Chapter 8: “This Old Book.” 1, On the Doorposts and the Gates

daffodilsI’ve pursued this recent time of renewed Bible study for several seasons.  Now, it’s springtime again. In the evening I hear frogs crocking in the nearby wetlands. Frogs always make me think of the plagues in Exodus… I also hear the call of birds, including killdeer, those pretty birds that make their nests in inappropriate, vulnerable places.

I’m leafing through my Bible, looking for “spring” texts. The Passover stories, for instance, are read and celebrated at this time of year. Observant Jews clean their homes for all traces of hametz, leavened bread, in preparation for the Pesach remembrance of God’s salvation of the Israelites.

Here is another springtime verse from “sexy” Song of Songs.

The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land (Song of Songs 2:12).

I quoted this next verse earlier, but it’s a good one here because we see birds on our porch like sparrows, cardinals, doves, titmice, and finches.

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. But even the hairs of our head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7).

The verse would lose something if it mentioned starlings or blue jays, species that many people find annoying.  Sparrows, in their smallness, seem more illustrative of God’s tender care.

The death and resurrection stories are beautiful springtime stories: the new life of the season and the spiritual new life offered by Jesus.  I can never read those stories without also feeling some of the happiness of the warmth and renewal of nature. Around my childhood home in Illinois (amid the scattered bricks in the backyard left over from the house’s construction, and near the television antenna) daffodils appeared reliably around Easter time. The flowers invited speculation about their survival through the inevitable cold days of March and April. That, too, is analogous to Good Friday, when people speculated pessimistically about the future of Jesus’ legacy, as illustrated by the downcast fellows walking to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35).  But Jesus can be unpredictable.

*******

securedownloadAt the doorways of Jewish friends’ homes, I’ve noticed mezuzahs, small cases inscribed with verses from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21.[1]  The first of those passages, the sacred Shema, reads:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Whenever I read this passage, I think of my many failures to be faithful to this, a text addressed to Jews but which we Gentile Christians now also take to heart.  But the passage has also inspires me to Bible reading—and sharing the things I learn and realize.

In these thoughts, I wanted to share with you, the reader, some reveries and connections as I leafed through my old Bible, a “landscape” of faith and belief.  Without becoming too autobiographical, I wanted to illustrate how a Bible, carried along life’s way, reflects aspects of our lives: our first acquaintances with the Bible, our questions and interests and concerns, favorite verses, and our spiritual journeys of content knowledge, personal growth, and clarity about God’s will. I wanted to think about ways that the Bible encourages and structures our relationship with God (assuming other aspects of Christian living: prayer, sacraments, church fellowship and preaching, devotional reading, service, spiritual disciplines, and others).  My marginal notes include a few of the many things I’ve learned from sermons, devotional guides, reading, and Sunday school classes, too, because Bible reading should never be a wholly solitary thing.  Lastly but importantly, I hoped to show that pleasure and enjoyment are experiences one can derive from reading this admittedly long, complicated text.

All in all, by reflecting on my own modest but long-term Bible reading, I hoped to inspire people to also enjoy Bible study for their own lives and needs.

There are many areas of study that I haven’t yet pursued: things I studied in school but would like to relearn, and things that I was never clear about, and so on. The symbolism of Jerusalem, for instance: how does the city (and Mount Zion) function in different ways within different biblical writings? What riches does an explorer gain from the Apocrypha? What do the “pastoral epistles” reveal about the development of the church into an organization, in contrast to the Spirit-endowed offices of Paul’s letters?  Studying the possible historical circumstances that occasioned the different oracles and sermons of the prophets—and thinking about contemporary application of that material—-would occupy one’s time productively, as would a study of many of the Torah laws.  Some of these studies I’ll probably continue on my “Changing Bibles” blog.

Could you manage a Bible trivia contest?  I’d do okay if I could cheat … Ask me, for instance, about the Urim and Thummim, and I’d know approximately where to look in the Bible, but a good reference book, or a Bible with an index, would be essential. (Those divination objects are found in Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:7-8, Deuteronomy 33:8, 1 Samuel 14:41, and other places.)  Ask me to name the Cities of Refuge (Num. 35)—and I’d turn beat-red and leave the room.  Sometimes I even blank on chapters and verses of familiar passages—“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”: where is that in John?  Chapter 10, 14?  John has so many of those epigrammatic sayings in the middle of his gospel. (It’s John 14:6). … I relate all this because we all have different strengths and styles of learning.  One of the pleasures of Bible study is the search for a style of reading that fits your own life and interests, including a group of people with whom you’re congenial.

Is some kind of Bible study a part of your life?  Realistically you might have almost no time for it, along with your other tasks.  I’m the son of a man who worked 12-15 hour days as a trucker driver to provide well for his family, and I’ve students who are raising children, working full-time jobs, and also taking college classes.  I’m sympathetic to the challenge of working Bible reading into your schedule, even when you’re interested in doing so. I recently read a Newsweek article about the evangelist Billy Graham, who said that if he could life his life over, he would’ve read the Bible and theology more.[2] Even Billy Graham!

Plus, as I admitted at the outset, reading the Bible can be an intimidating prospect!  It’s a long, complicated book, and if you approach it with a certain attitude (as I did when I was a youth member of our church) you can become discouraged in your faith because you think you can’t measure up to the Bible’s standards.  Or you don’t know what to do with your doubts and questions because you think—because the Bible is God’s word—you’re not supposed to have any.  It’s much easier to have a pious, positive attitude about the Bible’s worth than to engage its contents.

Not only is Bible study a challenge to undertake, but integrating your Christian faith into your daily life may be difficult, too, more difficult than remembering specific Bible passages. How, for instance, do you practice love, kindness, gentleness and patience—fruit of the Spirit that are not negotiable—in circumstances where you must be firm and harsh, and even duplicitous and adversarial?  In other words, how can you be a faithful student of Jesus’ in a difficult world wherein his teachings might not seem workable? You may face examples of real evil in your life: the destructive force that comes in clear, violent ways or by stealthy, smooth ways.  How do you respond?

Another challenge of being “Bible-faithful” is to respond kindheartedly to the problems you see, or read about, in the world. The environment, prison and criminal justice issues, unemployment, health care costs, hunger, poverty, Third World concerns … God is a God of justice, and we are called to respond with Christian love to injustice and to the needy.  But (contrary to popular belief) being a Christian is not the same thing as taking a position on a particular social issue, and knowing how to respond to “big issues” can be challenging. We have to listen closely to the Spirit’s guidance for our service. Leading people to Christ is a big step as one seeks to bring God’s redemption to the world: but obviously many, many people believe in Christ and yet their belief leads to little or no major change in their lives (including many faithful churchgoers and church leaders), nor to ways by which their faith is shared through works of love.

Unfortunately, many of us are defeated in Bible study before we begin, because we have, indeed, become shaped by the pressures and challenges of daily life.  Throughout this book I shared pleasant sights from my dining room and kitchen windows. But I’m very aware of the temptations of suburban life, as David Goetz puts it, the “unchallenged assumption about life that seems to prevail in, though it’s not limited to, the suburbs—that with more effort and organization, life can become sure…To admit to a less than perfect life is to betray the tacit code of honor that we all agree to” when we live in the suburbs. That illusionary way of living deeply affects our religious attitudes and our perhaps “flighty” relationship to church and faith.[3] Not only that, but churches also succumb to same “tacit code.” The long hours we work and the commitments we all make, whether tacit or explicit, all need to be brought under Jesus’ Lordship, but how?

As I’ve discussed in this book, the Bible isn’t a “manual” of rules. It certainly should not become a guarantee of middle-class respectability. It is our connection to Jesus and the Holy Spirit, whereby we’re not only taught but also saved and transformed and called to service to those in need.  That transformation, in turn, is a life-long, probably non-linear process. If you go around saying, “Oh, I’m a Christian and I’m not supposed to call angry,” “I’m supposed to forgive,” “I’m supposed to love,” and “I’m supposed to tithe,” or “I’m not supposed to have doubts,” your concept of Christianity is very respectable and behavior-centered, but actually is contrary to the joy and freedom of the Gospel.  The Bible not only helps us understand who we are, how we fall short, what God does for us, and what God requires, but also reminds us daily of the great love God has for each of us—a love which never wavers.  The Bible points us to active, reliable help from God for our needs and challenges.  God provides us power for living when our lives are filled with difficult choices and are bowed by terrible trouble.

The Holy Spirit helps us to see ourselves clearly, including what is the shape of our lives and the ways our lives and attitudes fall short.  The Holy Spirit gives us a heart that seeks after wisdom.

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[1] The website Judaism 101 explains the theology and purpose of these doorpost cases: http://www.jewfaq.org/signs.htm#Mezuzah

[2]  Jon Meacham, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Newsweek (Aug. 14, 2006), 42-43.

[3]   David Goetz, “Suburban Spirituality,” Christianity Today, July 2003, pages 31-37 (quotation on page 37, discussion of flightiness on page 33).  Joseph Hough and John Cobb put it this way: “Most North American congregations are predominantly middle-class voluntary associations, with all the habits and expectations of other such associations…But if it were to accept this reality as the norm, the church would cease to be the church at all…..The history of what God has done in the world is intrinsic to [the church’s] self-definition.” Joseph C. Hough, Jr. and John B. Cobb, Jr., Christian Identity and Theological Education (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985), page 37.

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