holding on to faith in the midst of a pandemic

Christians are not afraid of death, even though it remains an “enemy,” the last enemy that will be done away with. We realize it’s both inevitable, and that through Jesus’s resurrection, it is not the end. Through faith and baptism (Romans 6) we participate in that resurrection so that in and through Christ death is not the end for us.

When considering the COVID-19 pandemic, for some reason the book of Job comes to my mind. Everyone has an opinion, and often the opinions are at variance with each other, indeed in opposition. Everyone has their say along with Job, who questions God and finds no easy answers. Job’s faith is tattered, maybe one might say shaken, yet is not in ruins. It remains, as he continues to answer those who have all the right answers from their ivory tower position. We know that God steps in and points Job to his creation, things well beyond Job, and somehow in that, Job is able to find peace in realizing that he simply doesn’t know, and in accepting that.

For me, I am questioning the faith of others who seem to deny science, and want to carry on as if everything is normal, and much of that with the view I suppose of trusting in God. Of course nowadays there are all kinds of political stuff thrown in, so that your views and how you think are often mostly partisan, determined by your political party and its platform or general view, or what it holds to. Not really dependent on faith, and I would say a well thought out faith.

Science is in the crosshairs and crossfire of all of this, being the bogeyman for too many. There is no way we can understand what to do about a virus by opening up our Bibles and praying. Yes, we need to do that always, every day. But to understand natural phenomena, we have to study it on its own terms. I won’t understand a whole lot about a flower except by learning from those who have studied it, how it takes hold from being a seed in the soil, how it grows, how it thrives and passes on not only its beauty, but provision to nature. So it is with the virus: We have to listen and take seriously science, or pay the consequences.

To think about science would require another post and much more. Modern science is simply the discipline of observation, hypothesis, testing, verification, and on and on. It is not closed, so that it doesn’t purport to have final answers. And indeed it can’t speak in matters in which faith speaks, like why the flower exists beyond the scientific reasons given.

All of that to say this: In the way of Jesus, we hold on to faith in God, but an intelligent or thoughtful faith. Refusing to give in to fear, but not acting foolhardy, either. Not jumping off the cliff like Satan suggested the Lord should do, who promptly quoted him Scripture in context, that we’re not to put the Lord our God to the test.

This can test us, how we see others expressing their faith, not unlike Job’s struggle, I suppose. In the end we have to do our best, but wait on God. Only with God’s help and through his word will we eventually come to more and more of the perspective we need. In and through Jesus.

the boring Bible

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]

Matthew 4:1-4

Evidently we don’t have the time, or more like the will to regularly be in Scripture. Or at least that seems to be the case given the increasing lack of basic knowledge Christians have about the content of the Bible. We have all kinds of helps at our fingertips, not to mention the Bible itself in numerous translations.

Instead we’re obsessed with this or that, for many today it’s politics. Or whatever occupies your mind and time. That’s what moves us. If we’re attending a good Bible teaching or preaching church, we’ll get something good every weekend, if we have the appetite to receive it. God does meet us where we’re at, but we need to grow from the milk of the word into the meat of the word. But that requires the commitment of being in Scripture regularly day after day throughout each day.

And it’s best to take it slow, but not stop, to keep going. Two-pronged in reading (or listening) through the Bible in a year more or less, and in slowly going over especially the New Testament. Study of Scripture is good too, with good helps online as well. But most importantly in one way or another we need to have a consistent sustained practice of being in Scripture. Without that we’ll become weak and susceptible to becoming hollow in our faith, nothing much backing what profession of faith might be left.

Something we have to continue to pursue and grow in day after day. In and through Jesus.

 

how do we read scripture?

I’m kind of old school in some ways. I like physical copies of the Bible, have had one near me most all of my Christian life of over four decades now. And still don’t have a smart phone (although other phones are getting smarter). Most everyone nowadays is on their phone. That’s okay, and rather beside the point of this post. Because there are excellent sites to read scripture: BibleGateway and YouVersion probably the two best places.

I think we need to do it two ways: fast and slow. And we could add medium, adding study into the mix, maybe utilizing a good study Bible, especially with biblical background notes. I think it’s important to go through all of scripture, and keep doing that. Because the more one has the entire word in their repertoire, the more they’ll get out of what they are reading. And it’s good to have biblical background too, such as details on the terrain, or what not.

For me, it’s an emphasis on the text itself. I don’t worry about trying to sort out historical detail underlying the text. God’s word is given to us just as it is for a reason. I don’t need the exact historical details. I’m not saying scripture is anti-historical. Certainly either the resurrection of Christ is history, or else our faith is a hoax. The point is that we need the word itself. Not explanations supporting it.

And we need to read it slowly, let it soak in. Memorization can help us there. I only memorize now and then. The big thing for me in this is what we call meditation. Add to that prayer. So that being in the word is about a kind of interactivity with God, hopefully bringing us into a relationship with God by faith in the good news in Jesus. But allowing God to change us by his word: our lives, our priorities, our world view (another phrase which renders me a bit old school).

Make no mistake about it. We need to get into God’s word, and be in it day and night, regularly, I say. Not just as something we aspire to, but which we practice, day after day. In and through Jesus.

back to scripture

נ Nun

105 Your word is a lamp for my feet,
    a light on my path.
106 I have taken an oath and confirmed it,
    that I will follow your righteous laws.
107 I have suffered much;
    preserve my life, Lord, according to your word.
108 Accept, Lord, the willing praise of my mouth,
    and teach me your laws.
109 Though I constantly take my life in my hands,
    I will not forget your law.
110 The wicked have set a snare for me,
    but I have not strayed from your precepts.
111 Your statutes are my heritage forever;
    they are the joy of my heart.
112 My heart is set on keeping your decrees
    to the very end.d]”>[d]

One way or another, I think there’s nothing more basic to the Christian life, to the follower of Jesus than to get back into scripture, God’s written word. Of course there’s never any shortage of questions on just how one should do that, how our reading is flawed now, how we should study, just a number of problems in how even Christians approach the Bible. And we need to listen and weigh these things, and consider just how we might do better.

But the crucial point is that we need to get into the word little by little, and all of it. Best case is to both be reading it through, and meditating on it along the way. I have listened to scripture either being read in a conventional way, or dramatically for years. Now I mostly read it for myself all the way through, as well as another track much slower, thinking on each part.

We need to see the whole, and see scripture as God’s story with all its different sometimes seemingly at odd parts, the 66 books all contributing uniquely to the whole, each one important in its place.

This is not about following some kind of religious prescribed order. It is more about both relationship and community together in God in and through Jesus. It is both individual and corporate, so that we find our own God-given place within the community of believers in the church. Where did that come from? From scripture itself. And that’s the entire point: We need to be in all of scripture, see it as the unfolding story of God which comes to its dramatic fulfillment and conclusion in Jesus. We find that while we have to take each part seriously in its own terms, in the end we see it in light of Jesus, and the fulfillment of it all in him, through the gospel, mediated by the church, and in mission to the world. All of that together. Not discounting how God impacts us individually as we get daily into God’s word.

At the church where we’ve been attending to take our grandchildren, and plan to soon join, they emphasize what they call the row, the circle and the chair. The row being our coming together weekly to worship and hear God’s word taught. The circle being the small groups which they strongly encourage people to become a part of, coming together to consider God’s truth in Jesus. And the chair, which is called personal devotions. I guess I have not really practiced personal devotions in the conventional evangelical way over the years. For me the point is that we need to be regularly, daily in God’s word and in prayer ourselves. But to have a space of quiet time before God would certainly be good. I try to do something like that throughout the day, whatever activity I’m in, simply picking up in my little New Testament where I’ve left off throughout the day, a small clip allowing me to open the page I’m on.

Again and again I get back to this theme. Back to scripture. Because I believe God is uniquely at work through it. And through the good news of the gospel. Saving us from so much for so much in and through Jesus.

radical reliance on God

Trust in the LORD with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6

I like the NRSV rendering, “and do not rely on your own insight.” We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, or at least I’ll speak for myself. I read scripture daily, but I also go over it slowly. I find especially at certain parts, that I do well to slow down, sometimes back up then slow down, and ponder all of it in its parts, which hopefully will help me understand it better as a whole.

For me the first thought here, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart,” is particularly striking, and actually challenging, unfortunately, given my own propensity to depend on information gathering and reason. Not that those shouldn’t be in the mix, but in the end we’re to either trust in God, or rely on our own insight. One or the other.

I like The Message‘s rendering of this passage:

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
    he’s the one who will keep you on track.

It’s important to consider each part, but it’s a mistake to isolate it from the whole. We’re to consider each part carefully with reference to the whole. And what I find is nothing short of a radical dependence on God, which does not imagine that anything short of that is satisfactory in and of itself. So that when we’re confronted with something in which we know we’re in need of special wisdom, wisdom from God, we can proceed on this track, that of radically relying on him.

Of course this doesn’t at all mean that we ditch science, or human knowledge, along with rationality. Those in their place can be part of the equation, in their proper place, indeed gifts from God. But we don’t do well to put our confidence in the gifts, but rather, in the Giver. Our confidence in the end has to be in the God who gave us those things, or the ability to come up with the working knowledge we humans come up with. But we know that we’re limited even in that God-given sphere, and in the end that we not only do well to, but actually need to put our trust completely in God, and quit trying to figure everything out and arrive to a satisfactory place ourselves.

This will require prayer, being in the word, more prayer, certainly regular participation in church, prayer, being in the word, more prayer, and more participation in church. And time, with the waiting on God that goes with that.

God is at work in ways we probably are not capable of fully understanding and appreciating. We need to work at trusting in him. God will give us the insight and help we need if we commit ourselves to radical dependence on him. Which means we are willing to wait and take our hands off the process. Waiting for his peace to keep us on his path for us in and through Jesus.

we know Jesus, but more importantly, he knows us (and a lesson in the importance of reading the Bible in context)

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

John 10:14-15

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.

John 10:27-28

I had another good reminder just this morning of the importance of reading in context, and specifically, I’m thinking of scripture. At work, and at home, I have an ongoing practice of going over scripture slowly during the course of a day, sometimes too slowly, especially if I’m at home, occupied with other things. There is good in this in that it seems like scripture itself advocates a meditation which comes from reading, likely slow reading at that, rather than the emphasis on studying scripture. Thanks to an old acquaintance and servant of Christ, Jim Egli, who pointed this out to me. Not to say that normal reading, or listening to scripture isn’t good, even important and necessary. Along with occasionally studying something, such as the meaning of a word.

Recently at work I was impressed with Jesus saying at a certain key part in his dispute with the people of his day that he knows his sheep. That was a rather cloudy day for me in my spiritual vision, so to see that what is most fundamental when all is said and done is that the Lord knows us, even if we are struggling to have the sense of knowing him, was an encouragement. And actually these words from Paul line up with that:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?

Galatians 4

I realized in looking at John 10 this morning, that actually there is a strong emphasis on us knowing the Lord, as well as the Lord knowing us. Both are important. Sometimes like sheep, we can and will indeed feel lost. During those times it is good to take as much comfort as we can gather in the knowledge that the Lord knows us through and through, even if we are struggling to sense our knowledge of him. But we do know the Lord as well, even though, unlike him, our spiritual vision will at times be weak.

A good point, I take it, and also a good lesson in the importance of reading scripture in context. May we meditate, as we read scripture slowly, but may we also read all of it, and keep doing both, so that we might grow together with others in Jesus in an interactive relationship with God through the Spirit.

helping others study the word in-depth

At Our Daily Bread Ministries, where I work, there is offered an online source for biblical, theological, and practical study (“Christian Counseling,” and “Ministry Leadership”) entitled Christian University GlobalNet, or simply Our Daily Bread Christian University. It is designed for Christians who are busy, but want to study scripture and theology indepth, with a track toward a degree through participating colleges and seminaries.

I am privileged to be a TA, meaning a Teacher’s Assistant. In the direction given to us, our “purpose is to interact with [the student’s] Response Time answers. In a manner that promotes positive engagement, reflection, and application.” One can listen to the lectures, my courses: OT219 2 Samuel-2 Kings: The Difference Leaders Make, taught by Dr. Douglas Stuart, and NT219 Luke-John: Two Interpretations of Jesus, taught by Dr. Craig Blomberg.

When I first started I thought I was more or less someone who was simply there to help as needed, which in my mind meant being available to answer questions they might ask. But it’s at last dawning on me, that even though from the outset I did try to interact with their work, I need to do so more, in step with this ministry, and educational opportunity. So that is my goal right now.

God has used my experience as a TA to help me be an encouragement to others, and help me personally to plug into something by which I can encourage what I myself deeply believe in: in-depth biblical and theological study. There is an acknowledged dearth within even the evangelical church when it comes to simple biblical and theological understanding. I’m glad in whatever way I can, to promote Christian maturity and growth through the study of the gospel and scripture, and our response to that as followers of Jesus. And that is what I like best about being a TA: that I can help promote this kind of study by which we would better learn to be followers of Christ with the goal of full maturity together in him.

If you are interested in either enrolling, or becoming a TA, I would encourage you to prayerfully consider it. For TA’s, you are asked to look at work done in your courses at least once a week, so as to write a message provided for you, along with your own input to anyone new. And perhaps to interact with those you have already contacted. And to be in prayer for them.

It’s great to be a part of this through my work in line with the goal, or mission of Our Daily Bread Ministries:

…to make the life-changing wisdom of the Bible understandable and accessible to all.

 

context matters (for a good Bible study)

I would like to say that any Bible study is good, but that is surely a stretch. In spite of us, God can and indeed does use his written word.

One of my complaints about what can happen in Bible studies is the failure to really consider well a passage in its immediate context, as well as general context. This is particularly challenging if not nearly impossible to do in a topical study, though I think a topical study done well, I mean really sticking to the topic, can do alright in this regard.

Scripture passages are not holy dust, simply to be read so as to give light to our days. That is where I think precious promise books, which quote Bible verses and perhaps short passages are limited. Not that they can’t be a blessing and do much good. And I’ll add that note even in regard to the type of Bible studies I’m complaining about. Again, God does use his word, often in spite of our failure to handle it accurately. However we still have the responsibility before God to work hard at handling scripture accurately (2 Timothy 2:15).

Context matters. And we might say that the point of every passage is the good news in Jesus, or perhaps better put, that is the plot of the story we’re reading, the rest of it, including teaching material such as Proverbs, etc., filling in the details, since this is to be lived out in real life. Remembering too, Jesus words, that all the law and the prophets hang on two commandments: to love God with all our being and doing, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22).

That is why my own preference, when leading a Bible study, is to settle down in one passage. I will try to share the context of the passage, and then guide us in a discussion which lends plenty of freedom for people to think and share preferably in relation to the passage. Each passage has so much in it, the topic at hand or the main points are so compelling, that there is no shortage to stimulate us in our thinking, and hopefully from that in our praying and living, to the glory of God in and through Christ.

remaining inquisitive

As I get older I care less and less about matters which used to hold some interest to me. I am supposing and probably more like hoping that on central matters of life and of the faith I am growing in interest and/or understanding. Other matters I either don’t consider important at all anymore, of relatively little importance, or on which I am glad to remain agnostic since I think scripture may not really address the question or answer it in the way our theologies do. I am glad for the zeal of younger folks who go after some subjects which really are quite important in their place. I can appreciate and learn from them. I am not so inclined anymore to want to hash out some of the ongoing debates that are out there. For one thing I’ve sadly seen Christians tear into each other. Which ends up ruining the entire thing. But even when that doesn’t happen and a constructive dialog takes place, I pick and choose my spots much more carefully. The older one gets the more one realizes just how limited time is.

But one thing in this regard I want to be is simply inquisitive. To be interested to pursue important questions. For example, recently I noticed from Galatians 5 that the NIV 2011 changed the fruit of the Spirit patience to forbearance. Of course I love the simple word patience. And I want to push away a word like forbearance. Who uses that in everyday life? And yet I can see in that word a richness of meaning which can be helpful in understanding patience in terms of relationships which the passage is all about. To forbear is to put up with each other, which to some extent we have to do and are called to do in love. But I would want to go to a Greek lexicon and perhaps more than one to see what meaning they would give to the Greek term so translated (my transliteration: makrothumia). I see in my BAGD lexicon that one definition given for the word is “forbearance, patience toward others” and that Galatians 5:22 is listed as one of the passages with that meaning. If I had more time I’d like to study this thought further (and I intend to later). I would do so by looking up good evangelical and other Christian commentaries on Galatians, especially those which might get more into the language itself.

So it’s good and surely a vital part of our humanity to continue to explore. Yes, to read, to ask questions. As we remain in the Truth in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.

not a literalist

When it comes to reading both Genesis and the Revelation, I can say hands down that I am not a literalist. At the same time I can say hands down that I believe both texts to be true and the inspired, inscripturated word of God. We do have to read all of scripture for what it is, each part. And we have to read it in context, especially its own, and it helps to know something of the historical, cultural context into which it was written.

I am reading in the Revelation right now, and sometimes don’t know quite what to make of it in regard to literal and figurative. Sometimes I’m thinking the text I’m reading is to some extent figurative. Truth is told all the way around, but exactly what is meant or how that truth will be played out in literal terms, sometimes I’m not sure, nor frankly do I care. What I do care about is that it is true. In fact it is rather easy for me to depart from some literal reading of a text, and chalk it down as figurative, saying something profound in a striking sort of way. Like the possibility of being victorious so that we can sit with Jesus on his throne just as Jesus was victorious and sat with his Father on his Father’s throne. Maybe all that means is that we will reign with Christ if we are victorious in him in this life. It may help to find more information which might actually see something of a literal fulfillment in the like. But much of the Revelation as well as the early chapters of Genesis lends itself readily to something of an interpretation which does not see all the text as strictly literal, while nonetheless true in its context, true in some way or another as part of God’s inscripturated word.

We need to read, study and ask questions. Though for myself, I am most concerned at this point with reading with a view to being formed more and more into the image of Jesus by God’s grace through the Spirit in communion with others in Jesus and in mission to the world.