Five is not enough

I began the Reformation Bible Reading Challenge telling others that it would take only five minutes to read the assigned passages each day. That may be true, if all we’re doing is strictly reading. But I take back my words. The challenge is not getting through the text, but getting into the text. I don’t mean that we each have to read commentaries and dictionaries, as helpful as those can be. But we have to give our minds and hearts time to get into the words on the page and for the Word to get into our hearts and minds.

It is sometimes called contemplation, which simply means to spend time with something. Some call it “lectio divina”. The technique is simple: take time, read several times, slowly, deliberately. Ask yourself what speaks to you, what word or phrase stands out. Be silent. Take inventory of the thoughts and feelings coursing through your mind and heart. Try silencing the distractions within and around you. Pay attention only to the words of scripture and what they do in your heart and mind. Let yourself be filled with that word or phrase that speaks to you.

In our overstimulating age of continuous information, less is more and more is less. Less information, more contemplation. More concentration, less distraction. For every five minutes of Bible reading, I suggest planning at least fifteen minutes of silent listening. Then share what you have heard, not just what you have read. I’d love to hear/read from you.




The Quest for Happiness

Yesterday I listened to a podcast of a psychologist’s lecture to the people at Google. Google is in the business of giving people choices. Thousands upon thousands of hits per second, for every search term you type in. What psychology has found is that happiness does not increase in proportion to choice. In fact the opposite. Too many choices often lead to paralysis, people making no choice at all or being unsatisfied with the choice they made, because they gave up so many other “good” choices. Of course, having no choices is bad, but having too many choices can be just as bad. Happiness is to have choices, but not too many.

Today’s psalm seems to be about just that conundrum. Happiness  verses choices. Psalm 1 is one of the wisdom psalms. Psalm means song, and there are 150 of them in the Bible. (Two of them were actually cut in half to make the number round, e.g. 42 and 43 are really one.). The psalms are like the hymn book of the Bible. They contain songs of praise (e.g. 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul”), and prayers for help or of complaint (e.g. 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”). There are also psalms of instruction, or wisdom (e.g. Psalm 1), which often take the form of contrasting two paths, or two kinds of people, e.g. the righteous and the wicked. All the psalms are poetry, that is they are written in a structured verse form.

Psalm 1 is very clearly structured: It begins with three parallel lines describing the “happy person” (NRSV uses the gender neutral plural “they”).

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;

In Hebrew poetry there is often repetition or progression of ideas or expressions. Here it is “follow – take – sit”, as well as “wicked – sinners – scoffers”. Each consecutive line strengthens the previous one. The same thing happens in verse 3. After contrasting the righteous person as someone who delights in the law of the Lord, rather than the advice of the wicked, it describes them as

    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.

Again, there is a threefold description: “planted by streams of water – yielding fruit – leaves not withering.” Switching from tree-metaphor to real life, the fourth line states: “In all that they do, they prosper.”

The Psalms are found in the center of the Bible and have always formed a very central place in the church’s devotional and worship life. The line in verse 2 of Psalm 1 says that the righteous “meditate on his law day and night”. In the middle ages monks used to recite all 150 psalms daily, literally meditating on them day and night! The law of the LORD here may refer to the Torah in the strict sense of the first five books of the Bible, or in the wider sense of all of scripture, including the Psalms. Jews and Christians have usually taken it to mean the latter. Many Christians still pray the psalms, using one or several of them daily. I like the idea of taking time with scripture, not rushing through it. Meditation to me means to ponder the meaning, putting some effort into understanding a word, a verse, or a passage, doing a little research, but also some soul searching. Perhaps  we could begin with today’s psalm.

Who have I taken advice from and was it good advice?  Did it make me happy?

Where have I been mislead, and where have I misled others?

How often have I sat with the scoffers, like an armchair politician, degrading others with unkind thoughts or words?

What gives me delight, happiness, blessing, life, and purpose?

What are the real, important choices among all the trivial ones I make today?

“I hate Revelation”

Proverbs 3:13-18

Happy are those who find wisdom,
    and those who get understanding”

Rodin: “The Thinker”

Several times during the last few weeks I’ve heard a comment similar to the one in the title of this post. As a congregation we have been reading parts of the book of Revelation, which, I admit, is a difficult piece of literature. We also have been reading parts of the book of Ezekiel, another difficult and strange part of the Bible. So I understand the frustration and don’t profess to understand what these books all mean. The last two days, on the other hand, we have had it easy. The readings from Psalm 8, from Proverbs and the letter to the Ephesians are not difficult. They talk about creation, making good choices, hope, and unity. Proverbs are wise sayings. And wisdom is something we all understand. It’s the opposite of stupidity. Whoever has experience in the latter, can appreciate the need of the former. Understanding the world, how it works, the interplay of the elements, the role of humans in creation, the need for humility, self control and for giving God the glory. It all kind of makes sense.

But what about the stuff that doesn’t make sense? The undeserved misfortunes, the fires that swallow the homes of humans and animals, towns and forests? What about the violence and cruelty in human society and in creation? What  about disease and suffering that can not be attributed to foolish life choices? What about an ALS patient’s dying dragged out over years of agony? What about the still-born child, the  teen driven to suicide? Who is wise enough to understand these things?

Conventional “proverb wisdom” doesn’t always cut it. Sometimes we can only sit in silence, like Job’s friends, for seven days. Maybe the only thing we can say after seven days is “Jesus!”

In Ephesians Paul prays that God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, “may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him”. In first Corinthians 2, Paul talks about the crucified Christ as “the wisdom of God and the power of God”, and he contrasts it with the wisdom and power of this world. The wisdom that is Jesus is not a proverb wisdom. We can’t reduce Christian faith to John 3:16 or some other neat package.  The revelation that is Jesus is not a clear-as-midday kind of revelation. We can’t read biblical prophecy like a weather forecast. I suggest we need to read the Bible as  wisdom hidden in the “foolishness” of the cross, and revelation hidden in the “weakness” of the cross.

Jesus, the real, complete, suffering, dying, and risen Jesus of the gospels, is a key to the other parts of scripture. Focusing on his love, we may even end up saying: “I love Revelation!”

I don’t know what came over me

Have you ever caught yourself saying something you didn’t plan to say? Sometimes we have “foot-in-mouth-disease” and say something embarrassing.  And sometimes we might actually say something wise, profound or truthful that we didn’t know we had in us. Either way, we might wonder what came over us.

The reading from the book of Numbers 24:1-14 is a portion of a much longer episode about the prophet Balaam, whom king Balak summoned to curse the Israelites as they passed through his kingdom. It’s worth reading in its entirety, if for nothing else than Balaam’s talking donkey.

This passage seems terribly out of context, and completely unrelated to the one from Luke 1, which is the announcement of Jesus’ birth by the angel Gabriel. But the key word this week after Pentecost is Spirit, and that word occurs in both lessons. Balaam is overcome by the Spirit of the LORD and he utters a blessing instead of a curse. And the angel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, which will result in the birth of the Son of God.

So what do these passages teach us about the Spirit of God? The Spirit makes things happen counter to expectation, counter to human plans, counter even to biology. If the Spirit of God is in fact God himself, as the doctrine of the Trinity says, then, I suppose, the unplanned, unmediated, and supernatural things we sometimes encounter should not make us doubt our senses. What do you think?

Have you received a surprise blessing today? Have you found yourself to be a blessing to someone? Have you done something today where you were surprised at your own courage? Do you think this was the work of the Holy Spirit?


Tips for reading the Bible

Including some from a book called “51% Christian”, by Mark Stenberg:

  1. Don’t read the Bible alone. Sign up for a smart, critical-thinking Bible study at your local church. At Glory we have one on Sunday morning at 9:30 am. At least I like to think it’s smart. Talk to others who are reading the same passages. Post a question or comment on this blog.
  2. Get a good commentary. A good study Bible will also do the job. The Oxford Annotated Study Bible or the Harper Collins Study Bible are both excellent. They contain some of the best that modern scholarship can offer in the form of introductions to each of the books of the Bible, numerous foot-notes and cross references, maps, and more.
  3. Read the Bible backwards. Reading backwards is like looking at the picture of the jigsaw puzzle you’re trying to assemble. For example when reading the gospels, start with the crucified and risen Jesus. The gospels were written as a result of this event. When reading the Old Testament start with the prophets who announced God’s original will of liberating people from slavery. Read the Bible backwards by keeping in your mind the picture of ultimate peace and justice, life, beauty and healing for the world described in the book of Revelation, chapter 21-22. It’s the goal of history and a key to understanding what came before in the Bible.
  4. Remember that the living word is not a book, or letters on a page. The Bible, though called the Word of God, is witness to the living word which is Jesus Christ. We know his love through the Holy Spirit, based on the witness of Scripture.
  5. Celebrate the passages or verses that speak to you, or that you find particularly meaningful. Try to memorize them. Try to think of related passages and look them up.
  6. Stick to one translation. The NRSV is probably the best from a scholarly linguistic standp0int. The NIV uses some non-inclusive language, but is otherwise okay. The Good News Bible is not always accurate, but very readable. Comparing translations can be helpful when dealing with a difficult passage. But continuity in style is better for retaining the content.
  7. Use your imagination.
  8. Note what you are feeling as you read. Confusion, doubt, uncertainty, anger – these feelings can be just as important as serenity, faith, assurance, and peace. Explore what in the text gives you these feelings.
  9. Turn what you are feeling into prayer.
  10. When confused, don’t give up reading, but read more. Read longer passages in context.

What is God?

Revelation 22:6-9

You must not do that! the angel said to John, who was lying at the feet of the one who had showed and told him “what must soon take place” (v.6).

“Worship God!” That seems so obvious, but it is anything but.

In his explanation to the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me”, Luther says “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.”

What am I afraid of? Whom do I fear? How often in a day am I motivated by anxiety? Moses had reason to be anxious as he led the people into a promised future that seemed anything but secure. In Exodus 33:12-17, he argues with the LORD, “show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight…. If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here…”

“What is it to have a god? What is God?”, Luther asked in the Large Catechism explanation of the first commandment. Answer: “A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God…. Many a person thinks he has God and everything he needs when he has money and property… It is the most common idol on earth. He who has money and property feels secure, happy, fearless, as if he were sitting in the midst of paradise…So too, if anyone boasts of great learning, wisdom, power, prestige, family, and honor, and trusts in them, he also has a god, but not the one, true God…Therefore, I repeat, to have a God properly means to have something in which the heart trusts completely.” (The Book of Concord, Fortress Press 1959, 365-366)

St. John could have felt proud of his visions of Jesus, and of the heavenly Jerusalem. Or else he could have dispaired and fallen into a state of panic at the sight of hell-fire and destruction. As it is, he falls at the feet of the messenger and is told “Worship God!”. God is on the throne. Not just any god, but the one who is identified with the Lamb who was slain, Jesus who conquered death by his cross and resurrection.

In light of what is going on in Ft. McMurray this week: What gives us confidence, happiness, security? In light of the challenges, small and great, of going forward this day, what gives me strength?

Moses was told, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest… I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
O God of earth and sky, water and fire,
Have mercy on us.
God of cross and altar, Jesus our refuge and strength,
Have mercy on us.
God, the Holy Spirit, our comforter and counselor,
Have mercy on us.

Have mercy on the people fleeing for their lives.
Send gentle and abundant rain upon the dry forests,
and protect those whose job it is to protect.
Comfort those who have lost home, possessions, pets, community,  and documents.
Steady the hearts of children shaken with fright,
Lift the hearts of adults weighed down with worry.
Give protection and compassion to those who serve in disaster relief.
Grant wisdom and foresight to all civic leaders.
Give rest and peace to all creation.


“Women Leaders”

It sounds really strange to say “women leaders”, which is why I put the phrase in quotations. We don’t say “men leaders”, unless perhaps they happen to be leading a group of men. But I have often heard leaders classified as women leaders in the church. The culture has moved on to be much more inclusive, but in the church there is still an undercurrent of male dominance. “It’s in the Bible.” Not. Sometimes we have to take exception to the text of the Bible for the sake of the gospel. The culture in which the Bible was written was patriarchal. Women had a status similar to children in ancient times. They were often married off (for a price) before they reached puberty. Their purpose was to have children and wait on the man.

This attitude is reflected in many parts of the Bible. But there are some notable exception. These exceptions may confirm the rule of cultural bias. But they also show what God’s intentions have been from the beginning: Male and Female God created them (Genesis 1).

A case in point are the readings for Wednesday this week: 2 Chronicles 34:20-33; Luke 2:25-38. Two prophets who happen to be female. One is called Huldah, who lived at the time of king Josiah of Judah. Her message to the king led to the renewal of the covenant between God and the people. Unlike with many of the other prophets, Huldah was actually listened to! The other is called Anna, a prophet who lived in the Jerusalem temple and praised God for the child Jesus and spoke to people about God’s redemption. Many more examples exist. The first witness of the resurrection was Mary Magdalene, there were apostles like Junia, evangelists like Priscilla, and authors, like that of the letter to the Hebrews, who was likely a woman.

Praise God for the women who praise God by being leaders in church and society. In Christ, who was a man born of a woman, there is neither male nor female. Alleluia.