Thursday, October 30, 2008

Thoughts on Bible Study Part 1

This is part 1 of a 4 part series with thoughts and encouragement on reading the Bible. I previously published it on another blog and updated it a bit here.

I have never been able to have consistent 30-minute daily devotions. I can’t get up early. I can’t keep my day that organized. And I stink at self-discipline. I finally stopped reading Bible study help books because they usually boiled down to some method that I could only keep for a week or so. And yet, I’m about to suggest a method to you for your own Bible study that has been helpful to me. Before you yell, “hypocrite!” I propose that my method is a bit different and hope you will find it a helpful starting point in your own study.

Method: Start with Jesus. Then let Jesus guide you from there.

Does that sound simplistic and corny? If so, I apologize. But this is truly my Bible study method--I love Jesus and I desperately need Him. If you too love and need Jesus but are struggling to find Him in the Bible, let me point you to a concrete starting point. The Gospels!!! Start with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and let them point your way through the rest of Scripture.

Many of us who come from churched backgrounds tend to skip over the gospels. Instead, we attempt “harder” books in our study. But we really need to understand the Gospels. So unless you read through the gospels in the last 2 years or so, I HIGHLY recommend taking some time to park there. Spend some time just enjoying Jesus. Despite the fact that I heard every Bible story in Sunday school growing up, I am constantly amazed at all the details I’ve missed about Him and His ministry.

Once you’ve read through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I recommend a second reading of them. But this second time, note each time Jesus quotes an Old Testament passage. For instance, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:13 when He says, “Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." In my ESV journaling Bible, the link to Hosea 6:6 is noted by a tiny superscript letter of the alphabet, so you have to be looking for it to notice it. But if you’ll take the time to follow these links between the Gospels and the Old Testament, you’ll be amazed at how each little piece starts to fit together over time, revealing the grand theme of Scripture to you.

Once you’ve finished with the Gospels, I recommend taking the same approach with Romans and Hebrews. Read through them. Then read through them again paying attention to any cross-references to the Old Testament. Both Romans and Hebrews will explain the Old Testament to you better than any commentary ever could.

How long should it take you to get through the gospels, Romans, and Hebrews? Well, since it took me 3 years to read the one-year study Bible, I’m probably not the best person to ask. Personally, I read until something strikes me that I need to think about. I don’t multitask very well, so if I read too long and cover too many ideas, nothing stays in my mind. My goal is to read until something about Jesus strikes me and then contemplate it as long as I can. My thoughts often get snatched quickly from my mind by the chaos of life, which makes the journaling function of my Bible very helpful to me at this stage.

So there it is. I hope something in this loosely defined “method” is an encouragement to you in your own pursuit of God.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Prodigal God

In my ongoing qwest to better understand how the Bible presents the grace of God, I am really looking forward to reading this book.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Minding the Gap

I was encouraged by the message at church Sunday by a visiting pastor. It was the final sermon in the series Practical Holiness, and it was on parenting. I have heard and read much on parenting over the years, but this message covered the foundation that I realize now others always miss. Most parenting sermons and books motivate you toward worthwhile goals. In contrast, this sermon dealt with the gap between our goals and our realities. You can have all the godly parenting goals you want, but how do you deal with the gap between where you want to be and where you actually are?

Our kids don't have to be very old before they realize the gaps between what we are telling them to be and what we really are. They can see our inconsistencies and pick out the holes in our logic very early on. The pastor offered 3 main ideas of dealing with this gap.

1) Be co-combatants against sin and Satan with our children.

We must identify with them in their temptation. Their sin issues may manifest themselves in different ways, but we struggle with the same temptations they do. We've just learned to manage ours better. How have you been tempted to act out in selfishness or anger or frustration? How do you deal with Jesus when you are tempted? Which leads to the next point.

2) Apologize in front of your children and to your children.

Ask their forgiveness. They are aware of our sin and most certainly aware of our hypocrisy when we refuse to deal with our sin in front of them.

3) Finally, let your children see you fumbling toward Christ.

I loved the wording the pastor used--"fumbling toward Christ"--because that is EXACTLY how I feel sometimes. Like the guy who drops the football and then kicks it with his foot as he goes to pick it up. I'm running, tripping, falling down, and getting up in my walk with God. I try to hide my weakness from my children, but instead, I should model honestly my walk with God before them.

I have a good friend who shared with me how her mother struggled after coming to Christ out of a hard background. This mother felt a constant failure with her kids. My friend said she constantly preached the gospel to herself in front of her kids and what an impact that made on this friend. It wasn't that her mother had it all together. Instead, she had her fair share of failures. But she fumbled her way to Christ, preaching the good news of the cross to herself in each failure, IN FRONT OF HER CHILDREN. And that made the difference.

I have much more to learn on parenting, but I feel like I have a much stronger foundation after hearing this sermon.

If you'd like to listen to the sermon, here it is.






Thursday, October 16, 2008

Accurately Using Scripture

There was a moment, as a teenager, that I learned something profound about Scripture that matured me greatly. I was in a very conservative church and often heard the phrase "abstain from all appearance of evil" as a proof text for staying away from anything anyone could even misconstrue as sin. I remember passing the local movie theater and seeing a couple from church in line to buy tickets. There was some innocous movie playing along with a steamier R rated movie. They were in sin--because even if they were going to the fairly innocent movie, someone passing by (like me) might think they were going to see the R rated movie. If they appeared to be doing wrong, whether they really were or not didn't matter. Not according to I Thess. 5:22.

Then one day, I read it in context. Here it is in the ESV.

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise prophecies, 21but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22Abstain from every form of evil.

Don't despise prophecies. Instead, test them and hold on to the ones that past the test. But when evil appears, stay away from it. This Scripture has nothing to do with avoiding things that give the appearance of evil. Instead, it is a warning against evil itself. When evil appears, abstain.

When it finally dawned on me from Scripture that I had been obsessed with a spiritual standard that God Himself did not hold, it ticked me off. I was a teenager. I trusted those in spiritual leadership over me to correctly teach me the Word. And I became a bit of a polite cynic. Is that REALLY what Scripture says? I want a preacher to take his time accurately handling the Word. And I lose respect quickly when someone is sloppy with Scripture.

Fast forward to today. I have just realized that I have assumed, based on sloppy handling of the Scripture on both my part and others, a wrong application of Scripture. The verse in question is I Tim. 5:8.

8But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

My assumption was that this is talking about men providing financially for their families. Except that I did a quick study this morning just to realize that it doesn't address "any man" but "anyone". There is no specific gender implied at the beginning of verse 8. I need someone with a greater knowledge of Greek than I to tell me where "he" comes from in the 2nd part of the verse. Is specific gender implied in the Greek or is it just the choice of the translator?

But even more than that, the context of this verse in chapter 5 is the care of widows.

3Honor widows who are truly widows. 4But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. 5She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, 6but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. 7 Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. 8But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Hands down, this is about families taking care of their own. Anyone who doesn't provide for the needy relatives in their own household is worse than an unbeliever.

As I read this in context, I think it's a bit of a cop out if I only assign application to my husband bringing home the bread to pay our bills. This has application for me as well.

But in an even larger sense, this reminds me that I need to handle Scripture accurately. I need to value understanding the meaning in context of Scripture before I open my mouth and most certainly before I make judgements of others. We will never make the case for Christ to unbelievers with skewed interpretations of Scripture. Only the weak minded will follow and they'll be snatched away in the first heat of the sun. Anyone with a lick of discernment will smell the foul air and distrust anything else you say. We MUST be accurate with Scripture.




Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cheap Grace

Thoughts on grace from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship.

"Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ."

"Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."


Friday, October 10, 2008

Hard Words for Hurting People

There is a moment in the story of Job that disturbs me when I read it. In Job 23, Job is at his lowest moment. His children have died, he's lost all of his money, and he's covered in painful boils. Everything he has given himself to in this life has become dust. His comforters bring anything but comfort to him. He says his complaint is bitter and cries that he doesn't even know where to look for God. Job, a righteous man by God's own account, is in a miserable place not by his own foolishness. Really, if anyone deserved comfort, by my system of accounting, it was Job.

But, after who knows how many months of silence, when God finally speaks to Job in chapter 38, His words don't fit the profile of what I think Job deserves to hear.

1Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: 2"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. 4"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.5Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?

God continues on this way for four chapters. "I am GOD, Job! I hung the stars in the sky, created the oceans and every animal in them. Can you do that?! I am all powerful and all knowing. Don't act like you could possibly know better on any issue than I do."

I would expect God to say something more comforting--at least as I define comfort. Something like nothing can separate us from the love of God. Or that God works all things together for our good. Or that they who wait on God mount up on wings like eagles. Or that He who began the good work in us will be faithful to complete it. But none of those promises are emphasized here.

Instead, to the guy who was probably at the lowest point of anyone ever named in Scripture, God says, "I am God. I am all powerful. And I know what I'm doing!"

I have been wrestling personally with God over some things in my own life. Recently, I very seriously prayed for a word from Him--"God, give me something to make sense of this time in life. Help me know how to think about all this and how to respond in obedience." I don't know what I expected, but His word was pretty clear. "Without faith, it is impossible to please Me." (Hebrews 11:6).

God didn't tell me that my troubles would soon end or that things would make more sense soon. Instead, He said pretty forcefully, "Trust Me! Believe in Me. I hung the stars in the sky and I know what I'm doing."

I am reminded that God never explained to Job on earth (at least according to the Scriptural account) the purpose for his suffering. As far as we know, Job didn't know until heaven what all was going on behind the scenes. In fact, Job's suffering had no earthly purpose at all. It was fully about proving the trustworthiness of God's character in the heavenly places to Satan and his minions.

I am beginning to see that the primary point of long periods of silence by God during our earthly sorrows and suffering is that we prove His worthiness of our belief and trust based fully on who He is and not on what things He gives us. Satan can't believe we would trust God just based on His character and not on the blessings on earth He gives us. That's Satan's taunt--"They only worship you because you are good to them. They'd never worship you if you didn't answer their prayers and take care of them like they expect."

The truth is that true faith doesn't worship God because God is good but because God is God. We don't endure because we expect deliverance but because He is worthy. And we will never fully clarify this in our own hearts until God stops fitting our definition of goodness and requires us to sit patiently at His feet without answering our prayers for a season. And even if that season lasts the remainder of our lives, He is worthy.

The other truth is that for no one in Scripture did that season last the rest of their lives. God's promises are that He will complete the good work He began in our hearts. He will work all the hard circumstances for honest to goodness GOOD in our lives. And when we wait on Him to work, He lifts us up on wings as eagles.

But that isn't why we trust Him, have faith in Him, or worship Him. We worship Him because He alone is God. And He is worthy.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

On Disclaimers

Last night, I was thinking of writing a blog post on my problem with disclaimers. Then I came across this one this morning and was intrigued to know I am not the only one who has noticed this issue.

I used to buy books in a Christian bookstore where the manager would place in the front cover of every book a disclaimer along the lines of "though this book is sold in this bookstore, it does not mean we endorse or support the author or content of the book." It seemed paranoid, but I can't really blame them. They had years of experience with people's nitpicking complaints over things with which they disagreed.

The reality is that no author, pastor, or publisher ever gets it right all the time. Really, if you believe in total depravity and progressive sanctification, then you ought to expect that everyone is going to miss the mark at times. Some hit the mark more often than others. But some who rarely hit the mark still occasionally do.

So what should a person do if they like something an author says even if they possibly disagree with other things? As a blogger, do I have to identify every criticism I have? Do I do readers a disservice if I only mention the things that positively influenced me?

First, I assume that the readers of this blog aren't mindless sycophants with an inability to think discerningly for themselves (or without the ability to look up sycophants at www.dictionary.com).

Second, I believe much of our criticism of Christian authors, pastors, and publishers is based on bad theology. We don't really believe God's promise to finish the work He's begun to build His church and beautify His Body (Phil. 1:6). We see potential failure all around. In this paradigm, every pastor or author is only one step away from denying the faith and sending all those under his influence to the land of cults and heresy. And our job is to point out everything they get wrong all the time.

I'm adopting my own personal policy for this blog concerning disclaimers--I'm going to do my best to not use them. I'll probably give into my own paranoid fear on occasion and use them just to protect myself from the inevitable criticism if I don't. But my goal is to act consistently with my belief that readers here are discerning and that a strong focus on those things that are correct is way more effective than emphasizing the things with which I disagree.

With all that said, I really liked the Gospel of Ruth by Carolyn Custis James and I'm currently in the middle of and learning alot from Grace Based Parenting by Tim Kimmel.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Is he the one?

Does your theology dictate how you view either your own journey in finding a spouse (if you're single) or how you encourage your single friends in their journey (especially if you are married)? My experience is that there is often a disconnect between what we say we believe about God and what we believe about finding a spouse. I know this well from my own experience.

When I was 25, I was dating a cowboy from the midwest that I thought for sure I was going to marry. He was a great guy, but in the end, I couldn't do it. I had terrible bouts with anxiety as I considered both moving forward with him toward marriage and breaking up with him and never seeing him again. But in the end, I couldn't make myself go forward no matter how much I prayed and tried.

Then I moved to a new city and started a new job. Suddenly, with no new prospects on the horizon, I sank into depression. I believed I had lost my last chance at happiness. I even had a godly older person say something along those lines to me. I finally mustered up the courage to call the cowboy. He was very kind on the phone, but at that point, he had begun dating the woman he would later marry. I was devastated. I had squandered my last chance at happiness by breaking up with him. Or so I thought.

During the time I was wrestling with myself concering marrying the cowboy, my older sister gave me some advice. She said that I would know if I should marry him. Know?! What does that mean? She just said I would know when it was right. It was a little frustrating because I needed a better definition.

It reminds me now of my first trip to Seattle. My husband and I were intent on seeing Mt. Rainier. But it was cloudy and overcast the first few days of our trip. We looked at the outline of the Cascades. Was that Mt. Rainer? Then we saw the Olympics. Maybe that tallest thing in the middle was Mt. Rainier? Then we went to the Space Needle and asked the tour guide there to show us Mt. Rainier. She looked but said the mountain wasn't out today. A day later, my husband and I were driving south on I-5 heading toward the airport. And suddenly, there it was. "Oooohhhhh. THAT'S Mt. Rainier." When you see it, there is no way on earth you won't recognize it.

When my husband finally entered my life, I didn't have to talk myself into it. I knew.

Two passages come to mind that I would use to encourage women on this issue.

Proverbs 3:5-6 5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

Psalm 37:4 Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.


I think we can look at this 2nd passage two ways. First, delight in the Lord and He will give you the things you desire. Second, delight in the Lord and He will give you desire for the things He wants you to pursue. Regardless, if we love and pursue God first and foremost, we don't have to be suspicious of our desires. In every avenue, rather than analyzing what we want and why we want it, the exhortation of Scripture is to analyze GOD. Set your mind on Him. Love Him. Delight in Him. And He will give you your desires. He will make your paths straight.

Does your theology match your views of dating? Are you Calvinist on your soteriology but Arminian practically speaking? If you believe in a sovereign God who loves His children and has a good plan for their lives, you don't have to live in fear that you are going to squander your one chance at happiness. You don't have to talk yourself into marrying someone because you are afraid of an empty life if you don't. That is not the character of our Father. Stop striving and rest in Him.