WHO ARE YOU?

Every now and then, I get caught by my assumptions. I learn a thing or two about someone or something and on the basis of that, I assume a whole bunch of things. One of these situations involved someone who showed up as a worship service where I as preaching. I knew a bit about the person—he was a member of a fairly conservative church group that I knew something about. I didn’t agree with some of the group’s ideas and practises—I am somewhat less conservative than that group.

That particular Sunday, the sermon was on a topic that could have created some real issues between this person and me. I was in the middle of a sermon series and was dealing with a topic where that group he represented had some seriously different ideas from mine. I was pretty sure that my sermon would offend him. My assumption was that it he didn’t walk out during the sermon, I would either be ignored at the end or get told how wrong I was.

All through the sermon, I was conscious of that person and their response. I didn’t preach to him alone. I didn’t ignore him or spend all my time watching his reaction but I was aware of his presence and basically assumed that he was going to be upset by what I was saying. He didn’t give out much in the way of body language but I was pretty sure that he didn’t like it—my assumptions are based on lots of experience with his group.

He didn’t actually leave, nor did he go to sleep or stare out the window during the sermon. He didn’t get visibly agitated or angry—I assumed that he had been taught to control himself in preparation for setting me straight at the end of the worship. The sermon ended, we sang the hymn—I sort of hoped that he would sneak out during the singing but he didn’t. We finished the hymn, I pronounced the benediction and limped towards door to greet everyone as they left.

The rest of the church spent some time talking with this guy, welcoming him and all that and so it was a while before he got to the back. I stuck out my hand to shake his. He grabbed my hand, shook it firmly and told me that my sermon was the best and clearest treatment of the topic that he had ever heard. Over the noise of the rest of the members chatting and laughing, I heard the sound of my assumptions shattering.

I will confess right now that this is a preacher story—there is a core of truth in it but I have embellished it a bit and jammed several incidents together . We preachers simply have an inborn inability to release a story without some polishing and editing. But the story does capture a common reality for me. I tend to make judgments based on my assumptions that turn out to be seriously and completely wrong.

Fortunately, God has been at work through the Holy Spirit to help me grow through such incidents. It has happened enough that you would think I would have learned a long time ago not to make such assumptions but I am not all that bright, I guess, because I keep doing the same thing time after time.

This does help me understand the reality and power of God’s grace, though. God uses an incident to teach me something that I need to know. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson. And then, through the power of my humanness, I forget the lesson and make the same mistake based on the same assumptions. God, in his infinite grace, forgives me and uses another incident when I make the mistake to teach me again. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson, only to forget it again and need a refresher.

God reveals his infinite love and grace and patience because as many times as I need the same lesson, God will happily provide it. And if and when I finally learn the lesson, he will move on to something else that I need to learn. I am a slow learner but God is a loving and patient teacher, which is great for me and everyone else.

May the peace of God be with you.

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ASSUMPTIONS

Our area has just come through an early and serious heat wave, which produced my normal reaction to extreme heat—I began to complain. I don’t do well in heat. I am very much a winter person and like things cool and even cold. Cold is much easier to deal with than heat—I can always put on more clothes when I am cold but there is a limit to how much I can take off when I am hot, especially when I am preaching.

My complaining produced expected results. The people I know who thrive on heat look at me like I am strange and tell me that they are enjoying it. Some suggest that I shouldn’t complain about the heat because in a few months, I will be complaining about the cold. I remind those people that I rarely if ever complain about the cold.

And then there are the ones who haven’t known me for a long time but who do know that I have spent a lot of time in East Africa. Their response to my complaints about the heat generally revolve around the irony of someone who has spent so much time in Africa complaining about the heat, because as we all know, all of Africa is hot. This is an assumption that everyone knows is true—to say that Africa is hot is like saying that the sun rises in the east.

But like many assumptions, this one isn’t exactly true. I kind of like pointing put to people that the part of East Africa where I have lived and worked so much might be pretty much on the equator but it is also at an elevation of over 5000 feet, which means that the temperature there isn’t that hot. While it gets warm, the highest temperatures experienced there are lower than the highest temperatures in the summer where I live right now. I am pretty sure that most people simply don’t believe me.

After all, everyone knows that Africa is hot and so I must be mistaken, joking or don’t know what I am talking about. My comments about African heat oppose the assumptions being made by the other person. And one of the realities of life is that most people prefer to have their assumptions unchallenged and pristine.

And actually some assumptions are safe to leave unchallenged. When I assume that other drivers on the road are going to do something stupid or dangerous, that assumption keeps me alert and safer. It probably isn’t a totally valid assumption but I and my passengers are safer because I make that assumption.

However, when I assume that someone who belongs to a certain church will have what I consider a distorted theology or someone who speaks a different language will be a danger to me or someone who doesn’t have much money will want to take my money or someone of a different colour isn’t as important as I am or someone whose sexual orientation is different than mine is somehow less human than I am, my assumptions are a serious problem and need to be challenged.

Unfortunately, it seems that we live in a world where instead of being encouraged to challenge our assumptions, we are encouraged to harden and tighten our assumptions. Politics has degenerated into a process of encouraging assumptions rather than enabling development. Religion seems to strive to baptise and sanctify assumptions rather than produce personal growth. Leadership seems to have become the process of harnessing as many assumptions as possible and using them to build a power base.

The end result is that our world is becoming more and more dysfunctional because more and more of us are treating our assumptions as truths that need to be defended with walls, legislation, guns and organizations. In the process, we are losing our ability to really relate to each other as real people. I see others through the lens of my assumptions and so miss the real person.

But all of Africa isn’t hot—and most of the rest of our assumptions are equally flawed. But we can only discover the flaws when we are willing to challenge even our most cherished assumptions so that we can discover the truth and reality that our assumptions hide and distort.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW MANY?

Both the worship services I lead recently had me feeling much more nervous. The morning service was a special worship to which we invited the community. While I suggested the idea and thought it was a good one, I wasn’t expecting much increase in attendance—it was a holiday weekend, after all. On the drive to worship, I counted in my mind the ones who would likely be there: our normal 8 or so, depending on who was sick or away plus maybe 4-6 more from the visiting family of one of our members.

But that morning, people just kept coming and coming. We ran out of chorus sheets early in the process. At one point, after seating more than expected I peeked out the open door and saw as many people standing around as were seated. My final count was 27 while one of the others got 29—we decided to go with his numbers.

The second service at my other pastorate was definitely not going to be that good, I thought. To start with, it was a stifling hot day—and our buildings have no air conditioning. It was the first Sunday of our summer worship schedule, meaning worship was in the evening. And then there was the fact that the we couldn’t use the building we were supposed to use because of serious emergency repairs. We called everyone and put a sign on the building about the change but I was pretty sure the change would upset things.

And just like the morning worship, once people started coming, they kept coming. We surpassed our average of 18-20 really quickly. We ran out of bulletins. We used up all the new chorus books we are printing for the church. And people kept coming. When we started, we had 29 people in our worship.

Now, I know that for many people, those numbers are small and that for some churches, that might be the number of greeters and ushers, not the whole congregation. But these are big numbers for us—and while I was excited and pleased and happy, I was also more nervous. I am always nervous about leading worship and preaching but on a normal Sunday with our normal group, I have more control of the nervousness. But more people tend to increase my anxiety.

To start with, there is more to do before the worship. I like to greet people as they come—since our buildings are basically one room, I am obviously there and so it makes sense to greet people as they come in. There are other bits and pieces to deal with, questions about the worship, changes to the music and so on that get harder to work out as we have more people. I begin to lose focus and forget things.

In the morning service, I forgot to take my water cup to the pulpit—in fact, I completely forget where I put it and couldn’t see it from the pulpit. Fortunately, I had some cough drops for when my voice needed some help. In the evening service, I forgot to turn on my tablet until I got to the pulpit to start worship, an omission that I confessed and which delayed our start a bit since I didn’t have a bulletin to read the announcements from.

There are probably some who would suggest my increased nervousness is a negative thing. There are some who would suggest that being nervous at all before leading worship is a negative thing, perhaps a sign of a weaknesses of faith or something like that. I am the first to admit that I don’t have a perfect faith and have definite weaknesses in my faith.

But my nervousness before worship isn’t a sign of weak faith or something negative. I think it is a healthy sign and an indication of my respect for the people I lead in worship and the God I serve through that process. I want to do my best to help the worshippers experience the reality of God’s presence and be faithful to God’s calling to me. If I am not nervous, I am probably relying on myself in the process not God through the power of the Holy Spirit. My nervousness is a sign that I am aware of my need of God’s strength and help and a reminder to open myself to him in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?

I am not the leader in the churches I serve, no matter what some of the people who make up the churches think. I don’t want to be the leader and actively resist pressures and temptations to become the leader. And even more, I actively encourage, seek out and develop leaders within the congregation. I am aware that this means I am seriously out of step with a lot of the books and theories of ministry these days, which tend to emphasize that as pastor, I should be and even need to be the pastor.

I have taught and written and mentored theology students over the years of my ministry and have always worked in that context from my bias—they don’t have to be the leader. It feels a bit like trying to hold back the tide at times—being on the wrong side of a cultural trend is exhausting and somewhat isolating. As I approach the end of my time of active pastoral ministry (no date set but it is coming), I have been doing some introspection and asking myself a lot of questions as I think over the various things I have done in ministry.

And one question I keep looking at is the one that provides the title for this post: What difference does it make? So, what difference does it make that I am not the leader? Is this important enough to justify the energy and time I spend over the years practising it, teaching it and resisting the other views? Or was this just some distraction that I could have and should have ignored so that I would have time and energy for other things?

So far, my thinking is that the issue does make a difference, in my context. I work in small churches—that has been where God has called me and what he has gifted me for. And in this context, how the pastor approaches the issue of leadership does make a real difference. Many of the current ideas about ministry come from big churches and, from what I can see and understand from my study, are based on good theory and practise.

But small churches such as I and at least 80% of the rest of North American pastors work with are not big churches. Most of them are not even potential big churches. And most pastors will never pastor a big church—we will spend our ministry doing God’s leading in small and occasionally medium sized churches. And if we try to use the theory and practise necessary for a big church in a small church, both we and the church are in for a rough, painful but relatively short ride.

Small churches generally already have leaders. They generally aren’t trained, qualified, ordained leaders. While many are recognized with official church titles (deacon, elder, trustee, treasures, moderator), more than a few have no official office or title but are nonetheless the leader of the congregation. Often, even a small congregation has more than one of these leaders who generally develop working relationships that range from seriously dysfunctional to seriously functional.

The small church likely doesn’t need another leader. It likely needs a pastor to care for the hurting. It probably needs a teacher to help it grow in its understanding of and practise the faith. It may occasionally need a loving prophet to help it find its ways. It most certainly will need a shepherd to show it the way to the pastures and waters that will nurture it. But another leader—well, to be honest most small congregations need another leader about as much as they need another bill.

The pastor and the leadership in the small church have complimentary and important roles in the church, roles that God can and will use to enable the congregation to become what he knows it can become. But the moment I as the pastor in a small church begin to feel I need to be the leader, I am probably starting down a road that can only lead to problems. The problems come because not only am I not doing my God given job in the congregation but I am then also interfering with others trying to carry out their God given jobs.

It works much better when we all know and seek to fulfill our particular calling, so in the end it does make a difference whether I am the pastor or the leader.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY DO I HAVE TO BE THE LEADER?

One of the best paying jobs I ever had while a university student was as a reserve army officer. For a couple of summers, I was an active duty officer, working as a cadet instructor. The pay was great and as an added benefit, I got to play with some neat toys and even run around in the dark firing off blank rounds and throwing flash-bangs.

But those summers weren’t all fun and games. I discovered a few things about myself in the process. I was an officer, someone who was given a great deal of authority. True, I was pretty much the lowest level of officer but most of the time, I was actually with people who were lower in rank than I was, meaning that what I wanted tended to be what happened. I discovered that I liked having that power—and at the same time, I realized that that kind of power can be seductive and extremely dangerous.

I also discovered that in the end, I don’t need that kind of power in my life. I liked it and probably would still like it—but the truth is that having power over other people is as addictive and destructive as any drug. There are people who seem to be able to deal with the dangers of this power but I realized that I am not one of them. I have also seen that many others probably aren’t the ones who can deal with it either.

I think that experience was important for me as I prepared for a career in ministry. I got into ministry just as the ministerial culture was shifting from a pastoral orientation to a leadership orientation. I began ministry understanding that I was to provide spiritual care and guidance and teaching to the people God had called me to shepherd. But more and more, I was being encouraged to lead these people: to tell them what God wanted them to do and then use my leadership to make sure that they got the job done. The books and seminars used words like “vision” and “visionary” and so on, but the whole idea was that I was responsible for leading the church to where it needed to go—and even more, I was responsible for deciding where it needed to go.

Being an introspective introvert, I couldn’t just buy into the books and trends. I needed to know why—and so began my study of leadership as it applies to the faith. I quickly discovered the real question, at least for me. The church, like any organization, needs leaders—but why did I automatically have to be the leader? Why does being given the title “Rev” also confer the supreme leadership of the church on me?

I have yet to find a good answer to that question. I have not yet found any convincing theological or Biblical reason that allows me to automatically equate pastor with leader. In fact, I have discovered a lot of reasons why too much leadership takes away from the ability of an individual to be a pastor. If I am the leader pushing (and even fighting) to get my vision accomplished by the church, I can seriously damage my ability to actually provide pastoral care to someone who might disagree with my vision. Or what of the people who have been slighted by my push to move the reluctant church in the way I see them needing to go? Are they going to be as open to my teaching at Bible Study or my preaching?

The church needs leaders—but why do I automatically have to be the leader just because I am the pastor? There are certainly times and situations when I provide pastorally oriented leadership but I am first of all a pastor and secondarily a teacher. I needed to learn to work from my strengths—and that means that I don’t need to be the leader. The God who called me and gifted me with the pastoral gifts I need also calls and gifts the leaders the church needs. I have discovered that I am at me best when I work my real gifts and calling and encourage others to work their real gifts and calling. I need to be a pastor and teacher—I don’t need to be a leader.

May the peace of God be with you.

FOLLOW THE LEADER

I grew up in a town church that had an average sized congregation for that day—in the 60s, rural Atlantic Canadian churches had not yet begun to feel the downturn in church attendance and membership that began in that decade. So, our congregation of 200 or so carried out church in a variety of ways. We had lots of worship services—two every Sunday.

The morning worship was a formal, structured worship event while the evening was a more relaxed worship—we would often begin with a hymn sing where members of the congregation would pick their favourite hymn. That wasn’t as daunting a task for the organist as it might sound—most of the hymns were predictable, picked by the same people week after week. There were always a few surprises, like when someone was visiting and picked an unfamiliar hymn or especially when we members of the younger attendees tried to mess things up by suggesting random numbers.

After I finished struggling with God’s call to ministry, I discovered a hymn that I could regularly call out at those hymn sings and at others wherever I was. I love the hymn, “Anywhere With Jesus”. I do need to explain the attraction of the hymn though. The chorus of the hymn proclaims that because of our faith, we can go anywhere without fear because we know that Jesus is with us. It is a powerful, inspiring hymn but I don’t think I like it because of my total agreement with its message.

Theologically, I agree with the hymn—God is with us and we never go anywhere without the presence of God. In fact, God is where we leave from, he goes with us and he is waiting for us when we arrive. The presence of God is one of the foundational beliefs of my faith, something that has been a part of my Christian thinking, preaching and teaching from the beginning.

But I have to confess that I struggle with following God. I am not always ready and willing to go where God wants me and do what God wants me to do. I don’t know if you have noticed but God has this well established practise of calling us to places and things that we would rather not be involved in. I didn’t struggle with God calling me to serve as a missionary but I have always struggled with a calling to be a pastor. I didn’t much struggle with a calling to study and learn—that really appealed and appeals to my introversion—but I really struggle with a calling to engage in helping real people with real problems—that tends to conflict with my introversion.

And so I pick the hymn “Anywhere with Jesus” not as an affirmation of my deep, powerful faith that propels me onward and upward in ever more heroic service of God in places where people of lesser faith fear to tread. No, I pick the hymn as a heartfelt prayer of what I would like to be true. I would like to claim that I can go anywhere with Jesus. I actually believe that I can go anywhere with Jesus—but in practise, I am hesitant, afraid and hoping that God has got his assignment papers mixed up. I know that he hasn’t and I know that he will go with me and I know that if I follow, he will be there and that therefore things will work out—but I still struggle.

And so I pick and sing the hymn, hoping that it, along with all my other spiritual practises will help me surrender to the calling that God has set before me. Mostly, I do go anywhere that God calls—although the process of getting there isn’t always easy or peaceful or painless. Mostly, following and going anywhere works out, although there are occasionally glitches and problems. Mostly, I am faithful and the words of the hymn become a reality.

I try to follow the leader but I know the difficulty, the fear, the apprehension that comes from following God into whatever he has called me to. I also know that he is with me and will be with me—and so I sing the hymn, using it as a sign of my desire to actually be able to follow God anywhere.

May the peace of God be with you.

PRAYING MY PRAYERS

Over the years, I have discovered that one of the most effective tools for some forms of ministry is a cup of coffee and one of the most effective locations for that ministry is in a coffee shop. When I was younger, that particular approach to ministry was custom made for me—I love coffee and didn’t need any excuse to drink coffee. These days, I have to be a bit more careful about coffee and generally order decaf but the ministry works just as well without or without caffeine.

Because I tend to be an introvert, I generally don’t initiate too many of these coffee connections. But over the years, there have been a fair number of people who have wanted to get together for coffee and I am generally glad to accept the invitation, even to the point of being willing to pay for the coffee for both of us. Some of these invitations will be a conversation between friends, where we go back and forth and joke and laugh and touch on serious stuff and all the rest—and sometimes, in those conversations, I might even come close to talking about half the time, which is really significant for an introvert like me.

Other coffee conversations are more focused—we are together because both of us know that the other person wants/needs this conversation to deal with an issue. It isn’t really counselling or ministry because we are doing it over coffee at the coffee shop—but underneath, we both know that this is serious stuff and I am going to be expected to drink my coffee and be as professional as possible while both of us pretend that this is really a coffee conversation. I am fine with that, although I do reserve the right to get professional and suggest real counselling if the problem is serious enough.

So, what does this have to do with prayer, particularly my prayers? I am working this through at this point but I do think that there is a connection between my coffee conversations and my personal prayer life. While I don’t actually have much in the way of an organized private prayer life, I do spend time both talking to and listening to God. And even though these times don’t generally involve coffee, there are some similarities.

I think I listen to and for God a lot. When I am reading the Bible, when I am doing my study for a sermon or a Bible study, when I am contemplating the congregations I have been called to pastor, when I am depressed, when I am desperately trying to figure out where I am going with the next sermon plan—at all those times, I am deeply aware that I need some serious divine guidance and insight and wisdom. I generally don’t preface those times with a specific request for God to guide me—but I am listening for the guidance. On many levels, that isn’t much different than me and my friend engaging in pastoral ministry in the coffee shop without calling it pastoral ministry.

Sometimes, I do engage in serious talk with God: when I am frustrated and tired and verging on depression, I have a tendency to spill my anger and hurt and frustration—and that looks and sounds a whole lot like some of the coffee conversations that I have had in various coffee shops over the years. After I pour out whatever is there, I discover the peace that God continually promises, provided, of course, I remember to be willing to listen to him. That does sometimes take a while but so far, I have always ended up listening and discovering the presence of God.

The one difference I can see between my prayers and my coffee shop experiences is that I don’t actually have to go to a coffee shop and I don’t need the coffee. In fact, my personal prayer process generally works better when I am by myself with God. With some people, I need to go to the coffee shop for that—but with God and my prayers, any place and any time works, which is a really good thing because in the area where I live, it is quite a drive to get to a 24 hour coffee shop.

May the peace of God be with you.

LET US PRAY

For a while now, I have been pondering a reality of my spiritual life. As a pastor, I pray a lot—every worship service has several prayers included, as well as the prayer I have with the choir before we begin. It is not unusual for me to pray with parishioners before or after worship if the situation warrants it. When there is a meal or fellowship time, I pray for the food. When I make a pastoral visit in a home or hospital, I generally pray with the people I visit. I have also prayed during phone calls and occasionally on the street with someone who obviously needs the divine support that prayer helps us to remember. Overall, I pray a lot.

Except, I actually don’t, at least outside of professional prayers. My personal prayer life has gone through a lot of phases but for the last few years, I don’t actually have a specific prayer time. I used to have long and ever growing prayer lists: one for the ministry I was involved in, one for family and friends, one for things in the news that caught my eye. I would read my Bible and then pray through the lists. Sometimes the lists were so long that I would do some lists some days and other lists on other days—organizing is one of my gifts.

But one day, I realized that the prayer list driven prayers were just not doing it for me. I realized that I was just running over the names and topics as if I was reading the grocery list. I wasn’t really involved in the list—I wasn’t actually sure that what I was doing could actually be classified as prayer. Now, before I go further, let me assure anyone who used and finds value in prayer lists that I am not going to bash the process or people who do it. I am dealing with my personal prayers, not someone else’s. I know that prayer lists are an important spiritual aid for many people and that is great—I support and encourage anything that helps people grow in faith.

But for me, the process wasn’t working and so one day during my morning devotional time, I simply decided to stop doing the lists. I threw out the papers and didn’t do it anymore. I still have a devotional time but it involves reading the Bible, which has been and is important to my spiritual development. I could perhaps suggest that I have developed some alternate devotional technique that involves me praying the Scripture that I am reading but that really isn’t the case. When I read the Bible, I am thinking and focused on what I am reading.

Sometimes, when I am sitting on my office (the Ikea chair by the living room window), I close my eyes and engage in prayer about some issue in ministry or my life that concerns me. I thought this might be a good prayer technique and it is a great technique, for the 30 seconds it takes me to fall asleep. It is probably valuable but then again that might just be the result of the nap.

As I have pondered this over the last few years, I realized that my prayer life kind of reflects the rest of my life. In most of my relationships, I don’t actually talk a lot. Outside of preaching and some parts of Bible Study, I generally do a whole lot more listening than I do talking. I am quite at home listening to people and generally feel most comfortable in a conversation when I get to listen and others get to talk.

I am not an entirely passive individual though. I can and do talk—and can be quite forceful when I need to be. But even then, I am likely going to say what I need to say with as few words as possible—why use 10 words when 2 will are perfectly capable of expressing everything I want to say?

So, with that insight in place, I looked at my personal prayers again. I don’t actually talk to God a lot—but when I do, it is times that are important to me and I say what I need to say with the same economy of words I use in any conversation. I try to listen to and for God. So, maybe I do pray—in a way that fits my personality. For now, it seems to work for me—but that just might be due more to the limitless grace of God than any great spiritual wisdom on my part.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.