Thursday, April 11, 2013

Would you please bring my stuff?

I've been considering for a long time how I should read my Bible. I wish I had a nice 1-2-3 formula for how to read the Bible, but I don't. The difficulty with answering the question, "How do I read the Bible?" is the question itself. It treats the Bible as one big monolithic book. It's not that at all.

In sermons about the inspiration and reliability of the Bible, I've heard it pointed out that the Bible is a collection of writings by about 40 different authors over a period of 1500 years. I've actually verified those claims and they are more or less accurate and I believe they are evidence of inspiration and reliability. So, my question is this... Why have I not remembered this diversity of authorship and history when it comes to interpretation? Why have I treated the Bible like it's monolithic? Like there is no difference in how we should interpret First Corinthians, Acts, and Leviticus?

The Pentateuch has a purpose and an author (or authors or at least editors) and a historical and cultural context and various literary styles. The same is true about Joshua. Consider how different the collection of Psalms is from the other books. Then there is Isaiah which is beautiful and unique. Ruth stands out as different and was possibly written at a different time than the setting of the story it tells. Daniel is an astounding mix of history and figures and foretelling. Each of the Gospels has an author, an intended audience, and purpose. Acts... Revelation... I shouldn't read any of those books exactly the same way. I could go on thinking about these things for the rest of the books of the Bible. What I conclude is that there is no one-size-fits-all formula to interpret all of them. Each of them is a unique book with an author and a purpose and a historical context and a literary style, etc.

Consider more recent literature originally written in my own native language by a single author and parts of this interpretive principle still hold true. I don't read all of C.S. Lewis's books the same way because I understand that they're different in style and purpose. Why, then, would I try to take a collection of writings by different authors over many centuries and force one single style of interpreting them?

It just doesn't make sense. It recently dawned on me that I was asking the wrong question. The question is not, "How do I read my Bible?" The question is "How do I read THIS writing?" Even with that, the question is still incomplete. Even though each book in the Bible is unique, I still have to also consider that it is a unique part of a whole story. Each book is part of a story that God invites us to join. There are various over-arching themes throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Those must be considered as well or I'll miss the point of what I'm reading. Reading the Bible is not a simple formulaic 1-2-3 process.

That absence of a simple formula doesn't mean the Bible is unintelligible or that its message is only available to the intelligentsia. Not at all! Its themes are quite accessible and I'm daily thankful for our unprecedented access to the inspired scripture. Jesus boiled ALL of  it down to this: Love God and love the people He made (Matt. 22:37-40). Paul, in describing the fruit of the spirit, claims there is no law against those virtues, love, joy, peace, patience, etc. (Gal. 5:22-23). Peter, discussing "Christian graces," tells us to grow in these, faith, knowledge, love, etc. and we'll never stumble (2 Pet. 1:10). It's really not difficult to get the message. God is exactly like Jesus and He loves, serves, and forgives and He invites us to join Him in this work. God sure has made Himself accessible, even in creation itself (Rom. 1:20). God's truth is not limited to the elite.

No, God's truth and love and freedom are not only for the elite. What this absence of a uniform hermeneutic formula means is that the Bible will provide you with more than a lifetime of challenge and discovery. It's simply beautiful! The best advice I know to give anyone about reading the Bible right now is this, and this is just advice, not a formula.

  1. Read it frequently and thoroughly
  2. It is about Jesus from beginning to end. Never forget that while reading any part of it. 
  3. Jesus is exactly what God is like and His nature is especially revealed on the cross. Therefore, read anything inspired by God with an extreme bias of love for the unlovable, forgiveness for the unforgivable, mercy over judgment, and with the knowledge that self-sacrificial love overcomes evil and hatred and bitterness and division and violence. 
  4. Remember that it wasn't written to you all at once by one person.

My coat and books
The realization that I was asking the wrong question dawned upon me as I was reading through 2 Timothy, sent there by a reference to Hymenaeus and Philetus. This verse, 2 Tim. 4:13 jumped out at me during the reading.
The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.
Why on earth is this included for us? How is this part of God's story? What can I learn from this? That Paul was forgetful? That it was spring when he left Troas and he didn't need his coat? Or maybe that he was generous and loaned Carpus his coat? Is this why he wanted Timothy to come before winter (verse 21)? What were the books? Were they Scripture? What did Paul read anyway? Did he have notes he had written and wanted to review them again and the Holy Spirit couldn't just make those thoughts reappear in his mind? What is this verse and why is it here? And why did I forget this verse existed? If every word of the Bible is inspired why wasn't I ever tasked to memorize this verse or the dozens of greetings and personal notes in Paul's letters?

Maybe, just maybe, that statement is there to remind us that we've been given the privilege of eavesdropping on a personal letter. Second Timothy was just that. A personal letter from Paul (I believe) to Timothy. And by skimming over this verse and others like it throughout the epistles (Tell Olympas 'nem I said hi... Rom. 16:15, etc.) for years and years, I've missed the truth that I'm not supposed to read 2 Timothy or the other epistles like a novel or a history book or legal document or, worse yet, like a blue print. I'm supposed to read 2 Timothy like it's a personal letter from an older brother to a younger brother in Christ and close friend that he loved dearly and missed greatly and had cried with many times because that's exactly what it is. It is not a church manual. It is not a creed. It is not even a preacher's manual. It is "Timothy, I love and appreciate you. Beware, some mean people are going to do some awful things to you like they have done to me. Keep your faith in the resurrection of Christ with sincere love and a pure conscience. Keep on preaching that, regardless of opposition. Brother, I can't wait to see you again." And when I keep in mind that it is that type of letter, I realize that many situations that applied to Timothy in that time do not apply to me in my time. I stop looking for specific instructions not written to me and that don't make sense to me and I instead drown my heart in the love and appreciation and principles that guided their relationship. That's what really teaches me and causes me to grow closer to God and my brethren. (Please don't misunderstand this to mean that there are no specifics that apply to us. See my last post where I point out that fasting is a specific that I have overlooked. Baptism is quite specific, etc.)

Could that be why those greetings and personal details are included? As a reminder of what we are reading? And if that's not THE reason, shouldn't their presence at least remind us of the truth that we're privileged to read a personal letter?

Rachel Held Evans has some interesting comments on this verse and several others like it. I think she is onto something. Please read that blog entry of hers.

I believe the Bible is inspired, all of it. I believe it is one way that God communicates to us. I believe it is God telling us the story of His people. I do not believe it is "just" a story, but I do believe it tells a story. I believe God invites us to join in His story and become His people. If I accept the Bible for what it is and how He gave it to us instead of trying to make it what I want it to be, it will mold me, transform me, challenge me, and point me to His Son. It will make me more like Him.

Monday, April 1, 2013

My First Lent

Until this year, Lent never had any meaning to me. The environment and culture that has shaped me has never given any importance to Lent, so neither have I. It just simply hasn't been something that has ever been on my radar. I had always assumed that Lent was just something people did because some "religious authority" told them it was time to do it. I always thought Lent was a totally man-made idea and that it was kinda silly to give up something that wasn't sinful per se just to be giving it up. I always thought it was a self-righteous look-at-me-and-how-humble-I-am kind of thing. I simply couldn't imagine how Lent could have any real spiritual value.

Boy, was I wrong. And self-righteous.

Last year, I was on business travel during the Lenten season. A man that I was working with was observing Lent. His brother is a Catholic priest and he is a devout Catholic. I had a zillion questions for him. He graciously took the time to explain Lent to me. Mind you, I have not verified any of his explanation with a google or independent research. I just took him at his word and I'm going from a year old memory. So, what I say here may be an inaccurate restatement of an inaccurate description. But I don't think it really matters.

This is the gist of what I remember from him.
  1. Lent isn't supposed to be easy. (That, in and of itself probably gives it some value. Most things worth doing are not easy, so if it's nothing more than an exercise in doing something difficult, it probably still has value.) Giving up meat except for fish doesn't mean that you get fish and chips and sushi every day. The rules are not hard, fast rules. As a result, there are no loopholes. Sure, there is the Friday fish fry, but it's not quite that specific that you must give up meat and you must eat fish. You're supposed to overcome desires. It is a spiritual exercise in self-control.
  2. The 40 days comes from the 40 days that Jesus was in the wilderness fasting. And 40 days is more or  less 40 days, not exact. Some people take Sundays off from lent. But the idea is to remind us of the fasting Jesus did for 40 days.
  3. The main point of Lent is to make you more humble. It is NOT "look at me fasting, praying, and giving." It is a deeply personal thing designed to humble you and draw you nearer to God. Humility is the key to Lent.
That totally re-framed my thinking on the subject. Instead of broadened phylacteries as I had thought, Lent is an exercise in self-control to obtain humility and closeness to God.
So, this year, I decided to give it a try. Now, some with a similar faith-heritage (American Restoration Movement) may think my trying this is odd, but please allow me to defend myself. Fasting is something that has been pretty much ignored in our heritage. I have heard rare mention in Bible classes and private studies. I have maybe heard a couple of mentions out of literally thousands of sermons over the years. That avoidance of this command seems odd for a group that claims to follow the New Testament pattern and claims to do exactly what the Bible says. Jesus said (paraphrasing Matt. 9:15; Mark 2:19; and Luke 5:34-35) that when He leaves the earth, His disciples will fast. We see the early Christians fasting in Acts (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23) and Paul encouraging it for the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7:5; 2 Cor. 6:5). If I don't fast, I have to ask myself, "Am I a disciple of Christ?" Fasting is a characteristic of Christ's post-ascension disciples clearly set forth in the New Testament. No specific time or procedure is set forth in the New Testament for fasting, so I do not criticize or condemn anyone for not observing Lent or any other specific fast. However, speaking for myself, fasting is something that I had never given any serious consideration. I believe I was missing something good for me, given from God. Lent seemed as good an opportunity as any to begin to obey God in this.

Since the rules for Lent are not specific, you can choose what you will give up, but it shouldn't be easy. So, in choosing what to give up, I was looking for something that was not easy for me and something that would have a physical and spiritual benefit. I chose three fairly common things to give up: meat (except fish), chocolate, and ice cream. Sound easy? It was and it wasn't.

First, giving up meat is something that I have been working on for over a year now. I haven't completely given it up, mainly because I live in the South and it's sometimes just plain rude to be a vegetarian. Also, I do enjoy eating meat. Those two things combine to make it difficult for me to give up meat. But I want to abstain from meat as much as possible.

I believe that the meat we consume today makes its way to our table in extremely unethical and unnatural ways. It is not good for us physically because of the antibiotics and steroids and GMO corn based diet of the animals. Also, modern factory farms are inhumane. Finally, and most important to me is the mental health of the employees in factory farms and modern slaughter houses. Those people suffer greatly and my conscience disturbs me when I eat factory farmed flesh. Sometimes, though, I'm in a situation of choosing the lesser of two evils. Eating meat that would likely be thrown away otherwise seems less evil than directly insulting someone's loving and thoughtful effort to serve me. And sometimes, I just want a steak or a cheeseburger, so I order one. I don't judge you for eating meat. (Ok, I'll end my meat rant now and leave it at saying I wish there were something more I could do to improve the process of supplying meat to American consumers.)

So, a big spiritual benefit of giving up meat is that I daily prayed for workers in factory farms and slaughterhouses. Their plight was often on my mind and I prayed for them. I prayed for wisdom and opportunity to help. I prayed that more humane ways of beef, pork, and poultry farming would emerge. While I did eat meat twice during Lent, I did become more conscious of the life and freedom that was lost for my own pleasure.

Chocolate and ice cream were exercises in self-control that I needed. As I was tempted to partake, I reminded myself that this life is not about pleasure for myself. Depriving myself of pleasure is necessary to accomplish any worthy goal. I had become a daily consumer of ice cream and/or chocolate, and I was a slave to its pleasure more than I realized. Lent helped me to break those chains. Also, I cheated, three times during the six weeks. That's not a good record. It reminded me of Jesus in His 40 days and how infinitely more difficult it was for Him to resist making stones to bread. It made me appreciate His lifetime of self-control in a way that I hadn't before.

There were a few unexpected consequences of observing Lent. One was that I felt a connection to Christians throughout the world with other cultural and traditional backgrounds. Also, I felt a connection to history and sensed the value of church traditions that is sometimes lost in modern American evangelicalism.

The biggest unexpected consequence was that I longed to celebrate Easter. That seemed to me to naturally grow from the Lenten season. I gave special attention to the stories on each day of holy week. I read and meditated upon the accounts of the last week of Jesus' life. It was a very special time of study, meditation, and prayer for me. And I was rewarded and surprised with an outstanding telling of the resurrection story and an amazing sermon on the importance of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday morning.

Now, here again, this may seem odd to those in my tribe (American Restoration Movement). We are more accustomed to viewing Easter something like this... "Easter is not mentioned in the New Testament. Remembering the resurrection should not be just an annual event. We're commanded to remember the death of our Lord every first day of the week by observing the Lord's Supper." To that I respond this way... First, it is true that remembering the resurrection should not just be done annually. The resurrection should be ever present in our minds. Second, we're not commanded to take the Lord's Supper every week. There is an example of one church intending to observe the Lord's Supper one Sunday (Acts 20:7), but they didn't actually observe it on Sunday (Acts 20:11). Also, there's nothing that makes that mandatory for all churches everywhere. And the resurrection isn't really the emphasis of the Lord's Supper anyway. Third, if every Sunday is special, then no Sunday is special. Fourth, why would we miss an opportunity to talk about the resurrection? Paul sought every opportunity to talk about the resurrection. If people are already thinking about the resurrection of Jesus on a specific Sunday, why would we NOT talk about it? When is a good time to talk about the resurrection of Jesus? ANY TIME. ALL THE TIME. Finally, Easter is not like Christmas. In America, Christmas has become so commercialized that I can't imagine it ever overcoming the consumerism, avarice, and indulgence. Also, we don't know when Jesus was born. Easter, on the other hand, is not nearly as commercialized. And though there is some dispute between Eastern and Western churches about exactly which Sunday, we have a very good idea of which Sunday Jesus arose in relation to the Jewish calendar. While I never would insist that anyone observe any holiday, I totally reject the notion that it is a sin to observe Easter as a holiday. I am 100% opposed to condemning someone for observing Easter.

So, what's the point of all of this? What is the take-away? It's not, "Observe Lent," though you can and I'd recommend it at least once. It's not "We need to fast," though we do and I need to do it more. It's not "Easter is okay," though Easter is okay and is a great opportunity to talk about resurrection. It's not "Become a vegetarian," though that is a healthier and more sustainable choice. Those are all things that I learned through observing Lent, but none of those are the main point.

Here's the main point I learned. Do not assume that someone else's chosen way to honor God is less spiritual than your chosen way to honor God. Do not assume that others' traditions and customs have no value because they are not your traditions and customs. God can use a variety of actions to draw a pure heart closer to Him. I'm glad He used Lent this year to draw me closer to Him. I pray that I learned lasting lessons about self-control, prayer, and love so that I can be more like Him.