don’t fall out of practice

About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become sluggish in hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.

Hebrews 5:11-14

If I get lax over anything, it won’t be long before I can tell the difference. That’s all too truly physically. It may be comfortable and feel perfectly fine to sit in my easy chair hour after hour, day after day. But when I get up, and especially when I have to do much at all I certainly realize that I’ve lost something. And the same is true spiritually. When I let up on reading Scripture and prayers, not to mention meeting as church, it doesn’t take long until I realize that my heart and mind are out of practice. What was more or less natural and rather taken for granted becomes a little less so, and if I would let it go longer, what had been natural will no longer feel that way, but more like drudgery or perhaps like climbing a mountain when one is out of shape. Hard to do.

When we’re in practice, at times it will feel like drudgery and often not feel easy. I speak from experience. But we need to keep doing it day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. That in part is how spiritual growth will occur, yes how we’ll avoid eventually falling. Slacking off except perhaps for relatively brief intervals of rest is absolutely not an option for us who are Christ followers. We must continue on and keep going. God will help us, that we can be assured of, as we do this.

we never outgrow the careful, prayerful application of Scripture

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face various trials, consider it all joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance complete its work, so that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

James 1:2-8

On the one hand, you have the evangelical concern for Scripture, almost as an end in itself, so that what can lose out is the purpose of Scripture itself, to point us to Christ, and Christ-likeness. On the other hand, you have for lack of a better word, the liberal dismissal of Scripture as yes, a good book, even sacred, but on something of an equal par with many other “inspired” sacred texts. Neither one is very helpful, but in spite of both, the Word can break through in both the public and private reading of Scripture.

A primary thing that is needed is the careful, prayerful application of Scripture. We never outgrow or get beyond that. Some seem to have suggested that we start with Scripture, and basics we derive from it, but that we’re not meant to stop there, but actually get beyond it into the sphere to which Scripture leads. That sounds interesting, and can be at least somewhat compellingly argued for, but really does not entirely make sense on the face of it.

For example, the above scripture from James is something that has to be applied in this broken, difficult existence, in this life, and that ongoing. We will never arrive to a place in this life in which such application is no longer necessary. If we think we’ve outgrown it, we’ll soon find out otherwise. Life itself will teach us differently. God has given us provision, yes through Scripture, somehow even all of it (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It’s up to us to take it, and prayerfully apply it. Indeed that’s indispensable.

a Christ-centered, or a Bible-centered faith?

“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

John 5:39-40

There is probably nothing more central to the Christian tradition than the public reading of sacred scripture, the Bible. Along with the sacraments and prayers and the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs and I can’t forget the sermon and community discernment, the Bible holds central sway.

Be that as it may, Jesus points out that that in itself is not enough. I think we not only do well to be in scripture, but we ought to do so daily. I love the morning and evening prayer section in our hymnal which includes the Psalm reading, along with Gospel, Old Testament and Epistle reading. Yes, we ought to be in scripture regularly, as a rule, daily. Maybe the evangelical influence under which I lived for decades is unduly weighing in on me with the next statement. But I think it’s probably good for new converts to get used to listening to scripture read on online audio formats. If you dig hard enough, many versions/ translations of scripture, have at least one. At the same time, you do well also to read scripture privately. There are charts to get you through once a year, which isn’t a bad substitute for listening, if you’re either not into that, or else can’t find an audio of your preferred version. And it’s the very best if you do both. And it’s good to read the entire thing through, maybe best to read a portion from each section of scripture, rather than from start to finish. I would highly recommend adding the reading of the Apocrypha to that mix. My main Bible includes those books. And if you wish, memorizing is good, meditation to me the most important thing, as we consider a section or book of scripture. So for me, and for the Christian tradition itself, and I include all the traditions within that tradition, scripture is certainly important, and in a sense central.

But what is the point of scripture is the question. If we make scripture itself to somehow be the point, that it is God’s word, written word pointing to the living Word as some say, I think that sets us up to make the same crucial, even fatal mistake that God’s people of Jesus’s time made. The point of the Bible is never itself, never! It’s not meant to teach us science, not even history, nor any number of things we might try to pull out of it. Nor is it meant to be a text book to tell us what’s right and wrong, as well as how to get along in life, though we will learn precisely that from considering it in light of its fulfillment. It’s not that we can’t learn much about wisdom and life by poring through scripture, because indeed we can. But within the many contradictions in scripture, above all, the sacred inspired text is meant to help us understand the point of it all: the good news in Jesus, God’s light and life into our space, and what that means for us in the present considering both the past and the future. Again, it’s important to be in scripture. But it’s important because scripture is the chief and in a sense the only inspired witness to Christ. Christ and God’s good news to the world in Christ is the point of it all. Scripture is infallible only in that sense; it’s infallible for the purpose it exists. So that the Word itself can break through, and indeed it will. Scripture is rather central in that process, to be sure. But in the scheme of things and big picture, Christ ends up being the center piece, himself. And God’s good news in him.

should every thought on scripture and life from a Christian be Christological, somehow pointing to and centered in Christ?

“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

John 5:39-40

It is challenging in any time to think through scripture with an application for the present. I’ve heard it explained, and this makes sense to me, that we first need to try to understand the author’s intent, or the intent of the writing when done, albeit from some original source perhaps edited and redacted. But equally important, so it was said, is the reception. In other words, it’s one thing to write or talk as to communicate something to someone, or some people. It’s quite another as to just how that message will be understood. That’s the first step.

In light of all of scripture, which for the Christian consists at least of the 66 books in every Bible, and for various Christian traditions includes what is called books of the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical books, we might say that somehow all must be seen in light of Christ and the revelation of God in him. That seems to me to say that all must be judged in light of Christ, and that seems especially to be in reference to the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and only then what follows.

All of this is beyond anyone’s pay grade, and especially one who is limited in theological education, such as myself. It is certainly first and foremost the work of the church by the Spirit, sifting through scripture and the writings of church fathers and mothers and theologians. It is a daunting, yet wonderful, enlightening task, even if one dips into it just now and then.

Certainly there’s much more to say beyond my limited attempt here. I used to end almost all my posts on this blog with “in and through Jesus,” or something like that. Maybe I should resume that. Whether or not I do, I certainly believe all scripture should be read in light of Christ, putting the reading of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) first to not only understand what follows, but to appreciate what preceded, how Christ and his words, the revelation in him actually are connected to that past, and how it is the culmination which becomes ever present through the resurrection and Pentecost into eternity. Yes, always in and through Jesus.

no, keep on learning, overthinking, etc., all in awe, or “the fear of God”

Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.

The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:9-14

I have to wonder about interpretations of Ecclesiastes which essentially say that it demonstrates what thinking and all of life is without God or consideration of God. Maybe something like that, much more nuanced is a strand in considering the teaching of Qoheleth, “the Teacher” (1:2-12:8). I think I’ve heard or seen people suggest that basically what Ecclesiastes is saying is that all the machinations of reflection and thought along with most books is simply a waste of time, even worse than a waste of time. Maybe that is true of some philosophy books, ha, although just to try to understand what is being said or what might underlie that surely has value. And what I consider a questionable and unthoughtful reading of the scripture above might seem in full support of that.

No, Ecclesiastes, even if something of this like in other writings needs some qualification in light of Christ, is still chalk full of wisdom, evidently a needed compliment to Proverbs and perhaps a bit more in line with Job. And in the “Epilogue” (NRSVue heading) quoted above, the one who shares this wisdom thinks something quite different. I don’t think there’s a least bit of doubt in the thought that we read the Bible much better if we read life which includes many books along with it. Yes, I know, and I stand as a good example of this, we are limited for many reasons on just how many books we can read. But if we would learn to at least appreciate the many good books out there, classics and present day works, I think we would be better off as individuals and as a society, even as the church. Of course there’s much value for those who read the Bible and little or nothing else. But you won’t understand the Bible as well, the point that is being made in the story in it unless you work and work together with others at becoming well versed in life. And that will require attentiveness to life itself, and to books.

let the children come

Then children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them, but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

Matthew 19:13-15

In the similar accounts from Mark (10:13-16) and Luke (18:15-17) Jesus says a bit more with Luke’s account slightly different. But we do well to let each gospel account make its distinct contribution within its telling of the gospel story without comparing it to the others. Not that we can’t read the others at the same time, but we are not practiced enough in letting each account speak for itself.

Matthew is straightforward, leaving out something of what Mark said since Mark was likely one of Matthew’s sources since the majority of scholars believe Mark was the first gospel written. Matthew makes the point that Jesus in correcting his disciples, simply says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to children and those like them. You can let your imagination go on what that means. Children as is evident in the disciples’ attitude here, for whatever reason were at least not viewed as participants in what matters most, in what Jesus was proclaiming and bringing.

Jesus corrected them, and laid his hands on the children who were brought to him and presumably prayed over them, certainly blessing them. It doesn’t say that he taught them, though he did teach crowds which included children. He certainly unlike his disciples had time for them. Any church that is faithful will include the children and be careful never to exclude them. With all of their noise and play, they should never be regarded as a nuisance. And they should be taught about Jesus in ways they can receive. This was one important aspect of my own life in the faithful Sunday School program of our church in my own childhood days for which I am thankful.

Let the children come.

what helps in our faith (and doesn’t)

I will sing of loyalty and of justice;
to you, O LORD, I will sing.
I will study the way that is blameless.
When shall I attain it?

I will walk with integrity of heart
within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
anything that is base.

Psalm 101:3

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her, then, to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42

One of the most basic things we need to ask ourselves and take personal inventory on is our use of time, what we’re doing with it. And I’m thinking now of the free time we have when we can do whatever we please. On the other hand there are a good number of things we need to do or have to do, and there are also those things which we will end up doing if we use our free time wisely.

This can be like many things in life: Too much is no good, but a certain amount may be quite good. And this will differ from person to person. For example some may spend hours and hours reading novels and the like. And while that might be helpful in many ways depending, it might also eventually leave one feeling empty and convicted in their use of time. For others like myself we might spend a lot of time on history or politics. That can be good too, but in my case I find too much not only can leave me feeling empty, but also unsettled and indeed unhappy. Anyone alive and aware today understands.

We all know how much might be or is enough. And what we need to do. To have a faith which is active in love to each other, to our neighbors, indeed even to our enemies, yes to the world, we have to prioritize and foster certain practices. For me it includes scripture reading, hymns and songs from “Morning Prayer” and “Evening Prayer” in our hymnal. And to meditate on scripture through reading books and listening to podcasts.

What we have to keep asking ourselves as followers of Christ is whether or not what we’re doing is helping us to follow or not. And not just by ourselves, but in company with others. And just what the fruit of that is. Is it resulting in good works out of love for each other and for others? And are we growing in this way, or not?

Important anytime and especially during certain times when other things which though worthy of careful consideration, can crowd in and take over.

be human(e) (Jesus: “the Human One”)

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.”

Mark 8:31; CEB

Traditionally translated “Son of Man” which theologically is understood as a messianic term, the reference Jesus used more for himself than any other, though not always messianic in scripture, but the rendering in the Common English Bible, “the Human One” I think while not as word for word, brings out something within the term which I think can all but get lost in all too many readings of the Bible.

In the first place, I wonder how much the Bible is actually read. But after that, then the relatively few times it actually is, how close attention are we paying to it, just how well are we reading it? I’m afraid that the answer is something like rather abysmal. Or at least I think I can say that for myself. Over the years into decades, I did go over the Bible time and time again on cassette than CD at least a couple times a year. And I’ve had probably more than my share of Bibles. And yet I missed so much. But what I did pick up somehow made me suspicious of what I was hearing in Christian circles.

One of the greatest failures in our reading and understanding, yes interpretation of scripture, is how we in our insistence of reading “literally,” lift out things that Jesus never mentioned or when Jesus did quote, would leave out. We often major on judgment forgetting that it applies to us just as much as anyone else. Some of the horrendous ways the Bible has been interpreted and applied today, I would not want to mention here or on social media, and hardly out loud. And the notion that we’re just to read and let it say what it’s saying without interpreting is fantasy. There is nothing that we read or think about that isn’t connected with our experience and everything about us.

And so just this simple word for today: Be human, humane when you read scripture. Yes, don’t skip the hard parts, but see them well within their own context, within the whole, and then in the revelation of Jesus we find in scripture and the impact that had and should still have.

imagination, life, one missing link and the Bible

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

Romans 15:4

One of the most wonderful things about reading and meditating on the Bible is how we can see ourselves somehow in the narrative, or how the words speak right to where we live, to life itself. To see properly and that includes our perspective of the entire Bible, we have to view it from Jesus: his coming, life, example, teaching, works, and the culmination of that in his death and resurrection. Then the ascension and all that follows. We have to see and even critique all else in that light.

Imagination plays a key role in this. God is speaking to us through scripture, right into our very lives no less. It’s not about believing this or that as much as it is about living distinctively different in love for God and for neighbor. We certainly do accept all of Jesus’s words, what he taught us and all that follows from that. We want to take them one hundred percent seriously. And if we do that, it means a changed life which comes from a renewed mind and a new heart and spirit.

And one of the most important things that can come out of this is a renewed vision for community in Jesus. It’s not a walk we can do by ourselves. If we do that, yes, God will help us, but it will be much harder, and not really the vision Jesus sets forth. We’re in this together as followers of Jesus, as his body the church. So that our imaginations for life from scripture must take that in prime consideration.

In and through Jesus.

is the Bible a flat book?

…from childhood you have known sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:15-17

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

Matthew 5:38-41

Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Luke 24:27, 32

There are many who see and read the Bible as if it were a flat book, that is they selectively really, apply parts of scripture for what Christians or nations should do today. Or else scholars attempt to explain away what is clearly in the text. That there are problematical texts ethically in the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament should go without saying. Certainly they lived in a different day with norms which are not standard for us. For example in a patriarchal hierarchal society. And in a world in which violence was accepted as necessary at times.

But Jesus comes along and really blows all of that out of the water. A Christian reading and understanding of scripture doesn’t accept all that is in it as normative for today. Some of this is obvious when we consider the Pentateuch and a book like Leviticus. But there are ethical, moral matters which are often transported from the Old Testament today, which are not Christian if Christian means to follow Christ. Just one example among many is Elijah calling down fire on people (2 Kings 1).

We certainly have to find the benefit for us from all of scripture, though again in a book like Leviticus, that benefit may come from broad sweeps of the book and not as much in its details. Regardless of what we are looking at in sacred scripture, and I’m referring to the Christian Bible which includes the Hebrew Bible which is commonly called the Old Testament, at least secondarily the Apocrypha and what is called the New Testament. But regardless of where we look in that text, we have to seek to sift it through Christ, his teaching, to see all of scripture as it were through the eyes of Christ.

That’s a tall order, for sure. And it doesn’t mean we discard anything that is not in harmony or meets the standard of Christ. It all somehow has value as we seek to consider the context. We can at the very least see how God’s people have changed in their understanding of God, of God’s will and God’s way. In a final, ongoing sense through the coming of Jesus and all that follows. In and through Jesus.