Monday, September 12, 2016

Do We Overstate Bible Reading for Church members?

Biblical literacy is relatively new. Prior to the printing press (late 1400s), personal copies of the Bible did not reside in every home. In Jesus' day people flocked to the synagogue to hear someone read from an scroll containing Hebrew Scriptures. In the Old Testament era, priests and kings and prophets proclaimed God's Word from Temple courts and city markets.

The trend for oral consumption of the Word of God dates back to Moses on Sinai. When he descended the mountain, he did not distribute two million pocket-sized Torah tablets (the Gideon's weren't around yet). Rather, Moses read aloud from the single copy of the hand-written Word.

Actually, the spoken Word has earlier roots. "Then God said, 'Let there be light.' And there was light" (Genesis 1:3). So goes the story of creation: God speaks a word and creation happens. Psalmists later celebrated the power of God's voice (Pss. 29; 33).

By God's wisdom and providence--in various forms and ways (Heb. 1:1)--He conscripted men (and women?) to record these spoken Words and inscribe them into stones and scrolls and parchment.

By His wisdom and providence, He oversaw the editing and assembling process, resulting in sixty-six biblical books, whose consistency and authority was noted by apostles and early church leaders.
By His wisdom and providence, He made use of scribes and scriptoriums in the first millennia of the church to produce far more copies of His written word than any ancient text.
By His wisdom and providence, He leveraged the printing press and digitization to make His written word accessible in countless languages, versions, apps and formats.

Mass production and digital distribution are relatively new developments in the history of the church. For three-fourths of the church's lifetime, she lived without the King James Bible (and God blessed her anyway). The church made it to the Nineties without the Message (and then God blessed truly her). More translations, Bible conferences, interpretative schools and exegetical tools exist now than ever before, installed for free on our mobile devices.

Biblical literacy should be approaching the clouds that Jesus rides on. (Perhaps He's waiting for our collective literacy rate to peak before returning.)

But like many new things (e.g., Pokemon Go), the downward trend has already begun for biblical literacy. And if it's anything like the descent of the first few non-orbital space flights (I just watched The Right Stuff), it's fair to say: "Houston, we have a problem."

Greater access to the Bible has not resulted in greater understanding of its story. Not only has the church taken the biblical narrative for granted, we have traded its subversive ethic (e.g., Matthew 5-7) for a soft, psychological and moral panacea.

Before the Bible was a Book of Virtues, it was God's Spoken-with-Authority Word. 

Before the Bible was a proof-text for pro-life politics, it was God's Prophetic Voice. 

Before the Bible was a dusty shelf-piece or argumentative mallet, it was God's World-shaping-and-Community-forming aria. "And it was good."

Before the Bible was something the church read, it was something she heard.

"Do not forsake the public reading of Scripture," Paul implored Timothy. The apostle envisioned a gathering of believers where one practiced reader gave voice to God's written word. The reader, trained in rhetoric and practiced in performance, served in an official capacity. According to NT scholar, Ceslas Spicq, "Intelligence and eloquence were required" of the Anagnosis (e.g. the reader).

The congregation was not literate, but they were intelligent listeners. They were not theologically ignorant or biblical uneducated. They trained their ears to hear, catching key words, idioms, and allusions. They memorized and internalized the Word of God without reading it.

Now we have the written Word and no biblical memory or imagination. 

Now we have mass distribution of the Bible matched with mass confusion and mass division.

Is it possible that Bible literacy for the masses has produced massive misunderstanding of the text? Have we given God's written Word to untrained ears and expected too much of them?  Has mass distribution of the Scriptures led to mass division among churches, where every reader can form a personal opinion untethered to the "rule of faith" and congregational practice?

Obviously, I have more questions than answers. But I can no longer simply beg people to "read God's Word." Literacy is not the problem, listening to Him is. It was the problem Isaiah encountered when he uttered his oracles (Isaiah 6:9). It was the problem Jesus addressed in his image-rich preaching (Mark 4:9). It was the problem the author of Hebrews exposed to his drifting congregation (Hebrews ch. 3:7-19).

But if we learn to listen to God again, I suspect biblical literacy will follow a similar path.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Eight Ways to Improve Your Bible Reading

Christians are Followers of the Way and People of the Book.

As Followers of the Way, our central focus is the person of Jesus, the self-proclaimed Way, Truth, and Life (John 14:6). But this Jesus does not come to us out of the blue, or, as of yet, riding on the clouds.

The living Word (John 1:1) speaks to us through His Book - the Holy Scriptures. The Book tells His story, reveals His heart, and issues His calling. Thus, we are to be People of the Book.
Christians don't simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus' name... (Peterson, Eat This Book, 18).
Becoming People of the Book first requires accepting its focus on Jesus (Luke 24:13-32). Next, we must accept its authority in shaping our souls (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Finally, we must repent of laziness (or its cousin busyness), and commit to applying discipline to our spiritual lives (e.g., 1 Timothy 4:7-10).

Only when we have done this groundwork can we apply the following Eight Ways to Improve Our Bible Reading.
  1. Set a Schedule: Pick a designated place and time where distractions are limited. Have your Bible and journal waiting for you; set an alarm clock to remind you. Reading early in the morning calibrates the mind for the remainder of the day, even if you are groggy. Reading last thing at night closes the evening in a spirit of reflection. Reading during a lunch or work break resets your focus. The good thing about these time slots is their consistency -- every day we wake, retire, and eat. Attaching a new habit to a set pattern has proven worth.
  2. Make a Plan*: Choose a way of working through the Scriptures. Start small. A chapter a day a few days a week gets the mind adapted to reading. Don't set huge reading goals and get discouraged. For example, before trying to read the Bible in a year, attempt reading Genesis in a month. And always look forward: before you finish a book of the Bible, begin thinking through what to read next, so as to avoid losing inertia. Start with a gospel to revisit Jesus.
  3. Enjoy Variety: Read in a variety of translations, not only to compare how different versions render the text, but also for a fresh take on a familiar passage. Having spent most of my adult life in the NASB, I enjoy reading ESV and the Message. Also, vary what portions of Scripture you spend time in. Bounce from Old Testament narrative to New Testament Letter. Move from wisdom (Proverbs) to prophecy (Jeremiah) to praise (Psalm) to gospel (John). Try reading aloud from time to time; hearing the text in your voice gives its a different slant.
  4. Get Mobile: The YouVersion Bible App makes reading and sharing easy and intuitive. Sign up and begin reading from various translations or reading plans. This App allows you to share with friends, take notes during sermons, read alternative translations, and listen to the text performed by the notable Max McLean. Furthermore, no one can use the excuse, "I didn't have my Bible." In fact, even the Gideon's have broken into the Bible App business.
  5. Memorize: Find a verse, passage, chapter, or book of the Bible you would like to commit to memory. Consider dedicating your scheduled reading time to memorizing; it will be harder than you think. However, the payoff is great. Implanting the word in your mind gives you easy access when facing challenges or encouraging others.
  6. Meditate: Pick a Psalm, saying of Jesus, or affirmation from the New Testament letters to roll around in your head. Rather than rushing through reading, let this small passage direct your thinking toward God. Biblical meditation moves from attention (what it says) to appreciation (how it feels) to application (how it works).
  7. Journal: Read with a notebook open and pen in hand. Write down passages that have significant meaning. Take note of questions that come to mind. Reflect and record what God reveals about Himself, human nature, redemption, and our calling.
  8. Share with Others: Verbalizing your observations in Scripture give them greater weight. When you share with a spouse, child, or friend, you give them opportunity to consider God's Word. They may refine your thoughts or simply experience refreshment from the Word. Turning this personal discipline into a shared experience proves the "living and active" nature of the Word of God (Heb. 4:12).
Disciplines do not take shape over night. We may adopt a formula without yielding our hearts. We may start and stall and return to status quo. We may state our attentions but remain slothful.

Nevertheless, given enough time and attention, applying these Eight Ways to Improve Your Bible Reading will cultivate Christian character. As Followers of the Way, His likeness is our aim (Eph. 4:11-16).

*PROS & CONS of Various Devotional Plans

Year-Thru the Bible - 

  • PROS: comprehensive; includes whole Bible and requires consistent reading to complete 
  • CONS: easy to drop if you miss a few days or hit boring section (the Year-Thru Bibles that include OT, NT, and Psalms help ward off this feeling); daily reading may not relate to current experience
Chronological Bible - 
  • PROS: comprehensive; shows the story-line of the Bible and how various books fit together
  • CONS: Somewhat speculative (we don't always know the chronology) and distorts the way we received the cannon (individual books or collections of them); daily reading may not relate to current experience
Devotional Guides - 
  • PROS: provide good focus, direction, and break the Bible into digestible bites; highly relevant
  • CONS: commentary section may overshadow the Bible verses or takes them out of context; focus may be more topical or self-centered than God-centered; selective content
Sermon Reading Plans - 
  • PROS: corporate nature may lead to more discussions with other church members; reiterates or clarifies sermon, giving it more value
  • CONS: may elevate the pastor over the individual believer in the church; less relevant if you missed sermon or church attendance is poor; selective content
Lectionary -
  • PROS: comprehensive; varies daily readings in OT, NT, and Psalms/Proverbs
  • CONS: daily reading may not relate to current experience; liturgical connotations don't sit well with everyone's background

Monday, August 22, 2016

Wrestling with the Word of God

I heard the lament again this morning. "I am not hearing from God, either in prayer or through His word." My friend relayed this comment from his wife. Her complaint is not uncommon. The silence of God often speaks louder than His written word. Even in the biblical narrative, generations passed away without an utterance of divine revelation.

But God's silence is not the same as His absence. And His word - both spoken and written - reverberates. God wrote Himself into creation. His initial Let There Be Refrain echos with every sunset and season, ocean wave and starlight night, singing bird and nursing child.

"The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
Day to day pours fourth speech, 
And night to night reveals knowledge." 
(Ps. 19:1-2, NASB)

And He writes Himself on human consciousness. All people have some sense of right and wrong, justice and beauty. The human capacity for moral choice is part of the Imago Dei (Genesis 1:26-28). People may suppress, deny, or sear their consciences (Romans 1:18-32), but that does not erase the fact God speaks through moral cognition.

But God's primary method of communication is through His written word. He handpicked a collection of men (and a few women?) to write His Story in Holy Scriptures. It the Bible - 39 books in the Hebrew Scriptures and 27 in the New Testament - through which God speaks most consistently and comprehensively. It is the Bible through which God speaks most personally: In His Son, Jesus the Living Word (John 1:1-3; Heb. 1:1-3). Thus, the written word serves as the focal point for followers of Jesus to hear from the living God.

Yet often we do not hear from Him. We wrestle with misunderstandings of the biblical text or distractions of our addled minds. We plod along with no reading plan or posture ourselves with a slouching sense of familiarity. We reduce Scripture reading to a remote slot on our schedule, failing to integrate God's Word into conversations or meditations throughout the day.

And like the diet that does not cause immediate weight loss, the budget that does not produce immediate wealth, or the parenting advice that do not result in "new kids by the weekend," we write off what God has written before we give it enough time to take effect. 

Discipline takes time to develop into habit. Habit works slowly in forming character and reshaping lives. Spiritual disciplines are no different: they require effort. "God is not opposed to effort," taught Dallas Willard, "He opposes earning."

So what does one say to the person wrestling to hear from God in His written word?

"Keep wrestling and read on. In time you will reap the rewards. His silence does not spell His absence. Perhaps, God wants to see you sweat before He blesses you with His voice."

Eight Ways to Improve Your Bible Reading
If Biblical Literacy Is Relatively New for the Church, Do We Overemphasize Bible Reading?

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Infinite Garfield Loop: A Post-Adoption Update

Our whole family has been sucked into The Infinite Garfield Loop. Sensi, my boy, has taken us there. He was introduced to this fat, lazy, mischievous cat by my daughters during the summer reading program at the library. Our lives have never been the same.

The Infinite Garfield Loop begins as soon as Sensi, my boy, wakes in the morning. He thumps down the stairs, flips on a light, and curls on the couch with a Garfield Fat Cat 3-Pack: volume 1.
After a recess for breakfast, Sensi, my son, returns to the couch for another 3-Pack of the Fat Cat: volume 7. Later we drag him outside for a breath of fresh air and some creative play. He ducks inside for a bathroom stop. Sensi, my boy, does not come back out. We poke our head in the house and find him reclining on the couch, Garfield Fat Cat 3-Pack: volume Infinity in his lap.

Garfield books are strewn about living room, stocked in the bathroom, stored in the kitchen, and stashed in our cars. One place they are not is the public library; Sensi, my boy, has checked them all out. Several pages have come loose from numerous volumes. I fear the fine of all fines.

We have other kid books at home. Stacks of them: Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein and Bible stories and Frog and Toad collections. Sensi, my boy, chooses Garfield almost every time. At least his preference for Pinkalicous only lasted two weeks.

Garfield comics, I have learned, follow a predictable plot. Jim Davis, the creator, recycles five motifs - Garfield eat food, takes a nap, watches TV, mocks his owner, or bullies others. In spite of its repetitiveness, Sensi, my boy, laughs every time. He often brings an opened volume to us and points at a page. He mimics Garfield smashing a spider or kicking Odie in the rear. He even supplies sound effects: Pssssh. Wooosh. Pfffff. 
At first, we prized Garfield as a connecting point with the newest member of our family. We rallied around lasagna jokes and belly bumps. When Sensi chuckled, the rest of us followed suit. When he shared a page with us, we nodded and read along. Then Garfield became An Infinite Loop. A Black Hole. A Hiding Place for Sensi, my boy, and I wanted him to come outside and play.

I recognize Sensi, my boy, continues to adjust to his new family. He left his culture and crossed an ocean to live with strangers. Perhaps Garfield is his best window into America; the fat, lazy, may be a metaphor for us. Or, perhaps, Garfield is simply a safe place for Sensi, my boy.

In any case, we must give him time to embrace America and All Things New. We must show patience as he learns the meaning of family. And we must allow him the Infinite Garfield Loop - his refuge - until he is ready to come outside and play.

Until he does, we will enter The Loop with him (sometimes kicking and screaming), drawing close to draw him out. It is what any one of us would need if caught in an Infinite Garfield Loop. And we all have them. So we all need others to draw us out.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A New Way to Eat Broccoli

Last week I learned a new way to eat broccoli. It was Grilled Cheese Night: my wife prepared sandwiches, tomato soup, and  tatter tots. She threw broccoli in to appease her conscience, harassed by the arbitrary food pyramid and modern-day obsession with diet. After our dinnertime blessing, we started to chow.
Grilled Cheese Night means triangular cuts and leftover crusts. My daughters each devour the greasy, buttery center, and throw me the scraps. Thus I eat a sandwich and a half, while my jealous dog looms by the table.

Grilled Cheese Night also means tomato soup. The girls dip their sandwich into the bowl, cover it with warm bisque, and take a satisfying bite. They never finish their whole bowl of soup; it is purely for dipping. I, on the other hand, lick the sides of the bowl until every hint of tomato has vanished.

Grilled Cheese Night has rhythms and routines, habits and patterns. In fact, our whole life has rhythms and routines, habits and patterns. Every family is a food pyramid, and as arbitrary as our lines of demarcation may be, we have a way of doing family meals and movie nights, pool trips and bedtimes, holidays and weekends. Every family develops its portion sizes, traditions, and number of servings.
And we live neatly within these lines, until we face a change. Perhaps the family meal is upset by a gluten allergy (Bye, bye, Pizza) or diabetes (Bye, bye, Cake). Perhaps it is altered by a son's departure for college (Go Bucks!) or a daughter's evening work schedule. Death and divorce can change the family pyramid, just as sports' schedules, shifts in the season, or a new birth can disrupt the routine.

Adoption has rearranged our family pyramid. A month ago we added a beautiful boy to our tidy family of four. He has changed the way we sleep and grocery shop, gather and worship, swim and play. We added a seat at the head of the table to accommodate him. From there he can meet eyes with any one of us without turning. He can mimic our table manners. He can watch us eat.

Last week was his introduction to Grilled Cheese Night. He picked at his sandwich and tater tots, but left his tomato soup and broccoli untouched. Saying "Sensi does not like vegetables" is an understatement. He disdains them, pushing them away with his head turned, lips curled, and brow furrowed.

But we do not let our children off the hook so easily. The food pyramid has spoken.

"Try a bite of broccoli, Sensi."

"Try some of soup, Sensi."

"It's good for you, Sensi. Have a taste."

Finally, one of my daughters chimed in. "The soup is really good. You can dip your sandwich in it." She grabs a corner of her grilled cheese and models.
Sensi's eyes lit up. He seemed to understand. He reached toward his plate, but instead of grabbing bread, he picked up a piece of broccoli and dipped it in his soup. He pulled the red-drenched stalk to his lips and gingerly licked it. We laughed. Sensi dipped again and offered a bite to my wife.

A new way to eat broccoli was born. A new rhythm and routine was added to Grilled Cheese Night.

And so it is in this post-adoption journey. Week by week we're learning new habits and patterns. Day by day we're drawing new lines in our family pyramid. Meal by meal, we're eating and feeling satisfied (Mark 6:42).

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Proud Father of Three

While I continue to get my feet wet as the father of a son, I am no novice to parenting. For a decade I have given my time, energy, and wisdom to two lovely daughters. They bear my image and likeness, with the added blessing of their mother's eyes and kind soul. Claire and Margot have accepted their role of older sisters remarkably.

For the past five years, Liz and I have talked openly, honestly, and regularly about adoption with the girls. We discussed adoption and its difficult adjustments at the dinner table, on walks to school, and at bedtime as we prayed. Adoption became central to their vocabulary.

Margot the Younger anticipated Sensi's arrival. "I'm going to teach him to annoy Claire," she promised. "Then she'll be outnumbered." Nevertheless, Claire, too, voiced her excitement to have a little brother.

Their visit with Sensi in the orphanage only peaked their hopes. Three visits did not satisfy them. "I want to see him again," Claire said on the fourth day.

"He's so cute," Margot repeated.
After returning home, we continued to talk with the girls about the upcoming adjustment. We warned them against running through the house naked. We prepared them for a few months of limited visitors and travels. They hoped this meant exemptions from school and church. They swore an oath to keep their clothes on.

We did not, however, prepare them for kind of reception they might receive from their new brother once he arrived home. For the first week, he mostly snubbed them. He shot an occasional glance in their direction or laughed at them from a distance. But meaningful engagement with his sisters was limited.

Then came the water guns. On his second weekend with us, Sensi grabbed a hose and sprayed the girls. They fought back with water guns. Sopping and laughing, the siblings connected.

Since then, their interaction has improved. For the record, Sensi needed no mentor in obnoxious behavior. He is a little boy. He puts every doorbell and light switch to use in pestering others. He stands in front of the television when the family watches a movie.

However, it is more accurate to call Sensi playful than annoying. He and his sisters throw flower pedals at one another on the way to school. They swap (gentle) punches while driving in the back seat of the car. To date no one has been seriously injured.

If the girls are jealous of the attention Sensi has drawn, they have hidden it well. Perhaps they were helped by our many conversations. Perhaps they were aided by our many friends and family members who have shown them special attention. Folks have brought them gifts, spoiled them with sweets, asked about their feelings, and accepted their introverted responses.

No, I detect little jealously from the girls. They are simply wrestling with the growing pains of The Adjustment. I heard it one night from Margot after Sensi went to bed. "I miss just the four of us," Margot said. Liz and I understood the sentiment.

Another time, I caught a trace from Claire. She commented, "Sensi's a rock star." Her subtext implied: "We are not."
For that I am glad. I prefer my two, beautiful girls, who live in the background, who bear my image, who have their mother's eyes and kind soul.  They treat their brother with patient affection and make their father proud.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Family Meals and Daily Progress

I won the bet: Sensi ate lunch with the whole family on Sunday per my guess. This was a small feat, commemorating the start of his second week with his forever family. My wife bought me a Take Five as a prize.

Family meal: Check. We're making progress. Next step: College.

Liz and I would be lying if we said we don't salivate over the idea of an empty nest. And we would be deceived if we didn't acknowledge that may not happen. In addition to the growing number of children who return home after college, we face the possibility of Sensi requiring care into adulthood. Wisely, we limit our look down that long road ahead.

Our boy is biologically eight years old. Physically, he resembles a six-year old. Emotionally, I slate him between two and three. Now ask yourself this: What do you get when a toddler can reach the knife block and turn the dials on the oven? (See answer below.) Wisely, we limit our son's alone time in the kitchen.

Sensi's host of problems goes beyond the "shame core" of abandonment and loss (where his mother died and father lived in poverty). He brings more than the emotional deficits of five years in an orphanage (where they loved him as well as they could). His brain is underdeveloped from hypothyroidism. His cognition and hearing are delayed. His legs drag and hands jerk, as if operated by an inattentive puppeteer. And Sensi remains mute, whether selectively or by virtue of physical defect, we do not know.
When we consider the complex issues, we cannot help take life slowly, limit long-term plans, and celebrate small victories. A family dinner calls for a parade. But since crowds terrify our son, we'll opt for seconds on dessert.

Quite frankly, the day-to-day existence relieves some pressure. In a culture where many elementary schools are going the way of STEM and helping second graders plot their career path in engineering, it's nice to think about Monday. In a country where we face the horrifying prospect of four years of Hilary or Trump, Tuesday (unless it's Election Tuesday) sounds like a breeze. In a time where technologies continue to invade our lives and feign intelligence, Wednesday's worries do not seem so grim.

Our detour from The Long Road Ahead may become an on ramp to Strength for the Day.

Jesus taught his disciples to tame anxiety by trusting him for daily supply. "Seek first God's kingdom. Don't worry about tomorrow" (Matthew 6:33-34). His brother James made a similar remark: "Don't brag about next year's plans, but remember the Lord numbers your days" (James 4:13-16).

In this day-to-day adjustment, we weigh our son's smiles against the times we say "No." We affirm Claire and Margot, praising their kindness and inquiring about their feelings. We check a single responsibility off the list -- set up a doctor's appointment: check; write a thank you note: check; order Play-Doh Fun Factory from Amazon: check; treat for lice: check* - and expect from ourselves no more.
Meanwhile, small victories and new memories pile up. Wednesday: Sensi's first trip to the park. Thursday: Sensi's first night in his own bed. Friday: Sensi's first Happy Meal. Saturday: Sensi's first scooter ride. Yesterday: Sensi's first family meal. Today: Sensi's first Foosball game.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring? As for me and my house, we'll have to wait and see.

Answer:  A hot, bloody mess.
* Yes, Liz did find lice in one of our daughter's hair last week. Impeccable timing.