I Don’t Feel Like Reading My Bible

What advice would you give someone who says they don’t feel like reading their Bible?  What advice would you give yourself?  Just do it anyway?  Today’s post is hosted on the Cor Deo site . . . click here to go there.

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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.

Why State Ideas Explicitly?

A while ago I was asked a very perceptive question:

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?

I think a question of that depth requires a better answer than I am about to give, but perhaps this post and the next can challenge both our theory and practice.  A couple of thoughts in lieu of a full-orbed answer:

Preaching is different since listeners cannot soak in it. I would suggest that the pervasive influence of our culture is a soaking influence.  People are constantly and gradually bombarded with messages about life, reality, meaning, self, beauty, satisfaction, money, sex and so on.  This “implicit” pounding continues moment by moment, day after day.  Then we stand on a Sunday morning and hope to counter with truth from God’s Word.  From one perspective, it is hardly a fair fight!

Culture, Bible and Preaching all influence both implicitly and explicitly. While the question recognizes the implicit nature of communication in both culture and the Scriptures, it fails to recognize that all three use both implicit and explicit communication.  Culture is implicit in the communication of the general main ideas of the world, but when “soaking” is not possible, it can become very overt.  An ad campaign that will be seen many times can be subtle, but witness also the numerous explicit “big ideas” communicated daily in advertizing, film, music, etc.  According to Robinson, the Bible communicates eight or ten big “big ideas” repeatedly throughout the canon.  Spend a life soaking in the Word of God and those ideas will mark you deeply.  Yet each passage also conveys its idea more directly – with language, propositional statements, images painted with words, even narratives that leave a mark on the reader (whether or not the reader bothers to try and put exact words to the idea that has been presented therein).  Preaching also communicates both implicitly and explicitly.  Over the years, listeners who soak in your preaching will be marked by implicit messages and attitudes conveyed in your preaching – attitudes toward God, toward truth, toward the Bible, toward people, etc.  Yet we also make explicit that which the listener should not miss – the idea of this passage, presented to us today.

Tomorrow I will add a couple more thoughts in response to this question.

Bible Read Through

It’s that time of year when resolutions are made, and often it is about 3-7 weeks from when they are broken! But reading through the Bible in a year is a very healthy idea for both the preacher and the congregation. Perhaps this Sunday would be the best time to mention it? Here are a handful of resources and ideas:

1. Once Through – Steve Mathewson has done the math and shares helpful ideas in his latest blog entry. Remember that many in your congregation will have tried, but failed to read through the whole Bible. Many more probably have never tried. Any help to make it acheivable can only be a good thing!

2. A Voluntary Once Through – It may be too short notice for tomorrow, but perhaps the idea could be mentioned tomorrow and presented the following Sunday. Since people often quit when trying on their own, add the support of others through a voluntary Bible Read Thru program. If people sign up to the program, they will get an encouragement partner with whom will check in once a week and mutually enourage each other to press on (they can bring their own or be assigned one, and incidentally, if they want to, they could get together and share highlights from their reading too). Perhaps the program leader could send an email or letter to participants once every six weeks to encourage them to press on. Perhaps the whole group could come together once a quarter to share both highlights and struggles of the read through. Then at the end of the year have a celebration meal together – for some it will be a massive achievement! All you need is a program coordinator . . . who knows what it might start in peoples’ lives?! (I’d love to hear of churches that try something like this!)

3. Which Order? – It is popular to mix up the Bible and read a couple of chapters from here and a couple from there. Matthewson helpfully suggests a couple of options. I would also strongly suggest simply going cover to cover (less complicated, more context). Some might like to try the Hebrew order for the Old Testament, an author ordering for the New, or a chronological ordering for the whole.

4. How About More Than Once? – I would be careful about this idea with the whole church since it may intimidate some, but there are some people who need the prod the read through several times in a year. Through in six months (7 chapters per day), every four months (10 chapters), every three months (13 chapters), in two months (20 chapters). Before dismissing these timescales, take a look at this article by Ron Frost.

5. A Bible Marathon Once in a While? – Perhap you could use the turning of the New Year to give a first mention to a Bible Marathon later in the year? A Bible Marathon is a great way to soak in the Bible for a few hours for dedicated volunteers. Perhaps going for Hebrews to Revelation (less than three hours) would be a good way to help people finish the read through next winter, or maybe Judges to 2Kings (roughly ten hours) would be a good push through the historical section in late spring? For guidelines from Garry Friesen, leader of dozens of successful Bible marathons, click here.

So how about it? Suggest reading through the Bible to the church . . . and go for it yourself?