I have been writing posts about the spiritual disciplines in a fairly undisciplined way over the past couple of months. The irony is not lost on me, believe me.
One of my deep convictions that I know we as God's people need to grasp hold of is that God still speaks and He is still at work. Often in our traditions we minimize one or both of these elementary truths and the symptoms of such views are legion. They also undermine true and vibrant discipleship to Jesus. In a future post I am going to talk about the disciplines of study and theology (which are not just for pastors by the way, and much harm has come from thinking they are) as necessary to continue to hear God's voice today. In this post, however, I want to offer a brief reflection on the purpose of prayer as it relates to both of those truths based in part on a recent experience I had.
First of all, prayer is deeply related to the truth that God is at work in the world. For the past year or more I have been engaged in the broad effort known as CityFest here in Grand Rapids under the auspices of the Palau Association. It has raised the bar for me of the sorts of dreams I have for what God can do and wants to do through His body in this region. Consequently it has impacted my prayer life a great deal. A central focus of the effort has been to raise up thousands of people to pray for the region and for the church. The invitation for the Palaus to come was in fact birthed out of a growing movement of churches uniting for prayer in the region. The bottom line is that we are convinced that God wants to bring revival in our time and so it drives us to prayer to implore him to do it!
Secondly, prayer is deeply rooted in the truth that God still speaks in the world. As I have been engaged in this regional work of revival, it has become common for me to see God clearly directing my steps in ways I could not otherwise have imagined. A potent example of this came in a recent planning meeting. We were discussing an idea related to the work which we had great passion and vision for, but we were frankly stumped as far as how to get it off the ground. We had set up this meeting and it was one of those times where you know everyone is hoping somebody else came with the silver bullet idea, because you certainly don't have it. As it became apparent that none of us had an answer, someone suggested we pray about it. Of course no one is going to say, in the moment, that that is a bad idea and yet I will confess thinking "I'm not sure this will really help, except maybe to buy us a few minutes." Shameful I know, but pastors are just as prone to faithlessness as anyone else.
I will (I hope) never forget what happened next. We began by confessing to God that we didn't have the wisdom, knowledge and expertise to do what we felt He wanted us to. We prayed against initializing our own plans and asked that He would help us think His thoughts after Him. As each of us prayed, I began to grasp a vision of what it was God wanted to do in mobilizing people for the task we had in mind. Our prayers took on a conversational tone as we engaged in an active dialogue with the Lord together. Afterwards, we looked at each other and within minutes felt we had a plan for moving forward that none of us would have conceived of when we got there.
In other words, we experienced the truth of James 1:5, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him." James goes on to admonish that our asking be in full faith without doubting. It occurred to me that so many times I don't really expect God to answer prayers for specific guidance and wisdom, in clear violation of what He promises to do! The faith of my co-laborers that day encouraged me to confidently ask God for wisdom and he supplied it to us.
Imagine what God is wanting to tell us about what He is wanting to do through us in His world if only we would listen. I'm starting to ask more and more for this kind of guidance. Will you?
In a recent sermon I discussed how the President's statement that MS-13 gang members "are not people, they are animals" posed a problem for followers of Jesus who seek to live in line with His gospel. I thought this important since I have seen several people who claim the name of Christ defending the president's remarks. Based on a couple of subsequent interactions, I am convinced this is a conversation that needs to be broadened in order to move it out of being purely a political shouting match and so I wish to provide some further context and clarification of my comments.
1) The Significance of Words
At the outset, the President's defenders seemed to suggest that this was an off-handed remark, and thus did not merit scrutiny. Additionally, as has been the case so often with this president, it was suggested that his actions and not his words are what matter. Two passages come to mind that disallow us from taking such a casual stance. The first is Jesus' statement that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks....on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:34-37 ESV) The second is from Jesus' little brother James who expands on this idea in ways very relevant to the president's words: "(The tongue) is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so." (James 3:8-10) Here James identifies the impossibility of the same heart pouring out blessing and cursing sincerely and sites the problem of cursing people as being an offense against the image of God in them. This idea bears some further exploration.
2) Bearers of the Image
In referring to MS-13 members as "animals" the president entered a dangerous realm. It is clear he meant what he said since the white house posted a detailed defense of the remarks (which you can see here). He doubled down again on Tuesday night at his rally in Nashville when he asked the crowd "What did I call them?" and they shouted back "Animals!" The defense offered is that their heinous behavior renders such a label appropriate. Indeed, one professing believer I know cited the following statement from Dennis Prager in a column published by Investors Business Daily (full article here):
"Calling the cruelest among us names such as "animal" or any other "dehumanizing" epithet actually protects humans. The word "beastly" exists for a reason and is frequently applied to human beings. By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human."
This sentiment strikes against a foundational truth of Scripture: human beings are made in the image of God and as such have a dignity that cannot be lost, ever. Even Jude, in condemning false teachers, says only that their behavior resembles that of unwitting animals who are destroyed by following their instincts (Jude 10). As harsh as that statement is, he is not removing the false teachers from the human race. Scripture no where suggests that the image of God in humanity can be lost or forsaken and thinking it can opens us up to potentially grotesque violations. While it feels satisfying to designate MS-13 as animals, being guilty of the heinous crimes they commit, such satisfaction hides either a self-righteousness in thinking we are unlike them or a defense against our awareness that we are.
3) The Bearer of the Cross
It is this thought that makes the president's remarks most repugnant to a follower of Christ. Christ came into a world populated by nothing but people guilty of the most heinous crime: seeking to overthrow the eternal, living God from ruling his creation and subjecting it to a holocaust of death and carnage. You are guilty of that. I am guilty of that. Humanity as a whole stands condemned and worthy of eternal suffering because of our flagrant rebellion against the beauty, kindness, goodness and truth of God's loving nature. We replaced it with hate and selfishness and greed and lust and malice and strife. The doctrine of depravity should caution us in how quickly we condemn others in their essence and write them off, because we find ourselves in those same crosshairs.
That is why we need the Cross. If any people deserved the appellation of "animals" the society that invented, perfected and widely practiced the public execution form known as crucifixion certainly did. Jesus subjected himself to this barbarism precisely in order to save the ones guilty of it. From the cross he did not cry out "You animals!" He cried out "Forgive them!" He did not write them out of the human race in order to elevate the human race. In inexplicable compassion, he still saw His Father's image indelibly printed on them and thus saw them worthy of redeeming. So in a singular act, he endured the scorn of being regarded as an animal, a "lamb lead to slaughter" (Is. 53:7), and his form "marred beyond human semblance" (Is. 52:14). In doing so he made possible the redemption of those who had scorned God's image so that we might be made new into the image of Christ (Rom. 12:1-2) and become a new humanity in him (1 Cor. 15, Eph. 4, Col. 2).
The gospel can only be good news for those who have the image and so to "read them out of the human race" is to put them beyond the gospel's reach. But if they are out of the reach of God's grace, I'm afraid we all are. Lord have mercy!
Below is a summary of the message I preached on May 13 from 1 Samuel 11:12-12:25 that did not get recorded. I surveyed five principles of biblical leadership from the passage and addressed them to the recent events concerning Paige Patterson's comments on domestic abuse that recently came to light and the response of the SBC.
1.) Godly leaders are secure in their identity and position in Christ and thus do not seek retribution against their critics (1 Samuel 11:12-15).
It is true that Saul does not get much right in his reign as Israel's king, and his greatest strength, humility, becomes a weakness of hesitancy. In this instance, however, when there is a cry to execute those who had questioned his rule, he cites God's deliverance as all the vindication he needed and that to execute them to prove a point would be gratuitous. Contrast this with the firing of a Ph.D. student from SWTS for criticizing Dr. Patterson's defense of his remarks. As followers of Christ, defensiveness is a toxic trait that undercuts our faith and our witness
2.) Godly leaders are transparent and invite accountability (1 Samuel 12:1-5).
Samuel goes a step further than Saul and actually invites charges of wrongdoing against him. This is not for the purpose of defending himself against such charges, but in order to make right any potential wrongs he committed against the people he had led. In the discussions in the SBC the past coupe of weeks, it is clear that in many circles the major problem is not what Dr. Patterson said, but that people are criticizing him for it. The highest good is the reputation of the leader, not how his words and actions might harm those he leads. Samuel models the sort of transparency and accountability that is unconcerned with how it might make them look to the public. It is significant that after decades of public service, no one brought any charges against Samuel. Where there is a lack of transparency, it is often because there is something that needs to be hidden.
3.) Godly leaders plead God's righteous case when confronting sin (1 Samuel 12:6-12).
Having re-established his leadership, Samuel proceeds to lay out his plea to the people of Israel. While their faithlessness and idolatry are certainly a concern to him, the way the text portrays this is that Samuel catalogs God's righteousness, not their wickedness. Samuel does not set himself up as an adversary of the people but as an advocate for God and His goodness. It is a plea for the people to be enthralled with God's faithful lovingkindness and to turn from the empty gods they have been serving. This has been one of the encouraging things in recent weeks for me to see. There are numerous voices in the SBC that are not taking the easy path of simply condemning Dr. Patterson for his remarks, but pleading with their brothers and sisters on behalf of God's goodness and for the sake of His reputation. Rather than posturing as vicious critics, these voices are winsome witnesses that are drawing the church back to righteousness.
4.) Godly leaders are followers first (1 Samuel 12:13-18).
This principle underlies all the rest. Samuel makes it clear that the people and their king must al be following God. He further seems to hold both king and people accountable for the other to follow. Then most dramatically, he demonstrates that he speaks not on his own but as a follower of God by asking God to speak to all of them in a mighty way. This shows that Samuel too, is under authority. Part if the challenge not only in the SBC but in the broader church as well, is that we still have an unhealthy view of leadership as being about positional authority. That tends to discourage the characteristics outlined in the first three points and creates a culture where leader are not followers first, and followers are tempted to simply follow a human authority rather than following Christ and being able to lead others themselves. The biblical vision is that all of God's people would be leaders in some capacity through relational influence grounded in their following of Jesus. When we lose sight of that, we see authorities abusing their positions to the hurt of those they lead.
5.) Godly leaders compassionately seek the good of those they lead (1 Samuel 12:19-25).
Samuel closes his address by indicating that although the people have rejected God as king by choosing a king for themselves, he will not cease to serve them in prayer and instruction. This is remarkable since they have also implicitly rejected Samuel as a leader and he could have simply washed his hands of them. Instead, far from being a farewell address (as it has often been called), Samuel's words indicate a fortitude to continue to love this stubborn people in the best way, by praying for them and showing them the good and right way. When Dr. Patterson's comments came to light he showed a remarkable lack of sensitivity when he indicated that he did not need to apologize because he had done nothing wrong. Having told a woman in an abusive marriage to stay in it, when she came to church later with two black eyes she asked him if he were happy. He replied that he was since her husband had come to church with her that week. He told this story as an illustration of biblical counsel regarding marriage. I can only imagine the tremendous damage his words did to that woman and to many who heard him share the story as a positive example. Thus, when he wrote an apology several days after insisting he had nothing to apologize for, he did not apologize to that woman and certainly did not seek to make right what he had done. This kind of callousness towards the under his leadership is the most egregious shortcoming he has displayed. More troubling is that many leaders who were quick to applaud his "apology" had been silent when others were insisting there was something to apologize for. This kind of self-protection of leaders is exactly the reverse of what Samuel models and the rest of Scripture holds up as "servant leadership". My prayer for the SBC and all other churches, including my own, is that we will witness a renewal of commitment to godly, biblical leadership so that as we follow our Lord and Savior we might lead others towards Him.
On April 26th, GRTS is hosting a conference called "Justice and Unity: Toward the Healing of a Fractured Church". It will examine the experience of African-Americans in the church and society, particularly in West Michigan. You can read more about it and register at www.cornerstone.edu/grand-rapids-theological-seminary/events/talking-points/2018-19-spring-talking-points-series/spring-2018-talking-points-conference/
As one aspect of CityFest's One West Michigan efforts, I have been part of planning this event and will be participating on a panel discussion during the day. I was also asked to write a blog post as part of a series leading up to the conference. The blog tells a part of my story of discovery and why this issue has become a prominent one for me in ministry. You can find it at www.cornerstone.edu/blogs/talking-points/post/my-eyes-have-been-opened.
In a striking coincidence yesterday morning, I heard a dietician on the radio talking about "eating the rainbow" while Calvin was reading an article in his 3rd grade class about the very same idea. The notion that we should be eating a balanced, colorful and heavily plant-based diet sparked a good conversation at the dinner table as we enjoyed a colorful, balanced and entirely plant-based meal of cauliflower and chickpea curry over basmati rice. We talked about God's provision and creativity of a wide variety of beautiful and flavorful foods designed to meet the nutritional needs we have. We talked about how in accordance with the creation blessing, humans can use those foods to create combinations that bring out further beauties and complexities of flavor. We also talked about how sin has marred God's good design and how we can corrupt the natural foods God has created and harm our bodies as a consequence. All of this made me think about the parallel realities of our spiritual nourishment and health.
Over the past few weeks I have been writing about the staples of a healthy spiritual life: the spiritual disciplines. So far I have focused on those disciplines related to God's word, which the biblical authors refer to as both "pure milk" as well as "meat" or "solid food". It occurred to me that in my writing I had gravitated towards the disciplines that come most naturally to me, those that my spiritual taste buds most naturally crave. Similar to my own dietary habits, if left to myself, my plate would be heavily weighted with meats and cheeses and not represent the rainbow that is for my best. My practice of the disciplines is no different. I run readily towards the meat and milk of the word, but have to remind myself that the fruit of the Spirit is generated in a two-way relationship as I walk in the Spirit. And this means prayer.
As I think about this idea of a balanced diet as it relates to spiritual disciplines, it occurs to me that even in my prayer life there is the need for balance. Whether we think of an ACTS model (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) or the James model of praise and prayer, or the Psalms' model of Lament and Praise, Scripture presents a variety of ways to pray that are all essential parts of a spiritual diet. For me the Lord's Prayer has been the model I have learned from the most and been challenged by most greatly.
Matthew 6 gives us a model that Jesus gave his disciples to use in prayer. The words themselves are not the model, but rather the types of things included in the prayer. If we think of it as a skeleton we must put flesh on, it prevents it from being the very thing Jesus condemned in the scribes and Pharisees as vain repetition. The requests are: 1) name hallowed, 2) kingdom come, 3) will be done, 4) daily bread, 5) forgiveness, 6) lead not into temptation. Three of these are God-ward requests and three are human focused. I find it much easier to put flesh on the latter three than the first three. That is, I can easily come up with specific items to include under the categories of daily bread, forgiveness and deliverance from the evil one's tests and temptations. It is harder to articulate requests under the first three headings. Yet Jesus, in speaking a short while later about the priorities of disciples, said that rather than worrying about our food and clothes (request 4) we should seek first his kingdom (request 2) and righteousness (request 3) and all these things would be added to us. So we are missing essential components of our diet if we neglect to flesh out these first three requests.
This is why the Psalms are so necessary to us. The collection serves as a prayer manual for God's people, giving us language to pray well. It draws attention to the reality of God's kingdom, and of his anointed king who rules on David's throne (for more on that, listen to the sermon from April 8th). It teaches us what it means to praise God for his rule, to ask for his rule to be made more full, and to lament when we see it absent. As we pray in a accordance with the Psalms, a feedback loop is created. As we pray for His name to be hallowed, his kingdom to come and his will to be done, we start to see our world, nation, city and neighborhood differently. We start to see the lack of God's shalom in them. As a result, we pray more fervently and have more "flesh" to put on the skeleton. Then our eyes are opened further to the realities of God's kingdom and our need to be brought into conformity with it and so we are driven more to prayer. You get the idea.
This is what Tim Keller refers to as "Frontline Prayer" as distinguished from "maintenance prayer". Maintenance prayer is the bottom three requests that most of us equate with prayer. Frontline prayer brings us into God's strategy room and puts us at the tip of the spear of His kingdom. Both are necessary, but there is a reason the Frontline requests come first. In my life, I have never sustained good maintenance prayer without engaging in frontline prayer. Further, with frontline prayer as a priority, it changes how I pray my maintenance prayers. All of a sudden my daily bread and struggles and failures with sin are not merely individual matters of my fate and relationship with God, but have implications for God's reputation and plan in the world.
So I invite you to look at your spiritual plate and evaluate how colorful it is. What our moms told us all growing up is also what our Father would say: "Make sure you eat your veggies." It was good advice then regarding our earthly food and remains good advice now for our spiritual food.
In the best of the Indiana Jones films, The Last Crusade, Sean Connery, playing Dr. Henry Jones Sr. exasperatedly tells his son, when asked why he can't remember the three tests they will have to pass to reach the Holy Grail that "I wrote them down in my diary so I wouldn't have to remember!" The diary is in the hands of the Nazis (I hate these guys!) and thus poses a problem for these latter-day knights of the Round Table in their quest.
It also serves as a statement of how many of us approach our disciplines related to Scripture. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the written Word here in Western society. We have some 900 printed English translations available to us. Many of us have upwards of a dozen printed Bibles in our homes representing at least a half dozen of these translations. We have Bible apps on our phone and I have a software platform that gives me access to both those translations as well as to the original Hebrew and Greek versions. And this is without considering the legion of commentaries, bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases and linguistic and background resources available to us.
With all of this supply, you would expect that we would be the most biblically literate people in history. In a previous post, though, I drew attention to the fact that for many of us, we haven't even read all of the book we have so many copies and versions of and so many resources to help us understand it. In a future post, I will address the discipline of studying Scripture and using these tremendous resources. Here, though, I want to address how these resources have put us in the position of Dr. Jones where we have so much written down, we feel we don't have to remember.
The plethora of written resources we have for Scripture can discourage the discipline of committing it to memory because we feel it's always there when we need it. This assumes the discipline of memory is intended primarily to allow us not to depend on the written word to have Scripture available to us. This is certainly a benefit of Scripture memorization but in my experience it is not the primary or most significant benefit.
My experience of voluntarily committing Scripture to memory began towards the end of college when I had come across 2 Peter 1 in my study and devotional reading. The immense promise of verse 3 "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness" coupled with the astounding statement that we have "become partakers of the divine nature" deeply resonated with my should at that time of my life. I had struggled with my thought life and this passage offered a promise and expectation of victory in those struggles. I was then prompted to memorize the chapter and proceeded to do so. I found that as I worked to commit the passage to memory, its truths reverberated in my mind throughout the day. When I lay awake at night, reciting the passage calmed my spirit and kept at bay thoughts that otherwise would have tormented me. More than simply being available to me in the same way the written text was, the act of memorizing the passage had brought about the word being "written on my heart", informing how I thought, felt and viewed my world.
I have found that whenever I set to memorize a verse or (as I am more fond of doing) a longer portion of Scripture, this dynamic is set in motion. Memorizing involves numerous recitations that more than simply being committed to memory (the way a phone number or address is) it becomes part of our thought patterns. In ideal moments it is that passage that comes to mind. When I read other Scriptures or hear preaching, I see connections to the text I am memorizing. In memorizing, my study of the text is enriched as I am forced to look in detail at every word. I begin to see aspects of the passage that even studying would not necessarily have uncovered.
As with the other disciplines, it is easy to approach memorization as a box to check and an accomplishment to either take pride in or to feel guilt over. I would encourage you to link your memorization to your reading or studying. Don't just pick verses at random, memorize something that God has used to speak to you recently. As daunting as memorizing a longer passage might seem, it can be easier to memorize a 10 verse passage than 10 individual verses because you all have context and other triggers that will call to mind what comes next. The bottom line though is that we remember what we are passionate about and what we are passionate about, we remember. Memorization is its own positive feedback loop. Start with what you love and you will find a deeper love of the text that motivates further memorization. May His word be written on our hearts and minds to conform us to the image of Christ!
It's Good Friday. Around the world today, people claiming the name of Christ will gather to commemorate His death nearly 2000 years ago. Whatever our denominational differences or various traditions, we today proclaim in faith that somehow His death is good news for us. It is one of the Christian faith's distinctive features, this doctrine of the vicarious atonement of Jesus of Nazareth. No other faith system has deity bridging the gap between infinity and humanity through suffering and death. At the cross justice and mercy meet as sin is dealt with as truly abhorrent and mercy makes a way for grace to restore the sinner to life when we deserved death.
In Jesus' own teaching he said repeatedly that there was a connection between receiving forgiveness from God and extending it to others. In one such instance he rebuked Simon (not Peter) for his attitude toward the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet, saying "Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven-for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little." (Luke 7:47) Those who are the beneficiaries of the lavish provisions of Christ's death cannot help but deal with the sins of other in the same way, by absorbing them themselves.
With this understanding of forgiveness and the meaning of Christ's death, it would be well of us on this day to reflect on Western evangelicalism's emphasis on individual responsibility where sin and salvation are concerned. There is a tension in Scripture that must be observed between individual responsibility and corporate solidarity and identity. We see both taught clearly whether it is in the OT prophet Ezekiel saying "the soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4) alongside the first of the ten commandments in which God says he visits "the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me" (Ex. 20:5), or in the NT Ananias and Sapphira being held to account individually for their sin while the church in Corinth suffered corporately in sickness because of the congregation's sins (1 Cor. 11:30).
We have tended to emphasize individual responsibility and minimize corporate realities that are taught by Scripture. This becomes apparent when we try to distance ourselves from sins of the past by saying that we are not responsible for what went on before us. On one level this is true, but the Psalms give us examples of God's people collectively confessing the sins of their ancestors and Nehemiah acted on that example in leading the people of his day in repentance and confession of the sins of their fathers going back 1000 years (Neh. 9). Indeed, the very need and possibility of the cross is rooted in the idea that one individual can stand in for the actions and fates of others. We stand condemned in Adam, being counted as guilty participants in his sin. Because of the cross we stand justified in Christ, being counted as righteous participants in his death and resurrection. So if anyone has a basis to claim appropriate and meaningful responsibility for historical sins, it is believers. We have a prophetic opportunity furnished by the gospel to lead in confession and repentance of our nation's sins and in so doing, "bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ."
On this Good Friday I am grateful that "by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous." (Rom. 5:19)
That clip is from one of my favorite movies, the 70s screwball comedy "What's Up Doc?" It takes place in the courtroom scene at the end of the film where Ryan O'Neil's hapless character is trying to explain the unbelievable (and hilarious) series of events that have transpired over the previous 90 minutes. The judge's wish to "skip over this part" became a catch phrase in our household growing up whenever we encountered something unpleasant or confounding.
As I continue this series of posts about the spiritual disciplines, this clip reminds me of our approach to Scripture. The Bible, in its two Testaments, 66 books and no fewer than 2 dozen different types (genres) of literature, can be a bewildering read. Many of us, influenced in large part by the preaching we have received, gravitate towards the New Testament and Psalms. Fully 2/3 of our Bibles are darkened to our minds as we rarely (if ever) look at them.
I understand why this is the case. The laws of Moses, especially Leviticus, can be horribly perplexing when they aren't downright boring. They strike us as antiquated and in some cases unjust. The prophets use imagery that is alien to us, speak of nations and kingdoms that no longer exist, and their oracles often seem like unsolvable riddles. The wisdom literature is oftentimes little better and while we know the story of Job, his dialogue with his friends can seem repetitive and inaccessible to us. Even the historical books, which contain narratives that should be easier to grasp, can be challenging with the complicated stories of political intrigue that often seem far removed from having very much to do with God and His plan, to say nothing of the genealogies of Genes and Chronicles and the land distribution registry that takes up 10 chapters of Joshua. All of this leads us to have Bibles that are well-marked where Paul or John is the author, but that have huge sections where the pages have never seen daylight.
When it comes to the discipline of the Word, there are numerous ways to interact with it. I broadly think in terms of contemplative disciplines and cognitive disciplines. Cognitive disciplines seek to fill our minds with the truths of Scripture to inform our thinking. Among these disciplines are reading, study, memorization, preaching and teaching (providing and hearing). Contemplative disciplines seek to fill our hearts with the truths of Scripture to inform our affections and wills. Among these are meditation, prayer and praise, life application, and devotional reading. Simple reading is one of the cognitive disciplines and is, of necessity, our starting point for any of the others.
Paul, in his farewell charge to the Ephesian elders reminded them that as an essential feature of his ministry he "did not shrink from declaring to [them] the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). In other words, God has made known His will, purpose and decrees throughout history and particularly preserved much of that revelation in what we refer to as "The Bible". To expose ourselves primarily to less than 1/3 of it is dangerous as we will certainly miss some things. We will also become prone to be selective in what we choose to hear God say to us. In other words, we reach a point where we want to "skip over this part".
I have taken this charge from Paul directly to heart in how I plan my preaching calendar each year. The Word is always about Jesus in some way, so each year we spend the time between Advent and Resurrection Sunday in a Gospel. The rest of the year we spend time in one Old Testament narrative (going through them chronologically), one non-narrative Old Testament series (Wisdom, Law, Prophet, etc.) and one New Testament epistle. This "balanced diet" is complemented by the fact that, other than the gospels, I will not preach a book twice until I've from every book at least once. This has produced the "12 year plan" for my preaching that we are now four years into. My goal is to remove some of the obstacles to our grasping of certain parts of Scripture and to equip us to be confident to hear God's voice from every part of His book.
So let me encourage you to evaluate your discipline of reading. It is not necessary to understand fully everything you read, that is for the discipline of study. It is not necessary that you immediately make sense of how to obey what you read, that is for the discipline of application. It is not necessary that you feel your heart warmed to God by what you read, that is for the discipline of devotion. It is an act of humility to yield ourselves to His word simply because it is His word. We should expect that it will often not be immediately appealing to us. He had to speak precisely because we are in error. So regard the difficulties as an invitation to look closer rather than looking away. If there are portions of Scripture you have never read, or only read once or twice, consider starting there. Consider a one year plan to read the whole Bible through (there are numerous options for this, and I have created my own if you are interested). Whatever you do, I encourage you to read the Book and don't be surprised if there is something significant in the parts you may have been tempted to skip over before.
May God add to the reading of His Word!
I woke up praying this morning. I do not say that piously, this is not a normal occurrence for me. It's just that this morning as I opened my eyes, I felt my spirit groping towards my heavenly Father with an awareness that I needed to start the day with some acknowledgement of Him. After a few stumbling attempts at formal prayer, the phrase came to mind "This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it." I expressed my heartfelt desire to God that whatever else might come after my feet hit the floor, I would approach it with joy, knowing the day was His and not mine.
My wife is away at the moment and so I am parenting our kids solo for a few days. This means that one of my responsibilities is making my children presentable before taking them to school each morning. Kelsey ensures that their wardrobe is set in advance and Calvin (our 9 year old) takes care of his own grooming. Eva and Zoe, our twin 7 year olds, however, still need someone to do their hair each day, and right now that means me. On my best day there are basically two things I can competently do with my daughter's hair: a pony tail and a half pony tail. Involved in any attempt at styling their hair is the task of brushing it. For whatever reason, it seems that if I am brushing their hair, my girls feel that I am scraping glass shards across their scalps based on their screams and tears. I know about brushing from the bottom and brushing slowly and that I have no baseline for understanding the pain that girls experience since my hair has never reached below my ear lobes. For all that, I think our neighbors have been tempted to call CPS on more than one occasion based on the howls coming from the upstairs bathroom at bedtime when I'm on duty.
So this morning was no different for one of my daughters, who was already in a tender spot because of some unmet expectations in her morning. The tears and cries came which inevitably delayed the whole process of getting everyone ready and out the door for school. Patience is a virtue in such cases, just rarely one of mine, and so I ordinarily would respond with frustration and abrupt words to move things along. This morning, though, the words of my waking prayer came back to me in that moment and so I paused, held my daughter, and prayed aloud over her that she would know that this was God's day and that he had made this day from eternity past and known everything that would happen to her and her brother and sister in it from the beginning. I prayed that she would be able to rejoice in that reality no matter what came her way. She calmed down and our day proceeded as planned.
I just got a call from her school that she had a fall on the playground that resulted in a bloody nose but was nothing serious and that she is OK. It occurred to me that God knew that would happen in this day He had made and I prayed again that my daughter would be able to rejoice in spite of such an unwelcome thing in her day (which I will no doubt hear about when I pick her up). As I said, this is not my normal way of engaging with God or my kids, but it served as a teaching moment for me (more so than for my daughter I think), that I often think of prayer as asking God for things rather than as positioning myself in a posture before His throne. My prayer this morning didn't "fix" anything and was't "answered" in the sense we usually think of. Instead it put me, and I hope my daughter, where we needed to be to face the day. It put us in the care of the Shepherd of our Souls. It made me conscious of His reality as the day unfolded. Like I said, not a normal day. But then I think, why shouldn't this be my normal?
This past Friday, we said good-bye to arguably the most influential follower of Christ of the past century as Billy Graham was laid to rest in North Carolina. In the days between his passing and the services on Friday numerous reflections were offered on his life and ministry and there was a remarkable consistency to them. They all emphasized the integrity of his life and message, his gracious yet consistent presentation of truth, and above all, the simplicity of his message. Many of those who wrote or spoke of his passing would not have agreed with, or believed in the gospel that Rev. Graham preached, but they all articulated what it was clearly, just as he had done.
Such a testimony and life raise the question of how it was achieved. I do not profess to be excessively knowledgable about Billy Graham's life and habits, but it was clear that he was more than a student of the Word, he was a lover of it. The simplicity of the message he presented could easily be dismissed as an unintellectual faith, or as a rote formula. However, to maintain such a simple message so consistently over so many years suggests not a rigid dogma but a deeply planted reality that informed all of who he was.
I posted a couple of weeks ago about the significance of the spiritual disciplines for our growth as the first of a series that would explore the various disciplines as they have worked in my life. So often we approach the disciplines as ends in and of themselves, rather than as a means to achieving our ends. For instance, many of us have inherited the idea of maintaining a regular devotional practice, if we have been steeped in the American evangelical tradition. This regular time spent in God's word is a noble and necessary pursuit for the follower of Christ. Oftentimes, however, the task itself becomes the goal, as though the measure of how spiritual you are is how faithful you are with your "quiet times". This has the effect of producing either crushing guilt or unbearably smug self-righteousness. It's safe to say that if a spiritual discipline has these sorts of results, we are probably doing it wrong. Billy Graham's use of the Word reflected someone whose heart had been captivated by it as a great love, not enslaved by it as a great burden nor elevated by it as a badge of pride.
So how do we imitate that sort of discipline? For me, I have found that it starts with our goal. The goal of Bible reading is not to read the Bible. Jesus said to the religious leaders of His day: "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life." (John 5:39-40) Scripture is a window that reveals God to us. Our goal in approaching any of the disciplines must be to encounter and know the living God so that we too might have life. Any other goal will result in dead religion. Scripture in this approach is the "living and active" word that becomes written on our hearts. It keeps our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. The result is that the more we know of Scripture, the simpler our message becomes and the surer we are of it.
In order to experience this powerful ministry of the word, we must move beyond simply reading to engage the person of Jesus in the word. In my next post, I will examine the different ways in which we can engage with Scripture that prevent it from being merely a dead letter, but rather the vehicle through which we hear and know the voice of our Shepherd.
Marcus Little is the Senior Pastor of Berean Baptist Church. This blog is a place where he can share his thoughts and reflections on how Scripture intersects with life, work, community, culture and the events of our times.