Thursday, September 11, 2014

Facebook Conversations & Digging into the Bible

Facebook is notorious as a place where conversations devolve into anger and accusations.  I typically use my personal timeline as a place to interact in a more fun than serious way and rarely do I have long conversations there. 

Until recently.  I'd posted an article about an atheist's take on the portrayal of atheists in the movie "God's Not Dead" and it set off quite the conversation.  Through it all though, people remained civil to each other.  It made me think that miracles do happen.

And then a friend send me a private message asking me what I thought about some verses in Matthew, and later that night I was able to spend some time looking at them and reading them in the context of the gospel as a whole.  As I explored the topic of the Kingdom of God throughout the gospel, I found my faith being reignited--and I didn't even know that it needed to be. With the text in front of me and my thoughts about it and what I've read on the subject forming in my head, I felt myself coming alive.  

It really makes such a huge difference to look at verses in context.  I know I am guilty of being lazy and not doing that at times, especially if it's a verse that I really like for some reason, but when I do actually put in the effort to learn the context, it ends up meaning so much more to me than just taking a verse here and a verse there and thinking I know what they mean because I've heard it in a sermon or have seen it on a calendar.

As I wrote up my notes and thoughts, I even learned something new.  I had always known the verses when Jesus talks about only going after the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and I had known the verses at the end of Matthew about making disciples of all nations, but I had never really looked at the progression of getting from one to the other, and as I noticed that, I could visualize how Jesus' movement started so small and narrowly focused, yet then opened up to include all people everywhere.  

And that's good news.

Because we often think of the Bible as a guidebook, we have a tendency to look at it as abstract pieces of information on how to live.  And while I do think it teaches us how to live, I don't think it's in the way of a checklist; it's more holistic than that.  It's easy to check off memory verses without understanding them or hold up a reference at a sporting event. But I constantly find myself wanting to go deeper than that.  For many people, the way I read and study the Bible would probably be considered too boring or difficult, because it doesn't provide automatic answers or advice.  But for me, when I do this, I find that the Bible opens up the world of faith to me in ways I don't experience any other way. It forces me to look at big pictures and challenge any suppositions I unknowingly have.  It causes me to think, to question, to wrestle.  Most of all, though that, it causes me to focus on God more than if I pluck out a verse.  

I think the Bible is beautiful, and am thankful for the conversations it fosters and the way those conversations make me look harder and dig deeper.  

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Monday, September 01, 2014

Reading My Bible: A Year of Renewal

For two months, I've been reading more Scripture on a regular basis than I have in a long time.  As part of my Year of Renewal project, I've been reading the parashah, haftarah, and Revised Common Lectionary readings for each week.  

Reading so much scripture has been great; it's made me wonder and it's made me question.  It's made me think of connections--and disconnections--between what I am reading and in other books I am reading (Galatians, What St. Paul Really Said).  I see themes that tie together and themes that contradict each other.

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted:

This was referring to the fact that I haven't signed up for one class at church. Not Sunday morning, Sunday evening, or Wednesday evening. There are some great options that are being offered. They just aren't for me at this time.  I miss reading and studying my Bible and I'm planning to take more time to actually do that. 

I have spent far too long going to various groups or activities because I feel obligated to do so: to meet people, to have a social outlet, to spend time with other adults. But I often still find that something is lacking.  It's like I'm attending a salad luncheon when all I want is a steak dinner.

Then I read this article by Ben Irwin on Q Ideas in which he states

"We buy a lot of Bibles. We just don’t read them. And if we do, it’s usually a verse here or a chapter there. We don’t read; we cherry-pick. And cherry-picking is a guaranteed path to a miserable reading experience."

That's exactly what we do. We read a verse here and there, or have a topic and find all the verses that we think go along with that topic, and we ignore whole chapters and books and context.  We want to skip right to application.  I'm so tired of doing that.  I'm tired of reading, say Galatians 1:3-5   

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,  who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,  to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

and skipping over it, or just thinking, oh, ok, Jesus died for our sins. What's next?  

Why, when we read the Bible, do we tend to not ask questions? Such as:
  • What did Paul mean when he says "present evil age"?  
  • What was considered evil in that period in history?
  • How does Jesus giving himself for sins set people free? What did it mean then? Is it connected to Luke 4:18?
  • How did Paul define sin?
Those are six questions about one small part of these verses that we usually skip over, if we even read them at all, because usually we'd rather just get on to an inspirational verse that we can memorize to pull out when we're feeling down (or a verse for when we want to prooftext something).  

I think part of the problem is that we see the Bible as our self-help guide and we're looking for 3 steps to stop worrying or 5 ways to grow faith or 7 ways to parent Biblically. But the Bible is so much more than that, and treating it as a self-help book can detract from what we can experience if we actually were to read it for the benefit of reading it and what we can learn and how we can grow through that process, and not just for a quick few steps about how to do something.  

How do you read the Bible? 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: My Irish Table by Cathal Armstrong & David Hagedorn

I received a free copy of this book from Blogging For Books for the purpose of this review.

I don't normally review cookbooks--this isn't a food blog, after all.  But when I was perusing the books offered, I was drawn to this one for a few reasons:  1) I have Irish ancestry 2) I have absolutely no knowledge of Irish food 3) the novel I am writing has characters with Irish ancestry and I thought it would be a good resource.

The book itself is beautiful.  It is hardcover, with many photographs of the dishes made from the recipes.  It is not a book for a beginning cook and there are often ingredients and supplies which are not going to be easy to get (though the authors are upfront about this and give a list of resources in the back).  Ironically, one ingredient they acknowledge that will be difficult to procure is pig's blood, for Black Pudding (page 22).  Since I live in a rural area with lots of farms, including pigs, I'd probably not have much of a problem getting this ingredient--but I don't want to!

After reading through most of the book, I admit I'm still a bit puzzled as to what exactly constitutes Irish food, because many of the recipes are not specifically Irish.  Each recipe, though, is preceded by a short memory the author has of it, and I think that is what makes the book stand above a regular cook book. The reader is able to imagine sitting around "The Irish Table" and experiencing what the author remembers along with the food itself. I think this is an important part of a meal.  It's not just about the food we eat, but the connections and memories we make with people as we are eating.

The one recipe that I tried so far, Auntie Ann's Pavlova (page 220), was wonderful.  While mine didn't get as puffy as the one in the picture in the book (the above photo is mine), it was still very easy to make and very delicious to eat.  I'll definitely be trying more recipes from the book.

You can buy it from Amazon here: My Irish Table

Monday, August 18, 2014

What Saved Your Faith?

I'm joining the synchroblog for the release of A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth

I enjoy writing about doubt and faith, because so many people struggle with it yet feel so alone, because somehow, they've been taught that if they doubt, then they don't have enough faith and are not good enough.  We so easily dismiss the Pharisees as so works-oriented that they just didn't understand Jesus, but fail to recognize when we then judge each other based on how much and what kind of faith we have.  

My biggest doubts have come from reading the Bible itself.  Yes, you read that correctly.  It is the inspired word of God that has caused me to doubt.  The first time I really remember it happening was when I read Hosea 11:1 in context instead of in Matthew's interpretation of it.  

Or when I learned that in Ezekiel 42-45, there are measurements for a third temple that Revelation 21:22 tells us will not exist.  

Or when I learned that the Jewish understanding of the requirements for what the Messiah will do are very, very different from the Christian understanding.

Or when I learned that there were people who had left Christianity and that there were a lot of other interpretations of Scripture out there.

And so on and so forth.

While the timing of past events has become very fuzzy to me, there is one moment I do remember, although I do not remember when or where it occurred.  I was at a point where I thought I would have to make a decision to give it all up.  Faith, church, Jesus.  And as I contemplated what to do, I realized it could go either way.  I didn't know anymore who Jesus was or what he was supposed to mean to me.  It was as if I was facing two paths to walk down, and I had to choose one.

The only thing that was certain was that I somehow knew, if I did walk away, I would be missing something important in my life.  

So I guess you could say Jesus saved my faith.  It really was nothing that I or anyone else did at all--I wouldn't even say I had faith as large as a mustard seed at that point. 

Many people are fond of quoting Romans 8:38-39:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Nor anything else in all creation.  That includes doubt and fear.  And so, if you are in that place of doubt, no matter if anyone tries to tell you different, know that even if you are doubting Jesus, he still loves you, and is waiting patiently.

 “What saved your faith? Write your own post answering that question and then visit to learn how you can join the synchroblog or to read additional posts to celebrate the release of Ed’s book A Christian Survival Guide, which is discounted on Amazon this week. “

P.S.  A Christian Survival Guide is free for Kindle today.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

One Body One Hope Helps with Ebola Outbreak in Liberia

The church I go to partners with the non-profit organization One Body One Hope This morning we received copies of a letter that Pastor Emmanual Bimba from Abide in the Vine Church sent to the president of the organization.  He writes:

"I am writing to you this letter of request in tears and heavy heart.  Our beloved country Liberia and our people went through pain and suffering for 15 years of civil war at which time many families lost their love one.  9 years ago, the Lord brought the war to an end and started rebuilding our lives again.  As we set our minds in moving forward with life, and trying to rebuild out we are again facing another epidemic of Ebola that is so scaring and fearful than the gun battle.
...the recent outbreak of Ebola virus in out country, this situation is getting out of hand...Many hospitals in the country were closed down because health workers were dying from this deadly virus. With the closing of these hospitals, many people started dying from other sicknesses because there were no treatments for them...
The government of Liberia...came out with some preventive measures...consistent washing of hand with chlorine and regular uses of hand sanitizer...These things are very costly for our people and the government is only supplying these things to hospitals and government entities. Individual are to purchase them by themselves.  We as a church have tried our best for the past two weeks but we do not have enough funding to continue...the government declared the state of emergencies; there by restricting all movement within the country. This has added another trouble to both the people upcountry and those in the city. As we speak, people are going without food. With this, we expect more death."

If you would like to help with the situation in Liberia but weren't sure how, please consider donating to One Body One Hope, and help provide money for food, chlorine, and hand sanitizer.   Please designate that it is for Abide in the Vine.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Water in the Desert

I noticed recently that my introductory post to my "Year of Renewal" Project has had substantially more page views than many of my other posts, even though it is not especially informative or detailed.  So, some of you out there are definitely interested in the topic, it seems.

In July, I visited the Labyrinth of the Dancing Christ and often find myself wanting to return.  Unfortunately, it's 1,000 miles away and I can't just go back.  It's easy to stay in that mindset though, of wanting to go back to a certain place in time when we believe everything was better (regardless of whether or not it was).  The Israelites faced that when they were wandering in the desert.  In Numbers 14: 3-4, they are questioning following where God is leading them and wonder if it would be better to return to Egypt, where they were slaves.  What they had known was better than following God into the unknown.  

When I walked the labyrinth, I almost didn't want to step in because I didn't know what lay ahead for me; I wanted to stay where I was comfortable, with what I knew. And now, I find myself wanting to go back to the labyrinth because of the experience there.  It's hard to want to look ahead when we can't see very far.

In the labyrinth, I couldn't see how to get to the center; I just had to take one step after another and I found myself enjoying the journey and not looking behind me.  That is what I need to remember on those days when I just want to go back there.  That experience of the labyrinth is in the past, and, while I hope there will be another one, I need to focus on the steps I am currently taking.  

I think, though, what we need to remember about specific experiences that we yearn to go back to is not to keep wanting to go back to them, but finding ways to be strengthened from the past and be able to look ahead to the future with hope.  During this project, one song continuously comes to mind: "Desert Song" by Hillsong.  

The first verse says:

This is my prayer in the desert
When all that's within me feels dry
This is my prayer in my hunger and need
My God is the God who provides

In those lines, there is a spark of hope, no matter how small it is.  

And so as I continue reading the various portions of scripture each week that come from both the Jewish cycle of reading and the Christian lectionary, I look for even the tiniest parts that bring hope when the scripture is difficult and complicated.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Idolatry of the Bible

This morning, my friend Andy posted a recent Facebook status of the band Gungor:
There is a trend in modern society, no more than a trend...a religion, an idolatry that elevates scripture above Jesus.  This 'bibliolatry', if you will, is rooted in a modern mindset that values reductionism over mystery. A reading of the Bible over Jesus. (One clue that your church might be tinged with bibliolatry:in your beliefs section of your website, do you find Jesus first or the Bible?)  Bibliolaters claim (read my twitter feed) that Jesus CANT be the foundation of our faith--how do we know about Jesus without the Bible?  What they may fail to realize is that Christianity existed for hundreds of years before there even was a Bible as we know it."
This is a topic that I have talked and written about before:

It is comforting to want to believe that the Bible has all the answers for us and is directed to each of us individually.  For example, I love when Jeremiah says "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope." (Jeremiah 29:11).  We all also want to be assured that our lives have had meaning since before we were born, as God says to Jeremiah in the very beginning: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you" (1:5).  But we never finish that verse when we apply it to each human being, because it says "I appointed you a prophet to the nations," and if we take Paul seriously, not all of us are prophets (1 Corinthians 12:29).  I want to know that God knows my future, that God has plans for me that are for my good and bring me a hopeful future.  And even if that is completely 100% true, those verses aren't directed to me as an individual living in the United States of America in 2014.  

The words of Jeremiah are "reflective of and responsive to the historical crisis of the last days of Judah, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 B.C.E. This crisis is the dominant and shaping event of the entire OT." (Brueggemann, Walter. A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile & Homecoming, page 1).

To think that they are directed to each of us individually does a disservice to God.  When we think the Bible is directed to us, we make it about us, and we take the focus off of the Father who inspired it, the Son it points to, and the Spirit who guides us through it.  

There is nothing wrong with taking comfort in various verses in the Bible.  There is nothing wrong with believing what we read there.  But when we stay at a superficial level we are in danger of having a superficial faith that cannot handle any discrepancies that are thrown our way.  And, yes, there are discrepancies.  I think our fear of being wrong about our faith, whether or not we even realize we are afraid, drives us to want the Bible to be perfect and give us all the answers.  Relying on a written text as if it is a car instruction manual is far easier than following Jesus in faith.  We look at the Pharisees in the Bible and castigate them for relying on "works" to please God, but then we turn around and rely on our belief about the Bible as what marks one with true faith and belonging.  

In Paul's letter to the Galatians, he explains to them that as Gentiles, they do not need to adopt Jewish practices in order to belong to Jesus. Their faith is enough:  "yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." (Galatians 2:16)

If we want to apply this to our lives today, as we are so fond of doing with the Bible, we might want to change it a little.  If Paul was writing on this topic today, he might say:  "yet we know that a person is justified not by what one believes about the Bible, but through faith in Jesus Christ."

Our desire to put the Bible as the focus of our lives instead of our faith in Jesus as the focus of our lives has perhaps had the unintended consequence of enslaving us instead of freeing us--and can cause us to have grave doubts, as happened to me in the past.  Paul writes further in Galatians that "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (5:1).  Then, he wrote that "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Galatians 5:6) and "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." (Galatians 5:22 - 23) and "If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit." (Galatians 5:26).

It comes down to how we read the Bible.  Do we read it as a rote instruction manual, a list what to do and what to not do so our lives are robotically perfect?  Or do we read it as the story of how God works in our world, the story of how God loves us, the story of how God redeems us and is making all things new?  If we are reading the Bible and the fruits of the Spirit are not present in our lives, then we are reading it wrong--no matter what we believe about it or how good our intentions are.