Tagged: Bible

Jesus’ Words of Life

wordsWords kill, words give life;

they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.

Proverbs 18:21 

One of my favourite stories in the Gospel of John is the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. Jesus is left alone with this woman and the disciples are off to find food.

What we quickly learn is that Jesus is not only talking to a woman, but a Samaritan woman, and not just any Samaritan woman, but a woman who’s “been around town” and most likely has no friends. We’re told that she was getting water at 12 o’clock in the afternoon, alone, which is weird, because in the ancient world, women always traveled in packs and the time for hauling well-water for the day was always in the early morning, not at the hottest time of the day—everyone knows that!

So Jesus talks to the outsider. The loner. The ex-communicated. Which is encouraging because we are all in some way or at some time been this woman.

But something else happens:

“Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked. They couldn’t believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it.”

Shocked. Couldn’t believe. That kind of woman! Their faces showed it. I wonder how awkward this would have been for the woman. Jesus speaks words of life to those who only hear death.

Isn’t Jesus still leading his followers into these shocking, uncomfortable places? I wonder if we’re not given her name on purpose, because every reader of the story is challenged to think of the Samaritan Woman that Jesus is pointing out to in our own life.  Or perhaps a certain kind of person—the kind I would normally avoid. I wonder if there’s a “Samaritan Woman” that is in close proximity to me that I need to pay attention to.

I shared this with our youth this past Friday and they could all relate to the story. They all know what it’s like to be the Woman at the Well. They also know what it’s like to be the uncomfortable disciples when that person is suddenly in my friend group. Teenagers know first-hand the difference between “words of death” and “words of life.”  We learnt that Jesus is calling us to a way of life that takes words very seriously.  We left challenging ourselves to be intentional and attentive to any woman at the well that Jesus is asking us to talk to this week, with words of life. We ended with this prayer:

Dear Jesus

It wasn’t that long ago that we felt like an outsider, it wasn’t long ago that someone made fun of us. Not long ago, we felt worthless. But you welcomed us into your family and showed us a new way to live. No matter where we are, please help us speak up for people who do not have a voice and to use words of life to those who are hard to love. In Jesus’ name we pray.

AMEN

Ratzinger on Holiness and Interpreting the Bible

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“The Saints are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture.  The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most indelible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out. Interpretation of Scripture can never be a purely academic affair, and it cannot be relegated to purely historical.  Scripture is full of potential for the future, a potential that can only be opened up when someone ‘lives through’ and ‘suffered through’ the sacred text.”

Joseph Ratzinger

Three Rules for Healthy Bible Reading

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I recently had a conversation with a Christian who confessed her aversion of personal Bible reading. Her reason was understandable: she’s afraid that she’ll misunderstand and misinterpret the Bible, rendering her more confused than when she started. For some people, reading the Bible is an intimidating task because they’re keenly aware of its complexity.  While they are willing to be honest, there are others who read the Bible with a certainty that claims to “hear from God” every time they read it. Two unhealthy extremes are typical: avoidance and arrogance. In a world of competing extremes, here are three foundational rules for healthy Bible reading that you can start applying today:

  1. Accept the Complexity of Scripture: 

Healthy bible reading begins with accepting the complexity of Scripture. Peter speaks of Paul’s writings as containing things that are “hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”  The Bible is a collection of writings that encompass a multitude of genres, many of which aren’t in use in our day (i.e. Revelation is a “prophetic-apocalyptic epistle,” and a prime victim of misreading as foretelling of the future).  The Biblical world is “distant” from ours in terms of language, geography and culture, and without a healthy awareness of that distance, we will be tempted to assume a meaning that isn’t there. Matters of salvation are clear in the Bible, but much of the Bible is easily misapplied and misrepresented because readers lack a humble posture towards. Reminding yourself of the complexity of Scripture will help foster an open, listening and humble posture.

  1. Prioritize Your Heart Over Your Head: 

I have devoted a large portion of my life to understanding the biblical narrative and its complexity, so don’t misunderstand the following words: the primary purpose of reading the Bible is not to “understand” it with your head, but to receive it with your heart. If you believe “understanding” the Bible is the primary goal of reading it, you will miss its point altogether. And when you don’t understand it you might think something is wrong with you; it might even deter you from ever reading it again (like it did my friend). Or worse, if we too quickly presume that we have understood it, in an absolute sense, we can easily become “puffed up” (1 Cor. 8:2).

Instead, attend Bible reading with a heart ready to be convicted and corrected. Prayerfully anticipate that you would be cut to the heart, and be made aware of the many ways your life doesn’t align with the way of life that Jesus is calling you to. You’re not looking for “universal laws” to add to your bag of ammo, but listening for the voice that’s speaking to you. The great Catholic theologian Joseph Ratzinger wisely captures this when he says “the meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most indelible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out.”

  1. Read with Patience

If you’re like me you might expect to experience something special whenever you read the Bible—a vision, an insight, a unique revelation. We sometimes approach the biblical text with the expectations, (or heaven forbid, the demand!) that God will open our “spiritual eyes” so that we can discover deep life-changing truths!  That could happen sometimes, but it’s not the norm. Our expectation for quick results is more so informed by our perpetual-entertainment-culture of Netflix and Youtube than anything else. Learn to read with patience and endurance through the mundane and boring bits.  Bible reading is a lot like brushing your teeth; you can’t expect to have healthy teeth all at once. Healthy teeth comes from brushing two minutes twice a day for the rest of your life.

Foundational healthy Bible reading that produces fruit will always include these three things: a humble acceptance of the complexity of Scripture, an openness to be convicted and cut to the heart, and a willingness to read with a patience that endures even when nothing special happens. With these three rules, you can trust that the words of Scripture will truly become “indelible”—it will truly “take root”, endure, and bear fruit in its time.

 

The Dusty Ones, by AJ Swoboda

A.J. Swoboda’s The Dusty Ones is about the reality of wandering. All humans wander through life, figuring out who they are and where they fit.

Contrary to what many Christians seem to project about God and the Christian life today, Swoboda wants readers to know that Christianity makes sense of human wandering not because it provides an escape but because it tells us why it happens and what it’s for.

Swoboda draws heavily on the biblical narrative as a whole, highlighting the wandering-like stories of Abraham, Moses, and the people of Israel. The people of God have always been a wandering people; indeed, it’s the experience of wandering in the proverbial desert that constitutes the real saving of salvation.

Wandering, the desert, is for God to meet you.

In every chapter, Swoboda confides in the diverse Christian tradition; from John Calvin, Marianne Moore, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He refreshingly draws on poets, singers, novelists, and theologians from every corner of the Christian tradition without prejudice.

Swoboda writes with pastoral candour; you can almost hear him preach what he writes.  His anecdotal style of writing is vulnerable and engaging; he speaks of his own wandering as a pastor, father, and husband. The book itself is a sort of experiment in the art of wandering, frequently offering nuggets of insight on the Bible, singing songs, and  the goodness of a simple life drawn from Swoboda’s own experience.

Swoboda’s honest and vulnerable expression of the slow and mysterious qualities of wandering will make you appreciate the transforming power of being present in the mundane; be careful, he may even convince you to start your own garden and raise your own chickens.

The Dusty Ones will challenge readers to let go of the clean box used for God and to enjoy the wandering mystery of the desert; the place where God encounters his people.

 

Can We Know God’s Will for our Lives? Part 2

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In my last post, I suggested that a Christian should be able to answer the questions, what is God saying to me and how do I know that he’s saying it?

Unfortunately, some Christians feel they need to discern God’s will about what they eat for dinner. What we eat for dinner is not something that God is really concerned with, provided we eat with gratitude. An important reality, often overlooked in our anxious searches for God’s will, is that many life decisions are left for us to make freely. Some Christians walk with an enormous weight of uncertainty, worrying about every jot and tittle of their lives, when God has allowed a certain degree of freedom.

Through Scripture, we know enough about God to make most decisions. Some questions have been answered with a “no” and others with a “yes,” while many other questions are left to up to us. Imagine God gave you a watch. Would you honour him more by asking him for the time or by looking at the watch? I know that I ought to practice kindness and patience towards my wife, and I know that I ought not hate or judge my brother. However, what I eat for dinner is my choice.

Still, some decisions require more than logical reasoning and biblical knowledge. Some decisions we face beckon us to slow down and listen carefully to God’s direction. Maybe it’s prioritizing tasks for the week in order to make decisions well, or considering a career or relational opportunity that might change the direction of one’s life completely. There are certain matters we know the answer to, other matters in which we are free to choose for ourselves, and still other matters that require thoughtful and prayerful discernment.

Let me illustrate:

Pretend a coach of a soccer team has drafted you into his team. When it’s game time, it would be silly to ask about the rules of another sport, or whether or not you should try to work as a team with the other players. The first question is irrelevant and the second is obvious.

Likewise, to fret about God’s will for my dinner or whether or not I should be “kind” to my neighbour misses the point of discernment. In the first instance, we’re asking a question that has nothing to do with the game or even the sport, and in the second instance we’re ignoring the rules of the game we’ve already been given. There are also moments in the game when passing the ball to player A or player B will be your choice, and to ask the coach for his instruction in that moment would be detrimental to the game.

I know the rules, I know the point of the game, I know that there will be moments where I must depend on my reflexes and choose accordingly. In this way, we can understand “God’s will for my life” as referring to my position on the field and how I can best use my strengths to win the game according to the strategy.

In order for me to play well I will ultimately need to know myself: how am I built to play this game well? This is the task of discernment.

Seeking God’s will for my life does not dismiss everything he’s already revealed in Scripture, but seeks to understand my fit in it. What are my “gifts” in the context of the team and the strategy already given?

The particular will of God we seek is in the context of our participation in the life of the church.

One of the early challenges the church had to wrestle through was individual gifting, or vocation. Every individual equally contributed to the life of the whole, just like every part of a body contributes to the life of the body. And that body, being the church, exists for the common good of society. The question is: what is Jesus saying to me personally (now comes in the individual, the parts that make up the whole), in the context of our calling to be the church in our world.

We must learn to listen to the voice of Jesus for ourselves, but not apart from our team. So how will we do it?

Here are five voices we must be listening to in the dance of discernment:

1) We listen to Scripture, which speaks not only to our heads, but to our hearts as we contemplate its stories and teachings. Scripture has an authoritative power, not because it has special secrets about how old the earth is, but because it has a special way of igniting faith, hope, and love in us. In an overarching sense, Scripture tells us of the gospel news of God’s rescue mission to bring the world to its intended harmony. It tells us the rules of the game and the strategy for winning. But to know how we fit in the game we need to learn to read the Bible personally: how is a passage, a verse, a story speaking to you, in this moment?  When we take the time to slow down, listen, and contemplate God’s word, it has a special power to speak to us in a personal way, because the Bible always brings us to the person of Jesus who is the Word of God in the flesh. Sometimes this means sticking with one word, one verse, one parable or psalm or story that sticks out to you, and letting it resonate with you until your heart catches guides your head. Perhaps you’ll receive a picture, an invitation, a sense of gratitude, or a memory. This isn’t an easy discipline, but a very rewarding one.

2) We listen to people in our lives who can help us see our blind spots. Who are we reading the Bible with? Who are we worshiping with on Sundays? Who knows you enough and loves you enough to be honest with you about who you really are? But beware of people telling you what God is telling you: they may be able to guide, to advise, and even to offer an opinion, but only you can know the inner witness of the Spirit.

3) We listen to the friendships we find in the church, the local and the historical, the present and the past. Scripture has a personal and concrete word for us, yet keeping ancient friends from our Christian heritage will help us keep from making Scripture fit our own designs. Let the creeds of the church be the boundary markers of the soccer field, telling you if you’re in, or if you’re out. The creeds can also help you make sense of where you are on the pitch, providing you with an orientation that helps you know if you should pass or shoot. Our forefathers were at a different level in their prayer lives. Find an old prayer book to help you discover  new ways to foster intimacy with God (Augustine’s Confessions is one of my favourites).

4) We listen to our circumstances: how has God provided the context you are now in? Pay attention to the circumstances of your life. How are you to be faithful in your current circumstances? What do you like or dislike about your circumstances that you would like to change or not change? These questions force us to be honest about what is possible and what isn’t. But don’t eliminate the apparently impossible option, because God may indeed be calling you to something that in this moment, feels impossible. This listening is merely a matter of seeing clearly how God has been at work in your circumstances. Oppositions and obstacles need to be considered, but don’t be quick to take them as signs that this isn’t what God wants: God may very well be asking you to walk through a closed door.

5) We listen to our emotions, which help us identify what we love and what we dislike.   We tend to be suspicious of emotions, for fear of emotionalism, and end up putting too much weight on our rational abilities. However, Descartes was wrong when he proposed that humans are merely thinking beings. We are thinking, loving, and acting beings, far more complex that what Descartes suggested. Emotions are at the heart (no pun intended) of what it means to be human and in order to properly discern the voice of Christ, we need to develop the capacity to articulate what is happening to us emotionally.

All of these activities happen in the context of a life devoted to prayer. Prayer is the glue that helps us make sense of each sphere of our lives. Prayer is our response to God’s initiation; in prayer, we are always responding to God’s YES to us in Christ. Prayer is constant dialogue with the coach, cheering and guiding us on as we play the game.

Seeking the will of God is not as simple as a question and answer session. Discernment is a process, it is a game, or a dance or like being part of an orchestra. We attentively listen and watch the conductor move his baton towards a harmonious composition. As we learn to play in sync with the voice of the coach, God’s team defeats opponents not by beating them but by winning them over to a new way of playing.

Feel free to share your thoughts or experiences on discernment and seeking God’s will below.

Mirror Dimly

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We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! 1 Cor 13:12 (MSG)

In the “love chapter” Paul provides a beautiful metaphor to explain our earthly limitations. As long as we await Christ’s second coming, life is experienced as through a mirror dimly.

Paul is talking about the different parts of worship that revolve around scripture; singing, tongues, prophecy, preaching. These are gifts to the church to foster and serve love.  If love for God and for one another is not the motivation and goal of worship, then it is nothing more than a clanging cymbal; an out-of-place and misleading distraction.

Paul goes on to say that we see through a mirror dimly because we are still infected by sin, despite our standing with Christ. The metaphor calls attention to the act of seeing, not to the mirror itself:  we do not see a “dim mirror.” It is the act of seeing which is limited by dimness-a foggy overcast that beckons us to humility.

A mirror is used to see a reflection–of yourself, of others, of what’s around you. Scripture is the mirror that we see in order to know God and to know ourselves; it is the breathed out words of God that are without error and profitable for training in righteousness. But my reading of Scripture is faulty and broken, and until I come to grips with this reality, I will not serve love. Without an awareness that I am unable to know and interpret Scripture in its entirety, I will be a clanging cymbal.

Today, Christians are bombarded with skepticism around Scripture. We are told not to trust the Bible because it’s archaic and erroneous. The temptation will be to defend the Bible’s reliability in ways that ignore human limitations-we insist on the certitude and clarity of Scripture; we simplify what is complex and ignore the impaired capacity of a dim vision.

Some are afraid of the uncertainty of what I am proposing. Don’t we want people to be confident in the reliability and authority of Scripture? Yes. But what is the purpose of the authority of Scripture but to form God’s people into who they were called to be? What I want for Christians is to trust in the power of Scripture to shape their lives; and that we don’t need to know all the answers for that to happen. Perhaps the power of the Scriptures–its authority to shape our lives–is only effective when we approach it with humility. Uncertainty is what compels faith, and it is in the uncertainty–in the dimness of our vision–that God encounters us and we begin to really, and truly see. That alone will serve love.

“The Garden” by Phil Aud

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I found this song online here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1bvlU8eKTss. It beautifully conveys the biblical narrative and human longing for true home, that can only be found through and in Christ. Here are the lyrics:

I remember / days of pleasure / days of purpose / filled with laughter and song
Sights of beauty / and sounds of waters / in the garden that I once called home
East of Eden / I am broken / east of eden / I feel shame / I feel cold
I am left with / my decision / as I work this hard soil
As I work this hard soil.

I was weeping / when he asked me / why the crying / who do you seek / As he called me / my eyes were opened / on the first day of new creation’s week /
in the garden I find healing / in the garden I’m made new I’m made whole /
I find life and restoration / in the garden of the Lord / in the garden of the Lord

No more weeping / no more sorrow / no more pain and / no more death / but sights of beauty / and sound of waters / in that City that we’ll soon call home / in that city built from a garden / there the lamb will / be our source / be our life / there the nations / find their healing / coming from / the tree of life / coming from the tree of life.

Schmemann on modern escapist spirituality

“Tired and disillusioned by the chaos and confusion he himself has brought about, crushed by his own ‘progress,’ scared by seemingly triumphant evil, disenchanted with all theories and explanations, depersonalized and enslaved by technology, man instinctively looks for an escape, for a ‘way out’ of this hopelessly wicked world, for a spiritual haven, for a ‘spirituality’ that will confirm and justify him in his disgust for the world and his fear of it, yet at the same time give him the security and the spiritual comfort he seeks. Hence the multiplication and the amazing success today of all kinds of escapist spiritualities—Christian and non-Christian alike—whose common and basic tonality is precisely negation, apocalypticism, fear and a truly Manichean ‘disgust’ for the world”
– Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit, 84.

Praying Sacramentally

christians-praying-iconThere are typically two types of prayer: prayers of longing, and prayers of supplication (or, request). Both are good. But, it seems like most people prefer one over the other. In many prayer meetings I’ve attended and led, I have learned that attendees desire to be given a list of needs to pray for. This isn’t bad, but what I’ve learned is that the prayer of supplication is safe(r): it has the potential to allow us to pray (a good thing), in a way that is selfless (i.e. pray for other, which is also a good thing), and yet, it very often can be superficial (a not so good thing). The prayer of supplication in this manner is invulnerable, shallow, and obligational. Its function is to merely check off from the list of duties another good thing we did for God. Or perhaps, we think it’s good for us (we’re pragmatists!) and so we do it.

Yet, prayers of supplication (like many of the Psalms), are good and necessary. Essentially, supplications are requests for God’s kingdom to come to his creation he has so generously conferred to us. The prayer of supplication though, as I’ve alleged, can often become superficial and dutiful. The way this happens, I think, is that we think of that thing we’re praying about—a ministry, a neighbourhood, a church—as something unrelated to us. Or, more precisely, we allow a small degree of “relatedness.” The small degree can be illustrated by various articles of clothing. I am a shirt, and you are a hat. We are both part of the same body; there is some degree of relatedness there. But there’s something lacking here.

I started by saying that there are two types of prayer, but what I should say is that they are two in one: they are not distinct, but enhance and enable each other. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose. But I have not yet described the so-called “prayer of longing.” A prayer of longing is when your truest self is exposed before God. A prayer of longing is true knowledge of self and the world, and consequently, a deep desire for God himself. When confession is abounding and repentance is desired, and God is sought in a most honest way, we are praying with longing. So how is a prayer of longing and a prayer of supplication related? Well, as I’ve said, I think there’s a problem when we think we are only barely related to the “external” things we prayer for. We consider ourselves only formally associated to our workplace, the children’s ministry at our church, the people in our community groups, the leaders of our churches.  Do we pray for these things and people because we know them? Because they’re in our lives in some degree? How can our prayers of supplication—prayer for others—truly be a prayer of longing?

Here’s a hint:

“[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church.”
– Colossians 1:15-18

What preceded these words was Paul’s description of his prayer of longing for the Colossian church (see 1:1-14 for yourself). With special emphasis on the church, Paul believes that all of creation profoundly shares in Christ. In Christ, all things hold together. Paul’s high Christology grounded his understanding of church (his ecclesiology), thereby forming his prayers. Paul could pray for the church without slipping into an obligational superficiality. He didn’t him see himself as merely related to the church, but for Paul, he and the church shared so intimately, so deeply, so profoundly in Christ, that they were one person: one body.

Knowing that all of creation shares in some degree in the work and person of Christ, we can pray for others with a longing that is honest. That honestly views ourself as mysteriously woven, not as separate articles of clothing, but as one beautiful tapestry that includes the ongoing problem of sin, the ongoing gift of salvation, and the ongoing work of new creation, in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

L. Newbigin on How God Reveals Himself in the World

“I believe and testify that in the body of literature we call the Bible, continuously reinterpreted in the actual missionary experience of the church through the centuries and among the nations, there is a true rendering of the character and purpose of the Creator and Sustainer of all nature, and that it is this character and purpose that determines what is good.  Because I so believe and testify, I reject the division of human experience into a private world, where the “good” is a matter of personal taste, and a public world, where “facts” are regarded as operative apart from any reference to the good.  I believe that all created beings have a sacramental character in that they exist by the creative goodness for the redeeming purpose of God, that nothing is rightly understood otherwise and that , nevertheless, God in creating a world with a  measure of autonomy and contingency has provided for us a space within which we are given freedom to search, to experiment, and to find out for ourselves how things really are. I believe that the whole of experience in the natural world, in the world of public affairs, of politics, economics, and culture, and the world of inward spiritual experience is to be seen as one whole in the light of this disclosure of the character and will of its Creator.”

– Lesslie Newbigin (Foolishness to the Greeks, 88-89).