study and the intellect

I was once a pastor of a little church called “Faith, Hope and Love Gospel Center.” It was run down and not resurrected through my work there of only about a year. I look back on that and shake my head, partly because I really needed a mentor, someone to guide me through that time. And I had one, but due to my youth and lack of wisdom (and his use of Robert Schuller* just on the side with a book to encourage those discouraged like myself), I left that great opportunity behind. But after that time on my own with my new wife Deb, I had come to realize that I needed or at least wanted more training, precisely more theological education. And having been influenced by a Baptist pastor and church nearby, I headed off to Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary in Michigan (now called Grand Rapids Theological Seminary).

I was hungry for some intellectual food, and at the seminary, I certainly found it with some outstanding professors. That was a good season for me, I take it, laying a foundation for my life that was needed, although not enough of a foundation was laid on the church side to really get me going in the pastorate. My degree, following my Bachelor of Theology one (from Prairie Bible Institute) was a Master of Divinity. I wish I would have started on all of that when I was younger, and I wish I would have had the kind of mentoring I needed to become a pastor, or a teacher somewhere. And I wish I would have read and studied much more during my life. Some years back I thought the Lord gave me this one word: “Read.”

Study and the intellect is far more important than many of us Christians make it out to be. I am blessed in that where I work, RBC Ministries, such endeavor is valued, their/our mission being “to make the life-changing wisdom of the Bible understandable and accessible to all.”

There is more to life than just the mind, but the mind is part and parcel of the fullness of life we are to have in Jesus. Of course how that works out for each one of us will be different. Not all of us will want to head off to school to study more, or read books, one after another. But every one of us needs to have a thirst to read and study scripture, and try to understand God’s will as it applies to our own lives as well as the mission to which we are called. I would suggest as a minimum that each of us needs to be on a Bible reading (or Bible listening) plan or agenda. At least once a year through the Bible would be good, although what is essential is to be regularly in the habit of doing it. And we need to study and meditate on various books and passages in scripture. Any and every one of them over time would be a good goal.

At the same time, we also need to read those who are gifted in communicating something of God’s full will in Jesus. In all kinds of genres. And I think we need to learn to read widely over time. Read those who are not of the faith. Learn in areas that interest us. Again, we are all wired differently so we will all go about this differently, which doesn’t make whatever we do any less of a gift than whatever anyone else does.

Back to my own story, a bit. I wish I would have been much more faithful in reading and studying.  It is over years of doing such that wisdom is developed. And the aspect of study and the intellect is underrated and therefore underplayed in the quest for a Spirit-filled life. As Jack Levison pointed out in an excellent book I recently read, Daniel is a good case in point. He studied with some of his friends in the best education of his day, even that which was not of the faith, and surely was well versed in the Hebrew scriptures as well. And it was noted repeatedly in the book by those outside the community of faith that he was one in whom was the spirit of the gods.

And so read, and study as the Lord would lead you. As we seek to follow our Lord together for the world.

*This is not meant to put down Robert Schuller. I find good along with what I see as not so good in his message. I think he would say it’s grounded in scripture, but it seems to me to be in some line with Norman Vincent Peale’s positive thinking. In my view, scripture taken out of context to support something which in the proper context is true.

hearing the word is not enough

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

I listen to scripture, the word of God, every normal day. And I read it. I’m therefore hearing it. But James tells us that’s not enough. We must do it, we must put it into practice. Otherwise we deceive ourselves.

I’m afraid nowadays that there isn’t even much of hearing God’s written word. Bible illiteracy among church goers seems to be rising, particularly with the younger generation. They evidently don’t see the Book as relevant. Perhaps some of them are into the “precious promises” or just certain scripture once memorized, and think that’s all they need. But one needs to be engaged in the entire story of scripture in order to see how that story is ongoing and plays out today by the Spirit in and through Jesus.

Hearing the word is essential, and it can go a long way in helping us put that word into practice. The sense of God’s revelation of himself, his will and the sense of call can come to us by continuing in this word. But doing what we’ve heard is not automatic, otherwise we wouldn’t have this word of exhortation from James, quoted above.

And so we have to make what we hear a priority in our lives, actually the priority of our lives. We must keep hearing God’s word, and then endeavoring to live by it, to conduct our lives accordingly, to make the changes that are needed.

Of course all in the grace of God in Jesus, together for the world.

preach the word

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

If there’s one thing I want to hear from a sermon (or when I preach one) I want to hear the word of God proclaimed and taught. And whatever text we are in, I want to hear that text, and nothing more and nothing less. For those of my generation, I’m not referring necessarily to “expository preaching,” that is, going verse by verse, line by line, and sometimes almost word by word. For some that might work well as at least one of the main ways they share God’s word. It can be delivered in a number of ways, with always an accent on reading the text and actually letting the text speak for itself.

Too often we might import this or that idea, or better, a teaching from some other part of scripture into the text. We need to let the text speak as it does, if we are going to hear it as it is, and receive the needed word from God.

I appreciate that our church uses a lectionary which, if I remember right takes us through at least most all of scripture every four years. We need all of scripture, the entire witness, whether we can make heads or tails of it or not. We need to let each part have its say. And taking in the whole, we may end up with some kind of coherent understanding of the message of God in Christ. Of course scripture leads us to Christ. If it doesn’t do that in our preaching, then we are missing the boat. Breaking the bread of life means helping the hearers feed on Christ. The Spirit is present in the preaching to bring us into the presence of Christ and God’s will in him.

I am thankful to be part of a church where the pastors do this. Any of us may falter here and there, somehow bringing something that is not helpful into the mix. But God  knows our heart, and if its our desire and prayer for his word to get through, in spite of ourselves, and by the filling of the Spirit (yes, we need to be dependent on the filling of the Spirit both in our preaching and for the hearers, that the Spirit would minister to each of them), God will speak through his word.

We are told earlier in the same letter quoted above:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

That must be our aim. We who teach or proclaim God’s word (or our pastors, I’m not a pastor by the way, though I think I’m still one at heart to some extent, and I still do preach and teach a bit) must aspire to be servants of God, people given to the ministry of the word and prayer. That will certainly keep us humble as before God and people we endeavor to share nothing of ourselves (even when we may share from our own lives) wanting to hear nothing except from God in and through Christ. As we together in Jesus seek to live out God’s will in and for the world.

God’s word living in us

I write to you, young men,
    because you are strong,
    and the word of God lives in you,
    and you have overcome the evil one.

1 John 2:14; see also 1 John 1:10; John 5:38

If the God of the Bible is alive and his word is true, then those who put their faith in God through Christ have God’s word living in them. In the context of the scripture passages cited above, while Jesus- the Word would not be excluded, what is meant is the written word. By the Spirit who gave it, that word is alive and active in the lives of all who have put their faith in Jesus. That suggests a number of things, and ought to open us up more to wanting to hear God’s voice through the pages of scripture.

We in Jesus ought to be people of the Book. We should be regularly reading through all of it, from Genesis to Revelation. One can listen to it nowadays as well, of course. We need the entire Book, even if we don’t understand why in the world we need certain parts of it. It helps us get into a certain rhythm and helps us be open to the Spirit’s voice and work in our lives, in ways in which we often may not understand.

God’s word living in us suggests that God is active in that word in our lives. While certainly the prophetic word given by the Spirit is not excluded (see passages like 1 Corinthians 14), what is primarily meant, I take it, is scripture. And the dynamic is a life lived not just with words memorized or heard, or even brought to mind by the Spirit, though that last point is getting closer to the point here. What is meant is nothing less than the dynamism of God’s word active, alive in us. Working in our own lives to change us. And working out from our lives to point others to God’s word and his revelation to the world in Jesus.

Yes, we have this word in and through Jesus to be lived out together for the world.

we need all of scripture

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In this day and age not only is the knowledge of scripture waning among the faithful it seems, but the Book is not being appreciated for what it really is: the written word of God. Certain parts are out of style, or maybe we should say parts everywhere, or why not just say the entire Book? It doesn’t fit our fancy, just isn’t in with the spirit of the times.

This thought came home anew and afresh to me in listening to what I think is a powerful testimony of a lesbian coming to faith, well worth the listen. She wrestled through all of scripture. And over time. And the Lord met her there.

Of course I don’t believe we’re to live in the past. We in Jesus live in God’s kingdom and in that new reality here and now and for this day as God’s resurrection people in and through Jesus and his cross. We don’t go back to the old covenant. Nor do we live in the culture in and to which the new covenant was written. This book is the best I’ve read in helping us begin to think through that. Nevertheless we need every line, every thought that comes out of every part of scripture, everything given, all of it. Picking and choosing will not do.

All of it is in there for a reason. Parts of it I dislike. But those parts often either mirror the sin that can take hold and destroy, or my own sin in some way affecting my reading of it in ways I can’t or maybe never will fully comprehend this side of glory, though it’s probably good to work on that.

I like the idea of reading scripture, especially out loud which scripture itself advocates. I’ve done that a number of times (though not out loud, except perhaps in my mind), but mostly I’ve listened and continue to listen to it being read- in recent years from The Bible Experience. I have to keep listening, try to listen well, and grow in that, but in this way I’m pushed through the entire Book over and over again. Along with that we need serious Bible study and prayerful Bible reading (Lectio Divina). The only thing I’ve done relatively well is to listen to it being read, although I think it is too often in spite of myself, wandering thoughts and not paying close enough attention (becoming aware of this, I’m trying to do better), and yet enough of it getting through to me to make some difference.

We in Jesus have been aptly called “people of the Book.” As long as it is not a book we worship, but the God revealed in Christ we read of in the pages of that Book, we remain among the faithful. We look to the Spirit to help us as continue in God’s word together in and through Jesus for the world.

preaching to one’s self

I’ve preached a number of sermons in my life, in fact I still do nearly every week at a nursing home. But I find that I need to preach to myself nearly everyday. And from time to time I have to give myself a serious sermon.

Of course in all of this I am in need of the Spirit to bring truth to mind and to light. Though oftentimes I find myself struggling to find water, or find air, simply to find the needed word in which I can rest. Of course we turn to scripture, to God’s written word. And we find through its pages that we are pointed to Jesus. We learn to see everything “in Jesus,” in his light. And we are given specific truth we need. One of the big ones for me is to be reminded that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. But there’s many other things I also need to hear from time to time, some of it daily. And we depend on each other in Jesus, the church. Sometimes we need special prayer and a word of counsel from our pastor or from a trusted brother or sister.

A fellow worker once remarked how often I’m moving my lips at work. I work in a factory setting there, so there’s usually a dull roar going on while we work. And yes, I may be praying the Lord’s prayer, reciting the Jesus Creed, or simply reciting as best I can a part of scripture I need. Or just praying. Part of what is going on sometimes is preaching to myself.

Preaching that is true is that which is by the Spirit of the word in and through the Word, Jesus. During especially the most difficult times I may need some confirmation for what I think I’m hearing, or what I’ve gathered up to preach. Sometimes that will come in the communion of the church, and sometimes in answer to my question.

And so when things aren’t right for me, I listen. Even as I seek to be centered in the one on whom everything depends and through whom God’s good will comes. In him, Jesus, together with others for the world.

who has your ear?

What we listen to, or take in is what can change us, for good or ill. I seem to learn best by listening. So I actually daily listen to the Bible being read. But I refer to listen in this post in a metaphorical sense. What do we take in day after day, or on a regular basis? And ultimately who should have our ear?

N.T. Wright’s book, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is revolutionized my faith, and turned me back toward my Anabaptist roots (even though he is not Anabaptist), toward a Jesus-oriented, Sermon on the Mount kind of faith, although that journey and the end or outcome of it is much more complex than that. Scot McKnight’s, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others also powerfully impacted my faith. Another important book for me right now in helping me get my feet more firmly on the ground is also by N.T. Wright: After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, with an excellent ending chapter on “the virtuous circle,” not to diminish the rest of the book. And there are a number of other key writers for me, such as Eugene H. Peterson, to name one. I wish I could read all of the books I would like to read, but “too many books, too little time.”

Ultimately the one who is to have our ear is the good shepherd, Jesus. We are likened to sheep, and sheep are known to respond to their shepherd’s call, recognizing the voice. If what we are taking in is not helping us hear the voice of the good shepherd, Jesus, then something is amiss.

Interestingly, what and how we hear is influenced by those around us, particularly those who actually do influence us or have our ear for one reason or another. I put our pastors high on that list, Jack and Sharon Brown, who I both deeply respect. And Sharon’s award winning book, Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey, now being published by InterVarsity Press, is a most worthy read, unique in the way she helps us see how God can powerfully impact and change our lives in community through the spiritual disciplines rooted in scripture as practiced in the church (I am doing this book injustice with that sentence; you must read it for yourself).

In the end, let us listen, listen, and listen some more. Waiting and endeavoring to live as those who move because of the good shepherd’s voice, Jesus. Together in him for the world.

the sustaining word

If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my affliction.

God is our foundation and our center: God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; God revealed in Christ by the Spirit. And yet scripture itself, the word of God is also central to us in Jesus in this life. It certainly leads us to God’s final word, Jesus himself. And it functions as the corrective we need, indeed the directive as well, in all of our weakness in this life.

I look over my life, much of it now in the books, and I recognize how the word has been central for me in moving me toward centering on God through Jesus by the Spirit. I have largely depended on taking in God’s word through listening to it over the years, a majority of my nearly forty years as a Christian (from one translation, the New International Version). When it’s all said and done, I can look back on my life, and look at where I am now, and acknowledge how God’s word has sustained me in my faith even in the midst of the afflictions of life.

The faith of Christianity is Christ-centered, but it is also a word faith, in other words dependent on God essentially through Christ, but also through God’s word. We are a people of the Book. There is mystery in that. Books are complex as a rule, and God’s written word, the Bible is complex all the more. We simplify it to our detriment. The answer to that essentially is that this word is meant to be meditated on and also studied. We’re to handle accurately the word of truth. That is all a tall order. There is the human side, we study it as any other human document, but there is the divine side, we also depend on God to convey to us the essence of what is taught in it. It requires our diligence, but it is also of God, since it is indeed his word.

I have not touched on something that needs to be emphasized, and that’s the communal reading of God’s word, or hearing God’s word together in community as God’s people in Jesus. That has been neglected to our detriment. God speaks to us through his word, not only as individuals, but as a community together. We are in this, together. Even as we join the psalmist in acknowledging our own deep personal need for God’s word to sustain us in our life in God through Christ in this life. Together in him for the world.


Moses’ sermon in Deuteronomy

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

Listening to Deuteronomy and Moses’ sermon there, his last words to Israel, is actually rather breathtaking, or simply profound and powerful. It is in some sense formative to the people of God for then, and for now. Although as Scot McKnight wrote to me, Jesus refashions the kingdom of God. It was Moses’ last words to Israel, the words of one who knew God face to face, who was so faithful both to God in terms of his covenant, and to Israel, the people of God.

But we need to understand God’s calling out of his people, Israel, and how he set them apart as his people through the Law of Moses, which is also called the Law of the Lord (LORD, or Yahweh). A large part of what this sermon is about.

I think a main point of that law was that God was setting apart a people for himself and for the world who would be his witnesses. And who by that law would make known his will, to be fulfilled in a kingdom which would be destined to rule over the earth. So it had both a present aspect for that time, as well as a looking forward to the prophet who like Moses would speak God’s words to them, and to whom they were to listen.

The period in which Moses lived was formative for the people of God. God was bringing them along, raising them up to be his holy nation, his kingdom and priesthood ultimately not just for themselves, but for the world.

It doesn’t matter whether or not we understand everything that is said, or is happening, according to this sermon. It is important for us that we read and listen to it, because like the rest of scripture, we need it to shape our thinking, to understand our roots as God’s people, where we’ve come from, how that unfolded, and how it was and is being fulfilled in King Jesus and God’s kingdom present in him through the church. As well as the future fulfillment of that, when justice at long last is realized, and all things are made new.

Without this great sermon, we lack something of an important aspect of understanding our underpinnings, and what Jesus fulfills. Of course in Jesus’ fulfillment, there are aspects of the law of Moses which are fulfilled by the Spirit, and certain aspects which are set aside. Whether or not we can explain that well theologically, it’s a fact we have to learn to live with. For example we can now eat all foods; nothing is unclean, or nonkosher for us as God’s people. That would seem to go along with the thought that God’s law is now impacting the nations and cultures of the world through the Spirit. So that only essential basics related to love are required and considered aspects of holiness. Such basics of love are internal, but they are also external, such as caring in practical ways for the poor, for those in need.

We need to keep reading and I would recommend listening to scripture being read. I love the way The Bible Experience does that.

And so we continue in God’s written word, from the mouth of the Lord through the mouth of Moses even for us, in and through Jesus by the Spirit for the world.