All posts in Scripture Study

Don’t Check Your Brain at the Door

Brain-Power We've been working through this series on "Ordering Your Private World" by talking about five major areas of the inner life. We've talked about our motivation–the difference between being called and being driven. Last week we talked about the use of time–how we can recapture time and look for those God-moments in the midst of the ordinary.

This week, we look at the third dimension of our private worlds–one that is often neglected. That's the realm of the mind. How we train our minds, how we think, is a key to ordering the inner life.

 I say that this part of our lives is often neglected because we live in a culture where mass media makes it quite possible for people to abdicate individual thought in favor of allowing some self-proclaimed "expert" to think for us.

 It used to be that people went to a political debate to hear ideas, like in the 1850s when Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglass squared off over the issue of slavery and states rights. Interestingly, the format of those debates went something like this: one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other spoke for 90, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30 minute rebuttal. Can you imagine? Today, in our sound bit culture, we wouldn’t sit still for it. Those debates are classic in their expression of ideas, with the ideas being central.

 Nowadays, candidates are more concerned about looking good and playing to their constituencies than expressing any independent thought. And, of course, after each debate there is a phalanx of pundits filling the screen to tell us what we should think about what took place. One side or the other is constantly setting up straw men and then knocking them down with hateful vitriol. Talk show hosts make their living by gathering legions of people who think like they do or, more precisely, who allow the person with the microphone to speak for them. Listen to some of this stuff and it's easy to believe that despite the fact that we have access to more information than at any time in our history, we have actually become dumber as a culture.

 We could chalk all that up to our cultural proclivity to choose style over substance, but I think there's something more at work here. It's quite possible that in our busyness as a nation, in our quest for productivity and success, in our desire to have and do more, we've actually abdicated real thinking in favor of convenience.

 It's not just politics or cultural issues where this happens. It happens in churches, too. You look back at the early centuries of Christianity and you see that many of the great thinkers and theologians were lay people. When the Church became institutionalized, though, it began to move toward professional clergy. In the Middle Ages, for example, most people couldn't read, thus the most powerful person in the village was the priest, who could essentially make the Bible say whatever he wanted. Widespread abuse of power and bad theology was the result.

 You'd think that the Protestant Reformation would have changed all that, but the reality is that when it comes to matters of theology, many people would rather simply be told what they should think and believe. We've seen the results of that taken to the extreme in places like Jonestown, Waco, and other places where strong charismatic leaders can manipulate seemingly intelligent people because those people became intellectually lazy and refused to question anything that was being said or done.

 When I went to seminary, I was pretty convinced that I had received all the knowledge about Christian faith that I was going to get. I had been thoroughly indoctrinated in a very conservative environment where the mantra was, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." I remember one of my first classes, where I did a research paper on some theological issue. I quoted numerous sources, said all the right things. The prof pulled me aside. He said this: I'm giving you a good grade on this because you obviously did the work. But here's the thing–I really want to know what YOU think about this. All these guys you quoted have PhD's…I have one, too…but that doesn't mean they've earned the right to do your thinking for you. Based on the evidence, what do you think? You'll do a lot better asking questions than making pronouncements–in this class and when you get to the parish."

 That was a moment of clarity for me. No one had ever given me permission to really think about theological stuff–to question, to doubt, to wrestle. It changed my whole outlook. How faith and reason work together in our inner lives is one of the keys to ordering our private worlds.

 It's interesting to me that we live in a world where many people see faith and reason as being mutually exclusive. A number of bestselling books recently, like Dawkins' The God Delusion say that faith is irrational and only pure reason will save humanity. On the other hand, I hear fundamentalist religious leaders trumpeting faith while quelling people's capacity to reason. The truth is, however, that God gave humans the capacity for both faith and reason and one doesn't necessarily trump the other.

 Here's where someone like the apostle Paul fascinates me. Paul was a person of very deep faith but also one who was a prolific and expansive thinker. This passage from Romans 12 captures Paul's idea of the relationship of faith and reason. For Paul, real transformation comes not through blind faith but through "the renewing of [the] mind." In other words, Paul says, you can't be a Christian and think as the world thinks, nor can you be a Christian and neglect the intellect.

 Many Christians see the faith as being guided primarily by rules, doctrines, and regulations. While the Scriptures do provide boundaries for living, Paul would say that real transformation comes as the result of a searching mind that can "discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect." Remember that in the framework of Paul's Jewish worldview, the mind and the body weren't separate but a unified whole. We train our bodies for health and strength, thus Paul would say we also need to train our intellect in order to truly grow strong as God's people. You can't be mentally flabby and expect to grow as a Christian!

 John Wesley would have said the same thing. Wesley was a child of the Enlightenment, that time in history where the world was turning from superstition to learning and education. Wesley's understanding of how one grows in the knowledge and love of God involved the use of one's reason. In Wesley's understanding, Scripture was the primary source for the life of faith, but Scripture needed to be read through three important lenses: human experience, the tradition of interpretation and through human reason. In other words, you can't read the Bible or understand faith if you check your brains at the door! For Wesley, Christian faith was a marriage of head and heart.

 Back to Paul–how do we then "renew our minds?" Well, first we have to understand that it's a discipline. It's not something that happens by osmosis. Last week we talked about how we use our time, and training the mind requires time and effort–particularly for those over 40. Recent studies have shown that people in middle age often develop cognitive problems because they don't introduce any new thoughts or patterns in their lives. The brain can actually atrophy. Think of training your mind as a way to keep from losing it!

 In his book Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald gives some ideas for how we might be transformed and how we might "renew our minds" to grow. I just want to paraphrase a few of these ideas.

 We are transformed when we learn how to listen. Driven people have a hard time listening because they're always talking. I've always admired people who were good listeners, but the reality is that all of us can learn to listen. The first step to good listening? Learn to ask questions. How many times in a conversation do we not so much listen to the other person speaking but instead think of what we're going to say next? The people around us are a wellspring of knowledge. Children, older people, co-workers, others whom we take for granted have stories to share and experiences to process. What would happen if you intentionally took a day this week and began every conversation you had with someone with a question? And not, "How are you?" That's lame. But a real question. Take someone to lunch and ask them questions to let them talk about themselves. Listening is a discipline. I know it's one that I need to work on.

 But listening also involves being open to other people’s ideas as well. We have become so entrenched politically in this country that no one listens to the other side or to any voice that doesn’t tell us what we want to hear. Jesus rarely told people what they wanted to hear, and yet as Christians we celebrate him. I wonder if what would happen if we allowed ourselves to listen to all sides of a debate or listen to the stories of other who are different from us. To listen without dismissing, to hear without being angry, to dialogue about ideas rather than hurling epithets. Failure to listen is, in my opinion, what’s really hurting our country. As Edwin Friedman puts it, one of the real markers of madness is the inability to stay in relationship with those with whom we disagree. Can we learn to listen, can we take the time to understand, are we willing to hear something other than we expect?

 We are transformed when we learn to think theologically. One of my seminary professors once said that the primary role of the pastor is to be the resident theologian of the local community. He also said that we weren't to be the only theologians–that everyone has the capacity and, indeed, the need to think theologically. Problem is that many churches are set up to merely dispense information, fill in the blanks, make sure everyone knows a particular theological system. Just like we ask questions of others in order to be good listeners, we need to be able to ask questions of our faith, of the Bible, of our tradition in order to understand. A lot of people are intimidated by the Bible because it seems to come from a strange world, but my approach is to look at it like an exploration into a foreign country. You have to learn the language, know the geography, understand the people. Once you do that, you begin to feel right at home. That's why Bible study groups are so vitally important–we learn to think theologically when we get together with a group of people and hear their responses and wrestlings with the text. I get no greater joy than when I'm working with a class and people are beginning to see that world open up before them. If you're not intentionally learning to think theologically, it's very hard to grow spiritually.

We are transformed through reading. It's really interesting to me that while we push our kids to read in school, many adults have altogether stopped reading for themselves. We've become a sound bite culture, a visual culture, where speed trumps thought in the information age. Reading is a way of really digesting a new idea. I love books, of course, but I love reading from a wide variety of disciplines. I even like to read things I don't necessarily agree with. Every word I read expands my mind just a bit more. I love it when someone from the church recommends a book. I love reading the New York Times Book Review to see what's new. Reading, and particularly reading the scriptures, is (as the old commercial says) FUNDAMENTAL to our understanding of life and faith.

We are transformed through disciplined study. When we graduate from high school or college there's a sense that our days of studying and "homework" are over. Well, not if we want to be renewed in our minds. Setting aside time each day for disciplined study is a real key to learning and growth. Study actually burns new pathways in our brains and increases our capacity for thought. If you're married, make space and time for each other to give over to study…maybe even read a book or engage in a study together. I always give homework in my Bible study classes because learning isn't a one shot deal.

 We are transformed when we apply wisdom and knowledge in the service of others. The knowledge we gain from using our reason isn't for us alone. When we are transformed by the "renewing of [our] minds," we can in turn transform the world. Sharing knowledge, sharing ways of learning with others is important for our own retention. I think the old adage is true that if you are teaching someone you are really learning yourself. Someone out there needs the knowledge you have so that their own life can be transformed.

We are always trying to recruit Sunday School teachers, for example. A lot people say, "Well, I don't know enough about the Bible, etc." To me, there's no better way to learn the Scriptures than to teach them. I'm always looking for new ways to bring knowledge to my classes or to the congregation through my sermons. I always wind up learning more than the people I'm teaching! I challenge you to look for ways to share what you know and to learn what you don't. If you're a financial planner, for example, there are people out there in need of help with managing their finances. If you're in business, there are young people trying to learn a trade who could use your wisdom. The list goes on and on.

Here in Monument most of the people who come to church are highly educated, more so than the national average. The question is what we'll do with that education to transform the world. If we have the capacity to learn a business or a trade, we have the capacity to learn and be transformed by deeper spiritual truths.

I'm proud to serve a church in the Methodist tradition where "head and heart go hand in hand." We want to be a community of listeners, learners and teachers.

 We’re providing multiple opportunities for you to exercise your mind and be transformed. I want to challenge you to be a part of a class, read a book we’re recommending, be a Sunday School teacher, learn something new. May we all be transformed by the renewing of our minds!


Living Biblically – John Wesley on Scripture

Yolb_paperback Matthew 10:40-42

A couple of years ago, I led the Park City congregation through a year-long journey of reading the Bible. It was an exciting opportunity (we’ll be starting that next fall), but it was not without its challenges. For example, I knew that the tough part would be getting people through the book of Leviticus—not exactly scintillating reading, and it’s even a little disturbing. Get past Leviticus, and you could make it through the rest!

I’m speculating here, but perhaps the main reason many of us don’t delve into this part of the Torah, or into many of the other long legalistic passages of Scripture for that matter, is that reading all those laws, rules and regulations can become a real snooze-fest for a congregation (and a preacher). 

But what if you took all those biblical rules seriously? Even better, what if you took them literally? Some folks do claim to follow the Bible in a literal sense, but is that even possible?

A.J. Jacobs, a writer who has become known for chronicling year-long experiments like reading through the whole Encyclopedia Britannica, decided to give it a try. Jacobs committed himself and, by extension, his family and friends, to a year-long experiment in living the Bible literally. The result is a humble and humorous book on his experience titled The Year of Living Biblically.

Jacobs read through the Bible for four straight weeks, five hours a day, and compiled a list of “every rule, every guideline, every suggestion, every nugget of advice” he found in both the Old and New Testaments. When he finished, he had a list that ran 72 pages with more than 700 rules. Jacobs saw that some of the rules would be good for him — things like telling the truth, not coveting, not stealing, and loving neighbors, for example. But, like those of us who wade through Leviticus and its ilk, he saw plenty of rules that didn’t seem to make people righteous at all; stuff like not eating fruit from a tree planted less than five years ago or paying the wages of a worker every day. Then there are those biblical rules that are just plain illegal today, like killing magicians and sacrificing oxen. Well, maybe the last one is okay if you call it “grilling.”

Given the wide range of rules, Jacobs had to establish some criteria for which ones he could actually follow. Like a good exegete, he figured that there were certain rules that were unquestionably figurative or symbolic, like Matthew 19:12, which is all about eunuchs, especially those who “have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Jacobs decided that anything that involved voluntary donation of body parts should probably not be part of his quest. Or how about Matthew 5:27-30, where Jesus says that if your right eye or your right hand cause you to sin, you shut cut them off and throw them away. Either Jesus is speaking in hyperbole here or we should all look be looking like pirates.

Armed with a revised list and with the help of some human and written guides from both Judaism and Christianity, Jacobs adopted a new persona for the year named “Jacob” and began following the Bible as literally as possible. He grew out his beard and hair to the point that he looked like Moses, Abraham or the Unabomber, depending on your point of view. He dressed all in white (Ecclesiastes 9:8), making sure not to wear any clothing of mixed fibers (Leviticus 19:19). To be safe, he had his wardrobe examined by a shatnez tester — kind of like an orthodox Jewish CSI who looks at the fibers under a microscope. He walked around with money rubber-banded around his hand (Deuteronomy 14:25). He carried around one of those combination cane/seat things called a “Handy Stick” so that he could avoid sitting where a menstruating woman might have sat (Leviticus 15:19). He could watch TV, but he couldn’t actually turn it on so as not to have made a graven image. He “stoned” an adulterer in the park, but since the Bible doesn’t specify how big the stones are supposed to be he just tossed pebbles at an admitted (and annoyed) adulterer on a park bench. The rules that Jacobs followed, and the reactions that he and those around him had, make for a fascinating and often very funny read.

What I love about this book is that Jacobs’ experiment really is an examination of how we read Scripture. Some people will try to claim that they read it and live it literally but, again, that’s not really possible or advisable, as Jacobs found out. It’s like the guy whose way of reading the Bible was to sit by the window and let the wind blow the pages around for a few seconds, then he put his finger down on the passage and would do what it said. One day he put his finger down on Acts 1:18 – 18(With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 

He thought to himself, that can’t be right…Lord, show me another verse. Whereupon the wind blew the pages again and he put his finger down on Luke 10:37 – “Go and do likewise.”

When we read Scripture as simply a collection of verses, we get into trouble!

What we’re talking about here is biblical authority. John Wesley was very clear that Scripture is the primary source of life and faith, and in the Scriptures is “everything necessary for salvation.” But Wesley also understood that we all come to Scripture with our own particular lenses on of which we have to be aware. We don’t read Scripture in a vacuum, ignoring the historical and cultural context. We don’t check our brains at the door when we open the Bible. We can’t understand the witness of the Bible unless we see it worked out in our own human experience.

Wesley said that the Bible is our primary source, but that we always keep in mind tradition, reason, and experience when we read it. Tradition tells us how the church has read the Scriptures over 2000 years. Reason invites us to use our minds to discern all the aspects of the text in its context. Experience is the laboratory in which the truth of Scripture gets played out every day. The authority of Scripture lies not in the infallibility or inerrancy of the words themselves, but of the infallible reality of the God they point to.

We have to think of the Bible as a whole narrative—a story from beginning to end, a story that continues with us. The Bible is the story of God’s redemptive mission for all of creation, thus every passage of the Bible that we read is put in that context. We get into trouble when we pluck out a series of unrelated verses to prove our own theological points. We always understand that it’s the whole Bible that matters – the whole story of God.

That’s really a more Jewish way of reading the Scriptures, by the way. I have a good friend who’s a rabbi, and he’s always fascinated and a bit disturbed how many Christians will pull out verses and quote them out of context to support their position. For Jews, every verse is only important as part of the whole story. This is how Jesus read Scripture. In his day, to quote a verse from a passage was a shorthand means of quoting the whole thing. Take, for example his word from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Many people read that Scripture and speculate about how Jesus believes God has abandoned him. Did you know, however, that that’s the first line of Psalm 22? The psalm outlines the pain of one who has been rejected, but it ends with a deep trust in God’s ability to save. Rather than merely a cry of hopelessness, Jesus was crying out hope in the midst of pain and suffering. It’s all about understanding the context!

If we don’t bring in the whole witness, our use of Scripture only amounts to proof-texting. As one of my seminary profs taught us to remember:

 “A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to say.”

The bottom line is that no matter what your theological bent, it’s indeed possible to commit idolatry on the Bible itself, worshiping the words instead of understanding the times and embracing the spirit (Spirit!) in which it was written. More importantly, as Christians’ we’ve been given a model of thought and behavior that transcends even written page. We have been given Jesus. If we’re looking to be literal at anything, we should be most literal in modeling our lives after his. A.J. Jacobs took on the personae of a person from the Bible’s past. We’re called to take on the personae the ever-present reality of Jesus.

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10 were designed to prepare them for the missionary journeys they would undertake both during their time with Jesus and especially after his ascension. They were not to be people merely bound by rules and simply dressing the part of the righteous (that was Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, after all). Instead, they were to act as Jesus’ own representatives by reflecting his character, mission and message to the world.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” said Jesus (Matthew 10:40). Like ambassadors in a foreign country, the disciples were to be the embodiment of Jesus and, by association, of God, to those they would meet and live among. That association would cause the disciples a lot of grief in the form of persecution (10:16-20), alienation from family (10:21, 35-37), and even martyrdom (10:28). People steeped in their own rules, regulations and worldviews have a hard time seeing an alternative, which was precisely what Jesus was offering — a view of God’s kingdom that would upset the status quo, turning over human power structures and ushering in God’s rule of justice, love and peace. Taken literally, the disciples’ mission would be dangerous, but the results would be world-changing.

In the midst of their mission of representing Christ, the disciples were to concentrate their best and most literal efforts on modeling him in their relationships, starting with each other. There’s some debate among commentators about the role of “prophets,” the “righteous” and “little ones” in Matthew’s community (10:41-42). Perhaps the first two were specific role definitions, while “little ones” refers to what we might call the “laity” today. Whatever the role, representatives of Jesus were to welcome one another and care for one another literally and liberally with the love of Christ. 

Jesus said that showing hospitality would result in “rewards” for those who modeled him. What’s that look like? When we do good deeds, follow the rules, we often expect to get something in return. Some might look at this passage and deduce that being nice to others earns you a heavenly “reward” to be cashed in when one dies and, in popular parlance, goes to heaven. But perhaps there’s a more immediate context here. The word for “reward” in Greek can also be translated as “wages due.” Being a “prophet,” for example, was no easy task. In fact, Matthew sees the prophetic ministry as being somewhat problematic, with prophets experiencing persecution (5:12), being unwelcome (13:57), and facing death at the hand of those who don’t want to hear the message they bring (23:30-37). 

In that context, a “prophet’s reward” may be a kind of backhanded compliment. If the prophet, representing Jesus, gets maligned by others, it’s a sign that he (or she) is probably doing it right and earning the proper wage! By contrast, the wages of a righteous person in Matthew’s gospel are paid in receiving the kingdom (13:43, 49; 25:34-40) and in “eternal life” (25:46). If you’re really modeling Jesus and taking him literally at his word, you’re going to receive “rewards” that reflect the very same things he experienced. We can’t truly represent Jesus without experiencing both persecution and suffering on the one hand and the power of resurrection on the other. There’s no crown without a cross (10:38).

Of all the items on the biblical rotisserie we can grab and be nourished on, however, perhaps the most important one is compassion. Giving a “cup of cold water” is a simple act, but it’s those simple acts of kindness, compassion and obedience that best represent Jesus in our everyday lives (10:42). In our quest to be “people of the Book,” we have to realize that we can never be outside the rules when we lead with love. 

Methodists, following John Wesley’s lead, are a “people of one book.” We understand that book and its witness primarily through the person of Jesus—God in the flesh—whose story is revealed there. Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the prophets – to embody the word. We do our best work with Scripture when we embody it in the image of Christ, rather than merely debating and studying it to find our own agendas.

To put it another way, if the “one thing” that matters is renewal in the image of God, the we  must understand that the Scriptures give us the story of how that renewal takes place, and what it looks like—it looks a lot like Jesus! The Word became flesh in Jesus, and that same word, God’s Word, needs to become flesh in us—a people who perfectly love and glorify God, a people who are always leading with grace.

A.J. Jacobs learned from his year-long experiment that even as an agnostic there was a lot he could learn from taking on the character and lifestyle of a biblically based person. Says Jacobs, “The experience changed me in big ways and small ways. There’s a lot about gratefulness in the Bible, and I would say I’m more thankful. I focus on the hundred little things that go right in a day, instead of the three or four things that go wrong. And I love the Sabbath. There’s something I really like about a forced day of rest … I also really liked what one of my spiritual advisers said, which was that you can view life as a series of rights and entitlements, or a series of responsibilities. I like seeing my life as a series of responsibilities. It’s sort of, ‘Ask not what God can do for you, ask what you can do for God.’”

Imagine living like that not for just a year — but for the rest of your life!

I am a fierce advocate for biblical literacy and what Wesley called “Scriptural Christianity.” I want to lead our congregation into becoming a people of the Book—a people of the whole book, a people who reflect the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. We need to be shaped by that word. It’s not simply about more Bible knowledge, but about finding our stories within this story and then living that new reality.

When I was in Korea in February, I was impressed by the fact that Korean Methodist churches don’t have any books in the pews—everyone brings their Bible and hymnal to church with them and there’s an expectation that they’ll be using them during the week. They are a people of the Book. 

You may have noticed that the Lay Readers are now using the book when they read and not just reading verses from a sheet of paper. That gives us all a visual that the passage from which they’re reading is part of the whole witness of Scripture. We put the verses up on the screen for you, but I have to admit that I’m not really a fan of that. I would like us to use our Bibles to look at the Scripture each week, because we understand every verse within a particular context. We have Bibles in the pew, but I want to encourage you to bring your own Bible to worship—get familiar with it, mark in it, hold it, carry it.

The story of Scripture is the story of God’s redemptive mission for the whole creation. We find our stories within that story. We find God’s will for us in the midst of God’s will for the whole creation. It is here that past, present, and future find meaning and hope. The book is essential, but only if we take the whole story into our hearts and become the people that it calls us back to being.

John Wesley rose early every morning to read the Scripture and it shaped who he became. Scripture was the basis for his method of living the Christian life. May it be ours as well!



Noah’s Ark found? Not so fast – Cosmic Log –


Bible proven! Genesis stories vindicated! Well, not exactly. I find it interesting when people passing themselves off as archaeologists generate press releases and video specials purporting either to support or debunk something biblical. We had the Jesus tomb a couple of years ago, and the Noah's Ark thing appears occasionally as well. Historians and thoughtful people of faith should know better than to buy the hype and, instead, be intelligent about the limits of archaeology and historical evidence. Wood + a mountain in Turkey does not automatically = Ark any more than finding an ossuary with "Jesus Son of Joseph" scratched on the side of it prove that Jesus was didn't rise from the dead. These finds tell us something about the period in question, but we can only infer based on the evidence–that's different from claiming 99.9% certainty.

A more interesting question is this: if it was possible to prove that this was THE Noah's Ark, what would that do to your faith or your skepticism about the Bible? Would it change things for you? Does the confirmation of one aspect of the biblical story confirm the whole thing?

Just wondering. I'm a person who believes that the Bible is historical, but that history is washed through the lens of theology. For the biblical writers, history, theology, science, literature, and other disciplines that we post-Enlightenment people separate were one worldview. We have to remember that when we're reading and when we hear about these kinds of finds.