The (Bible Reading) Sky Is Falling

LifeWay Research has recently released an alarming statistic: less than 20% of churchgoers read the bible daily.

I have two problems with this. The first is ‘statistic’ and the second is the sense of ‘alarm’. I have addressed both of these concerns before. We are drawn to the seeming irrefutability of statistics and we seem to be only motivated by the sense of alarm that those stats can raise.

I find that when I am inundated with stats and alarm that I become numb to both. Lacking the tools to evaluate the methodology of the statistic purveyors, I am inclined to mostly ignore them.

But this study raises a more critical question. I really don’t doubt the general concept the study has measured: that few Christians read their bibles on a consistently regular basis. It’s been measured before, but common experience shows it to be true. My question here is not with the reality, but with the conclusion – that this is somehow an alarming thing.

Should we see this not as a measure of a crisis but the identification of a reality, akin to the fact that 99% of people who jump in pools, and 100% of them without scuba gear, get wet? That people do not and have not and may never read their bibles should not alarm us but be accepted as a simple reality. In this case, perhaps the question should not be ‘What can we do about this?’ but rather ‘Why are we surprised or concerned about this?’

Perhaps we should be willing to say that people do not read the bible and that is, generally, an okay thing.

Ed Stetzer of LifeWay, in discussing this study, doesn’t quite seem to know what language to use in addressing his concern. The study addresses ‘bible reading’ but he speaks of ‘bible engagement’. Maybe his term, akin perhaps to Donald Whitney’s ‘bible intake’, is purposely chosen to make room in the spiritual spectrum for the illiterate. Stetzer asks the question, “…if tangible life changes are statistically related to bible engagement in the life of a disciple of Christ, why aren’t more reading and studying the bible?” A reasonable answer might be that reading and studying are not the only ways, and perhaps not the primary way, by which people receive God’s word.

Few, I suppose, would disagree that the goal of the Christian life, and of bible reading, is to know God. And few would disagree that the book through which God has revealed himself is, in fact, important to that goal. But if spiritual growth occurred for fifteen hundred years before the printing press, and if maturity still somehow happens in cultures where literacy is low, and if, in fact, people who read their bibles infrequently still come to know God with depth and devotion, is it not reasonable to ask whether we have put too much emphasis upon the ‘necessity’ of individual, private bible reading? Is it possible that we focus here because bible reading is measurable and knowledge of God is not?

I ask this as a serious question and am interested in genuine responses. Do we put too much emphasis upon the idea of individual, private bible reading?

What Is That Text About?

Let’s start with a familiar story:

There was once a young Shepherd Boy who tended his sheep at the foot of a mountain near a dark forest. It was rather lonely for him all day, so he thought upon a plan by which he could get a little company and some excitement. He rushed down towards the village calling out “Wolf, Wolf,” and the villagers came out to meet him, and some of them stopped with him for a considerable time. This pleased the boy so much that a few days afterwards he tried the same trick, and again the villagers came to his help. But shortly after this a Wolf actually did come out from the forest, and began to worry the sheep, and the boy of course cried out “Wolf, Wolf,” still louder than before. But this time the villagers, who had been fooled twice before, thought the boy was again deceiving them, and nobody stirred to come to his help. So the Wolf made a good meal off the boy’s flock, and when the boy complained, the wise man of the village said: “A liar will not be believed, even when he speaks the truth.”

Thus Aesop delivered to us a cautionary fable encouraging truth telling. At least that is how we will read this if we are careful and notice particularly the wise man’s concluding sentence.

If we are NOT careful, however, we might write an entire essay on the struggles of loneliness in agrarian society. Preachers might take such a text and preach a sermon on how economic ruin can come to a community if it marginalizes any of its members in the way this poor shepherd boy had been marginalized. And they might conclude with a stirring challenge to look around and find those marginalized people and reach out to them before they revert to antisocial behavior to gain attention and acceptance.

Not a bad challenge, for sure, but it is NOT what the fable is about. And the preacher, in fact any interpreter of language, has as his first task to understand what a text is about. That may seem obvious, of course, but what is obvious is not always practiced.

When I finished preaching on 2 Samuel 6 on Sunday, two comments following reminded me of the importance of getting the text right. In this passage, David determines to bring the Ark of the Covenant into his newly minted capital city of Jerusalem. The first attempt is met with a troubling death, but eventually the Ark is brought successfully into the city. This is to David’s delight, as he is pictured dancing at the head of the procession. His behavior elicits the disdain of his wife Michal.

One person commented that when she had heard the passage preached before, its focus was upon whether dance should form a part of Christian worship and liturgy. I think it is safe to say that this text is NOT about dance. Yes, David is said to have danced. That is a fact of the text, but it is not what the text is about. To attempt to make it so is to distort the text.

Another, though, said that my treatment of the text went in what he considered to be a unique direction. And that comment concerns me. I never want to come to a text with the intent of taking it in a unique way. I cannot consider that I am the first to have opened a text. I hope that my preaching exposes to the hearer the fundamental intention and application of the text, which would have been seen and preached by others before me. When someone finds my treatment ‘unique’ I’m always concerned that I have imported too much of my own interpretive spin into the text and perhaps have missed myself what it was intended to be about.

It is also possible that I have gotten the text ‘right’ and have helped this person and others in the way they see such texts. I’ll trust that this indeed is the case. But I never want to let the prior concern grow silent. It keeps me from too many flights of interpretive fancy.

This is a great concern of mine because I have this notion that the Bible is disrespected by so many not because the intellectual arguments against it have been so great, but that the Christian misuse of the Bible has been so widespread. If we are not careful, we can make the Bible say just about whatever we want it to say. But when we can make the Bible say anything we want, then it really says nothing at all.

By extending the authority of the Bible beyond where it intends to go, we run the risk of undermining its authority where it does speak authoritatively. If, for example, there are Christians arguing with great passion that the Bible teaches a capitalistic economic system, and other Christians arguing with equal passion that the Bible envisions an economic environment of communal ownership, there will be a large number of those looking in from the outside who will have a hard time believing that the Bible speaks with authority on things of greater import, such as the deity or resurrection of Christ. Our carelessness undermines our testimony.

I once had a couple of people ask me to preach on things the Bible “clearly” taught, such as an alleged prohibition against women working outside the home or its supposed ban on contraception. I have opinions on those matters which are biblically informed and which I’m happy to discuss. But I pray I never confuse in the pulpit my biblical opinions with the true direction of the the message of Scripture. I hope only to preach what a text is about that we might come to know the mind of its Author.

[I will, of course, get it wrong. Soon the sermon on 2 Samuel 6 will be posted here. There you can judge how close I came.]

The Power of the Book

There was a time that people died to make accessible a book we take for granted. I’m somewhat ashamed to write that sentence because I’m not sure this knowledge, as profound as it is, will change my behavior. But it should.
William tyndale biography david daniell hardcover cover art
I have been working through David Daniell’s Yale University Press William Tyndale: A Biography. This biography, set in the history of the early 16th century, when Luther was hot, reminded me that it once was a crime to translate and publish the Bible into English. Men gave up their lives to translate, print, and distribute this book which I so take for granted. That I knew this before, I am sure. But I had pushed this uncomfortable knowledge to a dim and infrequently accessed corner of my brain.

Daniell’s biography is thorough and passionate. That it is thorough led me to skim those portions containing detail far beyond my level of interest. But its passion drew me in and kept me.

Daniell is Tyndale’s belated publicist. Tyndale has been given short notice over the years. We know of the King James Bible, the so-called ‘Authorized Version’. And we know of John Wycliffe because of the mission organization that borrowed his name. But Tyndale’s influence runs much more deep and wide than either of these.

Tyndale learned Greek when only a few Englishmen knew it, and Hebrew when almost none did. He translated from those languages, not from the Latin. His gift for written English has rarely been matched. Though the AV, produced 70 years after Tyndale, adopted much of its memorable language from his, in many cases where they differ, Tyndale sounds stunningly more modern. Tyndale would opt for clarity over some artificial notion of literality. The AV reversed this, and revered though it may be, it is revered mostly for phraseology introduced by Tyndale, and forgotten at the level of its own revisions.

Daniell notes:

One key to Tyndale’s genius is that his ear for how people spoke was so good. The English he was using was not the language of the scribe or lawyer or schoolmaster; it really was, at base, the spoken language of the people. In this he was unlike all other Bible translators, in English certainly. To give an example: David, as we saw, was ‘brown with goodly eyes’. The comment speaks down the centuries: the young man was a looker, and one can hear someone saying it. The whole sentence is ‘And he was brown with goodly eyes, and well favored in sight’. By contrast, this is what the Authorised Version has: ‘Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to.’ That is the sort of sentence that gets the Bible a bad name. No one, ever, spoke that, or could do, with a straight face. As a sentence, all it can do is live in a big book on a brass lectern and be read out on one of the Sundays after Trinity.

(Daniell’s prose isn’t half bad either, apparently.)

Tyndale, it is famously said, wanted the Bible to be accessible to the ploughboy as well as to the scholar. That, of course, was what the establishment feared. He succeeded. Memorably. And this led to his execution.

Of his legacy, Daniell laments:

We have at this point, however, to utter a cry of grief. It was of a scholar of this towering stature, leading all Europe in his knowledge of Greek, matched now by an equal command of Hebrew, uniquely gifted in tuning the sounds of the English language, who had achieved so much but who still had some of his greatest work to do, who was, soon after this, by a vicious, paltry and mean villain tricked into death. It is as if Shakespeare had been murdered by a real-life jealous Iago half-way through his life, and the great tragedies had never been written.

Daniell makes a convincing case that the comparison with Shakespeare is not inappropriate.

Tyndale died because he believed in the power inherent in the Word of God. God grant me the grace to share even a portion of that passion and conviction.

Two Front Teeth, and a Couple Other Things: A One-Volume Bible Commentary

The debate in the newspaper this morning is whether ‘Black Friday’ will creep into becoming ‘Black Thursday’. I find that grievous thought on several levels. Those who move Christmas shopping earlier in the season have a champion in my sister who called about a week or so ago asking about something my son might want. I had not begun to think about such things. She had.

Since it is that season, and since there are those of you out there making plans now about what to give then, I’d like to step into the role of Recommender of Gifts, if only for a couple of posts. This post will be dedicated to feeding the soul, the next to feeding the body. And I tend to think that at a critical level the two are related.

First, the soul.

The Christian who is hungry to know God will, we hope, read his Bible. If he does, he will regularly run into portions which seem to raise more questions than they answer. What will he do then?

1. Nothing.

2. Ask his pastor.

3. Check the notes in his study Bible.

4. Look up an answer on-line.

5. Read up on it in the free public domain digital copy of Matthew Henry he got free from a good friend.

Sometimes doing nothing is not a bad choice. It depends upon how troubling the passage is and the amount of time available. Further, it is often good to allow a passage to percolate in one’s own mind before rushing off too quickly to get someone else’s ‘authoritative’ insight, which may be presented with more authority than it ought.

Surprisingly, ‘2’ is really not often pursued. While as a pastor, I don’t want to set up shop as a Bible Answer Man, and most pastors would not have the time to answer with clarity and thought every question that might come his way, nevertheless sometimes I wonder why this route is avoided. There is an alternative, though, which in most cases is far better.

I am no more a fan of study Bibles than I am of red letter ones. Some, for sure, have great notes, but not all. My opposition is not based upon the physical bulk added, and only partially for the profit motive added to their production. My concern is that by adding commentary to the text of the Bible, we do two deleterious things. First, we short-circuit the reader’s own reflective thinking about a puzzling text. Instead of meditating upon the text, the reader’s eyes too easily head to the notes to find ‘the answer’. Secondly, by putting an interpretation of a text on the same page as the text, the separation between the two is blurred. We will tend to grant an authority to the notes which should be reserved for the text.

To look up an answer on-line can open us to all kinds of horrors. It is like on-line dating without the eHarmony screening. And as much respect as I have for the ministry and insight of Matthew Henry, and as much as we all like the word ‘free’, his insights are not always helpful in answering the questions we might be asking about a text.

So there must be a better way.

A brilliant solution, of course, would be to take study notes by trusted biblical authorities and publish them in a separate book, distinct from the Biblical text, but still convenient enough to be reached for when the need arises. I once suggested this in a letter to R. C. Sproul who was at the time busy at work on the New Geneva Study Bible. He did not see it for the brilliant idea it was.

A few weeks ago, though, I realized that a resource I already regularly used was really the resource I was envisioning. As a result, I have begun to recommend widely the New Bible Commentary, a one volume commentary on the Bible published by InterVarsity Press. Edited by four of the most highly regarded evangelical Biblical scholars of our day (Gordan Wenham, R. T. France, D. A. Carson, and Alec Motyer), this is wonderfully useful and trustworthy tool. Its concise commentary on every passage of every book of the Bible may not always answer all the questions we have, but it more often than not sheds light on books and passages which may otherwise seem obscure or impenetrable.

This is not a volume you can stuff in your back pocket or cart around to your next small group meeting (it is 2½ inches thick!). But at 2¢/page (if my math is correct) it is a gift that any who often read and ponder the Bible will love for a long, long time.

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Full disclosure: I receive nothing from IVP for the endorsement of this book. But if you follow the link above and buy the book, Amazon gives me a kickback. I feel a bit self-serving in pasting such links in my blog, but if Amazon wants to support my blog in that way, I’m happy to let them.

Soul Doctor

Prone to self-pity, I told my wife the other day that I must like despair like some like ice cream since I indulge so often. But though our thoughts may be trained to flow down well-worn channels, we are never meant to stay there.

My Bible reading plan for the other morning had me reading the book of Lamentations. This is by no means the first place I’d go to or recommend going to when one is feeling the weight of life, and I had little hope of the morning’s reading bringing much comfort.

But the prophet Jeremiah, the book’s reluctant author, has been nicknamed ‘the weeping prophet’ not because he curled up in a useless puddle in the face of the affairs of life, but because he gave expression to the frustrations that life brought to him. He took those frustrations to the One whom he believed to be the source of life.

He wrote as the city of Jerusalem fell apart around him under a Babylonian siege. That siege, Jeremiah had repeatedly pointed out, was the judgment of God upon the squishy, superficial spirituality of Israel. God had had enough and was bringing his promised judgment.

As I sat in “Dr. Jeremiah’s” couch, he showed me that affliction and sin all mixed up and confounded can drag one from freedom to bondage.

“She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.” (1:1)

He showed me as well that it is okay to trace this to its source.

“…because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions.” (1:5)

The cause may be my sin, but the source of the affliction is and always will be God. It does not help to try to sidestep God’s sovereignty when we are suffering. In fact, it is appropriate to give full vent to how this makes us feel.

“The Lord has swallowed up without mercy all the habitations of Jacob….” (2:2)

It seems wrong to accuse God of acting “without mercy”, but when that is the way it feels, that is what we need to say. But in Jeremiah I see as well one who, giving vent to bitter honesty, cannot remain at the place of bitter honesty. That is the case with any who truly know God. Yes speaking with such honesty is good, but we must at some point emerge elsewhere.

“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (3:22, 23)

I want to live in that verse, but I often don’t. I think that one of the reasons public worship is so important is that being with God’s people under the ministry of God’s word is a place where, if even for a brief moment, God can move us from the despair of 2:2 to the affirmation of 3:22, 23.

But we want to be there always, not just for a brief moment, we protest from Dr. Jeremiah’s couch. He knows that. But he also knows that in God’s wisdom there is ordained a time for everything under heaven, and for some times we must wait.

“The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” (3:25, 26)

Waiting is something foreign to me and to many others. Waiting is not what spoiled and soft children are prone to practice. But waiting, nevertheless, is what God demands.

It does not take one long to realize that the afflictions facing the Israelites and observed and experienced by Jeremiah were far worse than those faced by the readers of this blog (both of us). Nevertheless, ours FEEL as real and as painful and the hard place for all of us is to wait quietly. Quiet waiting is a far better place than quiet (or noisy) desperation.

And so Dr. Jeremiah dismisses us from his office with a prayer purged of complaint and focused as it ought to be.

“Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old….” (5:21)

The ellipses can be used to hide things to make the text say what I want it to say. Many writers hide behind abbreviated texts. Here note that I have dropped an important qualifier from the text.

“…unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.’

What Jeremiah could only sense is what we know to be fact – that we may trust in one who was utterly rejected for us, so that we might know that God would never remain exceedingly angry with us.

With that hope we leave our appointment with this soul doctor. And the good thing is that his consultation was free.

Seeing Red

I once had a conversation with a seller of Christian books and Bibles who had tried to explain to a publisher why he thought the publisher should publish less ‘red letter’ editions of the Bible. The publisher was so puzzled by this sentiment that it seemed to him my friend had come from Mars.

I’m not certain of the history of the practice of highlighting the ‘words of Christ in red’ in our Bibles, but I have for some time been troubled by the practice. If Jesus is fully God (which he is), and if the whole Bible is the Word of God (which it is), then if we really wanted to put Christ’s words in red we should just highlight the whole thing. To do otherwise suggests that the words which Jesus spoke on earth were just somehow more important and weightier than those which he spoke through David or Moses. That is dangerous.

It’s an impossible task anyway. Unfortunately for modern publishers, the Greek of the New Testament did not come with quotation marks. We will never in this life know for certain whether Jesus or John was responsible for saying, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son….’ but that does not stop publishers from printing the whole in red.

The practice, though, is most odd when the words of Christ back up against the words of his heavenly Father as illustrated here.

Red Letter

The words of the incarnate Son, I suppose we are to understand, are of greater value than those of the non-incarnate Father. Very odd.

I’m not suggesting we toss our red letter bibles. I would, though, be delighted to see the demand for them diminish. That would be a message even publishers could understand.

God, Gays, Heaven, and the End of the World

Some say that there is no such thing as bad publicity. If that is so, then, it has been a good few weeks for the Bible.

But maybe not.

First, except for those living off the grid in a cabin deep in the Montana wilderness, we all know that certainly (probably? maybe?) the beginning of the end comes this Saturday, at 6:00 PM, New Zealand time. Harold Camping has often been wrong and never in doubt. But he always hedges his bets. His earlier prediction was detailed in a book 1994? with its carefully placed and distinctly ambiguous mark of punctuation. Now he ratchets up his precision (though some in his ‘camp’ say his math could be wrong – there always seems to be an ‘out’). The Bible, his followers say, is always right, and so we wait.

Then, recently, the Presbyterian Church (USA) reached a milestone as the tally of those presbyteries supporting a change in the church’s constitution which would allow actively gay clergy reached the total necessary for approval. This was not unexpected and generated much media conversation about what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality. The religion editor for the Orlando Sentinel quoted a scholar who, while having the integrity not to try to deny the Bible’s opposition to homosexual sex, nevertheless dismisses such opposition as hopelessly colored by the primitive times in which those prohibitions were written.

Finally, Stephen Hawking has declared that heaven is no more than a fairy tale for those who are afraid of death. In the wake of that claim, which should come as no news to anyone, media has been all over actor Kirk Cameron’s Facebook response and relatively silent on the response of Bishop N. T. Wright (a fairly smart man in his own right) which was respectful and reasoned.

The media loves a tussle, because we love a tussle. But if we are not careful in all of this, there will be serious collateral intellectual damage. The great temptation for any of us once we get hold of a book which possesses authority is that we will want that book to say what we want it to say. If WE believe that communism is right, or capitalism, or whatever, we will want the Book to side with us and we will begin to read it that way.

And for others, hearing people argue passionately opposite sides while claiming the same authority will cause many to determine the book itself has no value. If the book can be made to say whatever its handlers want it to say, then it says nothing at all. If you can prove anything from the bible, then you can prove nothing, and the book is worthless.

As a pastor all of this makes me very cautious in my approach to scripture. We all need to come to the text with deep humility, aware of our own biases and weaknesses and of the ease with which we could slip into error. My prayer, and the prayer that I hope others pray for me and for other pastors, is that when I speak with the Bible as my authority, that I will do so with care, speaking clearly that upon which the Bible itself is clear, and with restraint upon every other thing.

A VERY Crooked Stick

I wrote some time ago about God’s ability to bring himself glory through weak and broken people, that he was able to draw a straight line with a crooked stick. The key subject of that post was John Calvin, a crooked stick with which God drew a very straight line.

I’ve been reading about the prophet Ezekiel, and some have judged him to be SO crooked as to be psychotic. Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24, whose ultimate judgment of Ezekiel the man is not unfavorable, still must confess that

“Ezekiel is in a class of his own.”

In an assessment lifted from Ezekiel’s own recorded record, Block notes:

“The concentration of so many bizarre features in one individual is without precedent: his muteness; lying bound and naked; digging holes in the walls of houses; emotional paralysis in the face of his wife’s death; ‘spiritual’ travels; images of strange creatures, of eyes, and of creeping things; hearing voices and the sounds of water; withdrawal symptoms; fascination with feces and blood; wild literary imagination; pornographic imagery;… and the list goes on.” (page 10)

That’s one crooked stick. In the end, Block does not judge Ezekiel as psychotic, but notes that for Ezekiel, ‘the medium was the message’, and he acted out many of the revelations he had received. And in the end, not unlike his older contemporary Jeremiah, he was reluctant and not a bit rebellious.

Just like, I discern, the other crooked sticks among us.

Top Ten

I’m no David Letterman, and can’t afford top notch writers to form amusing top ten lists, but I’ve got you, my readers, to help me.

There are of course Bible passages which have seeped out into the public consciousness which are often quoted, but not always with understanding or accuracy. Over the past few weeks I’ve had to deal with a couple of them which I think would make a top ten list:

“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7)

“The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

These are well known to those who may not know the Bible well, and are invoked sometimes appropriately and sometimes not.

So, what I’m looking for are other passages to include in a top ten list of ‘Bible Sayings Familiar to Those Unfamiliar with the Bible’. Can you give me some help here?

And for those of you not immersed in the conservative Evangelical church culture as I by vocation and sentiment am, I invite you to nominate verses to populate a list called ‘Bible Sayings Mis-used by Those Familiar with the Bible’. I know there are a number of those out there as well!

Bible Reading Schedules

“It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.”

No, Christmas is past, actually. That feeling you have is the realization that the New Year is upon you. Christians occasionally respond to this realization determined to commit to some ‘spiritual endeavor’, such as reading the whole Bible from beginning to end.

I am not going to tell you whether to do that or not. But if you have determined to take that step, I would like to help. To that end, I have prepared three differently paced but similar reading schedules.

These are not seven day a week schedules. Most of us are human, and to be human means we will miss a day or two here and there in our reading. I have found it better to ASSUME this and to build into the schedule an extra day or two each week to allow for catching up.

Secondly, following these schedules you will not hop around. Rather, you will read one book until it is complete, and then you will move on to another book. New Testament and Old Testament books are intermingled to introduce variety through the year, but you are never required to read, for example, a chapter in Matthew and one in Genesis on the same day.

Beyond these similarities, the schedules differ in pace. For the highly motivated, there is a schedule that covers all of the Old Testament once, and the New Testament and Psalms twice in the course of the year.

Yeah, right. Okay, fun to think about. But for the rest of us, there is schedule that takes one through the whole Bible once in the course of the year. Pretty straightforward, that.

But that can still be daunting for those who have never attempted it. Miss a week, as you might during vacation or while bogged down in Leviticus, and you feel sunk. You give up, patting yourself on the back for having tried, and then feeling like a ‘cotton headed ninny muggins‘ for having failed.

But, Buddy, you’re NOT a cotton headed ninny muggins. You just need a slower pace. For this case, we provide a schedule that paces you through the Bible in TWO years. The goal is moved farther off, but you are less likely buckle under under the stress that usually comes with these programs.

If any reading this have found these schedules helpful in the past, I’d appreciate a comment to that effect. Helps me know that my labor is not in vain and encourages others in their efforts. Thanks!

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Each of these can be downloaded from my Dropbox site. (Let me know if there is any trouble.)

And each is available in two formats: .pdf for printing and .epub for reading on your iPhone (just import the file into iTunes). Right click on the desired file, and select ‘download”. Enjoy!

Two years:

One year:

One year (NT and Psalms twice):

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Also, if you want to say ‘thank you’, sign up for your own DropBox account using this link. We’ll BOTH get extra space. Yeah for extra space!