USING THE MIRROR

I gave up shaving a long time ago—why waste so much time on an activity that doesn’t do all that much for me in the long run? Having a beard has many benefits but it does mean that I don’t actually spend much time in front of mirrors, a fact that get emphasized now and then when my wife suggests that it is time to get my beard trimmed. It isn’t that I never use the mirror—its just that I don’t actually pay much attention when I am brushing my teeth in front of the mirror and so don’t really notice that both my beard and what hair I have left are getting somewhat shaggy.

I find it interesting, though, that looking in the mirror is one of the minor themes in the New Testament associated with spiritual growth and development. In James 1.23-24, the writer makes this comment: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” (NIV) Reading the Bible, according to James, is supposed to be a lot like looking in a mirror—we need to see ourselves and deal with ourselves.

One of the most serious problems facing the church is the lack of believers actually reading the Bible because it leads to an even more serious problem of believers not actually following the Bible or even worse, doing exactly the opposite of what God teaches us through the Bible and thinking it is God’s will. In my persistent efforts to get believers to read the Bible, I have a reason beyond reading the words—I want people to read the Bible so that they can discover themselves in its pages.

We are all in the Bible. In fact, we are all there in two or perhaps three versions. The first version is the familiar one, the version of ourselves as we are. Granted, the Bible doesn’t actually mention left-handed, colour blind introverts as a class (although left-handed people are mentioned). But on a deeper level, we are all in the Bible. We are shown our essential selfishness, our inability to consistently do what we know we should so, our distance from God. We all show up as we are.

But we also show us as we could be. We are given glimpses of the original plan, the one where we are together with God, discovering the wonder of who we were meant to be and how great being with God really and what we were meant for before we messed it all up. And then, we are also show the third version, the us that floats between what we are and what we can be, the version that all believers spend their lives struggling with and against.

The point of reading the Bible is so that we can see ourselves as we are, commit to becoming what we were meant to be and most importantly, discovering the divine power and help we need as we struggle in the intermediate stage where we will live all of our faith life. We don’t read to discover who was the fourth king of Israel, although that is interesting. We read so that we can see who we are and discover how we can become what we were meant to be.

Sometimes, I think that all the reluctance to read the Bible; all the debates over which version of the Bible to read; all the fierce disagreements over interpretations; all the wrangling and bickering over that bits and pieces of the Bible are popular simply to help us avoid seeing ourselves in its pages—because when we see ourselves as we really are, we are challenged to become what we were meant to be and can be. It is easier to fight each other over which translation of the Bible God wants us to use than it is to fight our selfishness to become the version of us that God meant us to be. Really reading the Bible challenges us with both our failures and our potential.

But it also gives us hope. The God who gave us the Bible and our salvation also gives us all the help and hope we need as we move from what we are to what we can be—just look in the mirror and follow the directions we find there.

May the peace of God be with you.

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SAYING IT AGAIN

Sometimes, I wonder if I am making any progress. I recently preached yet another sermon on a topic that I have been preaching on regularly since pretty much the beginning of my professional ministry. It is a topic that is important to me because it is tied so intimately to the faith I hold and seek to help others discover and develop. Sometimes, I approach the topic directly but this time, it came as part of a series of sermons on the letter of James.

As I planned the sermon series, I realized that once again, I would be dealing with the issue of Christians reading the Bible—or rather, Christians not reading the Bible. I gave the sermon the usual thought and meditation and prayer but discovered myself wondering about the bigger picture.

I understand the issue: I have read the dismal statistics concerning Bible reading among Christians; I have talked with individual believers about their difficulty reading the Bible; I have scolded and cajoled theology students about their lack of Bible reading. I understand the problem. When Christians don’t read the Bible and get all their Christian training from others, their faith will inevitably be stunted and inefficient at the very least and misguided and wrong at the worst.

But as I was preparing, preaching and reviewing this sermon, I was wondering why believers don’t actually read the Bible. I was not just thinking about the stated reasons: its hard to find time; I can’t understand it; its such a big book and so on. I am trying to figure out the deep down, essential reason that motivates people to ignore such an important resource in their faith development.

For me, reading the Bible was a natural step in my faith. I became a believer, the Bible was a book for believers therefore, I should read the Bible. There was never any question about that. Certainly, there were some times when I didn’t read it much but those times were actually few and far between, especially after I discovered that the Bible came in many flavours. All through my life, reading the Bible has been a regular part of my daily routine.

But then again, I read all instruction manuals and guide books—and keep them where I can find them and refer to them. I never know when I might forget where that infrequently used release button is on some tool or another. Not reading a manual or guide book strikes me as a really poor approach to discovering how best to use and care for a new item. And in the same way, reading the Bible seems like a no-brainer for anyone new to the faith—or anyone who has been in the faith for a while for that matter.

And yet, I keep discovering that the majority of people I minister to haven’t actually read the Bible through—and some probably haven’t actually been exposed to any more of the Bible than what they hear weekly in worship. This confession comes out as I carry out pastoral visits, lead Bible study and talk with people casually. The confession of not actually reading the Bible is generally made with some sense of guilt and often followed by the person’s declaration that they should read the Bible (more)—but the next time we meet, I get the same confession and declaration.

And so, I keep at it. I keep reading and studying the Bible myself. I keep teaching and preaching the Bible. And I keep encouraging people to read the Bible themselves. I preach on it, I help people find appropriate Bibles to read or listen to, I answer questions and give explanations, I even encourage skimming or skipping the slow parts. And sometimes, someone will actually start reading the Bible because of what I have been saying and modelling. And even more exciting is when the person who started reading discovers the actual presence of God through the Holy Spirit as they read.

I wish I could prepare the one sermon that would convince everyone to read the Bible or develop the can’t resist reason that would get every believer reading the Bible regularly. But given the reality that there isn’t one sermon or reason that is going to get everyone reading the Bible, I will keep plugging away, trying to help people discover that most of their questions and struggles in the faith are a whole lot easier to deal with if you read the guide book.

May the peace of God be with you.

FAITH, GENDER AND BEING ME

Issues surrounding gender have been making the news a lot these days. And, as is often the case, the church hasn’t been as helpful as it might be in helping people discover a way to deal with the issues being raised. I just finished reading a book promising to help me become a better Christian male. As a disclaimer, I will say I didn’t actually buy the book—it was offered free from a website that sends me frequent lists of offers.

To be fair, there was nothing in the book that upset or offended me. The book was calling for men who are believers to be more Christ-like: honest, moral, compassionate, committed and so on. All these are good qualities and many men of faith would benefit from using the power of the Holy Spirit to cultivate them. I don’t know but I would assume that any of the many books pitched towards Christian men would have similar themes. There is also a whole segment of the evangelical book market focused on helping Christian women become better Christian women—I confess to not having read any of them, partly because none of them have been offered to me free of cost.

My question and concern about the whole evangelical gendered spiritual growth industry deals with its validity and necessity. The one book I have read on developing good male Christianity seemed to me to be a good book for any Christian to read and follow. Good faith seems to me to be gender neutral. Our relationship with God through Christ doesn’t seem to have different categories for different genders.

Certainly, gender is a reality of life. I am male and that does make some real differences in my life. One basic difference, for example, is that I will never be a biological mother—my gender gives me the biological father part of the process. And there are probably some intrinsic gender differences that crop up along the way—but they may not be as rigid as people sometimes believe. I taught our sons and our daughter how to play ball, light a campfire and cook spaghetti. I also gave all of them a swiss army knife when they reached the age of mature knife ownership—and I didn’t get a pink one for our daughter.

Being a Christian is a process of moving from what we were in our pre-Christian state to what we will eventually be in our heavenly state. And since there is good evidence that gender will not be a significant factor in heaven, maybe the route that suggests there are different requirements for male and female Christians misses the point. Maybe we are actually looking to become the version of ourselves that God meant us to be.
That process of seeking to Holy Spirit’s guidance to discover, understand and deal with the rough edges caused by human sinfulness has a bigger focus than gender. Most of the teaching about growing in faith in the New Testament is gender neutral—and a lot of it is actually quite inclusive, or at least as inclusive as it can be coming from a culture that was very gender dominated. Galatians 3.28, for example, is pretty gender neutral: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” NIV

Gender does exist in our world and I am sure that there are some aspects of the Christian growth process that are affected by gender. But it just may be that we have actually gone too far with the gendering of the faith and allowed culture and bias and prejudice to become more important in our approach than the Holy Spirit or the Bible. According to the free book I read, being a Christian male means that I have to be honest, compassionate and caring—but those traits are basic requirements for all believers. Some of us male Christians may need to work a bit harder to develop them because of our cultural biases but they are definitely not just for male believers.

Mostly, we are called to grow in Christ-likeness. And while Christ identified as a male while on Earth, that doesn’t appear to be an endorsement of one gender over another. All of us are to move towards Christ-likeness, a process that probably doesn’t involve gender as much as some might think it does.

May the peace of God be with you.

A NEW BIBLE

One of my devotional activities consists of reading the Bible through every year or so. I try to read a different translation each time, which keeps me always on the lookout for translations that I haven’t seen. While we live in an era where it sometimes seems there is a new English translation coming out every other day, that isn’t quite the case. As I neared the end of the last translation I was reading through, I began looking around for the next one and was having some difficulty.

Or I was until I checked the Bible programs I have on my various devices. There, I discovered several translations that I hadn’t run into before. They aren’t new translations—they were free with the Bible program, which means they are older and probably didn’t make all that big an impression even when they were new. But they are different translations and I haven’t read them before so now I have several more years of devotional reading. I won’t stop looking for new translations but I don’t have to wonder where my next one will come from.

The one I chose to read comes from the early 1800s so I didn’t expect contemporary language. I began reading and found myself relaxing and enjoying the process. The reading was producing a sense of comfort and contentment and even peace that I hadn’t actually expected. To be honest, sometimes, my devotional reading is done out of duty—I have committed to this and I am going to do it, no matter what.

But that hasn’t been the case so far with this new translation. I am enjoying the process and the words and phrases seem to wash over me, giving me a powerful sense of something positive. Now, I am not a person to simply accept things—I need to know why and how come and all that sort of stuff.

I realized shortly after I began reading that this particular translation uses pretty archaic language even considering it’s 1800s origin. In fact, it seemed to be pretty close to the language used in the King James Version. I actually did some checking and discovered that isn’t a coincidence. The translator set himself the task of slightly revising the KJV to bring it up to date a bit—he didn’t want to make major changes or re-translate the whole thing. All he was interested in doing was updating a few words and phrases here and there.

And with that bit of knowledge, I began to understand the feelings I was having when I was reading the translation. I grew up with the KJV. It was part of my early faith life: Sunday School, worship, youth group, Bible study. My first devotional reading was of the KJV. The first time I ever read the Bible through was in the KJV. The words and phrases, ancient as they are have been imprinted in my mind and emotions and are a basic part of both my thought process and faith process. In fact, when I think of a Bible verse, I generally think of it in its KJV version and then have to look it up in whatever modern translation I am using. Reading this translation is taking me back to my faith roots, reminding me of times and feelings that go way back.

I have read, worked with and appreciated different translations almost from the beginning of my faith journey. I began seriously using newer translations when I began university and have spend a great deal of time reading and studying Scripture in most major English translations and a couple of Kiswahili ones. I am reluctant to recommend the KJV to anyone younger that I am, especially if I know they don’t have a strong background in the faith or Bible reading. I rejoice in the wealth of new translations available and the potential to match translations with every language sub-group on English. I will not be going back to using the KJV as my basic translation.

But I am going to enjoy this translation I am reading—and may even put the KJV in my devotional reading list again at some point. The old, archaic and hard to understand language that drives me to seek and use newer translations is also touching my faith and feelings in positive ways and I am going to enjoy the process and let the Holy Spirit work through the words and phrases that I may not understand but which still speak powerfully to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

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.

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.

WHO AM I?

The classroom was hot, stuffy and basic. We didn’t even have a blackboard—just a square of black paint on the white wall. But we were working hard. Some of the students were sure that Jesus’ main message was one of judgement and demand. I was asking them where love and grace fit into the picture. The discussion kept going around and around, with each of us making claims and counter-claims.

As the teacher, I realized I was losing control and had better do something to get things back on track. So, I suggested that all of us were making a mistake—we were trying to define Jesus based on our desires, our cultural perceptions and the theology we had absorbed over the years. I suggested that had better stop and take to time to read the Gospel accounts of Jesus because unless we made use of that basic and most primary of resources, we were all arguing from ignorance and personal preference.

Since issuing that challenge, I have spend a lot of time looking at what God has told us about Jesus. I began with the Gospels, which gave me a firm and solid base. It also moved me into the rest of the Scripture as I discovered the need to know how the rest of the Bible tied in with the Gospels. My abilities in reading Greek and Hebrew were sufficient to pass both courses in university but truthfully, not all that good in practise. I compensated by reading a variety of translations to see how others had understood the texts. I very quickly realized that I could read the Bible through in about a year if I could discipline myself to followed a basic and simple reading plan—three chapters of the OT and 2 of the NT every day. I supplemented this basic reading with more focused reading and in depth study at various times along the way.

The results have been important and significant and crucial to my faith. Often, the most important things I learned was what Jesus wasn’t. Jesus wasn’t a white westerner, for example. Jesus wasn’t a capitalist—or a socialist for that matter. He actually wasn’t even a Baptist, although some suggest that his cousin was and that gives him a family tie with us Baptists. I discovered that Jesus wasn’t particularly conservative or liberal when it came to politics.

I also discovered that Jesus was deeply and powerfully concerned with the reality of the human condition—and he mostly dealt with the human condition one person at a time. I also learned something that has made me increasingly uncomfortable over the years. I learned that Jesus tended to have hard and pointed words of disapproval for religious people and leaders who refused to distinguish between their wants and desires and what God was saying in and through Jesus. Trying to appropriate Jesus for personal means gets some serious negative comments both from Jesus himself and others in the Bible.

The more I have tried to discover Jesus, the more I discover how hard to is to discover Jesus. This isn’t because Jesus is hard to discover. It is true that there is lots of stuff about Jesus that is hard to understand mostly because Jesus is both the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity. But most of the problem with understanding who Jesus really is comes from my inability to fully differentiate Jesus and me. I want Jesus not only to love me but also to approve of me and validate me completely.

But Jesus keeps frustrating me. He loves me with an undying and eternal love—but he keeps calling me to become something I am not. He accepts me with a basic acceptance that assures me that I am with him always—but he also keeps pointing at beloved parts of me and suggesting that with his help, I can do better. He gave of himself completely so that I could be with him—but he also keeps suggesting that that great idea I have might not be completely valid or acceptable.

There are some days when I might rather have the Jesus I used to follow, the Jesus who followed me more than I actually followed him—but in the end, most of the time, I prefer to follow the Jesus I have been discovering, Jesus revealed to us by God.

May the peace of God be with you.