Leftovers, Latecomers, and Lovely Things

This past Sunday, I finished a sermon series on prayer. I enjoyed sharing it, and enjoyed hearing how folks have responded to it. But, there is more to share. There is always more to share – stuff that came too late, stuff that didn’t fit, and stuff that I couldn’t work into the messages or the worship times. So, this week’s blog entry will be the catch-all for all the good stuff that got away – the leftovers, the latecomers, and the stuff I love but didn’t get to share.

I’ll start with a story I heard just today. A woman told me about a time several years ago she prayed with someone she didn’t know (taking the theme, pray now, seriously). She was at the eye doctor, and just had her eyes dilated. As she waited, a man started talking with her. At first, she wasn’t interested in talking, so she just gave him one-word answers. But he began to tell his life story, and discuss his hard-luck reality. She felt led to ask him if she could pray for him. He said okay. She prayed. Then he asked, Are you married? Sometimes we pray, and we get to watch for welcome answers. And sometimes we pray, and we get unwelcome questions.

And today – again, just today – I came across this video. It’s a pretty good introduction to the Book of Psalms. It’s 9 minutes long, but well worth it:

Then there’s this video. I really wanted to use it on the Sunday we looked at the 23rd Psalm, but it just didn’t fit. Well, it fits here.

And then there’s this powerful article about lament, prayer, praise, and hope. You need to read this. And then there’s this from Philip Yancey on unanswered prayer and Bono. Speaking of Bono, it turns out that he’s also a fan of my favorite writer on ministry – Eugene Peterson. And Fuller Seminary got the two of them together to talk about the Psalms. The result is an interesting conversation between a pop star and a pastor – plus a whole bunch of other cool resources.

If you’ve made it this far, you are, either: 1) my mom, if she had the internet (which she doesn’t); 2) bored with the Olympics (and thus surfing the internet for anything that’s not performance-enhanced); or, 3) a part of Fern Creek Christian. If you are #3, I hope you are planning to be a part of our 24 Hours of Prayer. If you’ve not yet signed up, you can do so here.

Let me end with one more latecomer: I was perusing the clearance shelf at Half Price Books, and came across a book of lament Psalms, ones where the writer takes a crack at writing her own personal Psalms of grief and anguish. Of course, I came across the book after I preached on laments; but, oh well. It does challenge me, though – and maybe you, too – to try my hand at writing my own psalms.

So, maybe, at the end of the day, the challenge isn’t simply to read the biblical Psalms, or even just pray them – but to so saturate myself in their language that I learn to pray them, in my words and in my way. Maybe I’ll try writing a psalm. Maybe you should, too. Now, nobody’s saying it will be Bible. But it might be Bible through me. And isn’t that, after all, the point?

How Do You Read the Bible?

How we read the Bible says a lot about our view of the Bible. By that, I don’t mean:

  • how often you read the Bible (though this is important)
  • what version of the Bible you read (though some translations are better than others)
  • when you read the Bible (morning, noon, or night)
  • what scriptures you read (though we all have our favorites)
  • or even: how much Bible you read when you open its pages (a few verses, a few chapters, or a few pages)

All of these are important matters when it comes to reading the Bible — matters I hope you’ll give some thought to. But my bigger question is this: What is your view of inspiration?

That sounds like a big question, like something you should have to go to class to be able to answer. But it’s not, for your view of inspiration is simply another way of saying this: What is your understanding of the Bible? What assumptions do you have when you come to the Bible? What do you expect to happen when you open its pages?

In other words, whether we have thought it through or not, we all have a “working view” of inspiration; we all have something in mind that we expect from scripture when we read it. For example, some possibilities come to mind when I think about the ways a person might approach the Bible:

  • The Rule Book approach: With this, a person opens the Bible, expecting to find straightforward commands of God. The goal is simply to read what it says and then go do what it says. The key question here: What rules am I supposed to follow?
  • The Hallmark approach: This is where someone looks for, and finds inspirational passages in the Bible. These verses then become the focus and goal of reading the Bible. The key question here: What in the Bible speaks to ME?
  • The Interstate approach: What’s the best thing about our highway system? It is smooth, fast, and avoids stops, bumps, and anything that would zig or zag. Sometimes, I think, we take the interstate approach to reading the Bible. To me, this means that we avoid the difficult passages, and smooth over the bumpy stuff. So, we read David & Goliath to our kids, and leave out the decapitation part at the end. We read Jonah and the Whale, but leave out the messiness of chapter 4 (where Jonah says, in essence, God, I would rather die than see those Ninevites receive your grace). We read Acts 21.9 and 1 Timothy 2.12, and don’t wrestle hard enough with the difference between those two texts. The key question here: What’s the simple message here that avoids difficult questions?
  • The “Grocery Bag” approach: This idea comes from the writer Eugene Peterson, and it’s based on the bags we use to bring home our groceries. Their job, simply put, is to get the eggs and milk from the store to my fridge; after that, the bags are disposable, recyclable, or, sometimes, reusable. But their use is only temporary. Some read the Bible this way, Peterson says. Someone we love is dying; we pull out comforting texts like Psalm 23 or Revelation 21. Someone is getting married; we read 1 Corinthians 13. Someone we care about is sick; we pull out a passage on prayer and healing. The key question here: What does the Bible have to say to what I am facing right now?

These are just four ways to read the Bible; there are, no doubt, many others. And it’s important to note that all four of these approaches have value: the Bible does give some clear-cut commands; it does have inspirational passages; it does offer a consistent, basic message; it does offer texts for specific times of need. But the Bible isn’t only these things. It is much, much more.

Which leads me to my view of inspiration, a view that I think takes us to the heart of what the Bible is all about. I believe that the Bible’s inspiration is grounded in the God who is behind the Bible. The Bible’s power is in the manifestation of that same God, revealed to us in Jesus and confirmed by the Spirit. So, when I come to the Bible, I come expectantly — believing that in its pages I will find the truth about God, myself, and my world. In reading the Bible, I expect to find words that are inspired to show me the truth. For me, this means that I read scripture:

  • narratively, for it is the story of God forming a people. This is a story that begins in the Old Testament with God revealing Himself in numerous ways, but most consistently and clearly through and to the Jewish people.
  • decisively; for that same God reveals Himself perfectly through Jesus, as the New Testament makes clear.
  • as community-forming; for the purpose of God’s revelation in the Bible is to form a people. Today, this means that God’s Spirit is making a church – the called-out and called-together people of God, who are shaped by God’s Spirit to be the presence of Jesus in this world.
  • finally, then, I read the Bible missionally; for the Bible is clear throughout its pages that our God is on a mission. What begins in creation, continues with Abraham and with God’s people, and then comes to all people through Jesus and the mission of the Church. Stories like Jonah’s are a testimony that God isn’t content only to reach people we are comfortable with, even when it makes us, The Comforted, uncomfortable. And so, all through the pages of the Bible, God seems to be ever stretching His people and His world to see things through a “on-a-mission” lens.

So, this is my “working” view of inspiration: that God has a Story to tell, a Story once-for-all revealed in Jesus. This Story now includes you and me, and is a Story that reaches out to every tongue, tribe, people, and nation.

And so, ultimately, the Bible isn’t simply a Story we read, it’s a Story we get to live out. And that, I believe, is ultimately what the Bible is – a Story that we not only read, but one that we also become.

Be Careful What You Read

Scholars during the Middle Ages suggested that there were two “dangerous books” in the Old Testament — books that, if not handled carefully and faithfully, could do more damage than good.

The first was Song of Solomon. No surprise there, as it never mentions that name of God — but sure mentions love. A lot. Let’s just say that it’s probably not a book you’d want to study with middle schoolers.

But the other “dangerous book” was Ecclesiastes. And no wonder. It uses the word “meaningless” over 30 times — five of those times in just the first sentence of the book.

Dangerous? Well, sure, if these words from Ecclesiastes are any indication:

  • “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of animals; the same fate awaits them both. As one dies, so dies the other.” (3.19)
  • “Better than both (the dead and the living) is the one who has never been born.” (4.3)
  • “For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless (there’s that word again) days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?” (6.12)

And then there’s the book’s conclusion. It’s a poetic, if painful, description of the end of life. And then the main part of Ecclesiastes ends in 12.8 with a repeat of 1.2: “Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Everything is meaningless!

Depressed yet? Ecclesiastes is not for the faint of heart, and probably shouldn’t be read in winter (oops; too late now). It really is tough reading, and, like Song of Solomon, reminds us that scripture isn’t the kind of book you just pick up and read like the newspaper. It’s helpful to know what you are reading, and what it’s purpose is.

And for Ecclesiastes, we are reading something that is simply not like anything else in the Bible. It is clearly written from the “other-side-of-the-coin” perspective. The writer of Ecclesiastes believes in God, but wonders what the point is. Yes, there’s a God, but life is still messed up — and what difference does this all make?

And, in a way, he’s right. Life is a mess, and sometimes the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. And no matter how hard you work, or how honest you are, or how faithful you try to be — you still die in the end.

So Ecclesiastes agonizes over the struggle. And by its inclusion in the Bible, we are faced with a stark and brisk reminder that life isn’t always peach tea and puppies and peppermints. Ecclesiastes is a theological slap in the face — and a reminder that without hope beyond this life, we are no different than the animals.

You see, the writer of Ecclesiastes couldn’t see into the future. He couldn’t see the day when God’s plan would fully be revealed; when death would be defeated; when Jesus would take on this life’s meaningless, and overcome it. In other words, without hope beyond this life, we ultimately lose hope in this life. Without a purpose beyond our 70 or 80 years, then the best we can do is enjoy the moment.

But there is more. And it’s not a “more” that is pie-in-the-sky heaven someday. Instead, the hope we have through Jesus is the kind that transforms not only our future, but our present. Because we have hope, we can live life to the fullest, right now — filled with joy (not just happiness), peace (not uncertainty), goodness (not simply a good life), love (with abandon), and meaning (not meaninglessness).

That’s where Ecclesiastes points us. It doesn’t get there itself, but it knows there must be a way there. And there is. His name is Jesus.

Blogging the Bible – Wrapping Things Up

Jonathan Sacks says, “God created mankind because He loves stories.” And isn’t that what the Bible is — a book of stories? Stories of people who are often far-from-exceptional, but ones God calls, and redeems, and uses. In other words, the Bible is the story of a Great God doing amazing work through ordinary people.

Which means: there’s hope for you and me! For what are we, but ordinary people? If God can use David (adulterer, murderer, and sneak), then God has a place for you and me in his kingdom. I like the way my friend Shannon puts it:

As for your question about how my reading has helped me live out my faith, this slightly different perspective has changed the way I think about the “heroes” of our faith.  The New Living Translation has helped me appreciate the fact that these guys weren’t just regular guys with great faith that occasionally made mistakes. No, these guys (and gals) had some real character flaws.  Even after they came to saving faith, those flaws were still there.  And they weren’t just minor flaws!  Jacob, for instance, feels kind of like a weasel.  He sometimes even comes off as whiny and feeling sorry for himself.  God used this dude to found His Nation!  The point is that God doesn’t begin to act through my faith after he’s turned me into some kind of hero.  So I need to stop waiting.  All we do is say yes, and he begins to work.

I like that: we say yes to God’s invitation, and God begins to work. For when we know the story of the Bible — the whole story — we come to learn that God has a place for us. And when we say yes to that invitation, God writes us into His Story. Often, that doesn’t mean we become superhero Christians; instead, it means that God changes and shapes us, and makes us more like Jesus everyday. We still fumble and bumble about, but, as Shannon points out, so did most of the characters in the Bible.

In other words, this story is not contingent on MY accomplishments, but God’s! He’s the one doing the work, and my job, and your job, is to align ourselves with that story in everything we do. And when we stumble, or even do a spiritual face-plant, we look up and find God’s grace is still there — grace that is powerful enough to include even my failings in God’s greater purposes.

So, don’t just read the Bible. Find yourself in the Bible. And keep looking to the Author, as you live out your part of the Story.