Category Archives: scripture

smaller and less

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Recently there has been talk about making Christmas bigger and better than ever. And something about this just hasn’t set right with me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas and big family gatherings and all the festivities around the church. But bigger and better than ever? I’m not quite sure those are the values that should qualify Christmas. It almost seems like more and more this is how society is trying to shape what began as something very different. You need to buy this better gift or your friend, spouse, kid, coworker, etc. won’t have a Merry Christmas. You need to make sure your debt ratio is getting bigger and bigger or Christmas won’t be complete. We have to make sure we capitolize on this season in our churches with as many activities to draw people in because this may be the only time of year we get to see them (well at least until Easter). We need to make sure everyone around us knows how big and important this holiday is because otherwise they’ll never understand the true meaning of Christmas.

To me it just all feels a bit off. The idea of shopping and planning and stressing and exhausting schedules seems so far removed from Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. One of my favorite versions of the Christmas story in scripture was actually written by Paul to the church in Philippi. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human.” – Philippians 2:6-7 The Christmas story is best categorized by words like emptied, slave, less, weak, humility, frail, fragile, etc. Not words like bigger and better. When God stepped into our world He became less. God became small. In fact, if you weren’t a shepherd or a magi (I’m not sure if I ever got to be one in one of the kid’s Christmas pageants) you probably didn’t even know about the first Christmas.

You may ask yourself though, why am I taking such issue with this? Because Christmas should represent our values as Christ followers and not as economists. Perhaps we should seek to embody the shepherds and seek out those who appear to be weak, vulnerable, less, frail and fragile this season. And when we find them it might be an opportunity for us to practice a Christmas value as we seek to enter into their situation with them. Perhaps Christmas is more about becoming like the broken, outcast, unloved, untouched, smaller and weaker because that is what God did for us at Christmas. So maybe for a moment this holiday season we all might find a way to try something different. It doesn’t have to be a huge gesture or anything massive, but maybe the smallest thing might become the most Christ-like as we seek to emulate the God who emptied Himself and became smaller and less for our sake.

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lenses

While eating lunch with some colleagues the other day I noticed that one of them was trying on the other’s glasses. His prescription was running out and so he was looking at a more “hip” frame for his new eyeglass prescription. Eyesight is one of those weird things that way. Not having ever needed glasses I find it hard to empathize, but from my understanding, once you receive eye glasses your prescription may always be changing (unless of course you take the laser surgery route). And so from time to time one must visit an optometrist in order to see if they need to update their prescription.

This got me reflecting on a conversation I had with a student recently who was troubled by the fact that there are so many different denominations and so many differing ideas about God in the church today. So I asked the student, “Do you think you read the Bible the same way as an African-American woman in Detroit?” (The assumption here is that my original audience was more WASP-y). “What about a middle-aged man in Key West?” The response of course was no. Then I asked the question, “Do you even think you read the Bible the same way you did five years ago?” The answer again, no.

An often quoted verse regarding scripture is Hebrew 4:12, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” God’s word is ‘living’. God’s word is ‘active’. And yet, sometimes we find people who are content to read the Bible the same way they did 10, 20, or even 50 years ago. Now I know the argument; God never changes and so His word never changes. And I am not saying that the words of the Bible magically shift and reconstruct themselves. But as time goes by, we learn more about the world of the Bible and the culture behind the voices we read. In his book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, William Stringfellow writes, “They devalue the humanity of the reader or listener by assigning the person a narrow and passive role depleted of the dignity of participation in encounter with the biblical Word which the vitality of that Word itself at once invites and teaches.” The assumption is that taking the words of the Bible at face value without allowing interplay and interaction between our present culture and the ancient culture robs both the reader and the Biblical writer. 

Let’s take a more practical approach. Over the years I have collected a few notes and cards from my wife…love letters of sorts. I read them very differently today than I did when I received them. And mainly because our relationship has grown over the twelve years we have been a couple. Don’t you think that as time goes by we would read the Word a bit differently as well? And maybe if we don’t, do you think it might be time to change our lenses?

May we continue to grow in grace as we encounter the living God in his living Word.


hard things

One of my favorite shows on TV right now has to be Parks and Recreation. Not necessarily because of the content, but because of the exaggerated characters it brings together. Andy Dwyer is probably the best representation of the exaggeration. He is basically a seven-year old in an adult body. In an episode featuring Andy helping the Parks and Rec department out with an Opossum problem the following exchange takes place:                                                                                                                                  Andy: When you’re in a situation, you don’t have time to think. So I thought to myself, “Don’t think, Andy. Act.”
Tom: So you weren’t thinking.
Andy: Not at all. I cannot emphasize enough how little I was thinking.                                                                                                                                                                  It’s quotes like this that typify his character and just make him a joy to watch. It really is like watching a kid in adult shoes who refuses to engage society with any sense of discernment or intelligibility. The scary revelation that I come to through the character of Andy Dwyer is that all to often this can even describe those of us who claim to belong to the Way.

I guess what I am trying to say is this. There are a lot of things about our faith and doctrine that are hard to understand, much less communicate to others. But does that mean we should give up and just talk without giving thought to them? Does this mean that we don’t wrestle with concepts like The Trinity, The fully divine/mortal revelation of Christ, the Atonement, free will, etc.? By no means. In fact, if we don’t wrestle with these things then how do we expect to be able to bring others into a full understanding of who Christ is and the forgiveness offered through the cross. And all the more, if this wrestling with doctrinal issues does not guide our speech/breaking of the Word before others, then are we being faithful to the Church?

1 Timothy 4:14-16 reads, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” By watching our doctrine we save our hearers? If this is something we truly believe then we are accountable for the words we speak especially in regards to issues that communicate beliefs essential to who we are as Christ followers. This is especially true for those who stand in the pulpit (present company included) and for those who have been ordained in whatever tradition they belong to (present company also included :)).

And so what do I propose? Study to show yourself approved. We have been given two millennium of heritage and tradition handed down to us by some of the greatest minds ever who coincidentally enough belonged to the Church. Names like Clement, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Zwingli, Luther, Arminius and Wesley. These are all names we should at least be somewhat familiar with. Here are men who made it their lives’ work to wrestle with issues essential to our identity and can even help us struggle with them today.

So I guess it comes down to whether or not we choose to think about such things or not. But one way or another, eventually we will all be accountable for these hard things and how we treated them.


oh drama

First of all let me begin with a confession. I love naps. I do. And I am pretty sure I am not the only adult out there who enjoys sneaking in an hour or two on a weekend day just for an extra boost. And today was one of those days. Now the reason I mention today’s nap in particular is because of what preceded the nap as far as my to do list and what occurred during it (Don’t worry, you can keep reading. It wasn’t anything too weird).

I knew prior to the nap today that I was procrastinating (not like me at all). I still had some work to do on some sermon prep and a nap seemed the best way to accomplish the work at hand. But to tell you the truth the sermon was kind of stressing me out. I was planing on doing a topical sermon based out of a specific text which is really not like me at all..but all the same it was the plan. However, and here is where the fun part comes in, during my nap I had a dream regarding my sermon prep (extra strange because I can rarely remember my dreams). I was reminded in said dream that I am not a topical preacher, but rather a story teller who loves to reveal and retell the story told in scripture so why was I wasting my time trying to craft a sermon outside of who I am?

I was reminded that the power of scripture is not in my ability to pull out subject directed challenges or moral lessons, but rather the power of scripture is Scripture. Scripture is the drama of God’s redemptive plan unfolding in the pages of the all-time greatest adventure story ever told. Why would I try to distill it down to a simple topical study when it has so much power within the stories of God’s action contained within? I love how Charles Spurgeon once put it, “The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.” There is not much I have to do with the Biblical story other than let it loose. Hebrews 4:12 puts it another way, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The story of God is powerful enough in and of itself. To be it’s servant means not that I try to put it into my box and bend it to my will, but rather to serve the story of scripture faithfully in letting it go.

The best part about all of this? The drama of Scripture is the revelation of God. If scripture is rightly revealed and the story is let loose, God breaks in. So maybe that is the point of all of this. We don’t try to put God in a box through topical distillations of his character and action. In the same vein I think we also have to be careful with His word…after all, it is a sword.


a little nudge

I am not sure if people are ever curious about the preparation that someone like me puts in for a sermon/talk or not, but I thought it might be fun to flush it out here. I imagine the process is different for everyone. But for me, it always seems to vary between a few options. Sometimes it is as easy as pulling out a text that is familiar and that I have preached on before.  Sometimes I even have the old notes to accompany it. For a while it was even fun to follow the lectionary* and feel like a part of something greater (This also helped because the text was supplied for you in a fun multiple choice array). I have never been a big fan of the dart board method…opening the Bible pointing then preaching just doesn’t seem that genuine. I am pretty sure I have never employed this method. For me, the most meaningful times of opening the text for others have always been when God is working with me on the same text.

It’s kind of fun how these portions of scripture come to you. It’s almost like a conversation with the Divine and the humane. As life is lived both with God and man it is almost as if God speaks through your encounters with him and with other people. I have heard people refer to God’s speaking into these situations as “a little whisper” or “a little nudge”. These Divine promptings always seem to come at around the same time as well. I think about it this way; when you are walking arm-in-arm with someone it is very easy for them to gently nudge you or even whisper something to you. I am pretty sure that neither of these things are accomplished at great distances. It’s almost as if the text from John 15:4 comes to life here, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.(I actually like the wording in the King James better, “Abide in me”)” You can’t be in step with what God is saying to you and speaking into your life unless you are closely in step with God. I know that seems redundant, but it is so true. The more harmony in my life between God, others and myself the more I hear His whisper speaking into the everyday…the more I feel His nudge guiding me into His word for me and for others.

It really is that easy and yet sometimes that hard. Sometimes it is easier to be present for myself alone. But the life that is lived when I am completely present for God and for others is truly life in the fullest. So I seek to be fully present in the moments I am given. I am attentive to God’s word and I lean in closely for that little nudge. Then all of a sudden the text that I seek to prepare for others has already been prepared for me. And giving my words over to God becomes that much easier. After all, they were already His…

* The lectionary can be simply defined as a list or book of portions of the Bible appointed to be read at a church service. It is usually used among higher liturgy churches such as the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches. For more information please visit: http://www.lectionarypage.net/


context

Last night during some conversation around the dinner table, I was told that I was getting on another soap box. I believe I actually have a pantry full of them. But this particular one revolved around the misuse of scripture. I like to think about it this way. Politicians, professional speakers, writers, journalists…all of these people hate to be taken out of context regarding something they said or wrote. It can completely skew someone’s ideological stances or convictions. You can even make someone out to be a liar or a hypocrite if you simply take pieces of what they said and interpret them however you want to. Documentary film makers have amassed wealth over this very thing. Not only that, but you can be sued for slander or libel if you  misquote someone and it is considered damaging to their character or credibility. And yet we do this all the time to someone that most of us consider to be rather important…God.

We take his words out of context all the time and use them however we see fit. There are entire doctrines that are sometimes composed on singular verses out of scripture that just don’t make sense. And why don’t they make sense? Because they are not measured against the whole. We like to call this canonical context. In other words, the way in which we interpret particular passages of scripture must make sense with the entire story the canon of scripture is telling. If it doesn’t make sense in view of the canon, we go back, look more closely and align/rethink the interpretation within the guise of the whole of scripture. Now this also places a greater burden on the interpretation of scripture in general. One must be familiar with the entire canonical story of God in order to put passages into context. And this is an ongoing assignment. The Bible is the progressive revelation of a God who creates, redeems his creation through the person of Jesus Christ and sustains them the work of His Spirit. And this story is constantly unfolding through scripture and interpretation. That is why, as disciples of Christ, we continue to study the story and commit it to heart and life. Only then will we be able to place verses and passages in context of the whole.

So the next time you begin to pick up scripture and wield it as a weapon for defending a practice or offending an enemy take the following to heart:  “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” – Hebrews 4:12-13. And let us be conscientious of how we use the words of God…after all it is His story and ultimately His words.


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