Thursday, June 6, 2013

Reading Alive

Long post warning! I try not to write too long on this blog, but you all know by now what that actually means. ;) I have tried to shorten this down and be brief, but I had too many things to say that were important. When it comes to the Word of Life, I can't be too persuasive! I hope it challenges you and inspires you as much as it did me as I wrote it.


My youngest cousin just finished learning how to read. Their family had a party to celebrate, which is an awesome idea. I wish I didn't miss out on all the events in my extended family--we all live hundreds of miles from each other. In the photos it appears he was wearing a shirt hand-me-down from my brother, so at least we were there in cloth-spirit!

For learning to read, he was given a real Bible--you know, the actual Bible, not "dumbed down" for kids. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great for young kids to have picture Bibles with the stories rewritten in child-level language and brevity. I had a children's Bible that I loved so much the handle fell off the spine and the cover began to fall off. But there's something about the word of God that no summary can make up for.

Now he has his own adult Bible, he's reading it practically nonstop. Wow. A kid is reading through his Bible. He's reading with passion and eagerness, not skipping the hard parts, not putting it aside to do other work and get around to it "later." There's something beautiful about that hunger that we undervalue today. We have our work and our family and all these good things.The Bible is just another good thing, and it's one that takes a lot of effort to study and understand. In the end, it tends to very understandably get pushed to the bottom of the list.

But the sad truth about things at the bottom of the list is that they tend to never get done. Almost every Christian I know my age has not read the whole Bible for themselves. We are talking about twenty-year-olds who have never been through the whole thing.

If you ask, they'll often admit that they "probably have," since they have been in Biblestudies for years. They know a lot about the Word of God, and they've wrestled with it and asked questions and found answers. They do love their Bibles. They can say, "I know I read that somewhere, I'm pretty sure the Bible talks about that." They read the word at least twice a week--at church and at Biblestudy. They listen to podcast sermons on their daily commute and they do know a lot about what they believe. It's not that they're in the dark about their faith or about God.

But even that is not enough. What we don't realize today is that the Bible is more than just a reference guide for life. The Bible is a direct window to God. It is like prayer: we don't fully understand, but there's some spiritual power in it that has far-reaching effects. God speaks through the Bible, not like a letter which says the same words every time, but with new messages and new words. I don't know how it is, but I've read my Bible all the way through twice, and now on my third time, I'm still learning new things.

It's not just a guide to dealing with relationships, a character-sketch of God, or a how-to on living justly and mercifully. It has all of those things. But they are there in a larger capacity: the Bible is a life-giving text. It aims to teach us about soul satisfaction, the only way to which is found in Christ. Reading the Bible is like going on a date with God. It's another way of talking with him directly; as He speaks through the text and our heart responds, there's a conversation going on. To read the Bible is to get to know God better relationally, not only intellectually.

People don't realize this today. We aren't totally sure of the Bible's purpose any more. We know it's powerful, but we don't realize that that power is personal and vital. With Google search engines, Wikipedia, and other vast information sources at our fingertips, we've begun to see the power in the written word as a function of the amount of facts it can tell us. We no longer see its power weighed in the value of those facts as well. And we forget something else: the Bible was written by flawed humans who were nevertheless inspired by God's Spirit. It may use imperfect authors and imperfect language, but God's Spirit is still in those words, making them come alive. Words have extreme power, and when they're backed by God's Spirit, that power is infinite. The strength to change a life is in those words. The strength to save and to destroy. There's a reason the Bible calls itself a sword.

There's stuff going on here that we just don't understand. As we've stopped seeing the value of a Biblical education, we've copped out for things we think are equivalent: church activity and group discussion. These are important in and of themselves, but can never take the place of reading the Bible.

Not so many years ago, people read the Bible at least once a day, memorized large sections of it, and heard it referred to and read every day starting very young. In fact, even the secular culture was aware of much of the Bible--some parts that today's Christians are confused by. I have read books from less than a hundred years ago that are littered with references to Biblical events or ideas; for them, it was another form of literary reference. Nowadays, it takes scholars to recognize the allusion. It shouldn't be that way.

I heard a story recently about an attack by British forces against the Germans in France during World War II. When the main base radioed the insurgent force to hear how the battle was going, they received three short words in reply: "BUT IF NOT."

Do you get it? "But if not." They were making a direct Biblical reference, and the Britons back home knew exactly what they were talking about--and what it meant. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (nowadays known as Rack, Shack, and Benny) tells of how the Babylonian emperor made an massive statue of himself from precious metal. In their day, rulers were often haled as gods because of their militant might in conquering other nations. Nebuchadnezzer was no exception. "Bow down before this image of your god!"

But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were followers of YHWH, and they refused to bow down to the idol. Nebuchadnezzer was furious and threatened to have them thrown into a pit of fire--basically a massive bonfire so big and hot you could stand three or four yards away and be toasty. What did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have to say to that?

"Our God, whom we serve, will deliver us from the fiery furnace. BUT IF NOT, know, oh king, that we will not bow down to this image."~ Daniel 3:17-18 (translated from La Biblica de las Americas)

Do you get it? The soldiers were saying, "The fight isn't going well. God alone can save us. But even if he doesn't, we won't stop fighting the Nazi regime, even if we die trying." I probably wouldn't have recognized that from just reading the Bible, but in 2007 I memorized it working at a summer camp in Costa Rica, and the words still have an amazing effect over my heart. It's a verse that gives me courage when I'm afraid of doing what's right. These three guys were facing death but they stood up to the king and delivered this short but beautiful speech because they trusted God. Somehow, those words give me the strength to have the same faith.

You probably know the story of the fiery furnace and God saving them, even if you didn't recognize the "But if not" verse. Most people know it. But do you remember it in those times when you're in need of courage? When you feel like you're going down no matter how much you fight, and wondering if the fight is still worth it? This is the kind of story that can give you that oomph you need. And not just because it's a story. Stories can encourage us. But this story has the double power of being a story and being from God. It doesn't just speak with it's own voice; it speaks with the voice of God right down into our own soul. A book can't know you personally; but God does, and he can see right down into all the cracks of your resolve and strengthen you up when you're going to fall.

That is why we need to read our Bibles. We need to be intimately family with the Word of God. God can speak to us through many things, it's true: in words, in spiritual peace, through Christian brothers and sisters, through signs. But why cut yourself out of another way of hearing God? Most people I know say they wish they heard God more. Well you can do something about that! Being familiar with God's Word involves three things: reading it so that we know what it says; reading it often so that it is ingrained in us; and memorizing it so that it will always be there when we need it.

Let's talk about memorizing for a second. Memorization is undervalued today. I understand why. Einstein is credited with having said that knowing a fact is not nearly as important as being able to look it up again. I wholeheartedly agree. Most of what we are forced to memorize in the course of our education is hogwash that we don't remember after the test and that we later learn (in college, usually) how to look up instead, which is a far more useful skill. In fact, college is about teaching you how to "study," or in better words, how to do your own research and answer your own questions. It's not about memorizing (unless you're a med student), because in the main, memorization isn't helpful. There is so much knowledge out there and science only makes more discoveries. What's more, facts can change; things we thought we knew are disproved. It takes a lot of work to know things nowadays.

But we have to realize that the Bible isn't like education; it is not a set of facts. It's not even just a story. It's a book of wisdom and understanding. It's very good to know the books of the Bible and be familiar with their content so you can always look things up. (Most Christians don't even have that ability these days. What is the purpose of Third John? Or Lamentations?) So learn a song for the books of the Bible and study them in Biblestudy. Definitely. But also memorize the text itself.

The reason for this is that the Bible acts in many ways as our conscience does. When we make decisions, we review the facts and make a choice. Our heart, our preferences, and our moral conscience get together and decide. But God needs to have a say as well. Praying is useful, but only if you can discern what God's reply is! Following your heart isn't necessarily following God. But following the Word of God is, well, doing just that. Knowing your Bible and what it says (after all, you can't read the whole thing through every time you need to make a decision!) is important. It's also good for when you make snap judgments. Your snap judgements are based on instincts, and those instincts will come from your own heart unless you make an effort to discipline them to God's instruction. Your heart needs to be attuned not to its own desires, but to the desires of God.

My challenge to you is to pick a passage, however long or short you want, though I'd advise no more than 4 or 5 verses to start. Make sure it's one that's meaningful to you, that you already understand, or that you want to understand better. Pick one that challenges you in some way. Then break it down into small chunks and memorize one chunk a week. You may feel like you can go faster, but memorizing one verse of it per week will mean you REALLY know it. Once you've memorized the last verse or chunk, keep working on it for two more weeks. It's amazing how fast things slip our mind. Come back to it every six months or so to make sure it's still there.

If you want a suggestion of where to start: my favorite is Psalm 23. A lot of people are already familiar with it and there are at least 3 songs I know that put this psalm to music (no words added). It is one of the greatest comforts in dark times, but it also speaks to simply the stress of busy, mundane life and to the joy of triumphant moments. And it's only 6 verses long.

My other challenge to you is to read your Bible on your own and do it consistently. It can be hard if you don't have a consistent schedule. But what I'm trying to tell is that that is no excuse. If the Bible is half as important as we think it is, this will save your life, and I don't think I'm being overly dramatic saying so. It will be a source of comfort, a tool that challenges you and breaks you out of unhealthy habits, a horde of information about how God acts and how life works, a font of wisdom when you're making tough choices (or not-so-tough choices), and most of all, it will draw you closer to the Holy God.

Nothing can replace it. I speak from experience here. I read the Bible through on a year-long plan every odd year, and on even years I spend my time delving more deeply into sections that confused me or challenged me. But sometimes I become jaded, become too comfortable with my routine, and stop listening. I put the book down for weeks. And you know what happens? Things start to slip. Little things get out of whack. And as with any machine with moving parts, little problems become big problems over time. Sin creeps in: self-doubt, selfishness, a lack of generosity, claiming my time as my own instead of as God's. They are so small that, without the microscope of the Bible pinpointing them for me, I don't notice them until they have become large cracks in the web of my life. And then I have to start from the beginning, asking God to sew up the gap that's come between He and I, and recommitting myself.

Setting aside time to read is a spiritual discipline. You're saying yes to relational time with God. Saying no to this is like saying no every time your boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse wants to take you on a date. You need the time alone together to wrestle through things and re-spark the affection between you. God wants to be known just as we do. So just like you would for a loved one, do the sometimes tough thing of putting down what you're doing and go be with them.*

Consistent reading can look like many different things. Ultimately I think it's great to set aside time once or even twice a day for reading the Bible, but I know I can't always do that, and you probably can't either. I know that that's probably because of my own hard heart and thinking my work or fun is more important, but I also don't feel too guilty because I know I'm a work in progress. As long as I'm trying as hard as I can, that's a good thing!

So if reading every day is an insurmountable task to you, you probably won't get very far. Here's what you can do: pick three days of the week. I'd advise picking mornings or evenings when you can reflect on the day; the middle of the day is often too hectic. Then KEEP THAT SCHEDULE. It won't happen on its own. You have to work for it. Do it this week. Do it next week. Do it the week after.

But the other part of this challenge is not just to read...it's to read the Bible ALL THE WAY THROUGH. Woah. Wait a minute. There are 66 books to the Bible! Do you know how many pages that is? And it's not exactly an easy read. No, it's not. You'll need to go slowly--which is better anyway, so you can digest every word and really soak it in.

There are dozens of reading plans; the plan I use is for reading every day, and it goes through the Bible in book-order, but it breaks up the Old and New Testaments so that every day has a little bit of OT and a little bit of NT. I start in Genesis and Matthew and end in Malachi and Revelation. This also helps me see the larger connections and larger story-line between them. (It is called The One Year Bible, and you can get it in multiple versions; for first-timers, I suggest New Living Translation. It's a lot easier to read the Bible in our own colloquial language.)

Don't be discouraged. This is important; light a fire under yourself and do the hard work. You will reap rewards a hundred times more! And don't guilt yourself. If you fail, just get back on your schedule and keep going. You have your whole life to get good at this.

If you have questions, ask, look them up. Be discerning, think deeply about what you read, discuss it with people, and pray over it. And remember that reading and being confused is better than not reading at all. Trying to read on your own twice a week is better than doing it twice a month. Work up to it. One day, you may just find yourself reading every day and unable to stop. The Word of the Lord is like a drug; once you're addicted, it's hard to stop.

It's a book that always leaves you thirsty for more. It's a gripping tale. Even when I don't understand it all, it's a page-turner, getting me to keep reading and (like yesterday) to read ahead in my day-by-day reading plan. I'm already on track for my Bible-in-a-year reading plan to actually be a Bible-in-ten-months plan. Maybe I'll make it in eight or nine!

And keep in mind, that's not because I'm trying. It's because the Bible is so full of life. It is a place where godly and human things intersect, where the Spirit speaks loudly. Sometimes, when so many voices cry out to us, the Bible is the only solid way of listening to God. It is challenging, counter-cultural, and controversial. It stretches what you thought you knew and what you took for granted. It stretches the meaning of words. It calls upon your creative faculties to imagine, to put yourself in the scenario, to feel what the characters feel, to be awed by God.

If you're feeling convinced, flip through your Bible right now to your favorite passage and pick out a few verses to memorize. Look up a reading plan that fits with the amount of time you're willing to give up--and don't worry about starting small. A habit has to start somewhere, and better to start small than to start too large and lose momentum. They have two-year plans and two-month plans; you could even take a one-year plan and turn it into a two-year plan by reading every other day. Pick something that you know you're willing to carry through to the end, and read God's Word from cover to cover. You will never, ever regret it.

And the other things that you didn't have time for because you were reading your Bible? I certainly have never regretted them. In fact, I no longer remember what they are.

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* I want to look at this a little more: what actually gets in the way? My Bible-in-a-year plan only takes me 15-20 minutes each day. What can you cut to make that happen? Put on less make-up; spend less time in the shower; spend less time reading the news; go on facebook one less time; limit your social networking time in general; or pre-make your breakfasts so they're easy to heat up in the morning. I know there's a long list of things you wish you did more of, like reading and spending time with your family and calling your parents. Those things are really important too. 
But let me challenge you with this: NONE of them, reading your Bible included, will ever happen unless you make them happen. That means that, yes, your constant facebook presence will suffer, your blogging will become less frequent, and your meals might be a bit simpler or more prepackaged. But habits don't change until you decide to change them. If you regret not reading your Bible now, think how you'll feel in five, ten, fifty years of still never reading it. So go, pick it up, and read. And keep reading, every day. Studies show that as we gain better habits in one area of life, all the other things we wanted to change tend to start changing and becoming easier for us to do. (On the other hand, when you try to change ten things in your life, you'll fail; we can only fix one thing at a time. You can't fight the way our brains are made, sorry.)