Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Chapter 5 - Studying the Bible

I’ve always shied away from the term devotions.  I’m the one that gets uncomfortable when people talk about their devotional life and how God’s been uncovering massive, life-changing things through their 16-hour morning bible study marathons.  I’ve always felt like a failure when people say things like, “I’ve been struggling with my morning devos.  I missed two days this week!”  All the while I’m thinking if you have to have your devotions in the morning and every day, then I’m a total failure.  I’ve never felt quite up to snuff when comparing myself to my best friend Brian.  His Bible is always worn out and full of highlights.  He reads his Bible so much, pages are falling out.  Just the sight of his rugged, falling apart Bible is enough to remind me how little I measure up to his devotional life. 
                I became a Christian in high school.  Sure I attended Sunday School, church, and even the prayer meetings my pastor would hold with us.  The times that I would read my Bible I was usually left confused and not fully understanding what the passages really meant.  I mean sure passages like “Love your neighbor” were easy.  But then when you get to when Paul is talking about being able to do “All things through Christ…” what does the world “all” entail?
                I remember one time when I was a senior in high school I was leading the Junior High Sunday School class.  Being the “Real” Christian and one of elevated biblical knowledge, I decided to let the class decide which passage they wanted to talk about.  I had convinced myself that any passage could be fully understood by what’s in the text.  I said, “Pick any verse that you want to talk about, and we’ll discuss it.”  One of the class members jumped at the opportunity.  “Ok.”  He flipped his Bible open to one of the books of Kings and blindly pointed at a verse like he was picking who to prank call in a phone book.  Here’s how it went down.
                “Kings?” I don’t know anything about Kings.  I don’t think I’ve ever even read anything from the books of Kings.  Well, we’ll see how it goes.                 
                 Student, “Yep, you said anything!”
                “Ok, we’ll let’s look at it.” 
Oh thank God it’s just talking about genealogy.  This will be easier.  “Well, right here it’s just talking about the different Kings during this time in the Bible.  There’s not a real big lesson in here to speak of but follow God’s commands.  Ok, how about this, let’s flip to Philippians 4:13.  This is a verse that’s really helped me through different things.”  Good save Kyle.  Now I’ve read Philippians like a thousand times, it’s going to be easy to build a lesson around this verse.  It’s so easy to understand and the lesson is right there on the top!  “Ok, the text says, ‘I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.’  As you can see, this is Paul telling us that if we depend on Jesus, he’ll allow us to make it through everything.  We’ll be able to do all things.”
                Student, “ALL things?”
                “Yep, all things.”
                “You’re telling me that if I believe in Jesus, I’ll be able to fly?”
I’ve never thought of that.  If I believe in Jesus, can I fly?  Well, I believe in Jesus but I’ve not been able to fly yet.  Maybe it’s just a matter of faith.  Maybe if I have more faith, then I’d be able to fly.  But now I’m stuck and the room’s silent.  They’re looking to me for an answer that I don’t have.  Let’s see if the answer is here in the text or the study notes…hmm…nope, it just says ‘all’.  Well, they need an answer and I don’t want to question the scripture’s authority or the truth therein.  So here goes.
“Well…I guess if you believe in Jesus enough, you’ll be able to.  The scriptures say ‘all’, so I’m assuming ‘all’ means all things.”
                That’s right.  I told a student that if he believed in Jesus enough, that he’d be able to fly!  Needless to say the student didn’t really buy it.  I didn’t really buy it.  But in the name of preserving the inerrancy of the scriptures I had to answer the way I did.  I don’t really believe that we can fly if we believe enough.  It’s just my view of scripture and my failure in looking at any sort of context led me to that belief.  Maybe that’s why many Christians and non-Christians think that Paul hates women.  Or the same reason that many churches think drinking and smoking are sins, or the reason the same was believed about dancing and playing cards.  Maybe all these legalistic claims of sin are just a broad misinterpretation from poorly informed church leaders…well, wouldn’t that be unfortunate.  The result might be a liberal use of the word ‘heathen’ or a broad condemnation of a people group that’s already marginalized in our American society.  Nothing screams ‘love’ like ‘HEATHEN!’ or ‘SINNERS!’ or ‘YOU’RE GOING TO HELL!’  Hmm…I’m feeling more warm and fuzzy as we speak.
                After this Sunday School experience I felt skeptical about what I actually knew about the Bible.  Then I went off to Northwestern College in St. Paul.  Surely I was going to find a unity of thought and spirit at a Christian College.  There were a bunch of Christians that went to the school.  I even had to discuss my testimony on the application.  You can’t fake a testimony.
                Brian and I arrived at NWC the same day.  We were able to room together with another guy from Illinois.  Brian and I were convinced that our roommate was going to be black.  First, his last name was Watts.  Second, when Brian talked to him on the phone, he had an ‘urban’ sound to his voice.  And finally, and this was the kicker, he was from Illinois, which had Chicago, which had an exponentially higher African American population than Southwestern Minnesota. 
                So Brian and I were at the dorm room first.  We moved all of our stuff into the room and claimed the bunk beds.  Brian got top bunk, which I wasn’t too upset about.  We were all prepared for Sam to come and make bestest friends with our new, African American roommate.  So we were a little shocked when Sam walked in and he was as blazing white as the snow in the middle of January!  He didn’t even have a tan, he had blonde hair, AND he was from a town in Illinois that was even more rural than Southwest MN.  So there went Brian and my hopes of entering into diversity.
                At NWC I learned a few things about Bible study and prayer.  They can become stale.  Really stale.  When my first fall semester began, I was excited about the opportunity to go deeper in the Bible.  I made a point to attend our hall’s weekly bible study.  It was fun, but I didn’t know anybody there and felt out of place and so my attendance became irregular.  Then when my Old Testament class began I stopped going all together. 
                In my Old Testament class we’d talk about the history behind the books, the meaning underneath the text, and different ways we can interpret different passages.  To say the least, the scriptures became an intricate ball of string that couldn’t be undone within the confines of a semester.  I remember thinking that it was a never ending puzzle of ancient history.  And if it had this much depth and confusion within it, how can we think we can gain any sort of understanding within the confines of a half hour in my RA’s dorm room?  I thought my RA was vastly under qualified to be teaching anything from the Bible.  But even though I had a class where reading the Bible was a homework assignment, I still couldn’t bring myself to sit and read it.
                It was a week before Final’s Week and I had a lot of reading to catch up on.  Sure there was only one question to answer on the final regarding your reading, “What percentage of the OT have you read?”  And it would have been really easy to just forget about reading the whole thing and mark 100% down on the final.  But I had my integrity to think about.  Is an extra few points on the final worth lying for?  Could I look the professor in the eye afterwards?  He’d know, and even if he didn’t, I’d know.  So I had about ten days to read three fourths of the Old Testament so I could hold together my personal integrity.  It’s lucky I didn’t have a whole lot of other homework, otherwise I would have never gotten through it.  But I read, and read, and read.  I’d sit on our couch with my Bible, which was a NASB and not easy to read, and plow through it.  I’d wake up in the morning and read.  I’d eat lunch and read.  I’d come home after class and read.  I’d read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open at night.  And then, two days before the final, I finally finished it.  I read every last word in that testament.  I read through Numbers, through Psalms, even through all of the Minor Prophets. 
I went to take my final and was able to write, ‘100%’ down on my test.  But something didn’t feel right.  I should have been able to proudly write my accomplishment down.  It should have been a crowning achievement to acknowledge that I had completed that work.  But something wasn’t right.  It might have been that as I looked around the lecture hall I knew that there were probably any number of students that would lie about their reading, probably just like they more than likely lied about their testimony on their college application.  Or it might have been that I had let the reading drag and was embarrassed that I had to catch up so much at the end of the semester.  But what I think the biggest reason is that even though I had read every single verse in the Old Testament, I didn’t recall any of it.  I couldn’t tell you anything about the book of Job, or what the Psalmists were writing about, or what any of the prophets had done.  I had spent the better part of two weeks pushing through the Old Testament and even though I had read the words, I didn’t read the scriptures.  This was the first time that I had realized that simply reading your Bible isn’t good enough.
When I realized that my reading of the Bible was futile, and that it took a deeper, more in-depth approach to learning what it said, I lost heart for it.  Not to say that I renounced my Christian beliefs.  Far from it.  But I stopped reading the Bible altogether.  Sure I’d read it if I had to for class, and I read all sorts of books about the bible through my various classes.  But as far as searching out meaning within the scriptures goes, I was done.  That is, until Racine.
After my second year at NWC, I decided that I should probably get a job at a summer camp.  Corrine and I were pretty steady at that time and I didn’t want to be far from her for the summer, so I settled on Camp Shetek only about a half hour from her place.
Camp Shetek is a small Lutheran camp that sits on an island linked to the mainland by a series of dikes.  I had a lot of friends that went there while I was growing up.  I was Methodist, so I couldn’t go.  But I’d heard many good things about Shetek and thought it’d be a good source of summer fun and income.  I was hired that May and arrived for the most life-changing summer that I’ve had apart from the summer I got married and the summer that I had my first child.  This summer would change my motivation for everything.
Life at Shetek was a blast.  There were a bunch of people that worked there that were attending Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD.  So many of them knew each other.  I had convinced Sam to come work at Shetek also, so I wasn’t flying solo.  It was easy to make friends at Shetek.  The camp director, Chad, was also a big movie buff, so that also helped. 
The summer started.  The kids flooded in and organized chaos ensued.  It was a very spiritual time for me.  This was the first time that I’d been in full time ministry.  Sure I had volunteered at my church and helped with various youth groups.  But this was the first time that I was, as a counselor, in charge of the spiritual formation of young kids.  It was a pretty daunting task when you think of it.  You have one week to befriend, relate to, and then nurture this child’s faith.  And then at the end of the week, you get to do it all over again.  It was fun, but it definitely went by at lightning speed.
For one week of camp, I was chosen to help lead one of the mission trips out to Racine, WI.  Two other counselors and I took fifteen youth out for a week of working with the Lighthouse ministry in Racine.  It was an inner-city mission organization that was centered in the very worst of the city.  It was the first time that I’d done any sort of urban mission trip.  I had gone to Crow Creek, SD for a week.  But Crow Creek is far from urban.
What we experienced in Racine was life changing.  One of the aspects of the Lighthouse ministry was to help rebuild a historical building that had been abandoned and subsequently purchased for pennies.  I know it seems weird, but in this particular part of Racine, there is nothing for the people to take any community pride in.  Here was a building that was on the verge of being demolished.  Years prior, Pastor Ron had come in and decided that rebuilding this place would provide a sense of community pride.  And on the plus side, it would be used as a community center and also housed his ministry called Wrap Kidz.
Wrap Kidz was a summer afternoon program for kids in first through fifth grade.  Pastor Ron’s intent was to educate the kids of the community and show them that there was a different way to life than just drugs and gangs.  Many of the kids lived in various drug houses in the community.  Pastor Ron could walk down the street and point out the different houses that were being used to sell drugs.  On one block there were three or four in a row!  To say the least, this was a community that was far from my rural, middle-class upbringing. 
At the house, we’d work all morning doing various tasks around the building.  Sometimes pounding nails out of boards, sometimes sweeping and mopping.  There was a wall that had to come down that our team was able to take out.  Then in the afternoons we’d split up in groups and canvas the community picking up kids.  The community wasn’t safe enough for the kids to walk to the Lighthouse on their own, but we were never messed with in our groups.  When asked about if we’d be questioned, Pastor Ron replied, “If you announce you’re from Wrap Kidz, you’ll be fine.  Wrap Kidz is respected in the neighborhood.  The people can see the good it’s doing and if anyone tries to mess with you, you’ll have many angry relatives flood the streets to protect you.”  On one occasion, Pastor Ron told us that after him and his wife had been working in the community for a year, someone had vandalized his car.  He didn’t have the money to fix it, but when the community caught wind of what had happened, the neighborhood came together to root out the vandal and forced them to pay for the repairs.
Now you may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with studying the Bible?  Well, up until this time, my faith had never been stretched.  I had a nice little faith that kept me safe and made me feel good.  I did the right things, said the right things, and went to church on Sunday.  I didn’t have any money to give to the church, so I helped out where I could.  But up until now, my faith had been very convenient.  Up until now, ‘sacrifice’ was a word I would have used to describe giving up pop for Lent, ‘gospel’ was a word I used to describe the four books in the Bible, and ‘faith’ was a word I thought could maybe give you the power of flight.  Not until this week in Racine did I realize that Sacrifice, Gospel, and Faith were words to be lived out in life.  Like I said, up until this week my faith was convenient.  But after this week I would come to realize that our faith cannot be convenient.  A convenient faith is no faith at all.  A faith that doesn’t lead you to hard conversations, short funds, and an appreciation for the simple things in life like shelter, food, and sanctuary, that faith is no faith at all.  That faith is holding up words in a book as idols.  A faith that leads you into the hell of this world is a living faith.  The gospel that begs to be brought into the living hell of a teenage girl that is contemplating suicide, that’s a living gospel.  The sacrifice of all things convenient, all things ‘success’, that’s a living sacrifice. 
Before my week in Racine, sacrifice, faith, and the gospel were all things that I could learn in a book.  And I’m a pretty good student, so I thought I was doing alright.  But if we boil our faith down to book work, then it’s no faith at all.  Before my week in Racine, James 2 was a nice concept, but I hadn’t seen it lived out.  But working with Pastor Ron and the Lighthouse ministry taught me that the concepts that many people with many degrees that have written exhaustively over the years, cannot be understood until they’re put into practice.  Studying the Bible makes no sense unless you’re living out the messages contained within the pages.  It’s not ancient history, it’s not a compilation of fairy tales.  It’s a book that rich with life changing stories and themes.  Can we fully understand the love and romance written about in Song of Solomon if we fail to engage in love and romance in our lives?  Can we fully understand the betrayal of Adam and Eve if we don’t relate it to a time when we were betrayed?  Can we fully understand the faith that is written about in Hebrews if we refuse to have the same faith?
Have you ever wondered what it means when someone says that the scriptures are alive today?  Nothing has changed since the time of Abraham, David, or even Jesus.  Suffering is still suffering.  Pain is still pain.  But thankfully, love is still love, compassion is still compassion, and faith is still faith.  Never before have I believed more fully in James 2:
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?  Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.James 2:14-18 (NIV)

No comments: