ADVICE ON READING THE BIBLE

Reading the Bible is fun!  Anyone who doesn’t get that has never really read it, or read it correctly.  Bible abuse and neglect is a sad state of affairs which afflicts far too many people.

I write all in my Bible
I write all in my Bible

Here are six concepts that will help increase your pleasure and joy in reading the Bible.

1.  It’s a story, so treat it like one.  Yes, it is a sacred story filled with truth, but it is still a story.  Each Bible author is inviting you into the world of the story.  The writer of Genesis wants you to marvel at God’s power and creativity, the writer of Judges wants you to weep at the heartache of Israel’s idiocracy while the writer of Mark wants to terrify you with the power of God in Jesus Christ.

2.  Identify with one of the characters in the story.  I am working through Philippians right now in a very rigorous way, and as I read it I always think about how I would understand these words if I were a leader in the church at Philippi hearing these things from Paul for the first time.  If I am reading David and Goliath, I work at trying to identify with David–his fear, his courage, his relationship with his brothers and so forth.  Then I try to think of myself as Goliath–his privileges, his burden, arrogance and then demise.  This helps me identify both aspects in my life because in some situations I’m David, but in other situations I’m the Goliath.

3.  The Bible is actually a library, and each book, and indeed sections within some books, are different genres.  Some of the different genres are narrative, law, gospel, apocalypse, prophecy, and history.  One does not read 1 Samuel the same way one reads Ezekiel.  You may need a helper book or do some research to help identify these different genres.

4.  Pick a translation that speaks to you!  If you’ve never read the Bible before, I suggest using the New Living Translation (NLT).  The NLT uses clear English without trying to be too slangy.  For study I like the ESV and NRSV.  In fact, the older I get the more I like the NRSV.  The NIV is good, but I find it to be a tad bit dated.  Click here for a complete Greenbean breakdown of Bible translations.  The most important thing is making certain you find one you can understand.

5.  Read the Bible in two ways.  In one way you should read the Bible simply as an act of devotion.  Then, at other times, we read the Bible for study and knowledge.  The way we read the Bible in these two settings is entirely different.  Psalm 23 devotionally read speaks to me about peace and comfort.  Psalm 23 read critically in study teaches me about the shepherds rod and staff (2 different tools) and then leads me to think of God as my pastor and how the pastoral role starts with protection and guidance which then leads to security and safety.  Both ways of reading the Bible are important, and I need to practice both.

6.  Sometimes you should read the Bible alone, and sometimes you should read it with others.  By others I mean study groups and in worship services, but I also mean your family.  Families should read the Bible together because it draws us into the bonds of togetherness.

Bonus: A note on memorizing Bible verses

I would argue that one does not need to memorize a lot.  Familiarity with the Bible–themes and general content of books and sections–is more important than trying to memorize a great deal.  However, everyone could memorize, say, 5-10 verses or sections that speak to your life or that are meaningful.  If you’ve never memorized any of these and think it is impossible, relax.  You know the words to your favorite song, so you can learn a few verses.  The ones I suggest are Proverbs 3:5-6, Romans 12:1-2, Micah 6:8, Matthew 28:18-20, 2 Corinthians 13:14, John 14:6, and probably Hebrews 4:12 for good measure.  If you take one verse and review every day for a couple of minutes, you will learn it within a month.

Double Bonus:  Don’t ruin the Bible’s intent

Okay, one more bit of pastoral counsel on this one.  The Bible was written by adults, to adults, about things that for the most part are very adult such as sin, sex, murder and war. (side note–most Christian publishes would not publish the content of the Bible today because it would offend their target demographic)  Many many many well meaning Christ-followers have the ‘sweet little Jesus’ instinct, though, that wants to turn everything into something suitable for children and clean it all up.  Resist that urge.  David was an adulterous womanizer, Paul was a murderer who never got over his guilt, and Jesus seemed to always be spoiling for a fight with the religious establishment.  Resist the urge to sanitize the Bible.

ADVICE ON THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

So I pick up with my “advice” themed blog posts.  I’ve got about four or five more in mind before I move on completely.

What exactly do we call what I am about to give advice on?  Years ago people in my faith tradition would have called it ‘holiness,’ but that whole concept I think was misguided.  Only the Lord is holy, and our holiness flows from him as an act of grace, therefore holiness is not something I can generate or nurture.  It can only be received.  The trendy phrase today is ‘spiritual formations.’  I like that phrase quite a bit but most people sitting in pews don’t understand what it means–it almost sounds like science fiction or maybe Scientology.celtic-cross-high-pictures-1la

So, I’ve decided to call it the spiritual life–the things I think each of us can do to make certain we are growing spiritually and balancing out the growing impact of materialism and power games that have taken over a great deal of what we call ‘church.’  Before you go any further, know that these are Christian spiritual concepts and the beginning and end of all genuine spirituality is Jesus Christ.

1.  Pick a community of faith and stick with it.  The greatest detriment to many people’s spiritual health is that they church hop.  We were made to live in community and we must have that in order to be healthy.  It takes time to do it right and doesn’t always come quickly.  As I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed how hard it is for us to simply ‘spend time’ together as human beings.  We are losing a lot of our social interaction skills, and this is hurting us spiritually.

2.  Submit to spiritual authority.  I am a Baptist and Baptists generally come out of the womb rejecting authority and fighting against leadership.  That is why we have earned such a reputation for ‘church splits.’  This is sinful.  Submission is the expected norm in the spiritual life and those who refuse to do so are stunting their eternal perspective.  There is one caveat to this and that is when the spiritual leader is doing something evil or heretical.  Changing what time the small group starts or the type of music in a worship service is neither evil or heretical.

3.  Make prayer a personal endeavor.  Everyone can pray, and no one doesn’t know how.  Simply set aside time to speak with the Lord.  You were made for this, and Jesus died on the cross for you to experience deeper intimacy with him.  Although there is no bad way to pray, three things will help you as you do pray.

A)  Set aside a specific time when you are alone.
B)  Use both free prayers (what’s on your heart) and written prayers (the Lord’s prayer, for example).
C)  Spend time listening.  Shut your mouth and just listen.  This will take time to develop because most of us have been trained through our church experiences to babble on mindlessly during our prayers.

4.  Read the Bible at least once a day, preferably twice or more, in a translation you comprehend.  One verse doesn’t count.  Read entire chapters or sections (you know, from heading to heading) so that you can get a feel for the context.  When you finish reading it, make certain you understand what you read.  If you don’t read it again.  If that doesn’t help, maybe consult a commentary or talk to a friend or pastor.

5.  Fast.

6.  You need two relationships to spiritually grow.  One relationship is with a mentor–someone who is guiding you into maturity.  The second one is someone you are being a mentor to.  Without both of these, you are spiritually lacking.  These relationships may not happen at the same time, but there will likely be some temporal overlapping.

7.  Accountability is vital to spiritual health.  This is especially true of leadership, but it is generally true for all of us.  There must be someone whom we speak to about the darkness in our heart, the struggles in our soul, and the pain of our longings.  We need these people to speak discipline and forgiveness into our lives.

8.  Learn to ask yourself one question:  What is God teaching me in this situation?  The more often you learn to ask this question and then seek to find an answer the deeper and more meaningful your spiritual life will become.

9.  Confess.  We need the daily ritual of bringing our sins before the Lord in an act of confession.  If you can’t remember your sins, ask him to show you and he will.  As these evil thoughts, mean words, hateful actions and so forth come to your mind and heart, confess them as wrong and ask the Lord’s forgiveness.  Know that he does forgive; and receive the strength that comes from purity.

10.  Take corporate worship seriously.  Embrace the elements of communion, the beauty of baptism, the weight of the spoken and read word as well as the necessity for giving.  Anyone who tries to be a spiritual person without worshiping with other people regularly (weekly) is an arrogant fool engaged in folly.

What I have tried to give you here are some basic pointers.  This is by no means exhaustive.  I will leave you with one final bit, though.  Stay away from mystics.  Mystics may mean well, but usually they only practice an odd form of works righteousness that breeds smugness.  Do not confuse the spiritual life with mysticism.

photo:  www.gaelicmatters.com

GREENBEAN CHALLENGE

Since most people were AWOL on New Year’s Day worship services, I saved my New Year’s challenge sermon for yesterday.  Honestly, it was less a sermon and more a dare.  What I did was to adapt some material I learned in one of my pastor clusters from back in December and used it to help my church grow spiritually.  The material is not unique to me–I am not this smart.  However, I do think it is true and that these are great challenges to growing spiritually in our walk with Jesus.

Challenge 1:  Become a Self Feeder

Too many Christ-followers exist on sermons and small groups as their only spiritual diet.  That is like eating out at a restaurant for every meal.  It makes a person fat and lazy.  By contrast, a person who knows how to cook will never go hungry.  Becoming a self feeder means reading the Bible systematically and praying intentionally.  Stop waiting for the pastor to tie a bib around your metaphorical neck and cram smashed gospel or strained Moses into your mouth as he or she says, “Here comes the choo choo.”

Challenge 2:  Share Your Faith

For us this does not mean aggressive door-to-door campaigns.  We are much more relaxed than that.  But it does mean that we nurture spiritual conversations with people as we “invest and invite.”  All of us know people who we’d love to come to church with us but we just don’t get around to inviting them.  Why?  The only reasonable answer is complacency.

Challenge 3:  Join a Small Group

God calls us to live in community with other people, not as isolated monks.  Even in a church as small as ours it is impossible to connect with people in meaningful relationships by attending worship only.  For people already in small groups, I challenged them to kick up their level of commitment to it by being more involved in the work it takes to make a small group happen.

Challenge 4:  Find a Place to Serve

I’m always talking about service in some way or another.  The spin I put on this challenge is to emphasize that the burden to serve is on the individual and not the church.  People who claim to follow Christ ought to have enough impetus and desire to search, seek, and then initiate the opportunity for service.  The excuse, “No one ever asked me to help,” will simply not cut it with Jesus when you get to heaven and he asks why you never did anything meaningful for others while on earth.

Challenge 5:  Give FinanciallyIt is impossible to be a fully developed follower of Christ and not be a fully developed giver.

CHANGING DEVOTIONS

One of the realities of living is that we age.  I am noticing as I get older that I am changing:  My likes, dislikes, and needs.  Sometimes this is unsettling and results in denial.  One major change is that when I am in my car, I tend to listen to the “oldies” station more than the “top 40” station.  Even my tastes in cereal is different.  I would rather have the corn flakes and Grapenuts than Cap’n Crunch.  Really.  For a while I was in denial about these sorts of changes but have decided to embrace them as the “new old me.”

Where this makes a difference in our spiritual lives is the notion that spiritually we have different needs in our devotional life at different times in our lives.

            Youth—Youth should work at memorization while their mind is still young.  The Scriptures learned in adolescence will stay with a man or woman throughout his or her life.  This will provide a powerful base of strength in later years.  Major Bible reading in the youth years should be the Gospels. 

            Young/Single—The young single woman or man might be starting a career or college.  Either way, learning will be a part of their adjustment to the great big world.  To accompany this, I recommend the young and single spend their devotions in systematic reading of the Bible straight through. 

            Young/Married No Kids—Couples should definitely study and pray together.  I recommend that married people study the letters of Paul and spend time deciding what kind of Christian couple they will be.  3 days a week study and pray together, 3 days a week study alone.  On Sunday worship!

            Young/Married w/Kids—These are the toughest years to carve out devotions.  The temptation is to forget the kids and study when they are asleep.  You can do that a little, but do not neglect the children, even preschoolers.  Do not make it complicated, though.  No extra books are needed.  Just tell Jesus stories, read a verse or two, and make your prayers together before bedtime.  Start teaching them the Lord’s Prayer and 23rd Psalm.

            Mid-life—This is a wide ranging time span ranging form older teens to empty nest.  This is when folks should start focusing in upon theology.  Use your devotional time to learn and study deeper issues:  The Trinity, salvation, atonement, history etc…  These studies will help you, because at this point in your life you are likely one of the respected leaders of your community of faith.

            Senior Adult—If you’ve been with Jesus for a while, by now the temptation is to stop reading and studying and just wait for heaven.  Don’t!  Now is the time when your devotions can take an unexpected turn.  Supplement your Bible reading with books about the church.  The church will be part of your spiritual legacy.  By reading and studying in your older years about the church you will know how to help the next generation build a strong community.  The happiest senior adults I know are those who continue to learn and inspire.

This is only a guide to how it might look.  I suspect a lot of believers already have a good pattern, if that is working for you, then keep at it.  I would love to hear back from you on what some of your devotional practices are and how they might have changed through the years.