the Bible and the world (even the news)

John R. W. Stott wrote what in my lifetime was considered a classic, or at least a must read book for those training for the ministry, entitled, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today. The idea, written in 1982, is something like for a pastor to be effective in his sermon preparation, he needs to have both a Bible (certainly with necessary helps when preparing the sermon) in hand, and a newspaper. Stott and colleagues used to go to landmark films together, and then discuss their meaning afterward.

I think Stott gets to a most important point. I may want to simply escape the world, and live in some kind of monastic order, thinking that I would actually do the world more good to do so. While there’s a grain of truth in that, there’s also, I think, some error. I live in the real world which has an overwhelming influence over all of us in all sorts of ways, most of which we take for granted, and are hardly even aware of. I think of the Modernist Enlightenment heritage of my own country, the United States. And just one result of that is an entrenched individualism which at best means we each take responsibility, and at worst that we’re not our brother’s keeper. Another strong emphasis coming out of that is the falsity which again has a grain of truth, but with what ends up a poisonous admixture of error, that all the world needs to overcome “evil” is simply knowledge. We need more education, another staple of the Enlightenment.

We don’t live in a vacuum in which it’s just us and God. We live in a real world, with definite issues, which can end up defining or at least impacting individuals and societies. And at the same time, we have a word from God, word meaning written scripture, and preeminently meaning the gospel pointing to God’s final Word, Jesus. That word speaks into our lives, but into them where we live, no less. The word is often called “timeless,” but a better word for it might be timely. It initially spoke into a specific time, place and culture. And it continues to speak to every generation and place. It is the ancient word, to be sure, but at the same time God’s word for the world.

And so we need to be those who major on listening to God through his word. And that word will speak into the world in which we live. Even as it spoke into the world of its original recipients. God’s word in Jesus bringing in God’s grace and kingdom in him, yes right into the world in which we live. Living in “this present evil age” as we look forward to the world to come when Jesus returns and heaven and earth are made one.

getting uncluttered in life

The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.

Matthew 13

When you get older you start to think about getting rid of all the things in your house or garage that you haven’t used for years and years. Paring down, before others end up having to do that for you, or after you’re gone. I think something similar applies for all of us as followers of Jesus. We need to be unencumbered, free from what can weigh us down, and essentially knock us out, or at least greatly impair and hinder our walk in Jesus.

For me more than anything else, this involves the spiritual discipline if you want to call it that, of being in the word regularly. I feel it if for a prolonged time I’m not in the word, in scripture. And being in the word is nothing scintillating or entertaining, as a rule. Actually it goes much deeper than that, right to the heart, to the very core of one’s being, and out of that forming one’s character and what one does, over time.

There are any number of things, indeed no shortage of them, which can very much distract and burden us, yes, unnecessarily. It’s not like we don’t have plenty of responsibilities in place and challenges that come our way that we can simply ignore and forget about. It’s more like how we address those issues, what we do when we’re doing so. Are we endeavoring to walk with Jesus, to be in scripture in whatever situation we’re in? Are we active in the fellowship of the church, in a Jesus community? This is all an essential part of us being those who hear the word, understand it, and find God at work in our lives for ourselves and others in and through Jesus.

the Bible is from the real world for the real world

I’m reading this book (Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well, by Glenn R. Paauw) and ran across the thought that the Bible comes from the real world, reflecting it, for the real world. Like Jesus came into the real world, sharing in its brokenness, apart from sin, of course. And that this strikes against the gnosticism which rears its head in a good number of ways, yes even in the church. A gnostic approach is to somehow avoid the real world with something from heaven that cancels out the earth. But the biblical message is about heaven becoming one with earth, the real earth, the real world, right where you and I and everyone else lives. A messy, broken, and sometimes ugly world. Transformative, to be sure, in and through Jesus, but touching all of life right where we live.

That helps me, because although I’d like to check out and not go through the mess (maybe like on a long vacation somewhere in Paradise), life doesn’t allow that. In the Bible, people are taken through the valleys, not out of them. We do look forward to the great Transformation to come when the troubles of this life will be over, and a new real world will be born. But until then, we are engaged in this good, yet broken real world, and through Jesus somehow that engagement will impact the new real world to come (1 Corinthians 15).

And so I don’t want to shun what might be unpleasant and even ugly. But to address everything through Jesus and God’s good news in him. We live out a gospel for the real world that is for the real world, all of it. It not only impacts it, but it gives an entirely different answer other than what the world gives, in and through Jesus.

That is what I live in and for with others. The only hope I have for myself, for others, and for the world. In and through Jesus.

Modernist Enlightenment priorities

At the heart of the American experiment, the United States of America, is the influence of the great Modernist Enlightenment which was sweeping the world just prior to the nation’s founding. It was a break from established authority such as the church into the new world of great human achievement. In a sense, it wasn’t new, having come on the shoulders of the Renaissance and not without some impulse from the Protestant Reformation. Although the Reformation itself may have had some, at least backing, from this wave. One can’t include the Reformation as part of Modernism or the Enlightenment, though the world can influence the church for ill, as has been seen beginning in the 19th century with Mainline Protestantism.

The goal of this post is not to talk about the Modernist Enlightenment of which my own knowledge is limited, but to mention some of the basic tenants of it, which I think have infiltrated our thinking and priorities even as Bible believing Christians, quite apart from the people and churches in Mainline Protestantism who practically deny the truth of the Bible itself, and thus the truth of the gospel.

Autonomy is at the heart of a value we’ve imbibed from the world. It is rooted in certain human/humanistic ideals, to be sure, often more or less universally accepted like the rule of some kind of law based on an accepted form of morality, not far afield from the obligations to humanity in the Ten Commandments, which through general revelation can be more or less found in other moral codes of the ancient world.

Autonomy here means an emphasis on the individual, and on freedom, on individual liberty. Every person theoretically is taken seriously within the accepted framework, and has certain rights grounded in what is called natural law. The idea of individual rights is so pervasive in our society, that it has impacted our worldview as Christians, and affects even how we understand and fail to understand the faith.

Jesus’s ethic, and thus the ethic for Christ followers and Christians is grounded in the call to love God with one’s entire being and doing: the call to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. No longer is one operating from merely individual freedom and rights. Instead one’s considerations our shaped by the necessity, indeed imperative to love one’s neighbor as themselves. It is a community consideration, rather than a mere individual one. It’s not about what I want, what I like, or what I choose to do. It’s grounded in God’s will, what God wants, God’s calling- all in Jesus.

So we do well to step back, stop and think about what drives our thinking and corresponding actions. Are we conformed to this world, the spirit of the age, or are we being transformed by the renewing of our minds into the image of God in Jesus? Whatever that difference might look like in civic life is secondary to what it is to be steeped in: the life of the church in making disciples through the gospel. Something we both become and are becoming, as well as being a light in the world to help others into this same life. A life that is about loving God and one’s neighbor, and laying down all of our rights in the way of Jesus.

think biblically

In the firestorm of today’s news, some of which is exceedingly sad, and perhaps all the more in the political climate of today, and any day, for that matter, we need to aspire to learning to think biblically.

Just to look at the Bible alone, as if we could do so, as it were, in a vaccum, which is impossible, but again, just to consider the Bible alone is challenging. I resort to what has been called a redemptive hermeneutic (hermeneutic essentially means interpretation), so that the Bible is a story which points to an ultimate conclusion, which is a fitting end to the beginning, but takes seriously everything in between. So that, while there’s harmony in the sense that the story follows a certain path, we find unexpected twists and turns along the way, even in the First Testament alone, but especially so in the Second, Final Testament, when Jesus fulfills all of scripture in ways which were not anticipated by those who lived during that time, or prior. But the seeds of which one can arguably clearly enough find in the First Testament.

From there, we have to consider present day thinking, where that came from, how it is entrenched in society, and in our own thinking. If we’re beginning to get the first goal of arriving to good Biblical thinking, true to that text and its fulfillment in Jesus, then we are ready to consider how we really think in everyday life, what our thinking actually is, which likely will be a reflection of the thinking of the world in which we live. And we have to critique that in the light of biblical thinking.

Where I live, the United States, our language and thinking is derived from the Modernist Enlightenment. Even how we think biblically is in large part impacted by that, so that we actually end up imposing the understanding of the age upon the text of scripture. Rather, we need to remain in the text of scripture, so that we can more and more think truly biblically, and be able to critique our present day thought.

Does that mean we expect the world to conform to biblical thinking? Certainly not. But we in Jesus are not to be conformed to this world, but rather, transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we might come to understand what is the good and perfect will of God (Romans 12:2). That is not something we’ll arrive to overnight, indeed it involves a lifelong process together with other believers.

I believe this is critical, mainly because I think we think in ways that are not so much informed and thus formed by the Bible, but more by society, with especially profound, and too often, I think, egregious/tragic results, especially seen in the political realm. Like everything else in life, this is surely a mixed bag. We do get some things more or less right even on this track, but are amiss in other things, I’m afraid. A big problem from our inheritance of the Modernist Enlightenment on which the United States was largely built, is the emphasis and insistence on individual rights. So that the rights of the individual, however that is manifested politically takes priority over everything else. While “rights” and the individual surely arguably have their place, we have to ask ourselves if that has the same place in scripture that it has in our world. And if not, then what informs it, or what context in scripture might we say it exists, its place.

This is not a proposal to imagine that biblical thinking can be imposed on the world, but to seek to be true to it ourselves, so that we can better live in it, through learning to think and therefore live according to what scripture teaches, and its fulfillment in Jesus, rather than what any political party of this world insists on. The new way of thinking and living in the grace and kingdom that is ours in Jesus.

informed and formed by what?

We live in a time of mass information, at all of our fingertips, 24/7. There’s no question that we can find a lot of help in answering questions and solving problems. And we can learn quite a bit, as well. One remarkable source, for whatever just criticism it receives, is Wikipedia, which I think on balance is quite good. And of course there’s all the many news sources.

But as followers of Jesus, of God’s church, we need to steep ourselves and be steeped in something more, something better than all of this. Not that these things don’t have their place, as long as we separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad. What we need is a commitment to discipline ourselves in the basics of the Christian faith which we confess. We need to be regularly in God’s word, in scripture. A good goal is to read through the Bible every year, and there are programs and even Bibles to help us do that. I like the idea, adopted by Thomas Cranmer (who at least oversaw and edited, as well as wrote, from scripture and tradition, the Book of Common Prayer) of reading through the Old Testament once, and the New Testament twice a year.

I like to listen to scripture being read, as well as read it myself, the latter which I am mostly doing now. Add to that, we need to read good books from the church, which have respect for the tradition, that is what God has given the church over the centuries, and are intent in breaking new ground within that tradition, which is committed to scripture as God’s word written. We need to keep working at this little by little, one thing at a time, gathering knowledge and the corresponding wisdom which comes with that, over the years. And finding God’s Spirit to help us in down to earth ways where we live, and “where the rubber meets the road,” to meet the challenges and pitfalls of life, as well as simply living in the full will of God in Jesus.

There is no question that we live in a world which can be quite toxic in what we imbibe, not only in the physical environment, but to the point here, in what we are thinking theologically and philosophically, and from that just what “the good life is,” and how we should live. Of course for us in Jesus, this is all about death and resurrection in and through him. We live in Jesus both for him, and for others. We are on mission here from God in and through Jesus.

And so while we will be exposed to much that is not helpful, or is even downright toxic, some of that probably necessary if we’re to face the real world, we need to be those who by God’s grace are passionate to be instilled in the faith of the gospel in and through Jesus. A faith that is large in scope, as big as all of creation and all of life here. So that we can live out and speak of God’s will in Jesus in our own daily lives, within our families and into our everyday world and beyond, being changed more and more into the image of Jesus together, in and for the world.

aspiring to what?

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach…

In recent months the pastoral epistles are becoming alive to me in a way which they once were, but was lost in the lostness of many of my middle years, when I lost hope of fulfilling what I believed (and still do) was my call from God. When we view the passage in its context we see the qualifications set in terms of both giftedness and character.

I’m not sure and maybe doubtful at this late stage in my life that I’ll be able to step into something of this (though I already have in a way, through the years), but I find the desire to do better and to do well character wise a good challenge and even encouragement for whatever time I have left in this life.

Aspiring to good character in and through Jesus is not to think one can arrive to sinless perfection in this life. Nor is it to engage in some sort of ego trip in which I come to think I am better than others. It is instead to pursue a course in which character takes priority over everything else including one’s giftedness. On the latter point that means I am willing to forgo what I would like to do for the sake of growing more and more into the image of our Lord. That character transformation is always first priority.

But that doesn’t mean that what we do is therefore left out in terms of what gift we have from God.  It does mean that we do so humbly in our place, whatever place that ends up being. Intent on following Jesus so that who we are takes precedent over what we do, of course impacting the latter.

For me personally, I can’t separate everything, but I can desire to do the best I can with whatever I’m given. In the life in God through Christ by the Spirit in communion with all of God’s people in mission to the world.