The Joy of Scripture Study and Reading

For the past 18 months or so I have spent most of my Friday mornings studying scripture with my friend, Michael.  It has been a joyful journey.

We began by studying the gospel of John.  We took almost a year of Fridays in reading, pondering, questioning and even doubting sometimes as we explored the wonder of the Savior through the eyes and pen of the apostle John.  We are now diving into the epistles of John.

I mentioned to Mike the other day that I think of our Bible studies as diving into a pond of clear crystalline water.  The scriptures offer a refreshing of spirit and a chance to dive into deep, abiding and purposeful truth.  Sometimes we sit on the bank and just dangle our feet in the water.  Other times we jump in the deep end and thrill at the joy of seeing things from an eternal perspective.

Bible study can also be a discipline and may be experienced as swimming laps back and forth.  While I won’t say that such Bible study is unproductive, it would be a shame if we only approached the scriptures as a discipline to be endured.  Or a spiritual workout that leaves us fatigued and exhausted.

As Mike and I study we have found great benefit in the fact that each time we immerse ourselves in the clear waters, we emerge changed, cleansed and refreshed.  As we climb out on the sun-warmed grassy bank, we always emerge a little cleaner, purer and renewed.

I should point out the obvious.  Not all scripture is the same.  There are narratives that trouble and disturb.  There are passages that seemingly take us into the deep abyss.  In time, even the troubling passages can be seen in the context of the rest of the Bible and offer glimpses into greater truths.

So read with greater enjoyment. 

Read with anticipation of discovering great truth. 

Read with desire for refreshment of spirit and renewal of the soul.

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Christianity- A Crutch?

I’m leaning on a lot of things and people nowadays.

Struggling with cancer and chemotherapy will humble even the best of us.  I’ve talked in other posts about struggling and how I have decided to embrace the concept that I will forever be a struggler.  It’s not a sign of weakness, it is a sign I have discovered the true sources of strength.

Perhaps you have heard critics of Christianity say, “Religion is just a crutch”  or  “Christian faith is just a crutch”.  My first response is to defensively push back at such statements as derisive and antagonistic.  But if I think about it for a bit, I can find something about the crutch metaphor that I can embrace and admit to with no shame, pride or regret.

To live in a world like ours where people are frequently wounded and limp along on legs weakened, injured and diseased, we eventually must lean on something that transcends our own human resources.

I do a bit of wood carving now and again.  Among other things, I have carved several walking sticks.  I have given several away and I’ve kept a few of them to use on walks and hikes.  More than once I have encountered terrain along the trail where the walking stick offered stability and steadiness I would not have had otherwise.  A walking stick (or crutch) doesn’t remove you from the equation.   Your own effort is still required.  Whether it be termed a crutch or a walking stick, having something firm to lean on is a wise choice.

So Christianity as a crutch isn’t so much a cop-out as a coping mechanism. 

Christianity is not for weak willed, intellectually or psychologically weak people.

It is for the honest and the aware.

Honest about our fatigue, our woundedness and our imperfections.   Aware of the uncertainty of the terrain of our lives.  One never knows what the next medical exam will reveal.  One never knows what the evening news will reveal about personal retirement plans, world peace or the lack thereof.  One never knows what sons, daughters, husband or wife will reveal at the dinner table.  An addiction, a pregnancy, a sexually transmitted disease, an affair, a separation or divorce.  The world I live in finds this kind of terrain all too common in a life’s journey.   Life is not a walk in the park, at least not all the time.  We need something, someone to lean on.  A means to bear up under the steady weight of being human.

Jesus’ teaching about the yoke reflects the concept well:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and burden is light.”    Matthew 11: 28-30  ESV

In agricultural use, the yoke is designed to redistribute the weight on the oxen.  It does not remove the burden but helps bear it.  Much like the crutch or the walking stick, the yoke allows the burdens of life to be managed.  It allows us to keep moving forward.

The question begs to be asked.

Aside from Jesus, cannot a non-believer find support from natural and non-religious sources without need for faith?  My answer would be YES, but with this caveat.  One may find support from human relationships, and other natural means to traverse much of life’s journey.

But the ultimate mapping of life’s journey goes beyond the map of temporary human existence.  The map I operate from, gives evidence of trails beyond the physical universe.  I need all the physical, natural, relational support I can get, but I need more.

I need something, someone, upon whom I can lean my full weight……for the full journey.

I am leaning on Jesus. 

And with Him I press forward. 

One step at a time.  With a crutch, a walking stick and a yoke. 

I am a hopeful traveler.  I hope to cross your path on the journey and walk a while together.

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Breaking the Silence – Prayer

PrayRoadJPG

Frederick Buechner relays a short but powerful observation on prayer in his book, The Magnificent Defeat.  In a chapter entitled, The Breaking of Silence, he offers this story which I will paraphrase.

Imagine two people sitting alone in a railroad station, just the two of them in this vast waiting space.  They are seated at a short distance between one another but still within speaking distance.  They are strangers to one another and wait in silence.  Finally one of the persons ventures to speak.   One never knows how to break an uncomfortable silence.  And what if the other person doesn’t want to converse?  How awkward it is, but finally you say something mostly out of impulse .  As soon as you begin to speak, you are unsure of yourself and whether this is, in fact a good idea, but something prompts you to break the silence.

“Hi!”  “Uh….this sitting and waiting is the pits, huh?”  Depending on how the other person feels about striking up a conversation and breaking the silence, their response will tell you whether this interaction will continue or just awkwardly end kind of like it began.

While I have improvised and expanded Buechner’s story a bit, the essence is the same.  It illustrates how silence is not easily broken.  There are risks.  There are implications.  You might get more than you bargained for.

Calling out to God in prayer is a manner of speaking, a breaking of silence, if you please.

Buechner adds:

This is what I think, in essence, prayer is.  It is the breaking of silence.  It is the need to be known and the need to know.  Prayer is the sound made by our deepest aloneness.  I am thinking not just of formal prayers that a religious person might say in church or in bed at night, but of the kind of vestigial, broken fragments of prayer that people use without thinking of them as prayers:  something terrible happens, and you might say, “God help us” ….etc.

I have noted that we are seldom satisfied with our prayer life.  We always seem to yearn for something more.  In a recent series of sermons on Prayer, I  heard time and again the refrain, “I never seem to pray with the same expectation and exhilaration as the people of the Bible.”  We seem to know that our prayers are lacking something.  We want more, we just don’t know where to start.

I would suggest that a good starting point is to keep prayer simple and conversational.  Talk to God as if he really is listening…..He is, after all.  Prayer is a language of the heart.  Let your heart open up to God as a trusted friend who will comfort, console and challenge, all in perfect measure.

Go ahead, break the silence.  Pray.

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It’s All Falling Into Place

I have lately been reading Alister McGrath’s recently published  book on the life of C. S. Lewis.    LewisAlisterMcGrathMcGrath’s book has stirred anew the fascination I have in how Lewis returned to his faith in God after having rejected it in his later youth and early adulthood.

I’ve read and re-read Lewis’ works since the 1970’s and in that time have also read three or four biographies as well.   I am reminded once again that Lewis accounts for his conversion as a process involving many conversations and experiences over a considerable length of time.  In particular, it was Lewis’ close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings author), who allowed Lewis to come to faith as more of a process than an event.  One of McGrath’s great contributions to the study of Lewis is found in his insightful observations that Lewis came to a position of Theism, that is, a belief in God and this in turn led to his eventual acceptance of the claims of Christianity.  These ideas are certainly found in Lewis’ own works, Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy.

A quotation from McGrath’s work helps illustrate this:

To understand how Lewis passed from theism to Christianity, we need to reflect further on the ideas of J.R.R. Tolkien.  For it was he, more than anyone else, who helped Lewis along in the final stage of what the medieval writer Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1221-1274) describes as the

“journey of the mind to God.”  

Tolkien helped Lewis to realize that the problem lay not in Lewis’ rational failure to understand the theory, but in his imaginative failure to grasp its significance.  The issue was not primarily about truth, but about meaning. 

When engaging the Christian narrative, Lewis was limiting himself to his reason when he ought to be opening himself to the deepest intuitions of his imagination.  p. 149

This leads me to suggest that faith grows on us as well as in us.

As we consider the claims of Christ and the truth of Scripture, we do so as rational humans who think and reason and search for evidence for our beliefs.  But we also go through a process of imagining how these truths shape the universe and all the things we experience as humans.

If we accept pieces as they fall into place, we allow for a building of our faith.  If we reject these individual pieces or ignore them as they come together for us, our faith will never advance and deepen.  In doing so, we expand our capacity for doubt, denial and skepticism.

In the words of Lewis himself:

I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken.  I was driven to Whipsnade (a local zoo) one sunny morning.  When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.  Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.

Surprised by Joy

For Lewis, it all finally fell into place.

Keep in mind, Lewis was no intellectual light weight.  He was a professor at Oxford and Cambridge.  He was said to have the ability to quote long passages from Medieval literature and countless other texts.  Thinking and intellectual wrangling was very much a part of his process.  But there was more going on.

His faith developed because he allowed it to fall into place, bit by bit, layer by layer until he possessed the ability to articulate his beliefs like no other among his peers.

The question begs to be asked.  Where are you in your faith development?

Are there pieces which are even now beginning to fall into place for you?

When one of these pieces falls into place how do you react?

Is there an apprehension to allow for even a sliver of faith to take residence in your mind and heart?

C.S. Lewis reflects often in his works regarding his reluctance to allow faith to grow.  You are in good company if you experience this resistance to belief.

I encourage you to keep your mind, your heart and life open to the ideas and imaginations found in a faith which continually expands and deepens.

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Loving God

Do we love God enough? 

It’s been my observation that we celebrate and bask in the love God has for us with more regularity than we contemplate and focus on our love for Him.  The mere writing of this sentence cautions me to be careful not to slip down the slope of a works justification approach.

I believe that God’s love for us and His grace is the source of our salvation.  I would propose that a consideration of our response to such grace is to love God back.

This is entrenched deeply in scripture and in God’s ultimate agenda for us as His children.  In Deuteronomy 6 the directive is inescapable.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”  NIV 

Jesus would bring this passage and Leviticus 19:18 together when he sums up the law and the prophets with this maxim: 

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  (Matthew 22: 34-40)

In recent years I have spent no little time concentrating on how Christian faith is expressed in loving our fellow man.  The impact we have on the world is in direct proportion to how much we express love to our fellow human beings.  Helping the fallen, feeding the hungry, clothing the unclothed, and offering a cup of cold water to the thirsty are all expressions of love for God’s creation, His beloved.  There is no need whatsoever to lessen these efforts or to think they can be overdone.  We will have no effective witness toward those to whom we turn a cold and indifferent shoulder.

I want to suggest to you however, that as important as is our calling to love our fellow human beings, we must be just as intentional in fostering a robust and growing love for God.

We must find ways to grow in our love for God in increasing measure.

Marcus Borg explores loving God in his book, The Heart of Christianity.  Borg supports the idea that loving God is about “practice”.  He says, “loving God means paying attention to God and what God loves.”  Admittedly this is not rocket science and one doesn’t need the credentials of Marcus Borg to conclude that loving is about paying attention to the one we love.  A good start to this “paying attention” discipline is to recall the things God has done for us.

I find myself coming to love God more because:

1)  He made me in His image.  Genesis 1:27  Think on this one long and hard.  The supreme Deity made us with a particular purpose and identity in mind.   I love God for that.  He didn’t have to do things that way but He did.  I love Him for that.

2)  God makes Himself accessible.  From Genesis 4:26b we are instructed that even in the earliest of times men came to call upon the name of the Lord.  Some say this is an early reference to prayer.   The other side of the calling out is the listening ear of God.  Exodus 3:9 says the crying out of the Israelites in Egyptian bondage got the attention of God.  He subsequently provides the outstanding leadership of Moses and some pretty impressive miracles in response to this cry.  I love God for that.  We cry out.  He hears.  He responds.  Who wouldn’t love a God like that?

3) Throughout all history God intervenes with guidance, correction and discipline to dissuade us from self-destructive and harmful sinful behaviors because he cares what happens to us.  Hebrews 12: 4ff reminds us that God’s discipline comes to us by way of relationship.  He disciplines as “sons”.  We are his children.  He corrects out of love.  I love God for that.

4)  God demonstrates his love for us even when we are not deserving.   Summed up best in the words of Paul,  “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Romans 5: 18 NIV  A God who loves me into being the best version of myself I can possible be, leaves me no choice but to fall in love with Him.  To paraphrase something I heard a while ago……we would do well to remind ourselves that we are worse off than we think we are. On the other hand, we are far more loved than we can possibly imagine.  I am coming to love God more and more as I make an honest assessment about my own humanness and frailties and how extreme is the extension of God’s grace to me.

5) I am coming to love God more and more because of the ultimate outcome of human history and what God has laid out for us.  Human history began as a project of God with mankind in close relationship with Him in the Garden.  It all began as a relational project and it will culminate in the most intimate of all relationships.  For some of us, our human history will conclude with death.  For others it will be at Christ’s return.  Either way, we get to look forward to an eternity with God.   My love grows for a God who gives this kind of promise, hope and destiny.

Paying attention to what God has done and is doing, brings me to a greater love for Him with each passing day.  I’ll have the venerable apostle John deliver the final word for now:

“This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.  This is love for God: to obey his commands.  And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world.   This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.”  1 John 5:2-4

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Struggling

I am struggling right now.

A visit with my oncologist last week revealed I have multiple cancerous tumors in my liver.  I now have a fight on my hands.   I will find out later this week just how this battle will be waged.   It will not be easy.  It will be a struggle.  The fight will possibly involve robust chemo-therapy and radiation or a ground breaking new treatment where the cure will involve such strong medicine that the side effects will likely make me feel worse before I feel better.   As is the case in all life experiences, this brings to light an undeniable spiritual truth.

Struggle is an indicator of life.  It must be embraced and accepted as a symptom of being alive.

Seventeenth century philosopher Descartes coined the phrase,  “I think, therefore, I am” which became one of many oft quoted maxims during the age of enlightenment.   As foundational as thinking is to being human, I suggest that struggling is just as much an indicator of humanness as thinking.  So I will state my own maxim with a hint of Descartes by saying,  “I struggle, therefore, I am”.

In recent years I have observed that people often are disappointed in themselves that they have not been victorious over addictions, sins, bad habits, yearnings, tendencies etc.  People tend to beat themselves up over the lack of a decisive, final victory over the thing with which they suffer.   An example would be of a person who has struggled with alcohol abuse and who is making positive steps to correct bad behaviors but who still craves alcohol at times or believes he/she is weak because the desire is still there.

Many have been lead to believe that we must conquer, stamp out and vanquish even the desire or attraction to such behaviors and habits.  I have even overheard well-intentioned people scold those who confess that there is still an appeal to take part in one of the aforementioned habits.   This seems to suggest that their struggle doesn’t count for anything unless they have extinguished all flaming embers of this residual desire from their lives.

Let me say that I believe implicitly In the power of God.  May I go on record saying I think it is absolutely possible that God can deliver us from evil behaviors and desires.  God can remove completely the threat and temptation from even the most nagging addictions.  If you think I am limiting God, you are misunderstanding my point.  A thoughtful reading of the Bible will reveal that even the greatest of heroes and heroines of the Bible did not achieve a direct trajectory of faith advancement.  They frequently had their set-backs and show clear evidence that they are strugglers.

Not only do I see this in scripture but I observe it in my own life.  There are things in my life that used to be a great temptation, which now seem to have no appeal to me at all.  Nonetheless, there are also things in my life with which I have struggled since a youth.  Even though I would have preferred that God would have delivered me altogether from some of these attitudes, desires, habits, tendencies, I still find myself struggling.

No less than the apostle Paul expressed his own struggles with the flesh in Romans 7: 18ff (NASB)

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.  20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21   So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  25 Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!    So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

Paul is stating in unmistakable language that he is a man who still struggles.  Perhaps we think the phrase about being rescued from the body of death means that this is an ultimate, complete freedom from fleshly desires and temptations.  Paul is speaking in terms of the present tense.  He is talking about a continued struggle he has.  He celebrates the final victory that will be ours as we overcome in Jesus Christ, all these temptations.

Not all struggles are about sins, addictions or moral failures.  Some of our struggles are with maintaining a constant sense of God’s presence in our lives.  We struggle to believe that God answers prayers.  We struggle to understand how an all powerful, all knowing, all loving God could allow suffering in the world.  Go ahead and add the list anything you struggle with.  God’s shoulders are broad.  He can bear up under any lament, any honest crying out you have.  Just keep in mind that our comfort and ease are not part of the promise of God.  In fact, in time of struggle, pain, hardship and suffering one can often come to an awareness of the immense love of God and appreciate His providential care in ways that only can be known in time of struggle.

We would do well to remember the beginnings of Israel, God’s chosen.  When Jacob had wrestled with his heavenly visitor in Genesis 32, the outcome is an affirmation of the promise made to Abraham and his descendants.  Jacob is given the assurance that God will be a constant presence and source of blessing to His people of promise.  Then comes a part in the narrative where we get a glimpse of just how this will be played out.  Jacob is given the name, Israel.  “One who wrestles…..or struggles”.

Genesis 32: 28  (NIV)  “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

It seems unmistakable.  Struggle is not a sign of weakness or unfaithfulness.

Struggle is an indicator that we haven’t given up.

Let me recommend to you a few strategies in your encounter with struggles in its various forms.

Add these to your survival kit.

1) Seek fellow strugglers with whom you can be honest.  Find people who will not enable your bad behaviors but who will help you find discipline to forge better habits.  You need people who will be tough when you need it but who will stick by you as long as you are honestly trying/struggling for growth.

2) Read the Bible.  Take a closer look at the stories and the people in them.  Notice how they have feet of clay and struggle with getting right and staying right.  Also take notice of how they are prone to a faith in God that can run white hot and then can grow cool and then get re-ignited again.

3) Talk to God.  Pray.  Many of the prayers which resonate with us as strugglers are the “crying out” prayers.  Tell God where it hurts.

4) See Satan for the liar he is.  Satan will do his best to dissuade you from seeking God and holy living.  When you encounter a time of temptation or experience a lack of faith, ask yourself, “where is the lie in this?”  Look closely and you will always find an untruth at the bottom of it.

I am a struggler.  I hope to see you somewhere along the way on this path to holiness.  I would love to walk together with you for a while and share our stories. 

You’ll know me when you see me.  I walk with a limp.  People who have wrestled angels usually do.

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Thanks Les Mis

Like many holiday movie-goers, I saw the movie version of the musical, Les Miserables.   The music, the scenery and costumes were extraordinary.   The actors made the characters come to life and the vocals ranged from good to fabulous.

It is a happy coincidence for me that this latest musical version of the story has come out now.  Several months ago I put Victor Hugo’s classic on my reading list for 2013.  Every year I make it a point of reading or re-reading a classic novel.  Some of my readings are of books read back when I was in High School or College (like last year’s choice- Moby Dick) as a required reading.  Others are read for the first time.  I find that reading some of these at my age offers far more reflections and insights than when read as a much younger man.

As I began reading the rather substantial volume of Victor Hugo (and this is my first time read of Les Miserables) I am delighted with the description of the Bishop of Digne.  He is mostly referred to as Monseigneur Bienvenu.  He is the character who offers Jean Valjean his first chance to rise above his own personal misery.

Victor Hugo writes pages and pages of description of the kindly and gracious old priest.  I find his descriptions and glimpses into this man’s character to be fascinating and I’ve found myself in deep reflection after reading the first hundred or so pages.

The following quote is the basis for a few simple ideas I will expand upon to close out this post.

Sometimes, in the midst of his reading, no matter what the book might be which he had in his hand, he would suddenly fall into a profound meditation, whence he only emerged to write a few lines on the pages of the volume itself. These lines have often no connection whatever with the book which contains them. We now have under our eyes a note written by him on the margin of a quarto entitled Correspondence of Lord Germain with Generals Clinton, Cornwallis, and the Admirals on the American station. Versailles, Poincot, book-seller; and Paris, Pissot, bookseller, Quai des Augustins.

Here is the note:— “Oh, you who are! “Ecclesiastes calls you the All-powerful; the Maccabees call you the Creator; the Epistle to the Ephesians calls you liberty; Baruch calls you Immensity; the Psalms call you Wisdom and Truth; John calls you Light; the Books of Kings call you Lord; Exodus calls you Providence; Leviticus, Sanctity; Esdras, Justice; the creation calls you God; man calls you Father; but Solomon calls you Compassion, and that is the most beautiful of all your names.”

I can’t help but think of how God speaks at times through mediums other than the Bible itself.  Bienvenu is observed to write reflections in the margins of otherwise secular readings, his own thoughts on God, the world and how God reveals Himself to us.

The next time you pick up a USA Today or your local paper or paperback novel, think of what you see of God in your personal world or the world of the characters and news you hear daily.  Is God there? In the margins somewhere?  I think Bienvenu is on to something.

Even though I would suggest that sometimes we get too much immersed in secular news and events and we could very well just unplug it all and disengage from all such input in order to hear the voice of God.  But the other thing we might consider, is to look to hear the voice of God in all that is around us and to ask the question:  “What can we observe of God in all this?”

I’m not for one moment, suggesting that we can set aside our Bibles and just read our newspapers or a textbook or history book and find all we need to know of God.  I am simply suggesting that God’s purposes for our lives might be revealed in a variety of mediums if we are open to hearing His voice and comprehending His agenda through unexpected sources.  The outcome might just be worth the effort of scribbling in life’s margins a bit.

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