how do you read the Bible?

How do you read the Bible?

bible genesis
Open Bibles are generally easier to read than closed ones.

That question has a range of answers from the simple: “You open the book and read the words on the pages” to the complex: “You need to understand the culture surrounding the events and you need to understand the form of literature that you are reading.”

Actually both are accurate and fair answers to that question. But I want to frame it slightly differently: do you read the Bible searching for answers to life’s problems and complexities or do you read it looking for wisdom to help you work out how to approach life’s problems and complexities? It may seem like an esoteric exercise in semantics (and tricky words) to pose the question that way but I think the answer is important because it affects how we approach life.

I have a book on my bookshelf that I have had since I was a teenager. No, it wasn’t written on a scroll, but it was published in 1978. It’s called The Answer’s In The Bible. And I think for a lot of my life that’s how I have approached the Bible – looking for answers. I have looked to find out what the Bible says about issues that I face. Sometimes, I admit, I have even naively used it to justify my own actions by taking some verses out of context as an answer (you could use Matthew 25:27 as an argument to save money in a bank and not give it away, but that’s not what the parable is about). But the Bible doesn’t have direct answers for a lot of the questions we might ask today because those things could not have been anticipated in the days in which it was written. It does not have anything to say directly about the internet, computers, cars, aeroplanes, television, space exploration and so much more that we take for granted in our 21st Century cultures and lifestyles. And the Bible’s silence on some issues causes us problems if we are just looking for answers on what to do when…

Okay Christians, put the stones down gently and step away. Or at least don’t lob them at me just yet, please – read on…

You see I do believe that the Bible gives us access to God’s wisdom which enables us to work out what to do and how to approach life’s problems and complexities. The wisdom of God is contained throughout the pages of the Bible*. But there are two overarching themes through the Bible – God’s LOVE and JUSTICE – and they are at the heart of his wisdom.

They trump anything else. And if Love and Justice seem to be in conflict then Love wins every time in the form of grace and mercy. If you want the ultimate example of it you find it in what the Bible has to say about Jesus’ death and resurrection: God’s love and justice are both involved, but love wins even as he dies. (The resurrection proves it!)

So if you decide to look for Biblical wisdom rather than answers what does the Bible say about the internet and computers, for example? Nothing directly, as I have said. But it talks (from a starting point of being loving and just) about being honest, not gossiping, not lusting, not expressing hatred for others, good administration, and a lot more. That wisdom can shape good use.

And the great thing about seeking Godly wisdom from the Bible rather than just answers is that the wisdom crosses boundaries of time, culture, geography, ethnicity and any of the other things that can make it difficult for us to apply those words to our lives today. The Bible is not a rule-book to be followed or an instruction manual to help us maintain our lives. It is God’s wisdom expressed as love and justice seen through his interaction with humanity (especially seen in Jesus where the two are combined wonderfully).

So how do you read the Bible? Searching for answers or looking for wisdom?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Even the apparently esoteric rules and regulations of Leviticus contain wisdom: not wearing clothes woven of two different kinds of thread (Leviticus 19:19) is about ensuring that clothes will last and provide value for money because when washed different threads are liable to shrinkage and may either weaken or even tear the garment, which could also lead to public embarrassment.

whispering

When I left my last church in order to take up this post a friend gave me a book. It’s The President’s Devotional by Joshua Dubois, and is a year’s devotional reflections that he wrote for President Obama and sent him in a daily email for him to read first thing every day. The thought for this Sunday is as follows:

‘“Let every one of us cultivate, in every word that issues from our mouth, absolute truth. I say cultivate, because to very few people – as may be noticed of most young children – does truth, this rigid, literal veracity, come by nature. To many, even who love it and prize it dearly in others, it comes only after the self-control, watchfulness, and bitter experience of years.” Dinah Craik, A Woman’s Thoughts About Women.

‘“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32 (ESV)

‘Truth: the sieve through which our every action must flow. Yes, it’s allowable; yes, it’s beneficial; yes, it’s profitable; but is it true? Only we know the answer – and to this standard we must keep. “Let every one of us cultivate, in every word that issues from our mouth, absolute truth.”

‘Dear God, grow within me the desire for truth in all things so that I might be set free from the bondage of falsehood. Let veracity be my nature. Amen.’

Aside from the challenge of the thought, the fact that each day the President of the USA is receiving a devotional thought like this is encouraging. It reminds me of the role of a slave (perhaps known as an Auriga) in a Roman Triumph whose role was to stand behind the victorious commander and, whilst holding a laurel crown on his head also whisper “Memento homo” in his ear – “Remember you are a man.”

seals whispering

The Bible for us can be like that slave. Through it God’s Spirit whispers in our ear and helps us to keep the right perspective:

When things are going well and we are tempted to pride and self-reliance he whispers in our ear, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;  in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

When things are tough and we are tempted to give up he whispers in our ear, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship*. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:15b-17)

Let’s always pay attention to the Spirit’s whispering in our ear through Scripture!

Be blessed, be a blessing

*‘sonship’ here indicates the bestowing of the full legal rights of an adopted male heir in Roman culture

World Book Day

As I have done previously, this morning I am recycling a ‘thought for the week’ that I have circulated to the Ministers in our Association.

This morning my Facebook feed is full of photos from my friends of their children dressed up as characters from books to participate in World Book Day. It’s very entertaining, especially trying to work out whether I remember those book characters from when our children were younger, or even from my childhood. Some of the ‘book’ characters seem a little tenuous – I am not sure how many ‘Power Rangers’ books there were, for example. But you can see that the children are really proud of how they look and I hope they’ll have a good day.

It got me wondering. Which Bible character would you dress up as? This is not an out-of-season plug for ‘Get in the Picture’. I recognise that for many of the characters involved it might not be very obvious which one we are at first glance. But you might put in some interesting touches to show who you were: to distinguish between Mary and Martha you might carry a cushion to sit on or wear a pair of rubber gloves and carry a mop; to distinguish between Moses and Joshua you might carry a fire extinguisher or a hard hat.

20150106_085811 (2)My personal devotional readings at the moment are exploring Nahum and Jonah (sharing the theme of Nineveh’s relationship with God and his people). I remember leading an all age service once at my first church and coming into the church wearing torn clothes, bare feet, drenched head to toe and covered in seaweed. I began with, “You’ll never guess what happened to me on my way here this morning…” and told the story of Jonah first-hand. He must have been quite a sight when he turned up at Nineveh looking rather dishevelled and smelling of dried fish vomit. Perhaps that’s why they paid so much attention to him.

In her reflection on my reading this morning (looking at Jonah’s psalm in the fish, chapter 2:1-10) Anna Robbins commented: “We can never win at hide-and-seek with God. It’s not just that he’s good at finding us. Rather, there’s nowhere we can go that he isn’t there already.”

That could be quite scary if you were trying to run away from God but it’s also a reassurance. It’s true of all of you that you do as a Minister. He’s waiting there for you in Scripture even before you begin to write your sermon. He’s already there in the hospital ward when you go to visit a terminally ill person. He’s there in the difficult Deacons or Church Meeting. He’s already there in the life of the person who is not yet a Christian and wants to find out more. There’s nowhere we can go that he isn’t there already.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

Fed up with sermons

shocked
Photo by permission from http://www.sxc.hu/profile/bigevil600

Yes, really.

I am fed up with sermons.

That’s probably not what a Regional Minister ought to have as the title for one of his bloggages. But I am honestly fed up with sermons.

Not, I hasten to add, in the usual sense of that phrase! (Put the stones down…)

I am fed up with sermons because when I sit and listen to a sermon I get fed. Unbelievably that even happens when I am preaching a sermon myself. God’s Spirit takes the human being who is stood at the front and uses them to nourish those who are listening. (I recognise that not everybody who is sat in the congregation is actually paying attention – and nowadays you don’t even have to be present as lots of sermons are recorded and put on church websites). Somehow a miracle happens when God’s Spirit takes words that are spoken by one person and applies and interprets them into the lives of those who are listening in different ways. The same words can have a different impact. Indeed sometimes when I have been preaching he has somehow fed someone with words and meaning that I didn’t use! I believe that’s a miracle.

But I am not just fed by sermons, I am fed up. Any sermon in church that points me towards God has, in my view, achieved its purpose. It should make us look upwards. I was reminded of that on Sunday when I was speaking from John 21 and pointed out that while the message I was giving was about fresh starts, the subject of the passage is Jesus Christ – risen, meeting with his friends, renovating Peter and offering the same fresh beginnings to all who seek them. If when I preach one of my sermons it fails to make people look up (metaphorically and spiritually) then I have failed the main objective.

A long time ago there was some correspondence in The Times about the value of sermons. Someone had written a letter to ask about the point of sermons as he had been going to church for over 30 years and could not remember one of them. The correspondence went back and forth on this subject for a while with people defending or attacking sermons. The correspondence was ended when someone wrote that they had been eating Sunday lunches for the past 30 years and while they couldn’t remember any of them they were pretty sure that they had done them some good.

I like that.

It makes me smile.

It’s a gentle but wise answer, seasoned with a touch of levity.

But…

(didn’t you know there would be a ‘but’?)

How many of you eat Sunday lunch and then don’t eat anything for the rest of the week? Could you survive like that?

So why do so many Christians think they can do that spiritually?

How are you nourished daily?

There are many online resources nowadays: you can get emails daily to your email inbox from organisations like Scripture Union’s WordLive, Bible apps on your phone  or tablet like YouVersion and there are Bible websites like Bible Gateway. There’s no reason why we can’t be fed daily. Is there?

Be blessed, be a blessing

corny joke

I hope that you had a good Christmas. I hope that you found what you were hoping for – not just in a stocking, pillow case or under a tree, but in the friendships, family relationships and your relationship with God.

other makes of corned beef are available

A man went on a camping trip with his wife. He had been left to do the catering and had only brought three cans of corned beef. She was a bit miffed, but decided to let it lie. The first evening they sat down to eat and his wife was intrigued to see him get out his multi-function penknife, open out the can opener tool, and proceed to open the can with the can opener. Again, she let it lie and they ate the corned beef.

The next evening he got out the second can of corned beef, and once again opened it using his can opener tool from his penknife. His wife almost said something, but decided against it as they were having such a good time away. They ate the corned beef in silence, though.

The third night the man got out the third tin of corned beef and started to open the can opener from his penknife. His wife couldn’t resist any longer.

“Honey,” she asked gently, playing the innocent, “What’s that key on the top of the can for?”

“Silly you,” patronised the man, “That’s for people who don’t have a penknife with a can opener attachment.”

If you are one of the male of the species about now is when you will have to consider consulting the instruction manuals that came with the gadgets and presents you were given because we all know that they are like the key on a can of corned beef – just there for people who can’t work it out on their own.

But when we do consult the instructions (or more likely download them) we find that they are actually quite useful. We find out what that button actually does, you know – the one that we thought didn’t do anything. We find out about how to get the best out of the present. We find out what it can really do.

Perhaps in 2016 we should treat our Bibles less like a bloke treats an instruction manual and find out how much more God has for us…

Be blessed, be a blessing.

super script

On Sunday morning I was preaching (not unusual for me) and asked the question: “Why is it that noses run and feet smell?”

It is a characteristic of language that words can have more than one meaning and in the case above it creates a punderful play on words when you juxtapose two such incidences. It can create confusion when we read words out of the context in which they were written or spoken. I remember seeing this newspaper headline in a Sunday School session when I was a child and could not see anything wrong with it:

“Man beats dog”

I was thinking of a race so thought it was actually quite an impressive feat (we used to have a Labrador called Bonnie so I knew that running faster than a dog was difficult). But the wider context showed it was actually an article about animal cruelty (and explained why the others in the group were horrified when I said that I was impressed by the headline).

962092_scripture bentVery few of us are scholars in Ancient Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. This means that reading the Bible in whatever translation we are using is an exercise in interpretation. Usually it’s obvious but occasionally there is a word that could mean more than one thing and the context does not make it clear which is which. That’s why there are sometimes footnotes at the bottom of the page offering an alternative translation for a word. And it’s also why sometimes when someone is reading from one translation in a church and you have a different one the words they use are different because the translators opted for one or other of the possible meanings.

It’s also why new translations are written because the scholarly understanding of words is continually growing. For example a manuscript may be uncovered that somewhere that may have been an ancient Hebrew shopping list but provides insight into the use of language that informs the understanding of the same word in the Bible.

I am not a scholar in Ancient Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. I studied Greek for 2 years at Bible College and Hebrew for 1 year and somehow managed to pass the exams. But that was over 20 years ago. Today  I invariably check out footnotes when they are there in my Bible (rather than skipping over them) because that will give me a ‘heads up’ that there is more than one meaning of the word . I also rely heavily on the scholarship of others – my commentaries on the Bible are the most valuable source of wisdom, understanding and guidance when it comes to understanding this astonishing book. The learning of others helps me understand the nuances of a word or phrase.

So, for example, in Philippians 1 there is a phrase that is translated as ‘carry on to completion’ relating to a church. Imagine a sculpture that has been created where the form and shape of the sculpture have been established but the sculptor is never completely satisfied with his creation so he keeps on making adjustments, adding details, polishing and refining the sculpture.  Or imagine a computer programmer who writes a program that does the job it is designed for.  However the programmer will then continually be engaged in a process of sorting out any bugs and glitches, adding enhancements and new updates.

‘Carrying on to completion’ has a similar sense to it.  It reflects that there is an ongoing process of becoming complete, or as one writer has put it, God is always adding his finishing touches to the church. God has established the church and is committed to sustaining it.  However, he is not satisfied with leaving it at that.  By the work and inspiration of the Holy Spirit God is always engaged enhancing churches – encouraging them to improve in one area of church life or another; inspiring them to try new things or even to stop doing old things; prompting them to consider going further in mission, to meet more needs, to share the good news in different ways.  That process will continue, according to Paul, until Jesus returns.

No church should ever sit back and think, “We’ve done it.”  We should never be content with the way things are.  There is always room for improvement.

All that from understanding the background!

So when (not if) you read your Bible, don’t skip over the little superscript letters, stop, check them out. Of course you’ll never know if you never open your Bible!

Be blessed, be a blessing

nobody expects

I recognise that Monty Python’s Flying Circus is not everyone’s cup of tea, but they how many of you were expecting the Spanish Inquisition?

Nobody?

I thought that would be the case.

Personally I find that sketch (you can see it on YouTube if you are prepared for some silliness) rather amusing, especially when coupled with later unexpected visits from the Spanish Inquisition during the TV episode. But it does make light of one of the most troubling episodes of Christendom’s era – when people were tortured and killed in pursuit of establishing their orthodoxy as Christians – by the Church! How such a process could have evolved (and be defended at the time) by reference to the Bible I have no idea. The concept makes me shudder, and please don’t even mention witch-hunts in this country…

Embed from Getty Images

And I shudder still when I see Christians conducting a neo-Inquisition today. Thankfully there is no physical torture involved (usually) but some Christians still engage in a fanatical approach to testing orthodoxy, and it almost looks like a witch hunt at times. It lacks love, grace and mercy and can be full of venom and vitriol that you never find on the lips or in the heart of Jesus.

What I find most upsetting is that, as with the Spanish Inquisition, neo-Inquisitors are not even using a Biblical ‘test’ to discern whether or not someone is ‘a proper Christian’. Which is ironic in the extreme because the neo-Inquisition is about whether or not you are biblically sound! The test is based on your ethics: ‘Proper Christians’ are those who interpret the Bible in exactly the same way that the neo-Inquisitors do (and they deem themselves to be the arbiters of what is ‘biblical’ so ‘proper Christians’ are those who hold to our particular approach to the many ethical conundrums that face us today. If you don’t prepare to be shunned, scorned, argued with, lambasted, ignored or (horror of horrors) deemed to be ‘unsound’.

The neo-Inquisition spends considerable time, effort, energy, resources (and space on the internet) denouncing and rooting out those who are unsound, based on their ‘test’. But surely there are far more important tasks facing the Church today than engaging in a neo-Inquisition based on a false ‘test’ of orthodoxy?

And if we do have to engage in testing orthodoxy (which surely is actually God’s job) let’s at least use a biblical test: Romans 10:9 – “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

That’s it.

Nothing about having to interpret the Bible in a particular way. Nothing about ethics. Indeed it may not even require that much when you consider what Jesus said to one of the thieves crucified next to him (Luke 23:39-43) based only on a minimal understanding of who Jesus was and what he said (and before his resurrection!).

Please, please, please let’s stop arguing about who’s right about what doesn’t make an eternal difference and spend that energy letting people know the amazing news that “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

I’m not suggesting that how we interpret the Bible is unimportant, nor that we should not live ethically. But Jesus spent a lot of time trying to show the religious people of his day that their rigid rules, literalism and hypocrisy were getting in the way of people finding God and I have a horrible feeling that those words still resonate today.

And if that makes me unsound… so be it.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

best bible bits

Scan0003On my shelf I have a book “Best Bible Bits”, published in 1984. It started out as a school project to discover how to encourage others to look at the Bible, and one of the ideas was to ask famous people what their favourite bits of the Bible were, in the hope that this might inspire others to look at it too.

So the pupils wrote to a wide variety of people – from Kenny Everett to Margaret Thatcher (the then Prime Minister) to Ronnie Barker to Prince Charles and more beside. It makes for interesting reading, not least because of the reasons that some of them gave for their favourite passages:

Kenny Everett (a comedian, young people) liked Genesis 1 because “he thinks God is very clever to have made everything in six days.”

Margaret Thatcher did not comment but liked Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength…”

Ronnie Barker chose the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) because “it is a marvellous lesson about the dissatisfaction that can be caused by envy – which is, in my opinion, one of the most destructive forces in the world today.”

Prince Charles liked Matthew 7:12 about treating others how you want to be treated.

I wonder how many of these people realised that God was speaking to them through these words…

If you had been asked, what would you say is your favourite Bible passage? Why?

I might be tempted by 2 Kings 2:23-24* for some reason, especially when being mocked for my ‘short back and shine’ hairstyle.

I might go for the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26).

Or I might go for the resurrection narratives.

But I think I would choose 2 Timothy 4:5: “Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” Those words were spoken over me the day I was baptised, aged 13, and have meant a lot to me throughout my life, especially in my life as a Minister.

So, go on, what’s your favourite Bible bit, and why? Don’t make it a rhetorical question!

Be blessed, be a blessing

*2 Kings 2:23-24 “Elisha left Jericho and went up to Bethel. He was walking along the road. Some boys came out of the town. They made fun of him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here! You don’t even have any hair on your head!”  He turned around and looked at them. And he asked for bad things to happen to them. He did it in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods. They attacked 42 of the boys.” (NIRV)

is that for me?

A few days ago I was preparing to phone someone who has been going through a very difficult time. Just before I spoke to them I had a look at an app on my mobile phone that pings me a verse from the Bible each day. It seemed quite appropriate for the conversation I was about to have, so I looked in my book format Bible (as opposed to electronic versions on phones, tablets and kindles, etc) and noticed that one of the page marker ribbons was in exactly that place, but I had just slid it into that place on a previous occasion.

“Hmmm,” thought I. “Is this merely a coincidence, or is Someone trying to get me to share this with the person I am about to call?”

I made the call, and in the course of the conversation it became clear to me that the Bible verse may be something that God wanted them to be reminded of, so I took a risk and offered it to them. The words blessed them, which was wonderful.

Why do I share this with you? Well, not because I am super-spiritual or anything like that – far from it (indeed I don’t think ‘superspirituality’ actually exists). Nor because I am slapping myself on the back in a congratulatory way. It’s to encourage you to take a risk if you sense that God may have something he wants you to share with someone else. If you offer it gently and humbly in a ‘I’m not sure if this is from God but I offer it to you and let’s see’ (definitely not in a ‘thus saith the Lord’ way) then it gives the person on the receiving end a gracious way to say, “Thank you, but I don’t think it’s for me,” (or similar) without it being a criticism of you.

giftI am pretty sure that they will be blessed simply by the fact that you were prepared to take a risk to bless them – it’s a gift that you offer which shows you care. And if it is something God wants them to hear then they will be doubly blessed.

Go on. You know He wants you to.

And the verse? In case it is something you also need to hear (Psalm 94:18-19): ‘When I said, “My foot is slipping,’ your unfailing love, Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.”

Be blessed, be a blessing

of frogs, humour, magic tricks and the Bible

frogWhen I was at Bible College I wrote a dissertation: A Theology of humour – a serious look at the lighter side of God. I came across this quotation in my research about the nature of humour from EB White: “Humor (sic) can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

I have a feeling that the same is true for magical illusions – they too are like frogs because they cease to be as wonderful when dissected. I was recently watching an excerpt from a magic show with someone who wanted to know how the illusion was done. I warned them that if I told them they would be disappointed, but they insisted. So I gave them an explanation. And they were disappointed. The method was clever, ingenious and succeeded in creating the illusion of something impossible having just happened. But it was disappointing to the person with whom I was talking to discover that it was not as magical as they had thought – it was simply clever use of lighting, props, timing and (well I can’t tell you the rest).

I love learning how a magical illusion is done. I love exploring the techniques. I love considering how to perform it. I love seeing other magicians perform and seeing their skill and presentational ability. I love all of the ‘innards’. But for most people seeing and exploring those things will be disappointing. While they may say, “Tell me how you do that!” what they usually mean is, “Wow, I have no idea how you did that!” They want the ‘wow’ moment not the scientific analysis.

I think that the Bible is like a frog too… you can dissect it but it dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind. The Bible is not a technical manual, it is not a text book, it is not even first and foremost a document to be studied*: it is an encounter with God. If you approach it looking to experience him you are far more likely to come away with a ‘wow’ than if you approach sceptically. Sometimes we can get distracted from the ‘wow’ by thinking that we want the ‘how’.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*That is not to say that it can’t be studied or shouldn’t be studied, nor that it can’t stand up to scrutiny. But if you approach it that way you may miss the encounter with God in it.