Our Bible Experience

Maybe your new year Bible resolutions have already started to fade?  What we really need this year is not a renewed habit.  What we really need is to unleash God’s Word into our lives and experience all that God wants to do in us.

If our experience of interacting with God in our Bible times is going to really count for anything, then it has to be in the context of real-life struggles that the Bible has something to offer us.

Psalm 143 is a great passage to ponder as we think about our Bible experience this year.  It starts where life is at its toughest, then goes on to describe David’s experience in such an illuminating way for us.  Actually, Psalm 143 is not one of those passages that speaks directly about the Scriptures.  What it does is speak of David’s experience, which can also be our experience as we engage with God through the Scriptures.

In the first four verses David is crying out for God to answer his prayer, but to do so in faithfulness and mercy.  He doesn’t want God to be acting as judge, otherwise he, like all of us, would be in real trouble.  David is troubled by his own sin, and also by opposition from the enemy (see v3).  Verse 4 describes a wiped out David – a man with nothing left to give.  Sometimes that is where we find ourselves: either through our own sin, or the opposition of the enemy, we feel like we have had the stuffing knocked out of us and our spirit faints within.  David writes that his heart is devastated, or laid bare.  He feels like he has nothing left to give.

And so what do we do when life hits us like that?  Where do we turn?  Do we look within, or turn to a philosophy, or throw ourselves into a career or hobby, or perhaps just numb the pain with a substance?  The world really has nothing to offer us.  Of course, as we all know, we should turn to God.  And so from verse 5 David’s experience is described in such a way that it can reflect what our experience could be as we engage with God through the Bible.

I want to share five things that unleashing God’s Word into our lives might bring this year.  Before I do, a comment about Bible character envy.  Perhaps you struggle with this envy at times.  It goes like this: if I had David’s experience of defeating Goliath, or heard God’s voice on the mountain as Moses did, or met with the LORD as Abram did, then I would not struggle in my spiritual life today.  Really?

Perhaps we could reverse the situation.  Imagine we could travel through time and organise a conference for all the Bible characters to attend.  Imagine we could tell them that after their time, in the future the Messiah would come, and then his followers would write more books, and then all the books from the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, and the apostles, would all be gathered together and freely available in many languages. I suspect that would be a room full of Patriarchs and Kings and Prophets who would be jealous of us!

So what does unleashing the Bible into our lives offer us?

1. We are rooted in the reality of God’s greater story. In verse 5, David speaks of memory, meditation and musing on God’s past activity.  He had his own story, and he had the stories passed down from his ancestors.  And as we read our Bibles we will be lifted out of the one square metre of our own experience and struggles.  We will be reminded that we are part of a much bigger story that stretches across all centuries and all continents, from eternity past to eternity future, a story that is being written by God himself.  We need that because life has a habit of sucking us into the vortex of our own struggles.

2. We are reminded that our greatest need is God. In verse 6, David describes his awareness of his own great need.  His soul was like a parched land desperately thirsty for God.  Even in our greatest struggles, we have an innate ability to assume we are just being unlucky.  If God would just give us that promotion, or a lucky lottery ticket, or a perfect spouse, or a new spouse, or a new job, or whatever … if we could just get a fair set of circumstances then we would be able to succeed in life.  Really?  When we spend time in God’s Word we are reminded that actually what we need is not financial or circumstantial, it is profoundly spiritual.  We need God.  Desperately.

3. Our responsiveness to God is stirred by His steadfast love. In the beginning of verse 8 David refers to God’s steadfast love – perhaps the key theme of the Old Testament.  You can find references to this proactive, selfless, loyal love on page after page of the Psalms.  And as we read the Bible we are stirred to respond to that love as we see God’s faithfulness to his people, God’s self-giving for those he loves.  We cannot work up faith within ourselves, but as we glimpse God’s steadfast love, then a response of trust is stirred within us.

4. We are redirected to live our lives by God’s good Spirit. The second half of verse 8 speaks of being shown the way to go. In verse 10 David asks for God to teach him to do God’s will, and for God’s good Spirit to lead him on level ground.  When we are convinced of God’s favour toward us then the next step is not only trust, but also obedience.  It may be that unleashing God’s Word in your life this year will mean God takes you to levels of obedience you never thought possible.  Maybe areas of your life that you have tried and failed to fix, and now are ingrained in your rhythms of life, and you feel defeated and resigned to living with the secret shame…maybe that is where the light of God’s Word might shine in the coming days!  Trust Him, and be willing to obey.

5. We are revived by our encounter with God. In the final two verses, David is clearly concerned about his life.  So the request is translated as “preserve my life” in verse 11.  Essentially the “preserve” is supplied by the context, but what he asks for is life.  Whether asking for preserved life or revived life, God is the right person to be asking.  As we engage with God in His Word, the deep cry of our parched souls for life can be answered because God is a God of steadfast love toward us.

Don’t make this another year of Bible reading as an attempted habit.  Make it a year in which you unleash God’s Word into your life and you encounter God in the Bible as never before!

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A Bible Soaking

BibleMug2Yesterday evening a group of us enjoyed four and a half hours of Bible reading together.  No preaching, just reading.  We read John’s Gospel, and then from James through to Revelation.  We paused briefly to share reflections three or four times, followed by brief comfort breaks, but otherwise kept reading.

Here are a few reasons why I think mini-marathons like this one, or even longer Bible reading marathons are a great idea for your church:

1. It is good to experience Bible books as a whole, instead of only ever hearing them in shorter sections.  For example, the letters were written to be heard in one go.  We can easily lose the overall flow when we only ever focus on one section at a time.

2. It is good for people to experience Bible reading “in the zone.”  To put it another way, even the most diligent Bible in a year reader may only ever experience reading the Bible during the relatively noisy first 10-15 minutes.  A Bible marathon is a group experience of reading beyond that noise and enjoying the feast that comes when you are reading “in the zone” (i.e. focused).

3. It is good to have a proper soaking.  Most people live in a noisy and busy world these days. This means it is difficult to carve out longer chunks of time to pursue God in His Word.  A Bible marathon like this is like a spiritual spa, allowing the washing with the water of the Word to cleanse at a deeper level.

4. It is good to enjoy God together.  Too often Bible reading is treated as a lone ranger experience, but it is good to have the gentle spur to focus of being in the group.  Last night our group included an 11-year-old, as well as a student who is rarely home.  Another time maybe we will get someone who struggles to read (and can therefore enjoy listening), or a brand new Christian, or someone in a highly pressurized career, or whatever . . . every group will be special because of the individuals involved, because of the group dynamic, and mostly because of the God we are encountering in His Word!

If you want to know how long books take to read out loud, here is a helpful list.  Dr Garry Friesen has some helpful guidelines here.

Glen Scrivener: What is the Essence of Sin?

Glen-321AGlen is an evangelist and director of Speak Life. He is the author of 321 – The Story of God, the World and You and blogs at Christ the Truth. He lives in Eastbourne with his wife, Emma, and daughter, Ruby.  At our church we give away copies of 321 to  visitors, it really is a fantastic resource.  I am thankful to Glen as he launches this guest post series for Foundations.  (I will post complete guest posts here for most of the series, but would love for you to check out the book website, FourBigQuestions.com and so you will be directed there to finish this post – thanks!)

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What is the essence of sin?

Is it “climbing onto the throne of your life”?
Is it “stealing the crown for yourself”?
Is it “shaking your puny fist in the face of God”?
Is it saying “Shove off God, I‘m in charge, No to your rule”

Well, yes. But is it deeper than that? You bet!

You see, if we define sin as “self-rule” what do we say to the Iranian refugee working his fingers to the bone, sending back every penny to the family?

What do we say to the woman serially abused by the terrible men she invites into her life?

What do we say to the drug addict whose only remaining desire is the hell-bent drive to throw his life away?

What do we say to the down-trodden mother who’s completely lost herself in her family?

What do we say to the self-harmer consumed by self-loathing?

All these people are sinners. But is their sin best captured by a definition of “self-rule”? Surely not. And the Bible knows this, which is why its teaching on sin goes far deeper than “self-rule.”

In the Bible we are . . . click here to see the rest of Glen’s post on FourBigQuestions.com

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10 Pointers for Older Preachers

10 targetcI offered 10 pointers to young preachers without being old enough to be a sage. There will certainly be better advice out there, but I am going to take the risk of offering some thoughts to older preachers before I fully arrive in that category:

1.    Keep getting to know God. You may know more than others, but you never know God enough. Keep your life ambition to really know and love Him, and the impact of your life and ministry will keep growing!

2.    Doggedly maintain a teachable spirit.  This will allow you to keep teaching others.  If you stop learning and growing we can tell, but we can’t tell you.

3.    Never trade a goal of gospel transformation for behavioral conformity. As energy for leadership and ministry wane, so pushing for conformity in others will become more attractive.  Hold out the gospel always!

4.    Embrace the transition from king to sage.  Too many leaders have undone their good work by resisting this transition and clinging to power. As we age, “strategic ministry” shifts from a position and office to an attitude and role. We need sages freed from leadership responsibilities, who have a fresh passion for the gospel, and enthusiasm for the next generation of leaders!

5.    Become a champion, not a liability. You have seen older folks become crotchety/awkward/negative and others age with dignity/delight/enthusiasm. You already know what I’m asking.

6.    Always be a Bible person, not an issue person. It is tempting to let issues define your ministry, and these will shift over the years. Instead of heralding a personal pet peeve, keep growing an infectious passion for the Bible.

7.    Please stay humble. Even with all your experience and insight, God still doesn’t need you.  But He really loves you.  The kingdom of self is ugly at any age. Those of us who are younger need the humble you.  Your experience and insight, salted with humility, is priceless to us.

8.    Don’t try to be cool, but do stay up-to-date. This applies both to wider culture and to theological content. The greatest examples of older preachers have always been refreshingly aware, rather than defensively resistant, to a changing context.

9.    Discriminate feedback. People will praise any public speaker. Just as people automatically encourage a young preacher, so the polite thing to do is thank an older preacher. Don’t maintain a ministry on a diet of ambiguous politeness.  Get genuine and honest feedback.

10.    Past ministry glories don’t shine from your face, but a close walk with Jesus does.  There are lots of older preachers feeling frustrated as their energy and opportunities for ministry fade.  The few who love Jesus more than ever are one of God’s greatest gifts to the church.

10 Biggest Big Ideas – 2. Creation

I am slowly offering what I think might be the ten biggest ideas in the Bible.  I encourage you to write your own list, the process is a real joy.  Yesterday I wrote about God and His self-giving goodness.  I need to develop one aspect from that post:

2. Even in its current corrupted state, God’s creation reflects God’s heart and nature.

Those who start with a generic God born of human speculation will tend to emphasize the power of God.  Often this truth grows so loud that other truths are drowned out.  Yet the God of the Bible doesn’t seem as passionate about His own power as some might suggest.  He is all-powerful, of course, but that is defined and driven by the loving relationality of the unity of the three – Father, Son and Spirit.

The giving and overflowing love of the Three-in-One speaks a word, and an abundantly diverse and beautifully united creation into existence.  His eternal power is seen in the stunning reflection of His divine nature – with its vibrant, abundant, giving, creative, procreating, beauty.

Yet the beauty of creation is merely a stage for the most powerful beauty of all – the wonder of loving relationship.  Creation is the stage for the relationships of creatures made in the image of a relational God.  So every field, every mountain, every sunset, every vista, is a delight best experienced alongside another with whom God’s creation might be enjoyed.

We live in a broken, corrupted and perverted creation.  Even through the death and the brokenness, we still see overwhelming beauty – from the abiding grandeur of the milky way, to the unique features of an individual leaf.  Yet it is not only the lingering beauty that captivates, it is also the smothered whisper of what could be and should be.

The greatest pain is not that felt in a dying body, or that of a marred creation, but the deepest agony of broken relationship.  Sadly we may experience the worst of fallenness in our bodies, or see the most grotesque disfigurement of creation, but every human inherently feels the deepest agony of all in the context of broken relationships: with friends, with family, with God.

Creation stirs us, yet creation itself groans.  It groans to be the stage of what could be and should be, and by God’s grace and power, one day will be.

The Bible repeatedly returns to the relationship of creation to God – He made it, He owns it, He stamped it with His imprimatur, and He will pour out life to overcome death.  Our hope is the new creation, the stage for a greater joy than could ever have been known in Eden.

So we preach a Bible that is earthed, quite literally.  Both the past stories, our present experience, and our shared future hope, is well earthed in a world that reflects more about God than we usually even begin to notice.  One day we will.

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Can I Tread on Some Special Toes?

It is coming up to the time of year when people are making resolutions.  One of the big ones in churches is to read the Bible through in a year.  So perhaps you are thinking of encouraging people to do this by suggesting a reading plan.  Here’s where I am going to tread on some special toes.

 “I don’t think the Robert Murray M’Cheyne reading plan

is a good idea.”

There, I said it.

His plan, which is still widely promoted by various big names, essentially involves reading four chapters per day.  This takes people through the whole Bible plus a bit of repeating (NT & Psalms, I think) in a year.  I think it is great to help people get into the Bible, and I know many have been helped by it, but I don’t think this is the best way to go.

Essentially the problem with the plan, and others like it, is that the reading is segregated.  So readers start in Genesis, Ezra, Matthew and Acts all on day one.  I don’t want to stir up a sanctified riot, but I don’t think this is a good idea.  Why not?

1. It treats the Bible chapters as vitamin pills rather than the feast that they are.  That is, it creates a sense of “balance” without encouraging readers to really savour the taste of the text as it flows.

2. It hinders the reader from reading the text in context.  In a busy life it is hard enough to keep track of one flow of thought, let alone four.

3. It doesn’t encourage the reader to get “in the zone.”  I don’t know anyone that would advocate reading four novels at a time, a page from each, each day.  How much better to invite people beyond the first few minutes of distracted reading and into the zone where they get gripped by the narrative and don’t want to put it down?

4. It promotes a tick-box approach to Bible reading as a discipline, rather than an overt opportunity to engage with God’s heart as revealed in the epic revelation.  So many people view Bible reading as a laborious discipline that they must force themselves to do.  But the people I know who delight in the Bible tend to be people who devour it, rather than dipping into it.

Suggestion?  Why not encourage and invite people to read the Bible aggressively and relationally, as if God has a personality and is personal.  That is, by reading His Word with a passion to know Him, readers/listeners might get to know His personality and grow in their personal relationship with Him.

Perhaps it is worth pondering how to encourage people by enthusiastic invitation, rather than by affirming the “difficulty” and “trudgery” of “getting through the Bible” in a year or three.  Here is a link to my friend Ron’s article on Bible reading – as “Bible presenters” lets be sure to be genuine Bible enthusiasts that do more than try to fire up the so-called disciplined wills of our listeners!

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But They Know Actual People

It seems inevitable that a biblical ministry that brings the message of the Bible to people in this world will frequently have to engage with sin.  If you have figured out how to preach only positive messages, then you probably should preach from more than the first couple and last couple of chapters!  So as we preach we address sin.  Here’s my one point for this post, although much more could be said on numerous levels, of course: sometimes we can make reference to certain sins in the abstract, but f0r some listeners these things are not abstract.  We may speak about the sin, but they know actual people who engage in that sin.

For example, it is easy to zoom in on the sin of a certain addiction or behaviour.  From your perspective what you say is fine.  You are looking out at a broken world and speaking about it, hopefully using biblical support for what you say.  But some of the people listening aren’t working in the abstract.  They are wrestling with the issue themselves.  Or they have a friend or relative who is caught up in it.  They know the back story.  They don’t want to excuse the sin, but they feel for the person entangled in it.

What to do?  One approach would be to tread softly around all issues, never get specific, always speak happy thoughts in abstract and vague ways.  Doesn’t sound like the best approach when you’re reading the Bible and seeing God’s spokesmen in action, does it?  Perhaps the better approach is to address whatever issue and instead of saying less, say slightly more.  Sometimes just including an acknowledgment of listeners’ feelings and the complexity of sin makes all the difference.  For example, avoiding the obvious ones so we don’t get distracted from the point of the post, perhaps you are addressing the sin of eating peanuts (and have biblical support for your position!)  You might have said some things already about the prevalence of this addiction, but then maybe you include something like this:

“Perhaps you know someone who struggles with this.  You know what the Bible says, but you also know them and you care about them.  You know what they’ve gone through in recent years, or how they were hurt by that failed relationship, or the scar left by their absent father.  This is not some sort of abstract issue for you because as soon as it is mentioned you see their face.  I understand that.  We live in a broken and hurting world filled with real people with real stories.  Sin is real and it hurts.”

Then you continue with your point.  If the transition to this content and from this content is smooth, it won’t jar, but it will keep listeners with you as you touch on a subject that hits a nerve. Sin is always viewed differently when it touches close to home.  When you preach to a decent sized and diverse congregation, sin issues are always touching close to home for someone.  Be sensitive to them.  Win an audience for the Word.

Undermining Popular Fallacies

A couple of years ago we had the relatively short-lived hype of The Da Vinci Code movie.  While the hype soon dissipated, the effects of Dan Brown’s book and then the film have surely continued below the surface for many uninformed readers.  How many in our churches are under the impression that Jesus’ deity was a decision made by a vote three centuries after He was on earth, or that the New Testament canon was formed in a smoke-filled room by leaders with a hidden agenda?  The absolute historical fallacies promulgated by The Da Vinci Code called many of us to address them directly at the time (special Da Vinci Code messages).  However, the effect of such teaching is longer lasting and perhaps we need to think through whether we need to subtly address underlying false assumptions about the Bible, Christ and history?

In a recent seminar I used a video clip wherein members of the public were giving their personal views of the Bible.  Most of them saw very little value in the Bible and so didn’t read it for themselves.  Several times the same fallacy came through.  “So much has been lost in translation,” and “it is poorly translated” and my favorite of all – a mini-beard stroking “intellectual” who stated, as if every informed person would know this information, that “the Bible has been translated over five million times!”  This kind of misunderstanding is common in the streets and even the universities of our towns.  The so-called “New Atheists” love to take pot-shots at the Bible, as do other major world religions that do not advocate the translation of their “holy book.”

While the Bible has been at least partially translated into over 2000 languages, we need to make it clear that the Bible people are looking at as  they listen on a Sunday morning has been translated once.  From the original language text into English – direct, by highly competent linguists, once.  We do not have the end result of a two-thousand year game of Chinese Whispers.  We do not have the last link in a chain of translation and mis-translation.  Once.  We have very accurate translations of original language texts based on overwhelming manuscript evidence, the likes of which no other historical work can even come close.  Just once.

In a culture where peoples’ understanding of the authenticity and authority of the Bible cannot in any way be presumed, we as preachers need to think about how to establish the trustworthy nature of the text that we preach.  A great message is so easily undermined if there is no confidence in the text from which it comes.

Why State Ideas Explicitly? – Part 2

Here’s the question again:

Since our culture is shaped by the communication of implicit and pervasive ideas, and much of the Scriptures use a narrative communication with ideas implicitly conveyed, are we communicating effectively when we state explicit ideas in preaching?

Two more thoughts:

Generally speaking, explicit statement of the idea is necessary if people are to have any chance of getting it. I’ve seen it time and again in preaching classrooms.  The preacher knows that the class will be asked what the main idea of the message was, so they try to exaggerate it, repeating it until they feel almost embarrassed to do so any more.  Then when the group is asked for it (knowing they would be asked and some looking for it throughout the message) . . . many fail to give the preachers idea accurately!  It is scary as a preacher to realize how easily people miss the main idea, even when we are explicit.  So we need to consider how to communicate that idea effectively.  Generally this means repetition, emphasis, etc.  Sometimes a better way is more subtle, but strong through subtlety (as in an inductive message – less repetition, but more impact).  Moving deliberately away from explicit statement of the main idea without a very good alternative strategy and plan seems like homiletical folly.

This question does raise a valid issue. Not only do we need to think about the explicit main idea of our message, but we need to consider our implicit communication.  How can we reinforce the main idea through implicit means during the sermon?  What other values and ideas are we conveying implicitly in this or any sermon?

Is it right to state the main idea explicitly?  I think it is.  But this does not call us to simple formulaic approaches to idea repetition.  It calls us to wrestle with our entire preaching strategy as we seek to convey the true and exact meaning of the biblical text with impact in the lives of our listeners.