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.

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THE CHURCH

I am back from vacation–which was great, by the way, except for the overnight cross-Canada flight home.  Sleeping on airplanes is something I find myself less and less able to do.  It likely has something to do with the changes in airline seats over the years because I am certainly tired enough to sleep during the flight–I just can’t get comfortable enough to sleep for any more than a cat nap or two.

Anyway, while on vacation, I actually was on vacation, which means that I spend very little time thinking about work, theology, churches and so on.  I did attend one worship service while we were away with our son and daughter-in-law for our newest grandson’s dedication but that was family and fun rather than work.

But I have been spending a lot of time these days thinking about the church–not specific churches but the church in general. This comes as a result of a lot of stuff I have been reading and hearing.  It seems to me that for many these days, church as an organized, structured institution has become something of a negative.  Several blogs that I read regularly have recently been talking about the number of bad experiences they have with churches and the difficulties they see in churches.  Others have been writing about how they are working hard to change churches around and get them back on track.

But perhaps the most common thing I am seeing and hearing is the lack of interest in the church.  It seems that many believers are deciding to go it alone.  They envision their faith as a deep and important relationship between them and God and the presence of other people along with the associated rules and structures and regulations that go with them are something that gets in the way of this relationship.

That is something I understand.  I have spend most of my adult life working in and with churches and the Church.  I wish I could say that I have seen the Church at its best and its worst but to be honest, I would have to say that most of the time, I have seen the church at its worst and its less than worst to maybe not too bad.  By that, I mean I have seen and been part of congregations that are doing good things which they proceed to undercut by some of their habits and traditions.  They might get involved in some powerful ministry to meet a serious need in  their community or the world but at the same time be involved in a nasty major internal dispute over the colour of the new door or whether to use KJV or NIV pulpit Bibles.  The ministry is great, the dispute is terrible so on the whole, the congregation is probably average.

I confess that I approach the church somewhat like Linus approaches people in  one of the Charles Schultz cartoons.  He proclaims, “I love humanity”, gets knocked over by Lucy and them proclaims, “I love humanity but hate some people”.  Well, I love the Church–what it is supposed to be, what it stands for, what it was established for, how God uses us and all the rest.  But when faced with the realities of the average local congregation, I find myself shaking my head and wondering why God would choose such a flawed vehicle as his chosen instrument in the world.

There have been times when I have understood completely why people of faith would try to go it alone, ignoring the church.  Because I have been the pastor and therefore privy to more information than many people have, I often know more about the congregation and its problems than anyone else in the church–and because of a lot of factors, I often have that kind of deep knowledge about many other congregations.  I know the pain and hurt and betrayal that the church at its worst can and does produce.  I know it both from the perspective of a pastor who tries to help others deal with their wounds and from the perspective of one who have been deeply wounded by the church.

But I still love the church and still take part in the church and still have committed my life and work to making the church work.  I do that mostly because for all of its flaws and problems, there really isn’t anything with the potential that the church has.  I will try to explain some of that in the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ARE THE CHANCES?

There is a scene that pops up in movies and TV shows fairly regularly.  An unexpected accident or illness lands one of the characters in a hospital on life support and likely in a coma.  Family and friends gather around and look to the doctor, who describes the injuries or illness, making it sound extremely serious.  Someone asks the inevitable question, “What are the chances?”, seeking to discover whether the patient will live or die.

Almost invariable, the answer from the doctor is that the chances are not good–the patient will likely die and if they don’t die, they will be disabled for life.  Some shows then follow the miraculous recovery process while others follow the family and friends as they deal with the resulting death or disability.  Which track the show follows probably depends a lot on the contract negotiations between the studio and the actor playing the patient.

That scene popped into my mind when I was thinking about the church.  All of us are standing around, looking at the church, which appears to be on life support and in dire shape.  What are the chances?

Well, based on historical reality, the church will survive.  It will not, however, likely survive in exactly the same shape and form it has today.  Nor will every congregation that exists today survive.  Many congregations, both small and large will fold, leaving crumbling buildings and fading memories.  A few denominations may even disappear, either because they amalgamate with another or because they just dwindle to nothing.

But the church will survive.  The history is the Christian church is as much a history of change, mutation and variation as it is a history of struggle, stagnation and decay.  The church established on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) was very different from the church of today.  The church that struggled to exist under official and unofficial Roman persecution was diverging from the Acts 2 church.  The church that will develop in Islamic parts of the world will be very different from the worshipping body of 12 that I pastor.  The church that is developing around Internet based activities is very different from anything we have seen so far in the history of the faith.

But whatever it looks like, it will still be the church.  The church exists as a human organization and a divine organism at one and the same time.  The human organization can and does experience all the realities of any human organization–and as a human organization, will face failure and parts of it will disappear.  The seven churches mentioned Revelation 2-3, for example, no longer exist.

And if the church were just a human organization, it would have had a very short history.  But since the church is also a divine organism, it can be assured of a long and significant history stretching from the day of Pentecost to the day when Christ returns.  The church is built on the power of God shown in the resurrection and filled with the power of God in the form of the Holy Spirit.  The church is formed by those who have accepted God’s grace in Jesus Christ and have discovered the wonder of God.

This powerful, Spirit-filled and led organism cannot be defeated.  God has a plan for the church and through his Spirit, he is ensuring that the church follows the plan.  There have been and will be many false starts, deviations and detours, dead ends and defeats–but God is guiding and directing the church, shaping and reshaping and directing and pushing and prodding and moving the church in the way he planned for it to follow.

The church has a future, a future that depends on the power of God.  The long term future of the church probably won’t involve a lot of what we consider important and essential.  It may not have buildings; the music will definitely be different; pastors will look and act differently; congregations may not meet together in the same place–but there will be a church, a gathering of the Spirit-filled who have responded to the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There will be a church because God instituted the church, protects the church, empowers the church, has a role and a mission for the church and will eventually bring the whole church to him.   Until that day, there will be a church.  Some congregations may not have much of a chance, but the church’s chances are excellent–it will survive and thrive.

May the peace of God be with you.

BOWELS AND MERCIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.