O LORD OUR LORD

Whenever I am encouraging people to read the Bible, I warn them about the book of Leviticus, hoping to help them avoid bogging down there.  Leviticus is filled with rules and regulations and descriptions of what to do in a variety of life situations the early readers will face at some point.  While I warn people that it can be slow going, secretly, I like the book of Leviticus, partly because it teaches me to be grateful that I am a Baptist pastor and not a Jewish priest in the days the book was written.

A good deal of the book of Leviticus focuses on worship and how it is done and what the priests and assistants must do and what they must not do.  Worship in the book of Leviticus is serious business as two sons of Aaron find out in Leviticus 10–they don’t follow the rules and end up dead–Leviticus isn’t particularly concerned about seeker-sensitive worship.

Worship in Leviticus is concerned about sacrifices, deportment, and the right attitude on the part of the worshippers.  Real worship in Leviticus is expensive because no worshipper approaches God without a perfect sacrificial animal; it is scary because of the ever present sense of danger of getting something wrong; it is totally focused on pleasing God.

Worship, according to the Leviticus rules, would have been far different from our worship today.  There would have been lots of noise–not inspirational worship music but trumpet sounds, drums and so on, mingled with the bleats and noises of panicky animals about to be sacrificed.  There would have been serious smells–animal smells, the smell of spilling blood, the smell of burning flesh, all mingled with the smell of incense valiantly trying but failing to completely mask the other stronger smells.

Worship had no participant seats.  There were prescribed places for the various leaders and helpers as well as clear warnings about which people could go where but basically, worshippers milled around, following the action around their particular sacrificial animal and hoping they were outside the danger zone should the presiding priest make mistake.

My suspicion is that when worship leaders and worshippers left a worship service the predominant feeling was relief that they had got it right and were still alive after the worship.  Their shouts of “Praise God” and “Hallelujah” came from deep in their being as they realized that they had stood in the presence of God and solely by his grace, managed to survive.

I very much doubt that a worshipper leaving a service at that time would be heard to mutter, “I didn’t get a thing out of that service”–survival was the sign of good worship, not feeling good.

Now, I am not advocating a return to Levitical worship.  As a worship leader, I would be in serious trouble.  I regularly forget elements of the worship, including that most sacred of sacred elements, the offering.  I get confused and lose my place in my notes and sometimes do the wrong prayer at the wrong time–fortunately, I think fast on my feet and can re-direct the prayer once I realize I am doing the wrong one.  But based on my track record, I would have joined Nadab and Abihu from Leviticus 10 a long time ago.

While I enjoy reading Leviticus, I don’t want to be a Levitical priest nor do I want to turn worship into a potentially lethal activity.  But Leviticus does, I think, help us by providing a strong and powerful contrast to the kind of worship that is so common today.  Leviticus shows us a worship that is centered on the Divine and requires the worshipper to step outside themselves and their feelings to encounter the fullness of God and his presence.  Leviticus worship wants people to know the fullness of God and have their lives shaped and formed and guided by the serious power and wonder of God.

Worship in Leviticus focuses on God–any effects on the worshipper are by-products and are not the focus of worship.  The writer of Leviticus doesn’t really care what the worshipper feels as long as he or she leaves with the awareness that they have touched the presence of God and seen something of his glory and power and submitted themselves to the God of all creation.

So, how do we worship in a way that focuses on God without being a potentially fatal activity?  We will look at that in the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

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AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION…

You probably recognize the title of this post as the first half of an old saying,  “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”.  I like this type of saying–many of them capture valuable wisdom and pass it on in an easy to remember form.  I have noticed that these old sayings are losing their place in our modern world–only old guys like me seem to remember them.

I began thinking about this one as I was working on the last two posts, which dealt with Romans 8.28.  Rather than see the passage as a prescription to use when problems happen, I suggested that it is better seen as a tool to know and have available when things happen.  Unfortunately, this passage like many Biblical tools and resources isn’t part of many Christians’ faith inventory.

Most believers have only a passing familiarity with the Bible, knowing just a few highlights like Psalm 23 and maybe John 3.16, as well as some verses connected with whatever theme or themes some pastor or another liked to preach on.  They may also know a few of the Bible stories that Sunday School lessons are built on, although given the relative scarcity of Sunday Schools these days, that is becoming less of a likelihood.

Whenever I have had the opportunity to teach prospective pastors, I eventually get around to asking two questions:

  1. How many have read the whole Bible at least once?
  2. Is the book of Hezekiah in the New Testament or Old Testament?

I have never yet been in front of a class of prospective pastors where everyone in the class has read the whole Bible.  And if that is the case for people seeking to lead and be pastors, it is even worse for the rest of believers.  There are many believers who read and study the Bible on a regular basis and who have significant Biblical knowledge, which they make good use of in their lives.

But there are also many others who don’t know the Bible.  They likely have a Bible, listen to the Bible reading before the sermon and might even have a favourite passage–but most of the Bible is a vague blur.  And that means that many believers really don’t get much benefit from the Bible or their faith.

Now, it would be easy to write a lot of nasty stuff about believers who don’t know their Bible–but I can’t and won’t do that.  I won’t because it wouldn’t be particularly helpful to anyone.  And I can’t because Biblical illiteracy really isn’t the fault of those who don’t read the Bible.  It is the fault of the church and its leaders, who have failed to carry out one of our  most basic tasks as pastors, teachers and church leaders.

We have failed to put serious emphasis on making disciples, missing the point of Matthew 28.19 entirely.  In that passage, Jesus tells us, ” Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” (NIV).  Disciples are students, people who are seeking to learn and grow in their understanding.  Disciples need teachers, people who will guide them in their learning process.  But many times, the Church has seen people are souls to save, pockets to pick, bodies to count, votes to provide support and so on.  What many people have been given is only those things that they need to make them good at whatever role their leadership assigns them.

As a member of the conservative side of the church, I have seen how many leaders give people enough of the Faith to encourage them to become believers–they are saved.  And once they are saved, there isn’t anything else for them.  They know enough to be a convert but are never helped to become disciples.

And then, when they face the problems and difficulties of life, as they will because faith does not give us immunity to this, they really have nothing to help them.  If they seek help from their faith in the midst of the mess, the help comes with difficulty because it is necessary to lay a foundation at the same time as the ground is shaking.

Jesus told us to make disciples because we need to foundation before the ground shakes.  Good discipleship is the ounce of prevention that does away with the need of a pound of cure.  Even more, it enables believers to take their rightful place in the world as people confident that in the strength and presence of God, they can deal with anything–they have the tools and the presence of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

            I grew up around tools and in a culture where being able to do your own work around the house was considered a fact of life.  I love tools and religiously watch the sales for good prices on that tool I never knew existed but which I suddenly realize I must have.  I research my tools seeking to get the best value for my money and how to make the best use of them.  I like to know how to use my tools and how to care for them.

I tend to get upset with people who misuse tools.  I am not fanatic about it, though.  I don’t mind using a screwdriver as a chisel or a pry bar (screwdrivers are, after all, relatively cheap and shaped perfectly for those jobs), although I am opposed to using a chisel or pry bar as a screwdriver.  I like tools and like to use them properly so that I can get the best use and the best value from them.

And that carries over into my use of Biblical tools–I want to see the various tools God has given us in the Scripture used well and properly.  And so when I look at Romans 8.28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”, I want to be sure that it is used well and wisely.  In the last post, I looked at how not to use the verse.  And so now, we look at how to best use it.

Remember that this isn’t a magic incantation, something that we can say and immediately calm the troubled soul.  We need to know the right time and circumstance to make the best use of the power behind this promise.  In my experience, that right time and circumstance isn’t in the middle of a crisis or painful situation.

At that point in time, people need a supportive, active listening care giver; someone who will give them the space and freedom to get out what they need to get out, to say what they need to say, to cry the tears they need to cry, to be free to process their feelings.  Quoting Romans 8.28 at that time serves only to restrict and attempt to re-direct what should be a free flow of feelings.

I have found that the best time to introduce Romans 8.28 is well before it is needed.  Rather than seeing it as a cure for suffering, we might be better off seeing this promise as a prescription to be taken before the suffering to help lessen the effects of the suffering.

Whenever we go to Kenya to work, one of the things we do is request a prescription for the latest recommended anti-malarial medication for our destination.  We get the medication and take it, following the directions carefully.  Now, anti-malarials do not prevent us from getting malaria.  They greatly lessen the chances and ensure that if and when we do get it, the effects will be much less.  We will experience a mild to moderate flu-like episode rather than a severe to fatal illness.

As a pastor, I try to include this promise in my preaching and teaching on a regular basis.  Suffering is a reality of life and while we can’t really prepare ourselves for every possible problem and difficulty, we can prepare ourselves by knowing that when suffering comes for us as believers, God is still going to be there and still going to be at work and somewhere, somehow, he will transform the painful and wrong and evil and bring into being something positive and good for those of us who have chosen to follow him.

Like the anti-malarials we take, knowing this promise won’t prevent us from having bad stuff and struggles in life but it will help us as we seek to deal with it.  It will help us to remember that God is present and active, even if we don’t feel it.  It will help us to mobilize our faith to help us in the midst of the struggle as we remember that God is at work on our behalf.  It will remind us of the power of God directed towards us as we remember that God is doing all that he can to transform the situation.  And as we remember all this, our faith will eventually help us to see the pain and struggle from the perspective of God’s love and grace.

May the peace of God be with you.

ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER

For the more Biblically literate, there is a Bible verse that occasionally pops up when confronted with the pain and struggle of suffering.  It is a verse that is true, a verse that does have some the ability to help people in their struggles but it is not a magic verse–invoking it does not automatically make everything better.  In fact, like the rest of the Bible, this verse needs to be properly understood and used wisely to be of any value.

The verse is found in Romans 8.28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (NIV).  It is a powerful verse, promising God’s active presence in all of life, even at the most painful and difficult times.  The message found here can be very positive and valuable to people, provided it is interpreted and used properly.

And so, I want to begin looking at this verse from the perspective of what it doesn’t say and what not to do with it–I have always worked on the principle that we need to know as much about what not to do as what to do.

So, while this verse makes great promises, we need to realize that it doesn’t tell us that God causes everything or that everything is good.  I mention that because I have had occasion to hear people twist the passage enough to get those meanings out of it.  The message here is meant to be applied after things happen–God doesn’t send the stuff we are worked up about–but he promises to be there and to be working to bring something good out of the process.

The passage doesn’t tell us that we will immediately see and understand the good.  I have heard some people quote the verse and then immediately begin speculating on what the good in the pain is or will be.  In the end, their far-fetched or pietistic speculation is at best boring and at worst condescending and insensitive.  God works in God’s way and in God’s time and that means that we may or may not see immediate good in any particular situation.  It may also mean that when the good God promises to bring out of the situation actually comes about, it will likely be clear and hard to argue with rather than  vague and open to interpretation.

I am not sure but it may be that the good that comes from the situation may not necessarily be a personal good for those involved.  God sometimes uses the suffering of one to bring about the good of another–Jesus’ suffering on the Cross provides a good example of that reality.  And so even though there is a promise of good coming out of the situation, it might not be a personalized good for those in the midst of the suffering.

There is also a major restriction on this verse.  While a great deal of the Bible is applicable to believer and non-believer, this particular promise is valid only for those who are followers of God through Christ.  For we who have accepted God’s love and grace in Christ, God promises that no matter what happens in our lives–good, bad or indifferent–he will be at work, using his divine power and wisdom to bring about something positive and good from the situation.  But the promise, great as it is, isn’t made to those who don’t yet follow God.

Theologically and practically, I think we are safe to say that God can and will use less than positive events in the life of a non-believer to bring about some good for them, such as their salvation.  We can also say that God doesn’t turn his back on people who haven’t yet accepted his grace when their lives are in turmoil and even more will offer them grace and help and whatever he can–but this promise in Romans is made to those of us who believe.   God promises that no matter what we deal with in life, he is there and even more, he is at work, using all his power and ability and wisdom to bring something good out of the suffering and pain we are dealing with.

For all the limitations, it is a great and wonderful promise, a valuable tool that God has gifted to his people.  But like any tool, we need to know how to use it–and that will be the focus of our next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

GOOD OLD PLASTIC JESUS

My first year of university was spent at a conservative junior college that had just that year been upgraded from a Bible School. I enjoyed my year there but had to move on to a full university to get my degree. I met lots of new people at both places but I have to confess that some of the more interesting were at the university.

One guy I met had some very interesting insights into faith and we talked now and then when our schedules and his use of recreational drugs allowed. One night, we were talking about Jesus and he used a phrase that had stuck in my mind every since. I don’t know if he was quoting someone else or had made it up himself but in talking about Jesus and the way people saw Jesus, he described his as “good old plastic Jesus”.

He was referring to the way he saw people approaching Jesus–his complaint was that he felt people spend all their time remaking Jesus into what they wanted. If they wanted an authoritarian figure to back them, they would quote Jesus. If they wanted to justify something they had done, they would quote Jesus. If they wanted to prove their point, they would refer to Jesus. If they needed something done, they would find some way to use Jesus as an example. He felt that Jesus had become a convenience, a malleable hunk of plastic that people could shape and form as they needed.

I lost touch with him at the end of the year–like many during those years in the early 70s, he was more interested in drugs and other things than education. But his description of how we treat Jesus keeps coming back to me. In the end, it seems like we create a nice little circle. We claim to follow Jesus–but before we actually follow, we develop an image of Jesus that allows us to travel in the way we wanted to go in the first place. I know, I know–my cynicism is showing. But having seen Jesus portrayed as a staunch supporter of conservative politics, social politics, peace movements, war movements while at the same time being a supporter of traditional marriage and same sex marriage, more severe punishment for criminals and more forgiveness for criminals and a host of other conflicting positions, I think my cynicism is a bit justified.

People have been attempting to make Jesus into what they want since the days when he was on earth. Many of the people who flocked to Jesus when he was teaching and preaching wanted a dynamic, powerful military leader who would free them from the hated Roman occupiers. Peter wanted a Messiah with no cross. James and John wanted a king who could give them plum patronage appointments. Later, Constantine wanted a divine supporter for his attempt to rule the Roman Empire.

The question, “Who is Jesus?” has so many answers that it is sometimes easier to give up and forget trying to find an answer. But I think giving up is just as wrong as turning Jesus into our personal lump of plastic to shape however we want. Finding Jesus is important for a lot of reasons, perhaps the most important of which is that as believers, we are called to be like him–not like what we would like him to be but like what he really is.

So how do we find Jesus, the real one? Part of the answer to that question comes from the previous string in this blog. We read the Bible. The best information we have on Jesus comes from the Bible. The Gospels give us a picture of what he did and said. The rest of the Bible provides us with amplification and explanation of this Gospel picture. Without the knowledge of Jesus that comes from the Bible, we will have a much harder time discovering the real Jesus and therefore a much harder time following him.

A major part of the reason why I push believers to read the Bible is because we all need to connect with the primary source material to help us understand who and what Jesus was. Rather than base our understanding of Jesus on what we have been told by others or what we would like him to be or the latest fad book about Jesus, we begin with the Bible, God’s revelation to us. Where we go from there will be the topic of some future blogs.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY BOTHER?

Last week as I was writing one of the blog entries in this current string of issues dealing with reading the Bible, I realized that I hadn’t bothered to ask a very vital question, a question that probably plays a bigger part in whether people read the Bible than any of the other things that I have dealt with. It surprises me that I didn’t ask it because it is the kind of question I love to ask.

I realized that I hadn’t bothered to ask the question, “Why bother to read the Bible?” I mean, if there are so many issues associated with reading it, if it can be so difficult to start and sustain a Bible reading habit, if people have to work hard at what they are reading, well, maybe we should know why we should put so much effort into the process.

For me, that isn’t as hard a question as it might seem. I am a reader–put something written in front of me and I will read it. I have even been known to take a stab at reading other languages that I don’t know, just to see if there is anything there that I can understand. So, for me, reading the Bible in many ways is no different than reading the place mat at the restaurant, the sales flier or the scrap of paper I find on the street–I am going to read it anyway.

But I do realize that many people are not like that–and from some of the comments I read about societal change these days, it seems that more and more, people are moving away from reading or at the very least, are moving towards reading less and thinking less about what they are reading. It seems that screens are winning over print.

So, the question–why put the effort into reading the Bible? This becomes an even more important question in the light of the fact that historically, the Bible has never actually been a best-read book. During the first 200-300 years of the Church, the Bible as we know it didn’t exist–there was the Old Testament and a shifting collection of writings that varied depending on geography, theological stance, personal choice and so on. Even when the actual contents of the Old and New Testaments were settled, most people couldn’t read–literacy was the preserve of a select few.

At a few points during the history of the Faith, it was forbidden for “ordinary” believers to read the Bible. It was felt that even if such people could read, they should leave the Bible to trained and educated people who could be trusted to interpret the Bible correctly. Untrained laity were likely to create and believe heresies if they were allowed to read the Bible.

But God has given the Bible to humanity for a reason. And that reason is simple–God wants us to know what the Bible says. Well, actually, it is probably better to say that God wants us not just to know what the Bible says but even more, he wants us to do what the Bible says (or not do what it says not to do in some cases). The Bible is the story of what we were meant to be, how we came to be where we are now and how we can get back to where we were meant to be.

And, while we can and do get a great deal out of other people telling us what the Bible says, we don’t get the personalized message from God that the Bible contains for each of us if we don’t read it. It is like the comment the people of the Samaritan village made to the woman at the well in John 4.42. She told them about Jesus and they were interested but after seeing Jesus for himself, they said, ” We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” (NIV)

When we read the Bible for ourselves, we discover what God has to say to us directly, not as interpreted by others. The interpretation of others can be valuable and helpful–but do we really want God’s love letters to us read for us completely by others?

May the peace of God be with you.

MEMORY VERSES

My personal involvement with the church and the faith started with Sunday School. Every Sunday, we entered the church–little kids downstairs, big kids upstairs. Since we changed denominations before I reached the age of ascending the stairs, I only know what the little kids did for Sunday School there. We sang, we heard announcements, and we went to our class which in this case were tables and chairs separated from the other tables and chairs by hanging curtains.

Part of the class was always the “memory verse”. Every week, there was a Bible verse to learn and repeat back to the teacher. If you were really good at memorizing, you could get a prize at the end of the year. Memorizing Scripture has always been a strong part of conservative Christian teaching. The theory is that is provided the memorizer with readily accessible Scripture for any need in their life.

I know people who have memorized vast quantities of Scripture and have read of people who have memorized the whole Bible. I have also run into people whose conversation is filled with Scripture quotes–talking to them is somewhat like a marathon Bible session.

I personally have a few verses of the Bible that I can quote from memory, not just in English but a couple in Kiswahili and even one in New Testament Greek. But I confess that I am actually not overly interested in memorizing Scripture, at least not in the traditional way. The Scripture verses I have memorized didn’t come from the Sunday School days–I ended up remembering them because over the years they have been important to me and my ministry and I used them enough that they just stuck around.

The verses I learned in Kiswahili came about because I loved the way a different language expressed the verse–it provided insights that helped me understand and explain the verse better. The verse in Biblical Greek–that was one of the first verses I translated from Greek by myself and it stayed with me because the process was such hard work and such a significant accomplishment for me at the time.

Part of the issue for me is probably that I don’t do memorization well. I have a tendency to be more interested in the meaning and use of the verse. That means I often end up remembering the meaning but not in exactly the words used in the verse–my memory does a paraphrase of the verse that I remember more often that the actual verse.

Another part of the issue stems from the people I have met who spend much of their time quoting the Scripture verses they have memorized. While some people manage to hit on exactly the right quote for a specific occasion, others tend to throw lots of verses into the conversation that have little or no connection to what is going on. I have also found that often, people who repeat memorized Scriptures aren’t really interested in discussion the applicability of the verse, if it really means what they are using it to mean and so on.

I have discovered that memorization doesn’t necessarily mean that a person understands what they have memorized. Whenever I have been involved in language learning, the early stages involve me memorizing collections of sounds that I am assured mean something–but I really don’t know what they mean. People could have told me to memorize what they promise is a basic greeting but which turns out to be a huge joke on me. It is only as I learn the meaning of that collection of sounds that I begin to feel comfortable with them language

In the end, meaning is more important than memorizing. And so for me, memorization comes out of meaning. When I just memorize, I really don’t know what I am repeating. But when I know what it means, I can use it effectively as it was meant to be used.

This post is not an attempt to justify my lack of memorized Scripture verses. Rather, it is a suggestion that for some of us, the effort put into memorizing is probably better put into understanding because once we understand, we can use it better. We might not repeat it exactly, but we will repeat it in the right context and for the for the right reason. If we need the exact wording, well, isn’t that why we have smart phones and tablets and computers with several versions of the Bible and full search features?

May the peace of God be with you.

I DON’T HAVE TIME!

There is an interesting excuse that most of us use at some point to explain our inability to get something done. We say, “I don’t have time”, and feel justified that that particular job doesn’t get done. One of my chores around the house is vacuuming the dog hair off the basement steps–and since I am not a fan of vacuuming and think the dog should clean up his own hair, there are occasions when I skip the task because I don’t really have time.

The difficulty is that I might not have time to vacuum the steps, but I manage to find time to watch my favourite show, watch YouTube, read and so on–all of which require as much or more time as vacuuming the steps. I, like most people, manage to find time for the things that I really want to do.

And so when I hear someone tell me that they would like to read the Bible but don’t have time, I tend to think of the basement steps and hear something very different. Rather than the lack of time, there is a lack of will. The desire to read the Bible isn’t as strong as the roadblocks in the way. Some of these roadblocks have already been dealt with such as finding a compatible translation and making use of the various tools available.

We can also help ourselves by developing some structure and planning around our Bible reading. The goal is to develop Bible reading into a habit. Habits develop as a result of regular repetition until the activity becomes an automatic part of our lives. We develop habits because they can be very effective and efficient and help us organize our lives better.

To develop a Bible reading habit–or any kind of habit for that matter, we need to create structure. Structure begins with setting aside a specific time to read the Bible. It can be a chronological time–every day from 8:03am to 8:23am, for example. It can be a time tied to something else–every day, after lunch, read for 20 minutes. It can be a time that allows for multi-tasking–my Bible reading happens when I am riding my exercise bike. What matters here is that the time be available and that the reader is capable of reading and comprehending at that time. I would never schedule reading time for me at 11:00pm at night because I don’t read well at that time–I just want to go to sleep.

The place for reading is almost as important as the time. Some people create a special reading place where they are comfortable and relaxed and can focus. I find the exercise bike in the basement works well for me. The place should reinforce the focus on the Bible for the reader. Associating the place and the reading reinforces the habit. It also allows the reader to have a specific location to leave resources and materials.

So, the time is set, the place is designated. Now, the reader needs a plan. In spite of what many thing, it is not a good plan to begin at Genesis 1.1 and read through to Revelation 22.21. As I mentioned earlier, that will stumble in Exodus, fall in Leviticus and die in Numbers, if it lasts that long.

There are a variety of Bible reading plans that help people read through the Bible. Some are based on one year, some on two years and some three years. A bit of searching on the Web or through church or denominational or para-church resources will locate one. A reader can also develop a personal plan–mine, for example, involves reading through the Old and New Testaments at the same time, a few chapters from each. That way, if one part is boring, the other will carry it. The advantage of a plan is that it gives the reader a sense of accomplishment and goal–readers can see their progress.

While some might question the process of making Bible reading a habit, I think it is a great idea. We find time for what we want to do–and if creating a new habit allows us to read the Bible more frequently, that is great. We have no problem developing bad habits–so why not put some effort into developing some good habits?

May the peace of God be with you.

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.