Relationship, not Religion.
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Ring around the Rosie,
Pocket full of posies,
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Remember that one from kindergarten? Back when falling down was fun?
It seems pretty much everyone has heard the explanation that this nursery rhyme originated with the plague in 14th Century Europe. Even the good people at Snopes.com. They tell us this bit of children’s doggerel has nothing to do with the Black Death, at all. You can read their explanation here – http://www.snopes.com/language/literary/rosie.asp/
“Ring around the Rosie” may not be about the plague, but it does seem to fit Ash Wednesday pretty well. Imagine, if you will, this poem as a metaphor for life. Remember playing it as a kid. Holding hands, spinning in a circle, then dropping to the floor and laughing like a loon the whole time. Good times.
“Ring around the Rosie, pocket full of posies” — Singing, dancing, laughing, playing — this is living.
“Ashes, ashes, we all fall down” — collapsing to the ground in a heap — this is also living.
Because no matter how great our denial, no matter how hard we pretend otherwise, no matter how much time and money and energy we spend, life on this planet comes to an end. For each of us. For everything. Dying is simply another part of life.
That’s why we impose ashes to begin Lent. As a reminder. The ashes remind us of our mortality. They remind of us our basic createdness, thus pointing us back to the Creator. Which is exactly what Lent is supposed to do.
So let’s talk about Lent. Lent is the 40 day season on the liturgical calendar between (the season after) Epiphany and Easter. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday). You might notice there are 46 actual days on the calendar between Ash Wednesday and Easter. That’s because you don’t count Sundays as part of Lent. Lent is a season of fasting and penitence. And Sundays are always days of feasting and joy, Sundays are the Lord’s day, 1/52nd of Easter. So you remove the 6 Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter and end up with 40 days. Not insignificantly, these 40 days mirror the 40 days of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness (Mk 1:12-13), the 40 days Moses spent on the mountain with the Lord (Ex 24:18), the 40 days it rained on Noah (Gen 7:12) and even the 40 years Israel spent in the desert (Deut 8:2).
Lent is a season of penitence and fasting. It is a time of re-collection, when once again we remind ourselves of who our selves really are. Lent is a season of humility. Not bad-relationship, wipe-your-feet-on-me, barely hidden self-loathing kind of humility (which isn’t humility at all, but a perverse inversion of pride). But a truly biblical humility where we recognize we are not the center of the universe, others don’t exist for our pleasure and we are not God. As the fabulous Pastor Warren has said, “It’s not about you.” Biblical humility involves knowing that we are creature, created and creating, yet not Creator. (Here’s a quick way to check and see if you are God: speak something into being from nothing. If it works, ascend immediately to your heavenly throne. If it doesn’t, get in line with the rest of us to receive your ashes.)
Ashes are a sign of mortality and penance. We are marked with a cross of ashes on Ash Wednesday to remind us of our own certain demise. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. From dust we were formed (Gen 2:7) and to dust we shall return.
Penitence is the act of recognizing our wrong-doing and working to set it right. If you cannot directly amend that which you have broken, then do something else in its place. Acts of service, or devotion, or prayer can all be penance. We’re not talking about self-flagellation, we’re talking about a sacred apology.
Fasting is the act of giving up something in order to grow spiritually. If you give up meat in order to lose weight, that’s not a fast. That’s a diet. If you give up caffeine in order to break your addiction to Diet Coke, that’s not a fast. That’s torture. Fasting is letting go of one thing in order to gain a closer relationship with God. There are all sorts of Fasts, and you can learn more about Fasting in my post “Fast food Fast”. https://revjayg.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/fast-food-fast/
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word.
— (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p265)
In Ch. 19 of The Story, fifty thousand of God’s people return from captivity in Babylon to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The work begins with excitement and enthusiasm. When the foundation is laid, the old timers weep with remembrance of Solomon’s temple. But opposition from neighboring tribes builds. Dissension within the leadership stalls the project. Years go by with no further work on the temple being completed. Instead of looking to God, the people look to themselves and build their own homes. Then the word of the Lord comes to them through the prophet Haggai.
It took me a while to understand what God was trying to tell us in this chapter. The history was interesting, but not the point. As I read it again, the prophecy of Haggai began to make sense to me. Then it really began to make sense. Then I got it. Haggai is not only speaking to Israel, Haggai is speaking to us.
The story of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem is not about rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. It is not about the history of Israel, or about the religious tolerance of the kings of Persia. The story of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem is the story of rebuilding God’s people.
Why does God ask them to rebuild the temple? Is he a creature who needs a dwelling place? Is he a human who needs a bed and a couch and a roof over his head?
Thus says the Lord. Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What is the house that you would build for me? And what is the place of my rest? – Isa 66:1
God created the universe from nothing. He spoke the earth into being. His hands shaped the mountains. His strength pushed back the waters.
For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In His hand are the caverns of the earth; the heights of the hills are his also. The sea is His, for He made it, and His hands formed the dry land. – Ps 95:4-5
Is the One who hung the stars in the heavens impressed with our construction? He says to the mountain “rise up”; He tells the wind “go there”.
All these things my hand has made and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in Spirit and trembles at my word. – Isa 66:2
The Lord doesn’t need a house. God is not impressed by our efforts. He tells them to build the temple so He may be worshipped and glorified. He tells them to build that He may delight in their devotion. He tells them to build so they will seek him first, making Him a priority.
But the work is difficult. There is opposition. Their efforts to rebuild the temple slow, then stall, then stop. They turn from building God’s house to building their own houses.
Consider their ways, says the Lord of hosts.
You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. – Hag 1:6
Consider your ways, says the Lord of hosts.
God is not impressed by our efforts. He tells us to seek Him so He may be worshipped and glorified. He tells us to seek Him that He may delight in our devotion. He tells us to seek Him first, that we might live in abundance.
But this work is difficult. There is opposition. Our efforts to give God priority slow, then stall, then stop. We turn our focus from God to ourselves.
We have sown much, and harvested little. 44% of Americans feel more stressed today than they did five years ago. 20% of us live in extreme stress. Why do choose to live this way? For cars and clothes and houses and stuff? Why do we accept such little return on the investment of our very lives? Why, when God has a better way? Jesus says, “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt 6:20-21).
We eat, but we never have enough; we drink, but we never have our fill. 66% of us are overweight. 34% of us report binge or heavy drinking in the last month. 15.1 million adults struggle with alcohol. If living this way makes us happy, why are we eating ourselves to death? If we find so much joy in the world, why do we drink so much to avoid it? Paul describes us like this, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil 3:19).
You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. How quickly our clothing stops being about us and starts being about what others think of us. We are uncomfortable in our own skin, so we cover it up. If I don’t trust God to take care of me, then I have to take care of me, then I have to look a certain way to get what I want. And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (Mt 6:28-30)
And we who earn wages do so only to put them into a bag with holes. We surround ourselves with things, we fill our days with busy-ness. We buy clothes we can’t wear because we eat too much food. We feel bad about our bodies, so we drink to dull the pain. Which really only delays the pain, ’cause you know you’re gonna’ feel it tomorrow. So we go to work hungover, and we can’t concentrate, we don’t produce, so we have to work longer to earn the same paycheck that we use to go out and buy ____________ more clothes! Jesus explains our insanity, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Mt 6:24).
This is madness! But we live in the middle of the whirlwind and we just — can’t — see it.
So what do we do to step out of the whirlwind? What do we do to open our eyes? Seek first the Kingdom of God.
We are people who “…have sown much, and harvested little. We eat, but we never have enough; we drink, but we never have your fill. We clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And we earns wages only to put them into a bag with holes.” (Hag 1:6)
What can we do to change all that? Seek first the Kingdom of God.
Do you want to sow little and harvest much? Seek first the Kingdom of God.
Do you want to eat enough and drink your fill? Seek first the Kingdom of God.
Do you want to stop worrying about how you look? Seek first the Kingdom of God.
Do you want to keep your wages, building up your reward for the work you have done? Then seek first the Kingdom of God!
Stop seeking first the Kingdom of YOU!
The Kingdom of you will crumble. The Kingdom of you will fall. Don’t pour out your life for the wages of this world that will be consumed like grass in a fire. Don’t seek your own glory and honor and power. For yours is the glory, oh Lord, yours is the glory and honor and power! Work for the glory of the Lord, let it be for his honor. By his power we live and move and have our being. Seek God in prayer. Devote yourselves to worship. Study the Scriptures. Serve the poor. Give your life away: your gifts, your skills, your personality, your money, your time. Give your life for the benefit of others and see how God gives it back to you tenfold.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. – Mt 6:33
This is not some health and wealth gospel lie. The amazing thing about seeking first God’s kingdom is the amounts don’t change. You do. God probably won’t give you more money or food or clothes. God will give you a new perspective, so you can appreciate what you have, so you are satisfied with what you have, so you can see the abundance of what God has already given you instead of always wanting more.
You know one of the definitions of a rich person? Someone who has everything he wants, everything she wants. There are two ways to look at that. One way, our way, is to have everything. The other way, God’s way, is to want only what God gives us. And the only way to do that, my friends, is to seek first the Kingdom of God.
https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db71.htm “Sugar drinks: For these analyses, sugar drinks include fruit drinks, sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened bottled waters, consistent with definitions reported by the National Cancer Institute (8). Sugar drinks do not include diet drinks, 100% fruit juice, sweetened teas, and flavored milks. Population estimates of sugar-drink kilocalories are based on data from one in-person, 24-hour dietary recall interview.”
This is taken from the Stewardship Talk given by John Green last Sunday. The story of Someone Else can be widely found on the internet. The author is unknown.
The church was saddened this past week to learn of the death of one of its most prominent members, “Someone Else.”
After being with us for so many years, Someone Else’s passing creates a vacancy that will be difficult to fill. Someone Else did far more than a normal person’s share of the work. Whenever there was a job to do, a class to teach, or a meeting to attend, one name was on everyone’s list. Let “Someone Else” do it.
It was common knowledge that “Someone Else” was among the most generous givers in the church. Whenever there was a financial need, everyone just assumed that “Someone Else” would make up the difference.
“Someone Else” was a wonderful person – sometimes appearing to be superhuman – but one person can only do so much. Were the truth known, everyone expected too much of “Someone Else.”
Now “Someone Else” is gone. We wonder what we are going to do. “Someone Else” left a wonderful example to follow, but who is going to do the things “Someone Else” did?
We cannot simply stand by and expect someone else to lead and serve and give. You are the someone else at Grace. You are the someone else God wants to use. So am I.
I won’t leave giving up to someone else. I’m going to up my pledge. So up yours.
(Hahahahahhaha. Get it? Up yours? It’s a joke, people. But really, you can increase your giving.)
This is the written transcript of the stewardship talk given by Bill Cruse during worship on Oct. 9.
Susie and I have been members at Grace from pretty much it’s infancy
Coming to a newly planted mission church, we knew that joining Grace would be an important part of our spiritual journey.
We knew that we could no longer just sit in the boat, but we were going to have to get out of the boat and serve. Our theme for stewardship this year is time, talent and treasure. The first two, time and talent, come together to create service.
I have served on the Bishops Committee and acted as The Bishops Warden and I am now on the Give to Serve Campaign as we work towards our goal of moving onto Graceland to grow Gods kingdom.
Serving means giving our time and I know our time is so very precious. There are only so many hours and minutes in the day. We go through our busy, hectic lives trying to find balance and harmony . Why should we give that precious time to something other then work and family? I believe that by serving others it helps us stay healthy. There are multiple studies showing that people who engage in giving behaviors live longer and healthier lives. Our interactions through serving provide for positive emotions and healthy social bonding.
We all have multiple God given talents to share. My profession [editor’s note: Bill is a dentist] has afforded me the opportunity to serve those in need over the years by providing care at charity health events for the homeless and less fortunate. I have even had the chance to care for refugees in my office. I have also stepped out of my comfort zone to work in disaster areas, just providing physical labor and comfort. When we use our time and our talents to serve people, we serve God.
Now let me touch on the last ‘T’, Treasure. Susie and I firmly believe that all of our worldly treasures have been provided to us by God to be used for the good of his kingdom. It is important that we keep that in mind and give back accordingly. The more generous we are in our giving and serving, the more we will receive into our lives.
I don’t read the Bible as much as I know I should, but I love Paul’s letters. Let me finish by reading from 2nd Corinthians 9:6-8
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
God has blessings planned for us, we have to be willing and available to be his extended hands!
This is a written transcript of the stewardship talk given by Nancy Stinson during worship on Oct. 2.
When many hear the word Stewardship they only think of money. But Stewardship is much, much more than that. It is what we in the “trade” call the three “T”s of Time Talent and Treasure. You can’t talk about one without the others. Because if you believe that life and everything we have is a gift from God, then we become caregivers for ALL those gifts including the time we have on this earth, the talents and abilities God has given us, and most importantly the gifts of family and friends we have in our daily lives. I’ve picked up a lot of Stewardship catch phrases over my years at the diocese. My favorite is: Stewardship is everything you do after you say, “I believe.”
For the five weeks of October, we will be talking about Stewardship (the 3 Ts). I get to be the first speaker and have the advantage of surprise. So – Surprise! To help the lucky five speakers, Jay suggested just a few questions we might want to answer.
Jay began with Time and Talent – in other words – our Service to God. Jay’s questions ran along the lines of
How long do I have? Just Kidding! I’ll try to make it short.
So, let me share a couple of images that I use when thinking about that pesky financial “T” – the Treasure – at Grace Church. But first – remember back to the Fall stewardship seasons in 2010 – 2012. We did the New Consecration Sunday program. In my 20+ years of considering Financial Stewardship personally and professional, this program has had the largest impact on my spiritual stewardship.
First I explored WEEKLY GIVING as they recommended.
Remember the story of the frog and the pot of boiling water. You throw a frog in boiling water and he will jump out, but put the frog in room temperature water and slowly increase the temperature and the frog is oblivious that he is cooking. I’m that frog hanging on to the side of the pot with a smile on my face. When I took my old-fashioned monthly gift to God and divided by 4 the weekly amount was a little embarrassing and small. Surely I could do better than that! So I increased the amount (temperature) 10% each year. And that smaller WEEKLY amount does not hurt. Better yet, I’m still not cooked!
Now to the second change I made –AUTOMATIC GIVING
Stay with me for a minute on this. Yes, it’s a bowl of prunes, and when you think of prunes you think of regularity, right! This is one of the greatest gifts you can give Grace Church. Regularity! If the budget and leadership can depend on your gift EVERY week, for EVERY month, all year long, they can in turn move forward with confidence and faith to expand the larger mission of Grace church and to further God’s kingdom. No summer shortfall, no running-short appeals.
What a gift to Grace and to Jay. So let’s keep them both regular with our own dose of prunes in the form of Automatic Giving.
And there was another benefit to ME the giver. I let go of my money, and truly gave to God with no strings attached. It didn’t matter if it was Christmas and I wanted to buy more presents for Grandkids. It didn’t matter if I had a $300 water bill PLUS a huge plumbing bill to fix the leak. God’s money was off my radar. It wasn’t mine to use, and better yet, I discovered I didn’t need it. The gift to me was taking a leap of faith that God would give me enough, if I was willing to let go. And he did, and he will.
So let’s recap.
For 2017 when considering Stewardship, we remember it is more than just money. It is the 3Ts of Time, Talent and Treasure. But when you do think of the financial stewardship think of my two images:
The frog in the pot and the prunes in the bowl for Grace Church. This year prayerfully consider Automatic – Weekly – Giving. Just like the frog – it will make you smile.
Our goal, our theme, our experiment this Summer is to be led by the Spirit. This is not easy for us. We believe, theologically, in the idea of the Spirit. We would even agree that as followers of Christ, born-again in the waters of baptism, that we have received the Holy Spirit and He dwells within us. But this is exactly the problem. Our quiet acquiescence to the idea of the Spirit as an intellectual construct robs us of our ability to know Him as God.
Our family vacationed in Lake Tahoe a few Summers ago. Our hosts told us to bring sweaters because it would be chilly in the evenings. It was August. In San Antonio. Cool weather sounded like heaven. Then we got there. Amazing sunshine. Fresh, crisp air. Beautiful lake. It was gorgeous! Then the sun set. And it was freezing. We went to our suitcases only to discover we had forgotten to pack sweaters. You see, we believed our friends when they said Tahoe would be chilly. But some part of us couldn’t grasp the idea of sweaters in August. So we ignored them; we left them out.
That’s what we do with God’s Spirit. We believe in Him, but some part of us cannot grasp the idea of Him. So we ignore Him. We leave Him out. We accept the Spirit as part of the Trinity, but we do not follow Him as God. We find ourselves out in the cold, suffering a spiritual hypothermia, wondering why our Faith won’t keep us warm.
Our problem comes from wanting only a little bit of God. We want God, we know we need God, but we only want so much of Him, just enough, really, to make it to next Sunday. God allows us to all but ignore Him, living with the presence of His Spirit, but without His power. Francis Chan explains it in his book, Forgotten God:
Nowhere in Scripture do I see a “balanced life with a little bit of God added in” as an ideal for us to emulate. Yet when I look at our churches, this is exactly what I see: a lot of people who have added Jesus to their lives. People who have, in a sense, asked Him to join them on their life journey, to follow them wherever they feel they should go, rather than following Him as we are commanded. The God of the universe is not something we can just add to our lives and keep on as we did before. The Spirit who raised Christ from the dead is not someone we can just call on when we want a little extra power in our lives. Jesus Christ did not die in order to follow us. He died and rose again so that we could forget everything else and follow Him to the cross, to true Life (Francis Chan, Forgotten God, p.105).
Our God is no little tin god (thank you, Don Henley).
He is the master and creator of the universe. Jesus Christ is not some puppet god we can play with when we feel like it. Jesus did not die in order to follow us. Jesus died, and rose from the dead, so we can follow Him. When we try to fit Jesus into our lives, our plans, our church, our way of doing things, we will find there is never enough room for Him. But when we step back, step out of the way, when we choose to fit our lives into His, form our plans from His plan, place our church in the Church, then we find more Jesus than we ever knew existed. This is the gift of the Spirit.
“You don’t need the Holy Spirit if you are merely seeking to live a semi-moral life and attend church regularly. You can find people of all sorts in many religions doing that quite nicely without Him. You only need the Holy Spirit’s guidance and help if you truly want to follow the Way of Jesus Christ” (Chan, Forgotten God, p.106)
If we want to truly follow the Way of Jesus, if we want more than a little bit of God, then we need the Holy Spirit’s guidance. We don’t need Him as an idea, we need the Spirit to lead us. Here is one simple way to let the Spirit lead you.
There is no better way to break the bonds of materialism than to give.
Now some of you are thinking, “Yeah, I knew this was coming. Here comes the pitch. Gimme’, gimme’, gimme’. Dang Christians are all the same. All they want is your money.” If that’s what you’re thinking, I beg you to give me (hahahaha! sorry, couldn’t help myself) just two minutes to change your mind.
Yes, Churches need money to operate. In that we are no different from any other organization, be it for-profit or non-profit. We need money for practical things like rent and insurance and salaries. We need money for impractical things like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and teaching our young people. And we don’t sell anything, so we have to ask.
But here’s the deal. If you’re not a follower of Jesus, we’re not asking you. You are an honored guest in our community. We would no sooner ask you for money than we would invite you to dinner and ask you to pay for groceries. If you are a follower of Jesus… Well, if you follow Jesus then we shouldn’t have to ask you for money. Your Lord already has.
Why is it, do you think, that God wants us to give? It’s not like it changes His bottom line. The earth is Lord’s and all this is in it (Ps 24:1). As Lewis reminds us, when we give back to God, God is sixpence none the richer. So when we give, it is not because God needs to receive. God is sufficient unto God’s self. We give not because He needs us to, but because we need us to.
That’s right. We need to give. When Jesus tells us we cannot serve both God and money, he is not just giving advice. He is being descriptive rather than prescriptive. Jesus is explaining how we’re made. It’s not that we shouldn’t serve two masters, it’s that we can’t. We’re not made that way.
Look at the rich young ruler in Luke’s gospel. This is good guy. Jesus loves him. But he can’t let go of his wealth. And this keeps him from following Jesus.
... Jesus said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.
Why does his wealth get in the way? We see other wealthy people follow Jesus (Cornelius the Centurion, Lydia the seller of purple, even Paul himself). It’s not his wealth that is the problem, but his heart. Instead of trusting in God, the young man trusts in himself. He trusts his ability to follow the law. And he trusts in his money to provide for his needs.
Money is not the problem. Our attachment to money and all it can buy is the problem. And there is no better way to break the bonds of materialism than to give. When we give away things that are important to us we lessen the hold they have over us. This is why God calls us to give. So we can learn to trust the Creator of all things instead of the things themselves.
Jamie and I have been married almost 23 years, a long, long, loooooooooong time (though we might not be married much longer, once she reads that). A while ago, we took separate cars to a meeting with someone important. I arrived first and discovered the important person had a really nice office, in a really nice building with really nice wood floors. You could tell how important this person was by how busy things were. People were coming and going outside the office like cars in an HEB parking lot the day before Thanksgiving. Footsteps clattered up and down the hallway, clickity-clackity-clack. As important person and I sat around the conference table making small talk, I kept half an ear open for Jamie’s arrival. Sure enough, a few minutes later, I knew she had arrived.
Now, I couldn’t see her yet. The office’s privacy blinds were closed. But I knew it was her. I turned my chair to face the door and told important person, “Jamie’s here.” Sure enough, my beautiful bride strolled in moments later.
How did I know she was there before I could see her? I heard her heels clacking down the hall. How could I tell her heels from the hundreds of others walking by? Well, I’ve been listening to her walk down hallways for longer than we’ve been married. I’ve spent plenty of time looking forward to the arrival of my love in a variety of situations. I just know the sound of her walk, like I know the sound of her laugh, or the sound of my children’s cries.
That’s why I read the Bible. I want to recognize the sound of my Savior’s laugh. I want to know the rhythm of my Creator’s walk down the hall. If I want to follow what he says, I have to hear Him. And to hear Him above all the pointless noise of the world, I must be able to recognize his voice. The Bible is where I most clearly and consistently hear the voice of God. If you would know God, know Jesus. And if you would know Jesus, know the Bible.
If you would know God, know Jesus. If you would know Jesus, know the Bible.
I don’t read the Bible because I think it is life’s instruction manual. I don’t read the Bible so I can memorize verses to be thrown like daggers. I don’t read the Bible to back up my own theological understanding. I read the Bible because in its pages I encounter God. I go to the Bible to have my theology stretched and broadened. I go to the Bible to discover God’s truth, and I’ve never been disappointed.
I have been confuzzled (confused + puzzled) a time or two. I’ve been frustrated. I’ve been surprised. More than once, I have read a passage that I’ve clearly studied before (I know because I underline and write in my Bible like crazy) only to come across a verse that I swear I’ve never read before. This feeling has been so strong that I’ve gone to other copies of the same version to see if my Bible somehow had an extra verse in it. Weird. Makes no sense. Until I remember that the Bible is the living word of God.
To me, the Bible is God’s living word because God enlivens the words of the Bible by His Spirit. He reveals to us what he wants us to see, know and understand. It’s not that my Bible changed before I went back to the study the same passage again. It’s that I had changed, or more accurately, that God had changed me. So God’s Spirit now opened my eyes to read his word in a new way.
As a follower of Jesus, there are five practices I would absolutely recommend to anyone who wants to grow in the knowledge and love of God. I can go so far as to say, if you do these things you will grow closer to God.
Worship every time you get the chance. We are made to worship, and we are going to worship something. We should strive to worship the only One who truly deserves it.
Serve those in need. We love God by loving our neighbor. Our neighbor is whomever God places on our path. Serving others is serving Christ.
Give away money and things. There is no better way to weaken the hold materialism has over us than to give.
Pray like you mean it. Pray like everything you do depends on God. Because it does.
Read the Bible. When you dive into the pages of Scripture, you drink from the living water of Jesus, who is the Christ. Your soul will be satisfied. And you will find yourself changed.
And if you struggle with understanding the Bible, don’t sweat it. Ask someone with more Bible experience than you. Ask your pastor. Read a commentary. And remember God’s promise in Isaiah 55:11.
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
You can’t know what the Bible means until you know what it says.
Okay, look, this is turning out to be more difficult than I thought. I just wrote 400 words as an introduction. Too much. Waaaay too much. So I deleted all that and started over. I’m going to keep this as simple as possible. I’m going to give you one way to study the Bible that absolutely works. Then I’ll give you a bunch of links you can follow to learn more (if you want to).
Step 1 – BUY A STUDY BIBLE
Buy an ESV Study Bible*. You can get it at LifeWay or CBD or Amazon. Cost is $25-$60. If you already have an NIV Study Bible, use that one. If you have any other kind of Study Bible, you’ll be okay, but the notes won’t be as helpful.
Step 2 – HOW TO USE A STUDY BIBLE
A Study Bible is a specific type of Bible. There literally 1,734, 906,422** different types of Bibles. There are Youth Bibles and Worship Bibles and Devotion Bibles and Women’s Devotional Bibles and Men’s Devotional Bibles and on and on and on. A Study Bible has 4 distinct advantages over these others: introductions, cross references, footnotes, and study notes.
In a Study Bible, each book of the Bible has a carefully researched introduction that gives you that book’s author, date, location, major themes and outline. Very helpful. Don’t skip it like you did the introductions to books you were assigned to read in college.
Cross References are the odd column of numbers in the middle of the page.
Each verse of Scripture will have tiny superscript letters that correspond to that same verse found in the cross reference column. These cross references take you to other scripture verses that have the same word or theme. This is a fascinating way to discover what other books of the Bible have to say about the verse you are studying.
Footnotes are a little harder to find and a little harder to understand. They are referenced from small superscript numbers in the biblical text. The footnotes are located below the biblical text, but above the line that separates the text from the study notes. Footnotes refer to textual variations between original language manuscripts. They are most useful if you discover that a particular verse is “missing” from the biblical text. You will likely find an explanation in the footnotes.
Study Notes are the best part of the Study Bible.
Each page of your Study Bible will have actual verses of the Bible at the top with study notes about those verses at the bottom. These notes are very helpful tools in understanding what the corresponding verses say and mean. Just remember, the Bible itself is the inspired Word of God and the notes are just what a bunch of really smart biblical scholars think.
Step 3 – STUDY THE BIBLE
You bought it. Now read it. Study it. Wrestle with it, chew on it, argue with it. Squeeze it like a sponge and don’t let go until you’ve wrung it dry. Use a highlighter. Use a pen. Write in it, underline verses, circle words. Here is a simple way to study the Bible.
1 – Pray – Before you begin to read, pause and pray. Ask God’s spirit to open your eyes and brain to what the Bible says, ask the Spirit to open your heart to what it means. Confess your limitations (understanding, patience, attention span, time, whatever) and ask the Spirit to overcome them. Open yourself to what God wants to say to you.
2 – If you are reading a passage from a book you’re unfamiliar with, read the introduction to the book first. Then, read the passage once straight through. Don’t stop, don’t look at the study notes, don’t write anything down.
3 – Read the passage again, but read it out loud. Listen to the language, feel the rhythm of the words. Notice what stands out to you. It may feel funny to read aloud all by yourself. Don’t let that stop you. Your ear will hear words and phrases when you read them out loud that your eye won’t notice when you read silently.
4 – Read the passage a third time, silently again. Underline verses or phrases that catch your attention. Circle words that you don’t understand. Read the study notes for each verse. Ask yourself these three questions: what does it say? what does it mean? what does it mean for me?
There you have it. That’s a simple way to study Scripture on your own. If you don’t know where to start, begin by studying the Bible passage we read in worship last Sunday. Or go to our website to find out which passage we’ll read next Sunday and study that one. That’s a great way to prepare for worship.
Studying the Bible on your own is an important practice for all Christians. But it gets even better when you study the Bible with others. If even 7 of you tell me you want to get together to study the Bible on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights, I will make that happen. Of course, that presumes that at least 7 of you have read this far in the post. Email me if you want to study the Bible together.
Extra Bible Study Links
How to Study the Bible (this one’s a little iffy, but there’s some good stuff in this post – use what you can, ignore the rest)
* ESV – English Standard Version; NIV – New International Version : Version refers to the translation from the original languages. Different versions translate differently. Compare any KJV (King James Version) to any ESV and you will the difference immediately.
** This may be a slight exaggeration on the part of the author.
Humans are made in God’s image.
God’s image is trinitarian, relational.
One cannot be human alone.
The Easter Challenge this week is to laugh with someone you love.
Sounds easy enough, right?
But if you’re too busy to click the link to read the rest of this post, you realize this challenge might not be as easy as it sounds. So take a minute and slow down long enough to read this, really read it, and think about how you live.
Carl Jung once said, “Busyness is not not just FROM the devil, it IS the devil.” When I look at the pace at which we live these days, I cannot help but conclude he was right. The evil one has taken the Transitive Property of Equality (if A = B, and B= C, then A = C) and twisted it into the Transitive Property of Busyness. If busyness equals productivity, and productivity is good, then busyness is good. And we believe the lie.
Just look at your calendar. That’s all you have to do. Or look at your friends, if they pause long enough for you to see them. Watch your kids – overworked, overstressed, always rushing off to the next good thing. See how they learn from us. Ask yourself, I dare you, ask yourself, when was the last time you stopped just to hang out with people you love? How long ago was that? How often? What percentage of your waking hours do you give to simply enjoying the people you enjoy being with?
Now look , I get it. I really do. Overworking is one of the demons I wrestle with. I appreciate the self-satisfaction that comes from hard work. And I understand there are “seasons” in life, some seasons being busier than others. So I know, from my own experience, how easy it is for the busy seasons to bleed into one another until every season is just as busy as the last. Where is the joy in that? Where is the laughter?
Our problem is too many good things. Who of us willingly gives sacrifices our time and our relationships for bad things, for wasteful things? We may be forced to attend a few pointless meetings, but always in the context of some greater good. We’re too busy for wasteful things. We cut them out of our lives. Because if we’re going to miss a soccer game, or piano recital, or dinner with a friend, it better be worth it.
But is it? Worth it, I mean? Is our busyness worth the sacrifices we make to keep going, to keep running, to keep spinning our wheels?
My favorite seminary professor taught us something I just can’t forget. “You cannot be human alone,” he said one day. We didn’t get it, of course. So he explained.
To be human is to be made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). God exists as Trinity, three-in-one. God exists in a relationship within God’s self. To be made in God’s image is to be made for relationship. Humans are hard-wired for connection. Thus, to be disconnected, to be truly and totally alone, is to be less than human.
Robinson Crusoe on his island, not human until he meets Friday. Tom Hanks on his island, not human until he meets Wilson. Mark Watney on Mars, not human until he establishes contact with NASA. Why do you think solitary confinement is the worst punishment we can come up with?
We are made for relationship. Our busyness doesn’t merely wear us out. Our busyness renders us inhuman by the exact amount that it disrupts our relationships. Laughter is the antidote to this poison. Not the hollow laughter of a business traveler watching reruns of The Office in her hotel room. Nor the sad laughter of a dude watching cat videos. But the honest laughter that flows from the conversation of friends relaxing over coffee. Or the free laughter of lovers who have been married so long they no longer worry what the other one thinks.
Slow down this week. Create space in your schedule for someone else. Go out to dinner. Grab coffee. Catch a ball game. Just hang out. Don’t spend all your time at work. Give your time to the people you care about. Laugh with someone you love.