Sunday, January 30, 2011

Child's Play

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return to it without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

When Davis Burton spoke to his church a few Sundays ago, it's a safe bet that he got a better hearing than preachers usually do.

Davis spoke to his congregation about his experience of reading through the Bible in a year. His sermon took the form of a comprehensive review and summary of the story arc of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Covering Creation, the promises to Abraham, the Exodus, the rise and fall of Israel, the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the travels of Paul, and the growth of the early church, Davis spoke without notes to an audience that hung on his every word. Especially his mom and dad.

Davis is nine years old. Listen to him on YouTube.

His church, the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock, is beginning their own year-long journey through the Bible this month, and Davis serves as a bit of inspiration. It worked for me; Davis started me thinking about the last time I read the Bible straight through. I think I've done it a couple of times, but it's been a while. I know January's almost over, but no one ever said a year has to be measured from January to January. So here's what I'm going to do.

I'm starting a One-Year Bible reading plan at I'm starting on Monday. What do you think? Want to try it with me? Just go to, set up an account, and start a reading plan. The One-Year Bible plan will be one of the options you'll see. Of course, there are other ways to do it.

There's nothing wrong with just reading a book of the Bible straight through, of course, or picking and choosing a Psalm a day, or whatever. But Davis said something in his sermon that sort of struck me and made a lot of sense to me. He said:

“You wouldn't rent a movie and go to scene selection and say, 'This part looks interesting; I'll start here.' Because then you don't know who the characters are, what they're doing and where they are. So just like you have to watch the whole movie to get the whole picture, you have to read through the whole Bible to see what God's saying.”

When you think about that way, it makes a lot of sense, doesn't it. Of course we should read the Bible straight through once in a while. It gives us a sense of the big picture. It reminds us that our God never changes, that the same God who made promises to Abraham is the same God who brought his descendants out of Egypt, and who came into the world as Jesus Christ, and who will ultimately set Creation back to right. Sometimes it helps our faith to step back and be reminded again of the whole picture, the big idea of what God has always been up to in human history. Sometimes we need to be reminded that our stories are all woven into a much bigger Story, and as such are also inseparably woven together with each other and with the generations of the faithful who have come before us.

So let's try it together.

A few suggestions, if you'd like to try it but don't feel very comfortable about the whole thing. First, make sure you're using a translation that's easy for you to understand. Try the New International Version (NIV), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the English Standard Version (ESV), the New Living Translation (NLT), or even The Message (if you don't mind a pretty loose paraphrase). There are plenty of solid, contemporary English translations out there, so there's no need to wade through language that would make Shakespeare scratch his head if you don't want to. Just to make it interesting, you might even pick a different translation than you usually read.

Set aside time each day for your reading, and try to stick to it. It probably won't take you long to develop it into a habit. Make it a time that's as convenient as possible for you: if you commute into work in the morning on a train, or read during your lunch break, or whatever, integrate your Bible reading into it. Try to make it a time when you're not too tired.

If you're more comfortable with technology, there are plenty of online Bible resources. or will have a number of different English translations. You can download a Bible to your Kindle or Nook or whatever. You can even get an audio Bible for your iPod or on CDs. (Though, personally, I think you'll get more out of reading it than listening to it.) The point is, technology has only increased the options we have for reading the Bible; it's a shame we seem to let it distract us so often. Put it to use in making reading through the Bible a part of your 2011.

If you miss a day, don't worry. Read a little more the next few days to make it up. If you get way behind and really want to stay in sync with everyone else, just skip ahead. You can always go back next year and read the parts you missed. Don't feel guilty, or get discouraged; no one's going to ask you if you read the Bible all the way through when you get to heaven. Just keep plugging along.

Read as part of a group. The Bible was intended to be read in community, after all. Ask someone to serve as a discussion partner to process what you're reading. Set up a weekly discussion group to meet for coffee or something and talk over the week's readings. I'm going to blog about my reading at Join me there, and we'll share in a virtual discussion group our thoughts and impressions about what we're reading and what God's doing in our minds and hearts with it.

And that's my final suggestion. Read prayerfully and reflectively. Expect that God will do something when you read his Word, because he promises that he will. You might not know what that is, except in hindsight. But you can trust that when God speaks, new worlds are created.

I hope you'll join me as we read the Bible through together this year.

Come on: if a nine-year-old can do it, so can 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.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

In Season, Out of Season

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine...
But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:2-3, 5)

There are big changes afoot at my alma mater.

Harding University is a Christian university in a little town in Arkansas called Searcy. In an attempt to keep its Christian identity front and center, Harding keeps on the books and enforces some behavioral rules for their students that a lot of folks might consider, well, “quaint” is a nice term. And one of the rules at Harding, in particular, is one that students bump up against most every day. Every student takes at least one Bible class every semester.

You can imagine how that sits with a student who's, say, a marketing major. (That's not intended to imply anything about marketing as a profession.)

Inconvenience aside, that's probably the one rule that I'm glad Harding hasn't given up on. After all, how better to maintain an identity as a Christian center of higher learning than by ensuring that students study the Bible? It's gotten more difficult, though, as the student population has changed. Which has led to the changes at Harding. Curriculum changes.

When I was a student, and for decades before and after, incoming freshmen at Harding took New Testament Survey in the fall and Old Testament Survey in the spring. The classes were, as the names implied, intended to provide students with a survey of the entire Bible before subjecting them to more in-depth classes. Obviously, they covered a lot of ground quickly, assuming that most incoming freshmen had a basic knowledge of the Bible.

But Harding has found that incoming freshmen are now less likely to have that basic knowledge. That's probably reflective of a couple of factors: one is that incoming freshmen at Harding are less likely than ever before to come from “churched” backgrounds. That's actually a good thing. The other factor is probably less positive: people just don't know the Bible like they used to.

A recent study from another Christian educational institution, Wheaton College, showed that one-third of their incoming freshmen couldn't put the following in order: Abraham, the Old Testament prophets, the death of Christ, and Pentecost. Half could not sequence Moses in Egypt, Isaac’s birth, Saul’s death, and Judah’s exile. One-third could not identify Matthew as an apostle from a list of New Testament names. And when asked to locate the biblical book supplying a given story, one-third could not find Paul’s travels in Acts, half did not know that the Christmas story was in Matthew, and half did not know that the Passover story was in Exodus.

Other studies indicate the same trend. Yale theologian George Lindbeck says “When I first arrived at Yale, even those who came from nonreligious backgrounds knew the Bible better than most of those now who come from churchgoing families.” A poll a few years ago conducted by George Barna indicated an astounding lack of Biblical literacy even among churched Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals.

Harding's experience is that many students are reporting that Bible is their hardest class. Thus, the coming curriculum changes: the survey classes will be stretched out and slowed down to take two years instead of one.

Personally, I appreciate that move. In some ways, the easiest thing for them to do might be to stop teaching the Bible altogether, or at least to stop requiring Bible classes. That's certainly the direction some universities with Christian roots have taken. Or, they could keep doing what they've been doing, all the while bemoaning the sad state of our world that kids go off to college without basic Bible literacy. Instead, they've chosen to adjust their approach, meet students where they are, and continue to teach the Bible to them, believing that the word of God contained in the Scriptures continues to bear fruit and change lives.

Harding's changes serve as a good model for changes in the church, where a good portion of the blame for that lack of biblical literacy can rightly be placed. Ever mindful of church members' tendency to go elsewhere if another church offers better perceived value, church leaders perhaps don't emphasize the teaching of the Bible as we should. We've chosen in the past few decades to emphasize the experiential aspects of the faith, while underplaying the doctrinal aspects. Bible texts serve only as “diving boards” for sermons - a place for the preacher to jump off. We've ignored historical and literary context and appropriated suitable passages as proof-texts for what we already wanted to say. The problem is summed up by the church youth leader who responded to a survey on biblical content in his teaching by saying, “It's hard to find time, but I can say that these kids are learning to love God.”

Well, how? And which God is that?

Our larger culture will likely never go back to a time when the majority of Americans was at least passingly familiar with the Bible. But that's all the more reasons for us to recommit to the study of the Bible in our homes and churches. Somehow, the study of the Bible has become equated with an antiquated world view where tradition and superstition ruled. Historically, though, a renewal in Bible study has ushered in whole new eras where fresh air flowed freely and new light brightened the darkness. It was the rediscovery of the Scriptures that brought about Josiah's reforms (that's 2 Chronicles 34. Full disclosure: I had to look it up) and punctuated Nehemiah's reforms. It was the study of the Bible that convinced the Ethiopian official that he needed to come to Christ. (Acts 8) It was when Martin Luther began to study the Bible that he found his guilt resolved and, incidentally, touched off the Reformation. It was through the study of the Bible that John Wesley found his heart “strangely warmed,” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood the cost of grace and opposed Hitler, that Corrie ten Boom found the strength and will to suffer in Dachau. And it was the Bible's concern for justice that made Martin Luther King, Jr. sit still in a Birmingham jail and led him to march on Washington.

The study of the Bible hasn't been rendered obsolete. It can and should still be done creatively, powerfully, and provocatively. Our kids aren't so enamored with their Xboxes and iPads that they can't be touched by the words of the Bible. We adults aren't so busy and jaded that the Bible can't speak to us.

In season or out of season, whether people seem inclined to put up with it or not, may we “correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” May we proclaim the word, as preserved in Scripture. And may our study of the Bible bring fresh air and new light into our lives, homes, and churches.

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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.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)

After a long time without someone to call Dad and Mom, Allison was finally adopted in December. She smiled as she realized that she'd finally get to be with a family for Christmas.

Allison is like a lot of children who have felt the loss of parents. She's missed the security, the comfort, the sense of belonging. She's missed knowing that she has people in her corner and a place to come home to. Like a lot of orphans, Allison has suffered from depression and anxiety. Unlike a lot of orphans, though, Allison has a keen awareness of all she's missed.

Then again, she is 39 years old.

Allison is a licensed foster parent with the Department of Child and Family Services who was hired by Paul and Jill Keenon to run one of the foster homes in their agency, Open Doors for Teens. ( Without her biological parents since she was 19, Allison saw the family that Paul and Jill had built with their commitment to adopting teenagers that are too old for the foster system. They've adopted 8 children, and have 12 altogether. Over 400 teens have come through their door to be fostered through the years.

When Allison saw the Keenon family, she knew that a person never outgrows the need to belong.

The need for family.

That need to belong, that need to be part of a family, is a human impulse. It's the reason soldiers in foxholes grow as close as brothers as the bullets fly. It's the reason gangs are able to recruit young men to lives of crime, violence, and hopelessness. It's the reason cults target young people from troubled families. It's one of the reasons abused women so often stay with their abusers. We need to belong, need a place to call home, and when we don't have it we'll take whatever substitute we can find.

In the Bible, the psalmist calls God the One who “sets the lonely in families.” (Psalm 68:6) In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus to some degree repudiates his own family to identify “those who hear God's word and put it into practice” as his family. (Luke 8:19-21) And at his death, Jesus showed how seriously he took the family that God had brought together by linking his mother Mary and his disciple John in a de facto family forged in the shadow of the cross: “Here is your son...Here is your mother.”

John took it seriously, too. He took her into his home.

When Jesus was on the cross, family was on his mind. And in the shadow of that cross, family was created.

It still is. It's no wonder that, almost from its very beginning, the church called each other “brother” and “sister” and “father” and “mother.” They were taking Jesus seriously, living on the premise that in Christ God was still up to his old program of placing the lonely in families. The church grew because of the power of the Holy Spirit and the hope of the gospel, yes, but also because that power and hope brought people together. In the good news of Jesus, God announced that human distinctions and divisions were over and that there was a place, a family, where everyone belongs.

Cut to world that feels today as if there are more people than ever who are without a place to belong, where people are valued – or devalued – based on arbitrary criteria and unjust standards. Cut to a world in which the church is seen as just another place where people are told that they don't belong.

Where did we go wrong? I think, at the risk of oversimplifying, that somewhere we got the impression that the church's job was to protect the gospel instead of proclaiming it. We decided somewhere that God really needed us to evaluate whether people were in or out, and so we set about doing that instead of what we were sent to do – that is, to call people into family at the foot of the cross.

Too touchy-feely for you? I understand that, I do. If being a part of the family has to do with Jesus, then we dare not ignore that. If he is the basis of our relation, then we dare not pretend that there is a relation without him. But neither dare we deny the sort of “quirky” family members a seat at the table. Families, after all, don't ask if everyone sees everything alike. They don't ask if it's convenient to take in whoever needs a home. They just open the door and set a place at the table.

Jesus warned religious people who were in the habit of excluding that what they created was not sons and daughters of God, but sons and daughters of hell. (Matthew 23:13-15) Let's be sure we're not in the same business. Let's set out to make sure that our churches are places where anyone, whoever they are, wherever they've been, whatever they've done, can belong. Where they can come to know Jesus, and come to know family, and come to realize that when we stand at the foot of the cross there is family everywhere we look.

And may that be more than just pretty words and good theology. May we intentionally “take one another into our own homes” by finding ways to show that we consider those who believe in the Word made flesh our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters.

Because family isn't easy, and it doesn't just happen by decree. One of the Keenons' other adopted daughters, McKenzie, says of her life as part of the Keenon family, “Even if it is chaotic here, it is peace.” Family on its best days can be chaotic. Family doesn't mean we always get along without conflict, always see everything alike, and never get angry or frustrated with or hurt by one another. It just means that, despite all that, we belong. At the end of the day, we're home.

Life in God's family can be chaotic. But it's peace. When we're there, we're home. We belong.

May we show our lonely, desolate, orphaned world what family really is.

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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.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature...Rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. (Colossians 3:1-5, 8)

Change one letter in the title of the current number one movie in America, and it would be unprintable.

That's not a coincidence, of course. It originates with a joke based on one of the characters' last name that runs throughout the series. It's not even a particularly good joke; it's kind of juvenile, truthfully, the kind of thing a sixth-grade class might snicker about when the teacher calls a new kid's name on the first day of school. But the movie's producers no doubt thought it would be a hoot to see it posted in the windows of movie theaters all over the nation, which makes you wonder about the mental ages of the people running Hollywood.

It's part of a trend, though – one that I'm far from the first to notice. We've become, for lack of a better term, a society of potty-mouths. While George Carlin's “Seven Words You Can't Say on Television” are still (more or less) censored on network TV, writers are pushing the envelope. Off the top of my head, if I was so inclined, I could list several words now more or less common on broadcast TV, in prime time, that were unheard just a few years ago.

And when it's not explicit, it's subtle. Or, rather, as close as Hollywood comes to subtle. Innuendo and subtext are so common and so obvious as to lose their effectiveness. We're now treated to shows and movies called “Bleep My Dad Says” and “Kick A**” - both of which might as well go ahead and say what they're thinking, since the rest of us are thinking it anyway.

We've become such a society of potty-mouths that the English language has evolved(?) in adjustment. When Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell responded to the NFL's decision to postpone a game in Philadelphia by saying that the United States has become “a nation of wusses,” I wonder if he gave any thought at all to that term's origin and etymology. When we say (increasingly) that something “sucks,” I wonder if we're even aware of what we're saying. Text-speak has given us shortcuts like “WTF?” and “OMG,” and I can assure you that they aren't meaningless collections of initials.

I know, I know: I'm coming off as sort of cranky and prudish. The fact is, though, that hearing most of the words and phrases I've just mentioned don't offend me in any great measure. I've heard them often enough, in fact, that much of the time I barely notice. And I guess that's really my point: we've become such a society of potty-mouths that we barely notice when we hear it. And it might be a short step from there to adopting at least some of those words and phrases without much critical thought.

As an example, take the phrase, “Oh, My God!” used as an interjection. I've heard it used, even by believers, as pretty much an equivalent to “Wow!” Ask someone who's just used it, even a believer, and they'll likely not even realize what they said. And they'll say something about how they didn't mean it.

Of course, that's exactly what the third Commandment is there to prevent: using God's name as a byword, without reverence, worship, or even conscious thought.

It's exactly this kind of thoughtless mimicry of the culture that we believers need to avoid. What we say matters. “What goes into your mouth does not defile you, but what comes out of your mouth, that is what defiles you,” Jesus said. (Matthew 15:11) Solomon wrote, “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.” (Proverbs 4:24) Paul listed “filthy language” as one of those things that belongs to our fallen nature, to be put aside in favor of “set[ting] [our] hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” Believers, in other words, should set a standard of speech that is not out of place in the Kingdom of God.

In a society of potty-mouths, we should stand out.

I don't expect a society in which everyone's language fits those standards. I don't expect to avoid hearing offensive, foul, or obscene language. Actually, the issue isn't what I expect at all. It's simply that in the matter of speech – as in the rest of our lives – the church is to glorify our God and bless the people around us. And so, even if society's opinion of what is acceptable language has changed, we will still choose to speak in ways that show our reverence for God and our respect for our fellow human beings. Language that belittles, objectifies, titillates, mocks, or curses belongs to the world, not to us. Speech that betrays a flippancy or lack of reverence toward God has no place in our vocabularies.

When I meet someone for the first time, and they finally get around to asking what I do for a living, it's kind of entertaining to see them replay the conversation up to that point in their minds, wondering if they've said something they should apologize for. Of course, everything we see is heard by God, and by the people around us. Surely that's all the reason we need to be aware of what we say, and to ask ourselves if it should be coming from the mouth of someone who worships God. I'm not talking so much about what you say in the heat of the moment if you hit your thumb with a hammer as I am about the words we more habitually (and sometimes unconsciously) choose. Let's be thoughtful about what the people around us, and especially our God, hear us say.

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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.