Beware of Bad Bible Reading, #1

"Look at the nations, and see!Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told." -Habakkuk 1:5

Eugene Peterson has said that "an enormous amount of damage is done in the name of Christian living by bad Bible reading."* I'm convinced he's right. We are often well-intentioned in our efforts to be biblical in our thinking and living. But, if the ways we go about attempting to be biblical are misguided, the result of our efforts can be futile–at best–or even harmful, as Peterson mentioned.

There are many ways that we can read the Bible badly (and Scot McKnight does a fantastic job of identifying them and proposing an antidote in The Blue Parakeet), but there is one in particular that has caught my attention lately. In a way, it's an opposite of what I have tried to point out with the Scripture Plaques You Won't Find at the Christian Bookstore. Whereas those are typically passages of scripture which we ignore because they don't fit the kinds of things we want the Bible to say, what I'm trying to get at here is how we see things we want to see in a passage and end up taking it to mean something that it never meant.

One common example of a passage of scripture you may have likely heard read badly is the story of the widow's mite, which I've already written about as The Most Abused Poor Widow in History. We isolate a passage and then think it says something (which we probably want it to say) and therefore miss what it really says.

The verse above from Habakkuk is a lesser-known example, but a pretty drastic one.

I remember the verse from a time that an inner-city ministry I visited was using it as their theme. They had nice graphics printed, with an image of their city along with the words of this verse. It appeared that they were hanging their hats on that passage as a promise, in the hopes that God would do astonishing things in their city as he had promised to do in ancient Israel through the prophet Habakkuk. I liked the verse and their graphics so much that I kept their materials and used them as a bookmark.

And then, years later, I read Habakkuk. Apparently the person who chose the verse didn't.

The preceding verses in the first chapter of Habakkuk are a plea to God from Habakkuk, essentially lamenting all of the terrible things he sees happening and that God is doing nothing about them. Then, the verse quoted above is the beginning of God's response. If God's response had ended with that verse–fine, we could go ahead and use it for our themes, and I could keep my slick-looking bookmark. The problem is that when we read the remainder of God's response to Habakkuk, we can summarize it (including verse five) as, "You think it's bad now? I'm about to devastate you so thoroughly at the hand of the Babylonians, that you wouldn't even be able to believe it if someone were to tell you."

Oops. I'm quite sure that is not what that urban ministry was trying to wish on its city.

Even though this example is a bit comical, it highlights a major difference between the ways that we often read the Bible–particularly the Old Testament–and the ways that we could read it for what it actually is, which would obviously then make it more likely to have its intended effect on us.

We like to look for verses. We like to know the book, chapter, and verse for God's promises to us. The problem with that approach is that the books of the Bible weren't written in chapters and verses, so we end up lifting a verse we like out of the story of which it was a part, and we can then take it to be something we want it to be whether it was meant to be that or not.

A better approach is to get to know the overall story. In this example, I should have started with reading Habakkuk, rather than just hanging on to the cool bookmark (which, ironically, made me feel biblical while proving me not to be). Then, if I got to know the rest of the story, I would be able to place Habakkuk in the overall story of God's dealings with Israel and the world as they're recounted to us in the Bible. And then, when I come across the more familiar verses from that little book, (like 2:20: "the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him") I'll be able to place them in their context, rather than just thinking, "Hey, that sounds nice. Let's print it up!"

*See Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book, p. 82.

Sweeter Than Honey? Really?

[I am preparing to lead a retreat this weekend called Open [to] the Book, which focuses on ways that we can approach the Bible in order to allow it to take its full intended effect on us. Below is an excerpt from the first session.] I remember a point when I was freshly out of college and in my first years on staff at a church. It was a period of my life when I had begun digging in to great books on prayer. I was discovering Richard Foster and Henri Nouwen and others, and I loved their teaching and I was growing. But then it hit me one day that something wasn’t right: I was beginning to love prayer, but when it came to the Scriptures...well, I could preach and teach from them, but I didn’t love them. I knew that wasn’t good, but it was honest.

I think that's something of an "elephant in the sanctuary" even in churches that claim to be the most Bible-focused. An attitude like that can be pretty common, possibly even for a majority of the people there. If we were asked, “Do you center your life around the Scriptures,” we would likely say yes–at least to some degree. But if the question changes to, “Do you really like the Scriptures?”...we might plead the Fifth Amendment.

My hope is that wherever you find yourself along the spectrum–if you’re in a period of life where the scriptures are pure treasure to you, or if right now they seem to you about as dry as the pasture that my cattle call home–that we’ll be refreshed and in the weeks and months following this retreat, able to drink from them a bit more deeply.

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My wife and I lived away from Texas for eleven years before moving back. During that time, whenever we came to visit my parents, pretty much the entire diet for a week was split between my mom’s great cooking and going to our favorite restaurant, Rosa’s Café and Tortilla Factory. We just couldn’t get enough of either of them. I remember once coming home to visit for a week and we hit Rosa’s five times!

I don’t think we’ve had any five-visits-to-Rosa’s weeks since moving back, but we are still frequenters there, and we especially were as soon as we moved back to Texas. We had been living in Guatemala for two years, so Tex-Mex seemed like God’s pure glory on a plate for us. I think it may have been during our very first week back that we went to Rosa’s for lunch and it was fairly crowded, and our table was unusually close to the table of the family next to us.

As they were finishing their meal, sitting so close to them gave us a good view of an image I may never forget. They had a boy, maybe ten years old, who was doing what we usually do and finishing off his Rosa’s meal by eating one of their delicious tortillas spread with honey. However, it was clear that for this boy, the tortilla was secondary in that recipe. His tortilla was permeated in honey. I think his parents had gone from the table to get refills on their drinks when I looked over and saw him, holding the tortilla up in the air, with honey running down his arm to his elbow. Then he couldn’t help himself. He began licking his own arm, trying to get down to his elbow, in order to get every last drop of honey that he could.

That fits an image from some of the writers of scripture as they described the utter goodness and delight that they found in their scripture.

The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:9-10)

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103)

I want to look at the scriptures like that, with that delight of the boy at Rosa’s licking the honey off of his elbow. But a question comes to mind when I look at the verses above: what exactly was it that the psalmist was describing as being more precious that gold and sweeter than honey from the comb? It wasn’t John 3:16, or some of the great passages in Romans that talk about nothing separating us from God’s love. No, it was stuff like Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. It was those sections of the Bible i that were more like eating stuff you don’t like at all but your doctor says is good for you than the ones we usually think of as being like Rosa’s honey-inundated tortilla to that boy.

So how is that the writers of these psalms could open the book to those same passages of scripture and come out saying that they were like honey and gold? Well, I think part of the answer is that they approached them very differently than we normally do, and that difference is what I’m trying to get at in playing with the title for this retreat, because not only did these psalmists open the book, but they opened themselves to it. Now, we’re not going so spend any time on this retreat meditating on passages from Leviticus, but we will try to look for some ways that we can do things to open ourselves to the scriptures and find them for the treasure that they are.

The Most Abused Poor Widow in History

As I spent a lot of time in Mark's gospel last year, and then in Luke this year, I've noticed a story which both of them tell, and both of them tell it in a way which makes it obvious that the meaning they were trying to attach to the story is very different from what I had always thought it meant.

It isn't an obscure story, but one that is likely to be familiar to many of you. Here is Mark's version (and Luke's is very close to it):

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44, NIV)

If we read this story by itself, we are likely to come away with the same conclusion that I had always had in the past: Jesus was praising the widow for her sacrificial generosity, giving "all that she had to live on" for the sake of God's temple. But, if we want to avoid committing biblical malpractice, we can't just read the story by itself. Instead, when we read it as part of the overall stories that Mark and Luke were telling, it takes on a very different meaning.

To help point us toward the meaning Mark and Luke intended in telling the account of this poor widow, here are the three things I noticed which first made me wonder if all of the things I'd ever thought about this story might have been off-center:

First, despite the sermons that we've all possibly heard (or some of us may have even preached!) which praise the woman for her sacrificial generosity, Jesus never commended her. He simply sat there watching, noticing what was happening, and pointing it out to his disciples. Neither story says that he ever spoke to the woman. He never even said what she did was good. He simply commented that her few cents cost her everything.

Second, the more I've dug into the gospels, the more I've realized that their authors didn't choose the words they used–nor tell the story in the way they did–by accident. Mark has particularly intrigued me with his story telling ability, as at times he will put stories next to each other, apparently so that their meanings bounce off of one another, each filling in gaps in the other.

In light of that, we should pay a lot of attention to the stories that are put next to the account of this poor widow, and Mark and Luke each use the same accounts to precede and follow this one.

Here is the passage immediately before Jesus' comment about the widow's offering:

As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” (Mark 12:38-40, emphasis added)

So Jesus warned his disciples to watch out for people like this who, among other things, devour widows' houses, then a poor widow came and put in "all she had to live on" in order to support the system that supported the people Jesus was warning his disciples against.

Third, we've got to pay attention to the stage of Jesus' life in which this occurs, during the final week before his crucifixion. He had very recently ridden into Jerusalem to the cheering crowds who welcomed him as their new king. Only the Jewish king or a high priest would have the kind of authority to go into the temple and make all of its regular business come to a halt, which is exactly what Jesus did after arriving in the city. Then, he spent the next couple of days teaching in the temple, mostly about the destruction that was sure to come to it and to Jerusalem if its people failed to change their ways and heed his warnings. Jesus was saying and doing extremely provocative things against the temple and its leadership, and the authorities would not allow someone who said and did those kinds of things–especially right there in the temple!–to live.

Putting the widow's offering in that context, notice the verses that come next:

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1-2, NIV)

So, if we put these three passages together (in the context of intense war of words at the temple between Jesus and the religious authorities), both Mark and Luke give us this sequence of events:

  • Jesus continued teaching in the temple, and warned his disciples to watch out for these teachers of the law, because "...they devour widows' houses..."
  • Then he pointed out a poor widow putting the last money she had to live on as an offering into the temple treasury.
  • Then, as they were leaving the temple and one of his disciples remarked how impressive the temple was, Jesus said that it was going to be demolished.

So, to make my point (or, actually to rescue Mark's and Luke's point): Instead of holding the poor widow up as an example for the rest of us to follow, Jesus pointed her out as someone who was being unjustly abused by a crooked religious system that refused to heed his warnings and was about to come crashing down. She gave all she had to live on, presumably because she had been taught it was her duty to God to give those offerings, and she gave them to support a religious system which–instead of devouring her house–was supposed to have existed for the inseparable purposes of worshipping God and caring for people exactly like her.

I've Had Daily Mini-Lents and Didn't Even Know it

If I were to begin this blog post with the words, "Four score and seven years ago," most of you would realize that I'm probably not making a statement about something that happened 87 years ago. It would be more likely that by using that phrase, I would be trying to say something about Abraham Lincoln, or freedom, or the dignity of all people, or all of the above. If I would choose to use a phrase like that, it would be to point you back to something about the meaning of the Gettysburg Address, in which it was originally said.

On the other hand, if you had zoomed in from another culture and had no way of connecting my use of that phrase with its context, you'd likely have a hard time getting the full meaning of what I would be trying to say. If you really wanted to dig in, you'd probably get a dictionary out to look up the meaning of "score", then make the calculation, then you could do a lot of research on what someone like me might have been trying to say about the year 1926. And you would have completely missed my point.

This happens way too often in reading the scriptures. Particularly when we read the New Testament, it's so packed full of allusions and quotations of things from the Old Testament–which point us back to something about the meaning of the original passage–that we're like the person who has zoomed in from another culture and we don't have the culturally ingrained knowledge required to make the connections that the author intended. Even if we are serious students, we might get out all of our tools, dissect the words, make some misinformed calculations and completely miss the point. (If you're not convinced of this, try reading the book of Revelation. Then take a look in a bookstore or online at how many different ways intelligent people have tried to interpret it.)

I've started to become much more aware of this in the past couple of years as my own reading of scripture has been rejuvenated by capable teachers who help me to see the connections that I miss otherwise (especially N.T. Wrights fantastic series of For Everyone commentaries), since when I read these things written by ancient Jews, I'm unquestionably looking in on a culture very different from my own.

This week, I've been glad to discover the same kind of dimensions at play when I pray with other people's words. As part of my experiment this year, I've noticed two lines that come up every single morning in the words that I am given to pray: "Lord, open our lips. And our mouth shall declare your praise."

At first, being that person zooming in from another culture, I didn't recognize these as being from scripture. Then one day I was reading in a passage and noticed them, but still couldn't have remembered their context or what the fuller meaning was that they might have been put in these prayers to point me toward.

Then I read the scripture readings for tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, and it clicked. Tomorrow is the beginning of Lent, and one of the traditional readings for Ash Wednesday is Psalm 51. This psalm is David's prayer of confession to God after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba. It's a very rich prayer, and very fitting words for us to pray each year when we begin the season of returning to God with all our hearts.

Thus, even though I certainly haven't realized what I've been doing, every morning during the two and a half months since I began this experiment, I've been pointed back to David's powerful, gut-wrenching, prayer of confession. Every morning, through praying those words, I've been offered the chance to think back to their fuller context (including "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions...Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me...") and to have a mini-Lent, a daily returning of my heart to God as I begin again each and every morning.

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Something I've prayed today:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (A Prayer for Ash Wednesday from The Book of Common Prayer)

[This is the 21st post from A Year of Living Prayerfully]

Scripture Plaques You Won't Find at the Christian Bookstore, #18

[This post is one of a series of potential Christian plaques that we would never find at a Christian bookstore. See the rest of the list here.]

I think I'll spark a great business idea for someone with this one. It could launch a line of very high-end biblical fashion handbags. Maybe call it the 1233 by Luke series or something like that, so that anyone carrying one of these fine products can always be reminded of how biblical they're being. Make them as expensive as you want––Jesus said they needed to be of the highest quality.

Dr. Victor Hamilton's Teaching on Genesis

We recently had the treat of hosting our favorite Bible professor from our days at Asbury University, Dr. Victor Hamilton, for a weekend of teaching in our church on the book of Genesis. It's very hard not to love this guy, and he's a remarkably gifted teacher, as you'll hear in these files.

Here are the files of his teaching sessions and sermon:

Scripture Plaques You Won't Find at the Christian Bookstore, #17

[This post is one of a series of potential Christian plaques that we would never find at a Christian bookstore. See the rest of the list here.]

I've spent a lot of time in recent months studying and thinking about various Christian beliefs about baptism. The more I've explored the scriptures and how different groups of Christians approach baptism based on their readings of scripture, I've come to a couple of conclusions: 1) Different (even somewhat contradictory) practices can each be genuinely characterized as biblical, and 2) None of those practices, including my own, match up with everything the Bible says about baptism. If you think your approach to baptism is thoroughly biblical and consistent with everything the Bible says, please let me know what you do with this: