On Meditation

Late in high school I began to read the Bible with a pencil/pen and paper in hand. I don’t know who suggested I do this, or if rather the idea just spontaneously combusted in my still unformed brain. Whatever prompted it, it stuck.

Some time later it occurred to me that there was more value in reading the Bible slowly than in reading it fast. Again, I’m not sure whether this was a conclusion independently drawn or drawn from another’s wise words. Nevertheless, it too stuck.

Both ideas have been a gift.

My current practice is to each morning read a small portion of Scripture, perhaps a chapter, perhaps a portion of a chapter. I opt for bite-sized chunks that I can savor, think about, reflect upon, and remember. The thoughts stimulated by these reflections get recorded in the journal open in front of me and often morph into words of prayer.

I’ve done the ‘read through the Bible in a year’ thing and found it too easy to not pay attention to what I’m reading. I’ve decided to be the tortoise, casually reading through the bible once every four to five years, meditating upon it along the way. Hares consume at a much more rapid pace, but this serves me well.

And it has served others well. Tim Keller suggests a reason why. In his book Prayer (in which I was largely disappointed, but not completely), he expresses a concern that we too easily separate our reading of Scripture from our prayer life. He challenges Christians to engage in the reflective and interactive approach to Scripture known as meditation. As we meditate on the text God speaks to us, and, subsequently, we pray moved by what we ourselves have heard. It is, as Keller rightly notes, a conversation. Sometimes, Keller reminds us in chapter 10 of that book, we are content to grasp what a passage says and don’t take time to think about what the passage says ‘to me’. And that leaves us impoverished.

Recently in preparing a sermon I was confronted with the challenging words of Jesus, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15) It would be easy to treat that text in the abstract and to simply accept that this is something Jesus said and be content to assume we know what it means. Far more value comes from chewing on such a text and asking questions that impinge upon one’s own heart attitude toward possessions. Do I care more for my things than I do for God? If I lost my things would I still trust God? Which is the greater source of my happiness: that I have things or that I belong to God? And so forth.

These are the questions that arise when one is pressing a text hard into his or her own psyche. These are the questions of meditation. Asking such questions may not generate satisfactory answers, but they will produce prayer. As we think about a text we hear God’s voice in it, and our impulse will be to speak back, if even to say, “God, I don’t like what this is saying.” Or, “God, my heart is more committed to things than to you. Will you fix that in me?”

It is true that we cannot see God, and, as someone recently told me, it feels artificial to attempt to speak, to pray, to someone we can’t see. I get that. But meditation helps us hear God so that, though I don’t see him, I hear him. And the one I hear, to him I can speak in reply.

Grab a bible, a pencil, and a composition book. Set aside some time during the week. Once. Thrice. Daily. Read slowly, listen, ask questions, respond, and pray.

And you can forget who made the suggestion.

Skipping Scripture

I’m skipping church this morning.

Well, not precisely. I’m skipping MY church. I’m skipping the church where my heart is. I’m skipping worshipping with the community I have come to love and appreciate.

I’m skipping because people tell me I must. That I need to be on vacation. That I need to take a break. And so, I, with my family, will worship with others today, in a place where I can be relatively anonymous, which is somewhat contrary, in my mind, to what church is supposed to be.

Because of that, I have a bit more time on my hands – time I rarely have on a Sunday morning. It is the Lord’s day, and so to turn my thoughts in His direction I casually picked up Kathleen Norris’ book Amazing Grace, one which I’ve been working through occasionally over the past few months. Her perspective, different as it is from my own, is often stimulating. (Previous comments here and here and here.)

It only took a few paragraphs (pages 189-190, if you are following along at home) for me to be impacted. She notes the irony that in Protestant churches, especially those of the more evangelical type, worship consists of so little reading of Scripture. In the history of protestant churches men and women died to secure the right to have the Scriptures in the language of the people, died to have access to the Bible. In evangelical churches, we speak of the centrality of Scripture and call ourselves Bible-believing and toss the Reformation slogan Sola Scriptura around like a talisman. But one would be hard pressed to prove that the Bible means anything to us judging from the amount that is read in worship.

Our contemporary services of worship don’t allow for the tedious and drawn out reading of Scripture. We sing about Jesus, but do not listen to his words or the prophets who spoke about him. We read the text given for the sermon, but little more. If the pastor does not preach on the prophet Isaiah, which I’ve not done for many years, a congregation will never hear its promises and warnings and rhythms and tone.

But they can read it at home, no? Perhaps. But that cannot be taken for granted. And what they read, they often do not understand. The Bible was never meant to be a private book. It belongs to the church and needs to be read in the church. I’m saddened and somewhat embarrassed by this lack in my own congregation. It takes time, it may seem tedious, it may seem opaque. But is it not worth it if in so doing we build a growing rootedness in the book from which we learn of life?

My own, admittedly private, reading of Scripture earlier this morning came from, ironically (or providentially!), Psalm 119. I was struck with this verse:

How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103)

I wondered how one comes to view God’s word with such longing. Perhaps God is pointing me in at least one direction toward an answer.

How to Read a Bible

As one committed to historic Christianity I believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture – that God so moved the writers that what was written was precisely what he wanted written. But I also believe that what was written, being written by human beings in human language, is to be approached and read in most respects as we would approach and read any other book. We need not apply any special code or method (and we certainly don’t need bibles edited for every possible demographic, but that’s for another post).

Years ago, I read what I thought to be a curiously titled book, Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. The premise of the book was that though most of us can ‘read’ words on a page, few of us have developed the ability to read for understanding. I found to be extremely helpful on a number of levels.
Howtoreadabook
It struck me as I read it that if any of us were to apply his insights to the simple reading of the Bible we would come away with a good bit more understanding and, perhaps more importantly, far less mis-understanding.

I get giddy when really smart people agree with me. How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth is an excellent little book on understanding the Bible written by Douglas Stuart and Gordon Fee. They ask, “How do we learn to do good exegesis? (“Exegesis” is a fancy word for the process of understanding the Bible.) Their answer, among other insights, includes this:

“The key to good exegesis, and therefore to a more intelligent reading of the Bible, is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text. One of the best things one could do in this regard would be to read Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book (1940, rev. ed. With Charles Van Doren, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972). Our experience over many years in college and seminary teaching is that many people simply do not know how to read well. To read or study the Bible intelligently demands careful reading, and that includes learning to ask the right questions of the text.”

I still get giddy when I read that. But I’m weird that way.

On Study Bible Alternatives

In the previous post, I mentioned my hesitancy regarding study bibles. Continuing to quote from my response to my friend, I consider the alternatives, if there are any.

But is there an alternative?

A great alternative would be for a publisher to publish the Bible and the notes separately. This would satisfy my concerns. I wish someone would publish a book called “The Reformation Bible Study Companion” or something like that which would print the notes from a study bible in its own stand alone format. This would make the valuable content available but would keep it separate from the text of Scripture itself.

But no one in our modern era has done that. However, in my mind, there is a great alternative. If one was not to buy a study bible, I would recommend this that as a companion to your bible you have at hand a copy of IVP’s New Bible Commentary.          

This is a commentary on the whole bible written by some of the best of conservative evangelical scholars. The editors themselves are worthy of note. Donald Carson, Alec Motyer, Gordon Wenham, and RT France are all trustworthy guides with no axe to grind other than a love for the biblical text. It does use the NIV as its base text, but that is not really a problem as the commentators themselves take the original text into consideration as they comment. 

The only downside is that it is hard to carry with you. Anyone caught carrying this to a bible study would be instantly labeled as one slightly left of normal, whereas carting in a study bible raises no eyebrows. It is strictly a ‘look it up at home’ kind of resource. But at the same time, you have at hand thoughtful reflection on every passage of the bible and not just those the editors of the study bibles think need explication.

So, for what it is worth, my recommendation would be to keep your own bible in hand, and instead of spending $30 on a study bible, spend it on this commentary. If, on the other hand, one wants the more theologically oriented commentary found in a study bible, then buy the one you are looking at, but use it as a reference and not as your primary portal into God’s word.

[There is another resource I’d pick up if I were you. R. C. Sproul’s book Knowing Scripture really is a great tool for learning how to read scripture. I’d recommend you get this as well, regardless of what route you take in study bibles or alternatives.]

Thanks for trusting me enough to ask my opinion.

Randy

On Study Bibles

I was asked recently by a friend what I thought of his purchasing the ESV Study Bible. If he thought that I had perused and had an informed opinion on this particular study bible, he was wrong. If, though, he imagined that I had an opinion, well, on that score he was not far off. I reproduce my (slightly edited) answer here and in a subsequent post because I think there are some important matters the very existence of study bibles raises.

Several responses come to mind.

1) Since I don’t use a study bible, I’m not a good one to review this one for you. I’ve never held a copy in my hand, never flipped through the pages, never looked directly at any of the notes. So, I have no personal knowledge of it. That said, I can’t imagine where I would quibble with it. I’m sure the comments are sound and trustworthy. I suspect that in the study bible world, you could do much worse.

2) That said, I’m not a big fan of study bibles in general. You may write this off as one of Randy’s many idiosyncrasies, a word which has a lot in common with ‘idiot’ and ‘crazy’, but I think I have some good reasons for my tepid attitude.

a. Study bibles are heavy. Probably not the best reason, but it does play into my thoughts on the matter. People don’t normally spend the money for a study bible and then more money for one to cart around – they cart around the large study bible. There is I suppose the cardio-vascular benefits to consider here, but aside from that, it is something to take into consideration. (Wouldn’t it be great to be able to leave the notes at home and use them only when you needed them? More on that later.)

b. More important reasons for questioning study bibles are these:

i. When studying a text of Scripture, what is the best way to approach a difficult section? The best way is to stare at it, ask questions about it, ponder it, wrestle with it, and think through a few ways of unraveling the puzzle. That is hard, but it is the best way to really chew on scripture and allow scripture to get into our heads and hearts. It’s after wrestling with a text’s possible meanings ourselves, that there is value in consulting what others have said about the text. The major and most weighty problem I have with study bibles is that they encourage laziness in confronting the text. They allow us to too swiftly find an answer, and not just any answer, but, if we are not careful, an answer we consider to be THE answer because RC Sproul (or Charles Ryrie, or whomever) said it. 

ii. A subtle but consequent result is that the lines between the text of scripture (fully authoritative) and a given interpretation of that text (not necessarily authoritative) begin to blur because the two occur on the same printed page between covers that are stamped ‘Holy Bible’. This is subtle, I know, but I think it is an issue. Months, years later, we may find ourselves searching for something we read in the Bible, when, in reality, it’s not in the Bible at all – it was in a footnote or a side bar in a study bible we once owned.

These concerns, to me, are weighty and worth your consideration. But I’m not going to condemn anyone for disagreeing with me. And like I said, I think if one is going to get a study bible, this is probably a good choice.

To be continued…

John the Painter

I’m getting closer to the day when I will preach through the book of Revelation. It is such a fascinating book, but one about which so many people have such strong opinions. I want to make sure that I can swim before I wade into those waters.

Recently a certain motif, a certain way of looking at the book, has occupied my mind which, if justified, may be very helpful in my trying to understand and then to communicate the sense of the book. John, it seems to me, was a painter.

So much damage has been done to the book by trying to force it into a linear pre-telling of human history. The book does not bear a forced linear interpretation and those who try to treat it as an overlay of current human history are always embarrassed by the result.

We need to think of the book less like a western history and more like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It is a collection of images masterfully sketched and shaded and ordered to convey a grand vision of God for his people, some who are facing severe persecution and others who are in danger of allowing their passion to dry up and blow away. It is a great work of art in which a variety of images come together to form a unified whole which speaks more than the individual images isolated from one another.

I’ve not developed this much further, and would not be sharing it here were it not for some corroborative input from the late New Testament Scholar Donald Guthrie. In his New Testament Introduction he assesses the structure in this way:

The majority of interpreters of this book assume that the action is not intended to be continuously described but rather that successive groups of visions each portray similar events in different ways. (page 969)

Much time spent in the evangelical subculture would lead one to be surprised by this statement. Most, in the evangelical world ASSUME that the book contains history ‘continuously described’, and that before it happens.

I know that seeing the book as a series of images or impressions is nothing new. But I also know that it is not a view often spoken. I make mention of it here as a help for those of you reading the book and as a helpful alternative for those whose thinking is only informed by the linear approach.

I’m hoping that thinking down this line might help us make better sense of a difficult but profound book. I’m thinking I will begin to preach on the book by the end of 2014 should the Lord tarry and I not come to my sensese.

Lenten Fast

Predictably this time of year debates ramp up over the propriety of the observance of Lent in the Church. I’m not interested enough in those debates to enter into them now. What I can affirm is that properly framed, fasting is good and commended by Jesus. And I can also testify that fasting from anything is anathema to me because the stuff I love, I love. I don’t let go easily.

But I’m fasting this Lent, and am loving it.

I’m a naturally introspective person. And generally, when I turn my thoughts inward, I don’t like what I see. My sin, my weakness, my personality defects, my lack of faith, often overwhelm me. And I can’t seem to help it.

Consequently, when I read the scriptures, I don’t see the kindness and compassion of God. I see more readily my inability to hold on to God’s promises, I see my weak commitment to holiness, I see commands that I’ve been unable to keep.

THAT is what I’ve decided to give up for Lent.

My focus this season – and one hopes there is a lasting effect – is to read Scripture with the goal of simply seeing my Savior. I read and reflect upon the attributes of God. I’m not allowed to ponder long my defects along the way.

I’m not expecting this to give me a whole new personality. I’ll still be far too quick to note my faults and highlight my failures. But perhaps incremental progress will matter in the long run.

A guy who cares too much about his appearance will look in the mirror and see only the mole on his nose or the hair out of place. Such a focus will wear him down to the place he can see nothing good. The remedy is to take his eyes off himself and look at the beauty of the One who loves him without concern for his appearance.

I’ve put away the mirror for Lent. Care to join me?

A Teacher

A follow-up to my two previous posts. If I find the time, someday, perhaps I will comment.

The bible as a means of grace requires reflection:

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:1, 2)

The bible as a means of grace requires community:

And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:27-29)

The bible as a means of grace requires integrity:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)

But I Don’t Understand What I Read

An earlier post questioned the nearly universal assumption that to be a good and growing and maturing Christian, one needs to be a regular, preferably daily, reader of the bible. Being raised in the tradition that I have, it grates against me to question that. But years of experience as a pastor causes me to wonder if indeed it is true.

I have known people who were absolutely voracious students of the bible whose theological conclusions were wide of anything that could be construed as sound, and whose profession and character were far from godliness. At the same time, I’ve known wise and godly people who were sporadic readers of the bible. My experience is anecdotal, I know, and no match for the pollsters, and yet I wonder if there is not something to it.

There is a diversity in the mix of those who do or who try to read their bibles. Among that diversity, there are those who admit that there is much in the bible they do not understand. As well, there are others who stumble over the same passages, but are afraid to confess it. I can say this because I often read without understanding. I have a seminary degree. My day job requires me to study the bible. And yet, when I’m just reading the bible, there are large sections as opaque to me as they are to others.

There is no joy, and from what I can imagine, no longterm benefit from hours spent reading something that, truth be told, makes no sense to us. The lack of bible reading is no surprise to me.

The ‘fix-it’ answer to this dilemma, of course, would be to ‘teach them how to do it’. There is some sense to that, and maybe that is the answer, depending on how we conceive of the ‘teach them’. Inevitably, bookish people that we are, we will challenge bible non-readers to first read a good book on how to read the bible. Again, not a bad idea, but it does not somehow manage to address the issue.

The issue is not volume or depth of bible reading; the issue is the pathway to the knowledge of God. We understand that the word of God is a means of grace, a pathway to knowing and communing with God. But is reading the primary means by which that word becomes a pathway to God?

Though I may be wrong, bible ‘engagement’ (Stetzer) or ‘intake’ (Whitney) in the bible is nearly always a corporate act. We are to allow the word of God richly to dwell in us “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16) We are to respect our “leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7) Faith, it seems, comes by hearing (Romans 10:17) the word of God, through the gathering of God’s people and through its preaching (Romans 10:14).

Perhaps our evangelical emphasis upon bible reading is itself a reflection of the literate and individualistic culture of American Christianity. Yes, indeed, faith depends upon the word of God revealed, heard, understood, and applied to the heart. I’m just not convinced that the absence of bible reading is the precise thing to be alarmed about.

Again, I am interested to know what you think.