work, I got rid of most of my print library, including most of my collection of print Bibles. I literally can’t count them because I don’t have them. That, by the way, is another reason why I love ebooks—I never have to lose my books that way again.

By the way, there is no moral, no hidden purpose, no hidden meaning in this post. I may be a preacher but this isn’t a preacherly attempt to hide the meaning in an extended story. I just love reading and wanted to write about that today.

May the peace of God be with you.