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.

vive l’amour

tricoloure fb[Warning, this started off as a mini-bloggette, and has developed into a long bloggage!]

Over the weekend many people have changed their Facebook Profile Picture so that it temporarily shows a Tricoloure (French Flag) across their image – comme ça. (Facebook now has the facility to do this temporarily.)

It is to show solidarity with the French people following the horrendous events in Paris last Friday. I felt moved to do the same, as you can see. I wanted to express my horror at what had happened and this was the first time I had realised that it was possible to change my picture in this way.

But almost immediately I was made to feel guilty for doing so. Facebook statuses started appearing that suggested (either implied or explicitly) that those who had added a tricoloure to their photo were wrong to do so. It was not because they should not express solidarity with the French, but people were asking why there had been no similar solidarity with victims of violence elsewhere in the world – Beirut, Baghdad, Syria, refugees, and so on. The suggestion was made that it was only because this was close to home (across the channel) and (almost unbelievably) because the majority of victims were white Europeans that this was receiving the attention that it was and that by changing my Facebook profile in the way that I did I was perpetuating this discrimination.

I felt bad.

I wondered whether I should remove the tricoloure.

And then I decided that I would not. I think that those who were making these statements were generally having a go at the Euro-centric media (but inadvertently having a go at the rest of us who were apparently suckered in by this). Just because I did not change my Facebook profile picture for any of the other atrocities does not mean I do not care about anyone else. I think that for most of us it means we did not know about the other atrocities, or didn’t know we could change our profile picture.

I have also made this statement on Facebook to clarify my position:

The French Flag on my profile photo not only represents solidarity with France and those affected by the attack on Friday, but is representative of solidarity with all who are victims of violence wherever it is perpetrated, and whether on a national or personal scale. Lord have mercy.

It may have been slightly defensive (I admit) but I wanted to say that everyone matters. And they matter to God whether or not I know about their pain and suffering. They matter whether it happens in the public eye or out of the awareness of the media. It matters whether it happens to hundreds of people in a public place or to an individual in her home.

Violence, brutality, bullying, assault, murder, persecution, genocide, injustice, slaughter, hate, and many other words are not only part of our language, regrettably they have also become part of our world. And while temporarily changing my Facebook Profile Picture may not make much difference, it is at least a statement. It is a statement of defiance: that evil will not win. It is a statement of friendship: you are not alone. It is a statement of love: that I care.

And for me it is an outworking and a public expression of my personal faith in Jesus of Nazareth (who was a refugee in childhood and a victim of bullying, persecution, injustice, assault and state sponsored murder) that God’s love is stronger than anything evil.

Love wins.

And God’s love can not only overcome, it can diminish and weaken violence, brutality, bullying, assault, murder, persecution, genocide, injustice, slaughter, and hate at their source – the human heart.

I recognise that it’s a lot more complicated than this bloggage can express, but bear with me…

God’s love can change hearts in a way that no other force in human experience can.

His love can be expressed practically (rebuilding homes and offering aid…) in ways that do not create enemies in the same way that bombs and politically motivated invasions do.

God’s love can (often very gently and gradually) release people from the chains of domination and violence that continue beyond the end of physical oppression if someone is unable to forgive and is bound by bitterness and anger.

God’s love can stop the cycle of violence – transforming ‘an eye for an eye’ to ‘turn the other cheek’.

(And God’s so gracious that his love can be shown by people who don’t even know the source of it, he doesn’t even claim exclusive rights or seek the credit!)

I am not suggesting that we do not resist evil. I am not suggesting that victims of violence do not need protecting. Lord, no. But love shapes how we respond. Let me illustrate from my personal experience:

When I was a lawyer a lady was brought to me by someone from a woman’s refuge. She had been beaten by her husband for many years and finally his brutality and hatred and violence had been so great that the need to escape it broke her free from his dominance and her fear of him and she sought help. She needed an emergency injunction to keep him away from her. The poor lady’s face bore testimony to that need, and the memory of it still haunts me today.

I was angry. I was angry at the husband for the violence he had inflicted on her. I was angry that such things happened behind closed doors and for the most part were hidden. But anger would not help, it would only escalate the situation and perpetuate the violence. Love was what was needed. We needed to act in a loving way.

Some people think that turning the other cheek in the name of love is weak. But it did not mean that the lady should not be protected by me getting the injunction (which I did). It did mean that we did not get together a ‘posse’ to go around to his house…

‘An eye for an eye’ had been intended by God as a way of limiting the ‘compensation’ for injury. It was intended to prevent an escalation of violence. It was saying that any response must be proportionate to the offence and not excessive. But human beings being what we are had subverted that from a limit to a right – ‘I have the right to retaliate’. Jesus’ teaching: ‘Turning the other cheek’ is not about meek submission but about a refusal to retaliate. It’s about seeking the best for everyone, including your enemy. It’s about love. God’s love.

God’s love is the only thing that can change the human heart permanently. Jesus didn’t command us to do much, but he did command us to love one another… as he has loved us.

It’s not easy, especially in the face of violence, brutality, bullying, assault, murder, persecution, genocide, injustice, slaughter, and hate. But it’s the only way that will change the world, one heart at a time.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

what God has got wrong

I think God has got something wrong. Before I go any further I should warn you that this bloggage could be interrupted by a bolt of lightning as I explain my heresy, so if there is an unanticipated interruption you will know what has happened.

So, gulp, here goes.

I think that God has got this whole ‘grace’ thing wrong. I mean, it’s just too easy isn’t it? If / when we stuff things up / make a mistake / fall from grace / backslide / stumble* (*or insert whatever euphemism for ‘sin’ you like) all we have to do is go back to God, say “sorry” (and mean it) and ask for forgiveness and a fresh start.

And he does it!

Every time!

And there is no cost on our part. Because of Jesus’ death he’s done it all.

And that’s his mistake I think he has made it too easy. If we had to do something, anything,  to earn our forgiveness I think we would take it a bit more seriously, wouldn’t we? What if we had to pay a penance in order to seal the deal, or even just to show him how really sorry we are? What if we had to do something positive or we had to suffer something bad to redress the karmic balance of the Universe? That would be fair, and it might make us think twice before we fell off the wagon* (*or insert whatever euphemism for ‘sin’ you like – in fact do that every time you see a *).

Because he’s done all of the hard work to achieve our forgiveness, because his grace is so lavish and generous, we take it for granted like a spoilt child who knows that if they get into debt millionaire daddy’s credit card will always come to the rescue and get them out of troub…

lightning

Zzzzaaapow!

Fsszt!

Actually, that’s a bit more like it, isn’t it? Isn’t it easier for us if God is sitting at his computer with his finger poised over the ‘smite’ key when we get things wrong? At least that way we know we will get our just desserts. And that might make us pause a bit longer and perhaps think before our next moral failure*.

So, and I may be being a bit presumptuous here, hasn’t God got it wrong with this grace, unlimited forgiveness, limitless love thing? Hasn’t he heard of ‘tough love’ or ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’?

At this point some of you may be expecting me to stop the rant and say something that turns it all on its head. But I am not going to. Because God has got this wrong. It’s too easy. It’s unfair. None of the other religions in the world make it this easy, do they? They have lots of penance, sacrifice, karmic retribution and good works to balance out the scales and make it more likely that we will be accepted into heaven / reincarnate as a better being / achieve Nirvana (or whatever they say happens when we shuffle off this mortal coil). At least with them we have something to do. At least we can contribute to our own redemption.

And that’s the crazy thing about this little thing called ‘love’. God loved the world (aka you and me) so much that he gave… Jesus’ death has not so much improved things for us on the balance of probabilities, he has blazed the trail and made our forgiveness, restoration and acceptance by God a nailed on certainty (literally!). Perhaps it’s not so much that God has made it too easy. Perhaps it’s more that without Jesus it’s too hard for us. We can’t do enough to absolve ourselves of our slip ups*, That would be like being a billion pounds in debt and going to the bank with your piggy bank and asking if they will take that instead, or perhaps even asking if you can write them a cheque from that account.

And when we realise that while it’s easy for us it was not easy for Jesus, when we grasp the extent of God’s love, when we sense how seriously he takes our lapses in judgement* and the lengths he has gone to in order to deal with them, then perhaps we look at things from a different perspective.

Then grace does not look so cheap. Then our blunders* become less trivial. Then we realise that it’s easy for us because God loves us. Then we recognise that God has accepted the inequity of the situation. Then we understand that to trivialise and take forgiveness and grace for granted is probably more to do with our own self-centredness*. Then we understand that the attitude with which I began this bloggage is to do with my own ability to trivialise the significance of what I say / do / think and an unwillingness to think about the bigger picture. Then we start “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19)

That is the sort of thing that can drive you to your knees.

Which is a good place to start again.

Be blessed, be a blessing

I bought it for 50p and it’s priceless

Apple I computerHave you heard about the woman in the US who gave away the contents of her garage to a recycling company, including a rare Apple 1 computer which is worth $200,000? The company sold it, and now (bless them) is trying to find the woman so they can give her half of the proceeds. (You can read about it and other such stories on the BBC website).

One of the reasons why I think people like watching TV programmes like ‘Antiques Roadshow’ (aside from the schadenfreude of those who think they have a priceless heirloom only to discover it is worthless) is for those moments when someone has a vase or a picture that they bought at a car boot sale or a jumble sale for 50p and it turns out to be worth thousands of pounds. I think we like that because we think ‘that could be me’. And if you visit a car boot sale or a jumble sale, don’t you also secretly hope that you might make such a find?

But while the antiques experts commend and congratulate the person who bought the object for a bargain price they don’t ever seem to give a thought for the person who sold what they thought was worthless because they didn’t realise its value. How do you think that person might be feeling if they are watching the show and see their ‘piece of junk’ valued so highly?

When we think of the people we know (or even ourselves) sometimes they can think of themselves as worthless, a piece of junk. Nobody would want them. But when God looks at us he sees our true value. He sees us all as priceless, worth everything.

Jesus told a couple of parables about how the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God) is like someone who finds something incredibly valuable and sells all they have to buy it (recorded in Matthew 13):

44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

I have usually thought of those parables where I am meant to be the person who should give everything I have to buy the pearl or the field containing treasure – where the pearl or treasure represents being a part of God’s Kingdom – it’s worth everything.

But what if it’s the other way around? What if you and I are the pearl and the treasure and God’s the one who will give everything in order to buy us?

God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

or, to personalise it

God loved you so much that he gave his one and only Son that if you believe in him you won’t perish but have eternal life.

So how do you think of yourself now? What about those around you? Not worthless, but priceless!

Be blessed, be a blessing

achieving the ordinary

thumbs up 2I was proud of myself today. I remembered to do something without being reminded, I found that I had thought about it beforehand (even though I had forgotten that I had thought about it beforehand) and had all that I needed in order to do what I had to do. I felt pleased that I had been able to complete what could have been a lengthy task in a matter of a few minutes because of the preparation I had done.

So is the thought today that preparation makes life easier (like ‘a stitch in time saves nine’)? Well it could be, but no.

Is the thought today that remembering things is important (with or without electronic reminders or knots tied in handkerchiefs)? It could be, but no.

The reflection I had was to ask myself why I was so proud of doing something that well organised people would have done without thinking. Why was I so pleased that I had achieved what I needed to do? It was not as if it was something I have not done before, and it is not as if it is something that nobody else ever does. Why was I expecting some sort of gold star or certificate of merit for doing something ‘normal’?

I think it’s because I surprised myself. I was not expecting to have done so well. I thought that I had failed to prepare and was prepared to fail. And I wanted others to know that I had done well. Pride was motivating me to elevate my ordinary achievement into the realm of the extraordinary. It can do that. We can assume that others may have the same low expectations of us that we have and hope that if we exceed them they will share in our surprise and pride in the achievement.

Before I get to introspective and start beating myself I remember too that God’s expectations of us are both realistic and optimistic. He knows what we are capable of, and he also knows that we are capable of not achieving those things. He knows that we can beat ourselves up when we fail, and overemphasising our achievements when we succeed. And his response to us is the same regardless: I love you.

That is not an unconditional love based on our achievements (or lack of). It is an absolute. Our value and esteem in God’s eyes cannot be enhanced in any way because it is already at maximum – I love you.

Be blessed, be a blessing

(At this point, are you itching to find out what it was? I’m sorry but that itch will remain unscratched!)

context

fistRegular bloggists will know that I have been following a series of 40 readings from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In case you have missed the previous thoughts I have shared, let me remind you that he was a German pastor who was arrested (and executed) for being an outspoken critic of Nazi Germany. He wrote this:

Words and thoughts are not enough. Doing good involves all the things of daily life. “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink” (Romans 12:20). In the same ways that brothers and sisters stand by each other in times of need, bind up each other’s wounds, ease each other’s pain, love of the enemy should do good to the enemy. Where in the world is there greater need, where are deeper wounds and pain than those of our enemies? Where is doing good more necessary and more blessed than for our enemies?

In prayer we go to our enemies, to stand at their side. We are with them, near them, for them before God. Jesus does not promise us that the enemy we love, we bless, to whom we do good, will not abuse and persecute us. They will do so. But even in doing so, they cannot harm and conquer us if we take this last step to them in intercessory prayer. Now we are taking up their neediness and poverty, their being guilty and lost, and interceding for them before God. We are doing for them in vicarious representative action what they cannot do for themselves. Every insult from our enemy will only bind us closer to God and to our enemy. Every persecution can only serve to bring the enemy closer to reconciliation with God, to make love more unconquerable.

How does love become unconquerable? By never asking what the enemy is doing to it, and only asking what Jesus has done. Loving one’s enemies leads disciples to the way of the cross and into communion with the crucified one.

They are powerful words, but the context in which they were written make them even more remarkable. His ‘enemies’ were people whose ideology was diametrically opposed to his. His enemies were far more powerful than he was. His enemies could (and did) destroy him almost without thinking.

It puts our petty squabbles into perspective doesn’t it?

Alongside the wisdom and depth of what Bonhoeffer wrote, the context speaks almost as loudly and poignantly. And context makes all the difference. Someone striking someone else in the stomach could look like an assault. Or it could be that they are trying to dislodge some food that is choking the victim. A shaking fist can indicate anger or victory. It’s one of the classic plots in TV dramas – someone sees or overhears something when they don’t know the whole context and draw the wrong conclusion. The outcome can be tragic or comedic and the consequences are worked out.

But when it is real life we would do well to pause and ascertain the true context rather than jumping to conclusions. When we do we may find that those whom we thought were our enemies actually are people in need of God’s love expressed through us.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

dustbin days

One of the things I remember from my days at Bible College is that it is important to have ‘dustbin days’ from time to time. These are days when you have a clear out. You sort through the pile that has overwhelmed your in-tray. You clear the stuff that has accumulated on your desk and remind yourself what colour the desk actually is. You throw out the bits and pieces that you have kept ‘because they might come in handy’. And you go through your email inbox and answer / delete the emails (my target is single figures).

I do this from time to time and find myself feeling quite virtuous afterwards. I cherish the tidy desk, the empty in-tray, the single-figure email inbox and the sense of order that accompany them.

2014-03-13 12.49.56Last time I did this I came across this object, which has sat on my desk for as long as I can remember. I had no recollection about its origin, but thought that it might have been something I had made on a retreat sometime. I didn’t use it, it was taking up space (not much, it’s 8cm in diameter) and it looked a bit shabby.

I picked it up and moved towards my rubbish bin, ready to dispose of this shabby unwanted piece of hardened clay and chipped paint. Just before I threw it away something prompted me to look underneath it. This is what I saw.2014-03-13 12.50.08

You may be able to make out the feint writing that is etched into the bottom of the clay. It says: “Thomas ’97”.

It had been made by my son at preschool. Suddenly this changed my perspective. Now it was something invaluable. Now it was impossible to throw away.

How often do we do that with people? How often do we judge people by outward appearances without looking deeper and seeing their true value. A person’s value is not determined by what they look like, their financial status, their health or any of the other shallow indicators that are used to define people in our culture. Their value is determined by who made them.

Sadly sometimes people have received the message from churches that we think everyone is a worthless sinner. Richard Dawkins recently posted a disingenuous piece of propaganda with a picture of a child holding a list that said that “According to religion I am broken, flawed, sinful, dumb, weak, nothing.” Have a look at Krish Kandiah’s response to this, which I think is brilliant.

You are someone who is ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ in the likeness of your Creator. You are someone whose is loved beyond all loves by your heavenly Father so much that he gave up Jesus so that whoever believes in him can inherit eternal life. You are brilliant. You are amazing. You are spectacular. You are unique.

And so is everyone else whom you will meet.

Let’s challenge the politics and politicians, the social trends and the economic structures that seek to discard anyone in the pursuit of tidiness, popularity or expediency.

Be blessed, be a blessing