Archive for the ‘Study’ Category

Training Is Oh So Valuable

June 14, 2017

Have you seen the movie Sully? It’s the story of the US Air flight that landed in the Hudson River after hitting a flock of birds that knocked out its engines?

Jeff Skiles, the first officer on that flight, spoke at the conference I am attending. I’ve heard both him and Capt. Sullenberger speak a couple of times each. They take about 40 minutes to tell the story of an event that took less than a couple of minutes.

The thing that stands out for me? Training.

Everything they did. Every communication. Every action. From the captain to the first officer to the cabin crew. Everything had been prepared for. They had been trained and drilled many times.

When the emergency happened, one or two words communicated next actions. Everyone knew what to do. They had seconds to act. (Of course, idiots spent years second-guessing them, but that is human nature, I guess.)

What about us?

Do we “become a Christian” and immediately think we can tell people how to live their lives? Do we suddenly know everything?

Paul talked many times about training in his letters. I was thinking about that, then I thought about Paul himself. He had years of training in the Scriptures and in the interpretations of the leading rabbis of the time.

Then he met Jesus.

Did he go out and start preaching? No, he was blind. They guided him to a believer who had been instructed by God to teach this famous anti-Christian scholar. And Paul studied. And he went to the desert and he studied, prayed, meditated.

He himself was training. For years. Then he went out.

I’m not suggesting we all go to seminary–after all, I didn’t. And I won’t. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t spent a lifetime training. Then I discovered I could write. Well, a little anyway.

But like Paul’s favorite analogy, we need to train like athletes. Every day. To be prepared to run the race set before us.

Learning By Osmosis

May 31, 2017

There is the book. It is a key text for study and reference. Let’s say that it’s the Bible.

But wait. It’s still in the box used to protect it during shipping.

Perhaps it now protects it from wearing out by over use.

You place it in proximity to your head and all that knowledge just flows through the membrane from the solution of greater concentration to the solution of lesser concentration (definition of osmosis).

I’m betting that generations of high school and college students have tried this method. Maybe you? Or me?

A book only provides value when you open it.

Just like your mind only receives knowledge when you open it.

Or your heart understanding when you open it.

[Inspired from a meeting where an important book was prominently displayed with several others on the desk–but still in its box. Then I discovered a learning tool for doctors called Osmosis. At that point, I got scared and stopped my research.]

Don’t Be “The Good Student”

May 5, 2017

We all knew the good student. Sat in the front of the class. Raised his hand all the time. She always asked the obvious question so that the teacher would know they paid attention.

They were great at memorizing. Remembering all the stuff they were supposed to remember got them through school with high grades.

I was not that student.

I preferred the back of the class thinking about just about anything other than the class. I have memories of this as far back as 3rd grade. Even at the university where I learned the “game”, I read the required reading in the first couple of weeks of the quarter so that I could read what I wanted the rest of the time.

So, why do I love to study and teach the Bible and other spiritual writing? Those are my teachers. Outside of a couple of people in business who helped me along, it was books who taught me.

But that isn’t enough. They teach you how to live, but then you have to go do it. It’s not enough to be a scholar.

I just read this powerful illustration in John Fischer’s The Catch. I love his concept of “Grace Turned Outward”, by the way. But on to the picture:

My wife, Marti, has created an image of a dead Christianity that she often refers to as prevalent among all of us. In this image, everyone is on the front side of the cross. Maybe Jesus is up there on it, or maybe He is not, but we are all seated in folding chairs, looking up. On our laps are notebooks. We are there to take notes — someone is teaching — fill in the blanks. Its a study guide that leads us up to the cross, but never through it. In Marti’s illustration, no one ever leaves. It’s all well and good, this focus on the cross, but at some point, we are to get up and walk through the cross to the other side. The key is to get to the other side of the cross because that’s where the power is — resurrection power.

We may have different personalities–outgoing, reserved, friendly, cool–but we can live with power and freedom because we live what we learn.

At some point we must put down the books and hymnals and go outside and live with people. How we act, not what we know, is the key.

Let’s Pick The Scripture / Teaching We Want

February 20, 2017

It’s like a buffet. You get in the queue. All the dishes are laid out in front of you. Looking through the sneeze guard, you pick the things you want.

A guy I knew who was firmly and proudly in the Religious Right preferred to black out inconvenient teaching in the text. And often blacked out the context, too.

I’m teaching a class focusing on one of Paul’s letters. “I never liked Paul. He said such mean things about women.”

It is so inconvenient. Reading thoroughly for meaning within context, that is. It is so easy to pick out the things I agree with and ignore the rest. 

And when we do that, we hurt people. Deeply.

I even know of people who have deeply held “religious” and “Christian” views that aren’t even in the Bible. Or even in any reputable Christian writing from the early Church fathers to Dallas Willard and Henri Nouwen.

And they deeply hurt people. And drive them away from the church.

Can I ask an existential question? What happens to both people when a self-proclaimed Christian person separates another person from God? Are there any winners? Are there any losers? Who?

I have only one faith–that God raised Jesus from death to life.

And two commandments that I follow quite poorly (geek that I am), namely Love God thoroughly and Love other people as myself.

So there are two responses, peace and justice.

And where lie peace and justice in a world where we draw lines based on buffet-line-style religion? And a world where self-centeredness rules?

How about instead of a buffet line reading of the Scripture we try a wine tasting way? We try some and learn to savor the different flavors and aromas. Discerning the nuances of each grape and fermentation process. And then try some more.

Spiritual writing is to be savored with discernment, not picked over and swallowed without tasting.

Responding To Scripture

January 3, 2017

There was a man. He attended church regularly. One of those people of whom it is said, “If the doors are open, he’s there.”

No, he wasn’t a pastor. But he had been to graduate school studying his Scriptures. He really knew a lot. He’d memorized almost the entire thing.

Argumentative? Oh, yes, don’t try to argue with him. He could point out how wrong you were six different ways. And, wow, did he love to argue.

The Scriptures were, to him, a big list of rules with some stories interspersed. Those rules set apart those who follow them from those who don’t. And following the rules got you gold stars on your report card from God.

The way he dressed set him apart from the common people. The way he prayed in church was designed to impress others.And he did–impress them, that is. Trouble is that not everyone was impressed with him favorably. Yes, you can leave negative impressions on people.

Then one day he met a man. Totally changed his life. Suddenly he viewed Scriptures in an entirely new way. He now searched the Scriptures for hints on how God makes you right with him, not how you make yourself right with God. He discovered what the Scriptures said about the man he met.

Yes, that man was Paul, the apostle. But it has also been many other people–both women and men. Young and old.

He met Jesus. That meeting changed his life.

I’m studying deeper into Paul’s letter to the Roman church–known as the book of Romans. Many people feel intimidated by the letter. They’ve been told that scholars have written huge volumes of commentary about it. And they have. But Martin Luther read it, and it not only changed his life but it also changed the course of history. He founded the Lutheran reformed movement. John Wesley read it. It changed his life. He took the gospel out of the churches and into the streets and mines and other disreputable starting the Wesleyan or Methodist movement.

The book is not inaccessible. It shows the path of spiritual formation. Every time I read it, I am changed just a little more.

I’m teaching on the book again. If you are in the Sidney, Ohio area and open on Sunday mornings at 10:15 am, stop by Sidney First United Methodist. And if you are not in the habit of attending a church or if you are wary of being identified as a Methodist, well I have a solution. Our classroom is the first door on the left when entering the building from the North Street parking lot. You can park by The Alcove and walk in and walk out and no one will notice 😉

Listening With Our Entire Mind As A Spiritual Discipline

November 15, 2016

Did you ever hear what someone said and not understand what was meant? Sometimes someone you know assumes a background and just makes a comment. You hear it and think it applies to something totally different.

What if you were a friend of Jesus back in the day? He was full of those comments. You knew that when he said something it had spiritual reference. But, still….

One day after coming up with a way to feed 4,000 people by miraculously coming up with truckloads of bread manufactured from only a few loaves as the “raw material,” Jesus was riding in the boat with his buddies.

He says, “Watch out–Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of the Herodians.”

Do they let the spiritual significance of this comment sink in? Noooo. They are still thinking about all that bread they fed the crowd with and where in the heck it came from.

mind-map-mark-yeast

When I’m studying a section that obviously needs some thought, I like to make a mind map. This is a quick one I sketched out in my journal. There were three key words–yeast, Pharisees, Herodians. So, I mapped out a bunch of descriptions of the three and then tried piecing it together. [By the way, I have a prettier app for the Mac and iPad–MindJet Mind Manager. It’s a great way to outline thoughts and brainstorm.]

Of course, the disciples were caught by surprise. Then didn’t have it written. It was a quick comment.

Yeast can mean a number of things. I read once that it is a symbol of evil. But I thought it likely to look at two characteristics–it permeates through the dough and it causes change.

Pharisees? Well, they represented the religious elite who thought that behavior could be changed through laws and the legal system. And in this manner, they could prove they were better than “sinners” because they followed the law. Jesus usually poked at them.

Herodians? They were the political elite. Ruthless exercise of power was their characteristic.

If the dough is us, then think it through.

A GPS for the Bible?

September 26, 2016

When you travel, how much do you rely on your GPS? In your car? In your phone?

We use it often. I’ve tracked taxis. I’ve charted walking paths in cities to a restaurant or other destination.

And of course we rely on it when driving somewhere. Confidence that we are on the right path is priceless. Having an estimated time of arrival helps with planning.

But we have discovered that slavishly following the GPS can lead to lost time or even the wrong path. We were just in Naperville, IL heading back to Ohio. I punched in the street address. It said turn right. I said, “Huh?” Then it said you will reach your destination in 35 minutes. Admittedly I drive fast. But I’m not paring 4+ hours off a trip. Oops, the GPS defaulted to the closest city with my street address–Joliet.

Once I was waiting for my wife to pick me up at an airport while she was enroute from another location. She was about 1.5 hours late. I told her that regardless of what the GPS might say, to make sure she got on Interstate 77. Well, the GPS routed her over the Appalachians to Interstate 75 in order to avoid tolls. It wasn’t set up well. She went way out of her way.

I’ve seen a similar situation with Bible study. We may come to it with pre-formed opinions. We just read our opinions into the words.We lose that “Ah, ha” moment when a new truth sinks into our awareness.

Or, perhaps we choose the wrong GPS.

I remember when that point came home to me. About 45 years ago I read a popular Christian book. It had a few obvious flaws of logic, but the overall theme seemed sound. And everyone around me thought it was great.

Then I read the author’s next work–a study of the letter to the Hebrews. I started the book, but something seemed wrong. I went back to the beginning and opened to that letter reading the translation of the Bible I used at the time (and probably comparing through an 8-translation Bible I have) along with the book. I just kept muttering, “Where did he get that?”

I put the book back on the book shelf and never read that author again. He lost his place as my GPS.

I read lots of scholars and theologians. But I read them in light of the Bible itself. I try to stay true to many of the earliest students–Augustine, Jerome, the Desert Fathers, and others.

A GPS is a good thing; but only if used wisely.

Sometimes Slowing Down Pays

August 1, 2016

Sometimes we pick up the Bible or another book that requires thought as we read. But we read through quickly, as if it were a cheap romance novel.

We heard someone say, it’s a short book. Read it through a couple of times a day for a week. In order to do that, we feel we must read quickly–perhaps even skimming.

I’ve noticed in small groups that often we’ll read through a passage–especially from a letter from Paul–and put the book down, sigh, and go “that was certainly  confusing.”

The writer of the introduction to the letter to the Ephesians in the Renovare “Life With God” Bible that I use, brought us into the study through the story of the archeologists who uncovered the South Stairs up to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It seems that the steps are an engineering mess. Totally irregular. Varying heights. Varying pitches.

“Could they not find a competent engineer to lay these out?” they thought. Or, perhaps they actually were engineered very carefully. You must approach the Temple slowly, with intention, with perseverance. One cannot just rush up to the Temple and declare, “Ta Da!”

Approaching thoughtful literature requires just such care.

There are 11 verses in the first chapter of Ephesians that are one long sentence in Greek.

We could read that through, think “Wow, that was complex,” and then keep on reading.

Or, we could pause and consider each phrase realizing that Paul was logically building an argument (proposition) a phrase at a time. As we slow down and break it down, we begin to see a pattern of thought.

Or the last half of the second chapter (Ephesians 2:11-22). We read that yesterday. “That was confusing” many said (probably voicing what we all were thinking). But I said, let’s just pause and look at the passage slowly. Who is Paul talking to? Who is he talking about? What was his message before? Oh, he’s telling us about how the death and resurrection of Jesus brought together all the different races of people into unity. “He broke down the dividing wall” between us.

There is a great lesson for us today. Think about that today. For a while. And consider your friends or those you know whose work seems to be to divide people. Perhaps our work should be to continue what Jesus began–let people know about how we all are brought together in unity through Jesus. That has  already happened. It’s just up to us to let people know.

Jesus Kept Raising The Bar

April 8, 2016

Imagine you are a first-century Jewish common person. From Galilee, the “hillbilly” of the country. You’re listening to a new guy preach. You’ve heard rabbis and self-proclaimed rabbis speak before.

But this guy is different. His name is Joshua, same as the guy who conquered the Holy Land. (In Greek, which they spoke but didn’t use except for trade, Jesus.)

His talks turned the power relationships upside down. He brought forward the poor and disenfranchised. He poked at the rich and powerful–Romans and especially Pharisees.

Then he reinterpreted the Law and raised the bar. He raised it so high that even those self-righteous Pharisees couldn’t make it.

John preached righteousness and repentance. But this Jesus dude–he took it to a whole different level.

There was no way anyone could make it except by God’s grace.

I guess that was the point.

No wonder those first-century listeners followed him. He also backed it up by healing those who came to him.

So how does all that impact our spiritual formation and disciplines today? Does it still seem so impossible? Or, have we heard the story so many times that we lose the wonder and mystery?

I’m going back and reading just Jesus’ words. Not the stories or interludes. What did he say?

Then I try to put on new eyes and see the text new. What would I think if I were sitting on that hillside on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee? Seeing this guy for the first time? Not knowing what would happen in just three years.

Could he topple governments? Put those snooty people who think they are so great in their place?

Certainly he was feeding the spiritual hunger that had grown so much at this time.

Messiah (in Greek, Christ; in English, anointed one of God)? What did that really mean?

He certainly gave us something to think about as we walked home afterwards.

Study From The Source

March 31, 2016

The podcast host was interviewing a professor at a smaller Christian university.

“The kids today are entering university with very little knowledge of the Bible. They don’t get information by reading, and they don’t read the Bible.”

“So what do you do?”

“We have a mandatory class on the Old Testament and New Testament.”

That comment encapsulates why I don’t think that a BA or even BS degree these days is worth much more than a high school diploma from years ago.

I went to the university having read many philosophers (I know, you’re shocked). We had a mandatory one-year long class “Philosophy and Religion.” Yes, it was a Christian school.

That year we read about philosophers, religion, Christianity, the Old Testament, the New Testament. Even at 19 years old I inherently knew that the class was just superficial — get your A and get out.

Even in graduate school we read more about thinkers than reading the thinkers themselves.

We’d have  been better served with a reading list. Read these works by Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Kant, Hegel; then read this list of books of the Bible. Come to class prepared to discuss the key points the writers were arguing.

Our students are coming to university Biblically illiterate? Have them start reading–the Bible. I know that’s revolutionary thinking.

Instead of a survey course that gives overviews of the books of the Bible, read the Bible.

Then after they’ve read the Bible for a basic foundation, then they can be introduced to interpreters. I prefer reading the early church Fathers up to and including Augustine. I am not enamored of the later theologies–Reformed in its various guises, what we call “fundamentlism” or some flavors of the evangelical world, the interesting stories people make up riffing from Daniel and Revelation. But at some point they need to read those thinkers.

Instill one of the most important disciplines early in life of these students–reading from the Bible every day.

By the way–what were the churches these kids attended before going to a Christian university doing, anyway? Maybe it would be a good service for some of you to lead youth in actually reading the Bible!