Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reading the Bible, Missing the Word

“I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:36-40)

A few weeks ago, a fairly interesting report surfaced that the front covers of intelligence reports on the war in Iraq during the previous Presidential administration featured Bible verses. On one of the reports, for instance, was a picture of a solider kneeling in prayer in the desert, with a verse from Isaiah 6: "Whom shall I send and who will go for us? Here I am, Lord. Send me." Another cover features a soldier in uniform, along with words from Ephesians 6:13 – “Put on the full armor of God.” A third has Isaiah 26:2 – “Open the gates, that the righteous nation may enter.” The reports, intended to update the President on military operations in Iraq, were perceived by many to represent a misuse of Scripture for political purposes. Those seem to be valid concerns: Isaiah 6 is a call for the prophet to preach against his own nation. Ephesians 6 expressly identifies the struggle of believers as being against the (spiritual) rulers, authorities, and powers of “this dark world” and “not against flesh and blood.” Isaiah 26:2 refers to the day when God will intervene to destroy death and remove his peoples' disgrace by bringing them out of captivity and exile and back into their own, safe city.

Government officials, generally speaking, are better at politics than they are at theology.

Before some of you get upset with me, let me quickly say that politicians on neither side of the aisle are above misusing Scripture for political advantage when it suits them. And, while I have opinions on nationalism, war, and the Church, I'm going to save those for another time. This story, actually, makes me think of how easily and willfully human beings can twist the Bible to support our own opinions, dig our doctrinal trenches, justify our own actions, or question the motives, integrity, or faith of anyone who dares disagree with us. Most churches, whatever their denominational leaning, revere the Bible as their authoritative standard of faith and practice. The trouble, of course, is that we don't always agree on what that means.

And, sometimes, we prefer to read our preferences into the Bible, instead of letting the Bible speak to us and form us.

Surely not? Well, take a walk through history. Look at the records of some Bible-believing churches and denominations on civil rights in the sixties, for instance. When King and others were marching, some of those churches were thundering from their pulpits that Jim Crow was the law of the land and that the Bible said that the law of the land should be obeyed. Most of us today, I trust, would come to a different conclusion.

And shouldn't that lead us to think about what we might be reading into the text today? Our history should, I think, give us a sense of humility about the way we read the Bible. The text is infallible, but history teaches us that apparently our ability to understand the text is not. The text is inspired, but obviously our interpretation of it is somewhat less than.

That doesn't, of course, mean that we should throw out the Bible, or stop trying to read and understand and interpret it rightly. It does, however, mean that we'd best not place all our hopes for salvation, spiritual growth, church unity, or doctrinal correctness in our ability to parse the Greek verb eis or our understanding of predestination in Romans or Ephesians. If God's work depends on human competence in reading, understanding, and applying millennia-old texts, then I think it safe to say that we're in trouble, folks.

It's an easy mistake to make, apparently, especially for religious people. In Jesus' time there were those who were so well-versed in the intricacies of the Scriptures that, well, they couldn't see what God was doing. They missed the theological forest for the grammatical and syntactical trees. “You have never heard his voice or seen his form,” Jesus told them baldly, “For you do not believe the one he sent.” You read that, and it's just terribly sad. People up to their elbows in God's word, but who can't hear his voice or see his form. People so preoccupied with categorizing, parsing, and diagramming the written word that the Word made flesh passes right before their eyes, unrecognized, unheard, unheeded.

“You study the Scriptures diligently, because you think that in them you possess eternal life,” he told them. “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Jesus is to be our interpretive grid. He is to be the lens through which we read the Bible, and if our reading of any biblical text leads us away from what we see of Jesus' person, character, example, emphases, lifestyle, priorities, or values, then I confidently assert that we'd better go back and read it again. If ever our reading of the Bible leads our paths to diverge from Jesus' then we're reading it wrongly.

We read the Bible, then, to see Jesus. Not to prove a point. Not to win an argument. Not to pick and choose what we like and discard the rest. Not to impress your preacher or find support for a decision you've already made. Not even to find salvation. We find salvation in God's work through Jesus. We read the Bible so that our minds and hearts and spirits might be quickened by that story.

We read it to find Jesus, so that we might come to him, hear God's voice and see his form, and have life.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ever-Present Help

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever–present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging. (Psalm 46:1-3)

A new study says there's a possibility that Earth and Mars could collide.

The study, by an astronomer named Jacques Laskar at the Paris Observatory, has to do with the erratic orbit of Mercury pulling Mars too close to Earth. The results of a collision between the two planets would be catastrophic, to say the least. Before you stow away on the next shuttle mission to the International Space Station, though, you should understand that the chance of a collision is a little less than one in a hundred. And, even if it happens, it will likely not effect you or anyone close to you.

It wouldn't be for another two or three billion years. There's a good chance you won't care by then.

So, frankly, there are a lot of other catastrophic things to worry about. An asteroid hitting us. Swine flu. Nuclear capability in North Korea. Sub - .500 seasons by both the Cubs and the Sox. And worry we do: If not about disasters worthy of movies with soundtracks by Aerosmith, then more mundane, run-of-the-mill catastrophes. We worry about our financial situations. We worry about health, both our own and that of those we love. We worry about political issues, and property taxes, and whether our kids' future spouses are going to blame us for the way they turned out. We worry, in short, that the seemingly secure ground we stand on will give way beneath us, that the mountains of hope and dreams we've piled up will crumble before our eyes, and that we'll be pulled under by the trouble and pain that surges around us.

To me, one of the most contemporary parts of the Bible is the Psalms. When the psalmist, for instance, writes, “Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall,” it sounds like he's read the morning paper. The Psalms are about war and peace, political intrigue, economic collapse, and the plight of refugees. They're like CNN. Except that, for CNN, the point is the news. For the psalmists, once they've listed all the things that can't be trusted – even the continued existence of the Earth itself – they want to point to what can be trusted. “God is our refuge and strength,” they affirm. When nothing else can be trusted, he can. When everything else is lost, he's there. When all the foundations upon which we've built our security and erected our monuments are rocked, God is still our “ever-present help.” While nations rise and fall, God reigns unchallenged. “He breaks the bow and shatters the spear” – which is great comfort when you find yourself on the wrong ends of those bows and spears.

“We will not fear,” the psalmist writes. I wish I could affirm that in such uncompromising terms. I'm working on it. I see that it's the attitude of faith and trust, the attitude of someone who really believes that God's faithfulness is our fortress and refuge. Sometimes I do pretty well, even. But then something reminds me of the things I really do fear, the losses I would likely never recover from. The truth, of course, is that if my world ever gave away, if all that I've invested such hope in were to crumble into the sea – well, I'm not sure how I'd go on.

It strikes me, though, that this psalmist wasn't really writing so theologians would have something to parse and dissect and debate from classrooms or studies or even pulpits. He was writing for people who were feeling the ground crumbling, seeing the boulders rolling down the sides of the mountains, and realizing that their worlds were about to catastrophically change. That's why Psalm 46 is popular at funerals. It speaks to those who are most in need of refuge and strength at a time when they've lost the very thing they thought they couldn't live without.

You don't affirm that God is your “ever-present help in trouble” when all is well. You can't. While we're always giving lip-service to faith, it's only in fear and pain and loss that it really means much of anything. As long as you have solid footing and an idea of what to do next, you'll be content with God being close to you. It's only when you truly have something to be afraid of – something to lose – that you can credibly affirm “we will not fear.” This psalm is for when the shadow has fallen and the cataclysm is imminent and you have nowhere to run. “The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

When everyone else panics and runs for cover like frightened mice, God calls his people to “Be still. Hush.” Remember Jesus on the boat in the storm: “Peace. Be still?” “Be still, and know that I am God,” he says.

That's foundational, you see? When everything else changes, if even the Earth itself were pulverized in a cosmic collision, God is still God. He is to be exalted and worshipped. He's with us, he's our fortress. He's our refuge, our strength, and is always there to help us in our trouble. “I am God:” That's to be treasured in our minds and hearts for the times when nothing else we know will suffice.

None of that is to minimize the pain that human beings often have to endure. Far from it. The point, though, is that however earth-shaking our struggles, our God is greater still. If the Earth itself were to give way, we would still have nothing to fear. I've no wish to glibly dismiss anything you're going through. I just want to remind you that your faith is just for moments like these, and that whatever else you may have lost, “God is [your] refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”

Be still, and know that he is God.

Even in three billion years, that won't have changed.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

"...(Squirrels) Break in and Steal"

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

We had a series of robberies at our house recently.

No, don't worry. We're fortunate, really. The thieves didn't hurt anyone. They didn't do any property damage, didn't break any windows or locks or anything. As a matter of fact, we were able to recover at least some of what was stolen. And really, what the thieves took didn't even have very much value.

Well, except to one of us.

I was first alerted to the presence of the thieves by the barking of my dog. He was standing at the fence in our yard, clearly upset about something. I went to check on him, and that's when I first saw the thief. Up in a tree. Mocking us.

At least, I think he was mocking us. I'm not sure, because I don't speak squirrel. He was chattering at us, though. And holding what he'd taken from the yard. One of Isaiah's bones – a soup bone he'd been chewing on. Suddenly, I understood why for several weeks I've been finding bones and rawhide chew toys all over the yard.

Isaiah was looking from me to the squirrel and back again, as if to say, “Are you seeing this? Do something!” Since I don't climb trees well enough to chase down a squirrel, I wasn't sure what to do. Fortunately, the squirrel did us the favor of dropping the bone for us. Or maybe he threw it at us, I don't know. In any case, it landed in the street, where it cracked open and allowed Isaiah to get to some marrow he would've missed otherwise. So all was well.

I just know, though, that the buck-toothed little thug will be back to pull off another job.

It's no fun to live knowing that one day someone or something is going to come along and take away what you have. I think it's realistic, though. All that stuff Jesus says about moths and rust and thieves breaking in – that's intended to do us a favor. It gives us perspective, keeps us from “storing up” treasures that can be taken away by decay or recession or disease or age, or, well, kleptomaniac rodents.

By the way, don't get hung up on that phrase “store up.” That's not necessarily to be read as a rule against having any money in your bank accounts or any food in the cupboard. He's not as concerned about the “storing up” as he is about the “treasures on earth.” “Storing up,” hoarding, that's just what you do with the things that really matter to you, and sometimes it's easiest to see what those things are when you take an honest look at what it is that you're stockpiling.

That's just one way to see what your treasures are, though. Another way is to ask yourself what you find yourself worrying about most. What's on your mind when you can't sleep? What do you talk about most with the people you really trust?

Or what do you spend your time doing, or pursuing? What motivates you, captures your attention, and takes the lion's share of your time, effort, and physical and emotional energy? What are the “urgent” things that you often find crowding out the “important” in your life? You may just find that those are really the things that are most important to you.

Often, Jesus says, we spend our time and energy chasing, storing, or worrying about earthly treasures. In calling them “earthly,” Jesus doesn't mean that they're necessarily bad or evil – just that they're transient. Temporary. They're enmeshed in the fallen, decaying, deteriorating realm of sin and death, and because they are they can't support the faith human beings often put in them. They aren't permanent, and one day something or someone will come along and take them away.

We tell ourselves that's not true. Human beings, after all, have come a long way since Jesus' day. We have mothballs, WD-40, and security systems, after all; moth and rust don't worry us at all, and our insurance company will replace what thieves might steal. But ask the widow at the funeral home, or the former business owner staring at the boarded-up windows of what used to be his shop, or the once-healthy young man wasting away in a hospital. Ask them about permanence.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Thats just the way we're made, and that's why we have to be careful about what we value. If our greatest treasures are the things that are passing away, then we'll always be of this passing-away world, always chasing after shadows and filling our growling bellies with sawdust. But if we treasure the things of heaven, the things that God treasures, then what we store up will be the things that last, and the things that matter.

So we live in faith. We give of ourselves in service to others. We seek after personal holiness, and we show grace to the people around us, and we push our culture in the directions of justice and peace. We forgive those who harm us, and we love our neighbor as ourselves, and we love God with everything we have and are. And we trust in his faithfulness, and believe that he will give us whatever of those earthly treasures that we need.

Isaiah's already forgotten about the squirrel, probably. And even if the next time he doesn't get his bone back, he won't dwell on it, if for no other reason than that I'll feel sorry for him and give him another one. An even better one, still full of marrow. He trusts me, you see. And that's a pretty good way to live when you can't be sure that your stuff won't be taken from you. You trust the one who always has stuff to give. And you trust that what he gives is better than any of the hard, dry treasures that you've lost.

Believe in your God. Believe that in Jesus he's thrown open his treasure house to you. And make sure your heart is set on the better, enduring treasures he's ready to give you.


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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 1, 2009


Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered....
Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:5-6, 12)

Jermaine Cooper was thinking outside the bun. That's the only way to explain his actions during a chase with Fort Wayne, Indiana, police earlier this month.

The chase started when police came to arrest Jermaine on four counts of dealing cocaine. Apparently feeling that the evidence against him was pretty strong, Jermaine attempted to flee. He hopped in his car and led police on a high-speed chase that ended, to say the least, in an unexpected way.

Jermaine suddenly pulled into a Taco Bell, where the police arrested him.

Trying to explain his actions as the cops snapped the cuffs on, Jermaine said he “knew he was going to jail for a while” and just wanted one last burrito. Sadly, the police didn't feel a lot of sympathy for him; they put him in the car without his burrito.

If he was lucky, though, maybe it was Mexican food night at the county lock-up.

You might rightly wonder about some of Jermaine's choices in this whole series of events. Clearly, he didn't make the best of decisions. And you might wonder about a person who's only thinking of burritos with jail looming ahead of him. But you have to say this about Jermaine: he understood his situation. He knew that his days as a free man were rapidly coming to a close, and he knew he didn't have much time to do the things that he'd left undone. Understanding his situation brought clarity to his last few moments of freedom.

Would that we all had such clarity.

It's part of being human, I suppose, that we tend to assume that we'll always have time to do the things that really matter. That's necessary, to an extent: who wants a countdown clock in his brain, relentlessly ticking off the days, minutes, and seconds left to him? It would be pretty hard to live that way, I think, always knowing exactly how close you were to the end of your life.

The problem, though, is that when human beings assume we'll always have the time to do the things that really matter we almost always put those things off until “after.” After we get through this really busy time, or after the school year ends, or after this next project gets finished. We promise to spend time with our kids after we get that promotion at work and don't have to travel as much. We resolve we'll volunteer at that food pantry or nursing home after retirement. We assure ourselves that we'll be more available to our church families next year, or that we'll be more generous toward the poor once a little more of the mortgage is paid off.

But, of course, “after” doesn't always come, does it? Something else will always come along to gobble up that time or energy or money you were just sure you would have “after”, whether it's another demand at work or another expense or even an illness. “After” doesn't come, and those things that really matter, those things that you always thought you'd have time to do, wind up undone.

“You sweep people away in the sleep of death,” says the psalmist, and we want to stop listening. All that talk of being swept away? “The sleep of death?” That's just downright depressing. And if we do struggle through it, we're not exactly rewarded for our persistence, are we? He goes on to say that people are like new grass – vibrant and healthy in the morning, and dry and withered in the space of a day. Wow, psalmist. Thanks for that.

Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses, and if he really was the composer then it makes things that much more interesting. Moses, you remember, spent the first third of his life enjoying Egypt like only the powerful can enjoy something. He spent the next third of his life as a shepherd in he desert before God finally called him to lead Israel to the Promised Land. He was eighty by then. He'd had some time to reflect on the things that really matter, and why we put them off. As he reflected on life's brevity, and the trouble that is often a part of it, he prayed, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

It's not so much the actual number of the days, of course, as it is the fact that our days are numbered. Wisdom is, in part, knowing what matters: on what to spend the bulk of our time, energy, and resources. And there's nothing like knowing that we only have so much time to make us park our high-speed lifestyles in favor of the things that really matter to our God, and will ultimately really matter to us.

You know what those things are, right? You don't need me to point out that what's important to God are things like the people whom we are to love and from whom we are to receive love. If we spend the time we have on people – loving them, caring for them, forgiving them, laughing with them, and crying with them – we can hardly go wrong. If we spend the time we have on noticing those who are overlooked and remembering those who are forgotten, then, well, it will be time well spent.

Of course, it's difficult to give that love if we aren't in touch with our God, who is love and who gives love generously and faithfully. So as we love our neighbor as ourselves, we can't forget to love our God with everything we are and all we have. We'll have to seek him, and sometimes we'll have trouble finding him. (Not because he's hiding, but because our vision isn't always clear.) We won't get too far off-track, though, if we spend our time worshipping and thanking him, crying out to him when we're in pain or in need, and trying to do everything we do for his glory.

I don't mean to make it sound too simple. I know it's never easy or simple to set priorities, and I know that sometimes we have to be flexible with our to-do lists. But what I'm talking about here has less to do with to-do lists than with what really matters to us. It's the answer to one question: if you had twenty-four hours of this life left, how would you spend that time? If you can live the rest of your life – however long the Lord gives you – with that kind of clarity, you will almost certainly have spent your life well.

Here's a hint, though: it's almost a sure bet that it has nothing to do with burritos.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.