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.