How Do You Read It?

There are few books that grab our attention and unsettle our minds like the Bible.

I was reminded of that again this past Sunday as we talked in our church about how we can say with conviction and understanding that the Bible is true.

You could see it on the faces of our people. You could hear it in the comments on the way out of church. A friend who doesn’t normally come to church was there on Sunday and could not stop talking about how the sermon affected him. A few days later he was still talking about it.

I don’t believe it was the quality or force of the preaching. Instead, I am convinced that one of the deepest desires people have, both inside and outside the church, is to learn how to read the Bible with wisdom and confidence.

People are searching for help because they want to know how they can trust the words of a book that they have been around, in some way or another, for their whole lives. People are searching for a better way because they know the way the Bible is leveraged as a weapon in hot-button debates doesn’t seem right but they don’t know how to articulate a better alternative. People are searching for a way to deepen their understanding and relationship with God but feel like they will never have enough knowledge to get through the historical, cultural and religious details that can make it so hard to understand. People are desperate for guidance about what it means to live a good life and how the Bible can help them find the way to discover that kind of existence.

One of the few things that most Christians can agree on is that the Bible is true. It is the how that often ties us in knots that keep us stuck.

The truth of the Bible isn’t found in quoting chapter and verse in debates that the book was never intended to solve. Instead the gift of Scripture is the way it guides us to understand the truth – about ourselves, about the world we live in and about the character of God.

The Bible tells us the truth by setting us in the big story that defines our lives.  As we read and take in the pages of Scripture we don’t get bogged down in the details that can be useful for trivia, but instead we grow in the truth that God is the One who loves us and is for us. As we read this book we come to discover that God’s essence is relational love and that our lives expand according to our capacity to receive and be transformed by this love.

As we experience the joys and heartbreaks that come as we make our way through adulthood, we take hope in the Bible’s declaration that what is most true about us is that we are God’s beloved. As we try to figure out who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do we rest in the truth of Scripture that God invites us to a vital role in God’s mission for the world. When we’ve messed up and wonder how we will ever recover, we remember that forgiveness is God’s way.

As we listen to the voices of Scripture we come to discover that there isn’t anything we experience that can’t be described or explained by the broad narrative of God’s story.  As we come to understand the world in terms of sin and grace and temptation and redemption, we realize the events we call news are really just the most recent manifestations of the same old story.

We notice how our dream for a way beyond our divisions sounds eerily familiar to Paul’s declaration that in Christ God is making a new humanity. As we wonder how it will ever get better we anchor ourselves in God’s ministry of reconciliation. We become encouraged when we remember that God tears down dividing walls. Our spirits are lifted as we read that when we work to cross boundaries we are in communion with a God who does the same.

When we provide a shoulder for our friends who cry out for justice we remember that racism and sexism and poverty are the expressions of deep-seated sin that emerges out of the cracks in our relationship with God and one another. As we feel powerless to combat the institutions and powers intent on maligning God’s good creation we remember the cries of the Exiles and recall God’s stubborn tendency to make the implausible gloriously real.

“The Bible”, Eugene Peterson writes in As Kingfishers Catch Fire, “is the best book for discovering the all-inclusive reality in which we exist and then for initiating us into it.”

The Bible, then, is more than an old, interesting book. It is the story that tells us who we are and it is an invitation to the good life. It is more than a book of details and quotable lines.  It describes who we are made to be. It explains the world that often defies explanation. Most importantly, it reveals the depth of God’s love for us and invites us to live in the grip of this love.

No wonder it matters so much.

 

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To Change the World With My Own Two Feet: Guest Post from Jessie Buttram

I am excited to welcome my wise and snarky friend Jessie Buttram to the blog today.  Jessie not only has maybe the best twitter handle of all time –@jbuttwhatwhat – but she writes with humility and conviction about her search to love and follow Jesus. She is committed to her family, her friends, her church and to living a life of authentic and committed faith in the real world.  

And if that isn’t enough, she was also smart enough to delete Facebook off her phone during Election Season. 

I asked Jessie to write for the blog about whatever she wanted, because whenever she writes, grace and faith and challenge and hope come bursting through with trademark honesty, compassion and wit. And in the midst of a tumultuous season of life, what she has to say is an important and a good word – God is faithful and invites us to participate in that faithfulness by moving our feet and getting to work. 

You can read more of what she’s up to at https://meetthebuttrams.com

Enjoy!

 

jessie-buttram-2So God and I have had a recent COME APART that has also turned into a COME TO JESUS. But before I let you start thinking more highly about my relationship with the Almighty, I’ve got to shoot straight. I don’t know or love God very well at all.

I’ve (haphazardly) followed His teachings for most of my life, I write (I think) eloquent prayers in fancy journals, I dig (in varying levels of depth) into His holy word. But there has always been a little bit of ill fit to my faith. Mostly because I need to know ALL THE THINGS and God just isn’t quite small enough to fit neatly in my brain. So when I say God and I had a COME APART, I really mean for once I shut up long enough to hear that still, small voice stir His Holy Spirit in me and breathe a living truth in my life from the ancient texts. (No big deal.)

These past couple of weeks, I have been reading through the book of Joshua with the online community She Reads Truth, and YOU GUYS. Joshua is a NOT FUN book. Outside of the pretty memory verse take-aways (24:15, anyone?), Joshua is actually a bloody, brutal book recounting battle after battle as Israel claimed their inheritance. And without the Holy Spirit nudging (or downright shoving) REAL LIFE TRUTH my way, I probably would have one, two, skipped a few and found my way back to 1 Corinthians or so. Right? Right.

But thankfully I kept on, mostly because I like to complete things, but also because SURELY there was something good to gather up from the Promised Land.

One place I landed and just couldn’t shake the dust from my heart was in Joshua 7. After yet another direct disobedience (which I know NOTHING about, ahemcoughwink), God withdraws His favor from Israel and they lose a key battle. Joshua laments to God, begging for God to keep His promise despite his people’s unfaithfulness, and he pleads with God (verse 9), “What then will you do for your own great name?”

What then will YOU do for YOUR OWN great name?

(Once more with feeling.)

Here’s the thing: I tend to think pretty highly of myself. I mostly keep the house from falling apart. I get my kids to their various activities every day. I can write. I’m pretty smart. I’m usually punctual. So I tend to fall into the trap of asking myself, “Self, what can I do for God today?” And also its counterpart, “Self, what if I DON’T do this for God today?”

Dear Heavenly Father, what can I, a suburban mom and wife who easily forgets a third of what’s on my mental grocery list, do for You, O Creator and King of this GIANT EXPANDING UNIVERSE?

(I am convinced God has a SUPERB sense of humor, if only because He has suffered through my teenage self’s prayer journals.)

MY FRIENDS. I will be the last person to admit there is a DEEP arrogance to these questions cloaked conveniently in humility and self-sacrifice. AS IF the changing of the world is even a little bit up to me.

For most of my life, I have studied this God, some days more closely than others. And I know and have seen too much not to believe He is constantly at work in this world. I know He is far more in love with this world than I could ever be. I know He is far, far more interested in the eternal souls walking this cursed ground. I know He is infinitely more brokenhearted over the things that move me to tears.

To think, with any degree of believability, my action (or inaction) has any true bearing on God’s ultimate Good Plan to redeem the whole world is small-minded at best. God will do what it takes to restore this whole world to wholeness and holiness. TRUST, with or without me, with or without the gifts I think I need to bestow upon the waiting world, God has and is and will redeem His beloved creation.

BUT.

(Yep.)

What a kindness God has shown us, not just that He would redeem you and me (as if that weren’t enough), but that He would invite you and me to work alongside Him to redeem the rest of this hurting, broken world.

What a kindness God shows us when He calls us into His ultimate Good Plan, not because He is insufficient but because He is far more sufficient than we could ever fathom.

His grace is far more sufficient than we can ever lap up.

His mercy is far more sufficient than we can ever exhaust.

His eager, reckless, irrational love for you and me and this whole wild world is far more sufficient than we can ever, ever earn.

God FOR SURE doesn’t need us to ask Him what we can do for Him. Instead, God wants us to follow Him in the great work He is already doing in this world. He wants us to join Him, to pull up a front row seat to the redemption He is unleashing on this world. God wants us to ask Him, “What will You do for Your own great name?” and watch as He blows our minds away.

God, in His infinite kindness, beckons us nearer, “Let’s do this together.”

 

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More Than Work: Losing The Idol of Busy and Finding Grace in Rest

Fridays are the most difficult days of my week. Fridays are also my day off.

Sundays aren’t really days of rest for preachers – as friends in church are so kind to remind me, this is the only day I work all week.

And Saturdays, well between the Gunners, the Vols and the honey-do list that awaits, there’s not a lot of Spirit-infused rest happening then either.

And so Friday it is – the day of rest, the day of ease, the day of Sabbath, and the day of doing the mental gymnastics it takes to try to make myself avoid work.

I’ve read the books – HeschelDawnBarton. I can tell you why Sabbath matters, how it is one of the most important spiritual disciplines for us busy people, what it has to say to us achievers and why those of us tempted to self-validation require its correction that the world’s existence actually doesn’t depend on us.

And yet as I roll out of bed on Friday mornings, I know it won’t be long before I begin to hear work’s siren call.

There’s always more to be done – the phone call to be made, the essay to write, the place in that sermon that could be a lot better. There’s the theology book that’s been sitting on my shelf for months, if not years, that I need to read, and actually want to read.

I’m reminded of that visit that needs to be made, the person to be seen, lonely and desperate for connection, demanding the church, and by extension me, to provide it. There’s the community leader I’ve been trying to connect with, the planning crying out to begin and all the people whose expectations I would be a lot closer to meeting if I could put in just one more day.

Good, important and faithful things they all are. But on Fridays they are distractions from what matters, and they are more than that – invitations to idolatry and opportunities to ignore what God wants to do in and through me.

One of the most important things God wants to do with us on the Sabbath is to provide the space to help us deal with all the things that are keeping us disconnected with God and one another.  Work becomes a distraction and noble things become objects to faithfulness when we allow them to take up the space in our minds, souls and lives that God wants to use to transform us.

To avoid the call of work is to avoid the things that will prevent me from noticing and dealing with the anxieties and insecurities that are keeping me from becoming the person and living the life that God wants for me. It is only by avoiding these distractions that we can come to grips with the truth that all our attempts to build towers of self-justification and achievement have come crashing down.

When we live into the rest God gives us in Sabbath we come to more fully understand our own sin and the damage it is leveling in our lives. When we take the time to sit with ourselves and with God we begin, maybe for the first time, to realize who we really are, all the ways we are missing the life we really want and where in our lives we need to invite God’s grace in so we can discover a better way.

Serious Stuff

I am always stunned in reading Exodus at the seriousness with which God takes Sabbath – both the keeping of it and especially the breaking of it. While we find Sabbath optional, God finds it non-negotiable. To make sure none of us miss the point, when God is giving Moses the rules for life in the Covenant, right in the middle of them is that those who break Sabbath are subject to death.

Why is God so serious about Sabbath?  There are plenty of things to take serious – murder, theft, adultery, lying, racism, violence – and on and on we could go. That not resting would be a crime that gets you executed seems particularly odd to those of us who live in a culture that so effectively blurs the borders between work and non-work.

I can’t say for certain why this is.  After all, I wast there. But I think one of the reasons God is so serious about Sabbath is because transformation requires rest. We can’t repent and experience change without dealing with ourselves. And we can’t deal with ourselves unless we first stop to figure out just where and why we need grace in the first place.

It’s a crazy thing, but one I am finally beginning to learn – work, even the good and holy work of church, can be an idol. And the work of spiritual change begins with rest.

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Ways Off the Path: When The Box Isn’t Big Enough

(Note: This is the third in my Lent series, Ways Off the Path, on some of the ways we can fall of the path and get separated with God.  You can find a link to earlier posts in this series at the bottom of the page.)

One of the easiest ways we veer off the path of faithfulness and experience a much more shallow life with God than the one we have been created for is by creating God in our own image.

We’ve seen it on full display in this election cycle, with candidates of all stripes justifying their behavior through divine sanction. Unfortunately, making the God of the Bible into a safe and predictable God who endorses the things we endorse and hates the people we hate isn’t reserved for those running for office.

I find it really easy to convince myself that God dreams for the same kind of world that I do and don’t have a lot of trouble believing that God enjoys the kind of worship that I most prefer. It is not hard for me to overlook and justify the sins that I am most prone to committing while getting uncomfortably self-righteous at those that don’t tempt me or the ones that oppose my preferences, political convictions and the world views with which I am most comfortable.

The hard truth is that finding people who haven’t suffered from shoehorning God to fit their preferred beliefs and ways of life  – well, a camel and an eye and a needle come to mind.

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It doesn’t matter whether the gods we fashion are conservative or liberal, black or white, traditional and old-fashioned or contemporary and cutting edge. When we fall into this trap not only do we commit idolatry, the most significant of the Thou Shall Nots that Moses brings down from the Mountain, we also fool ourselves.

When we decide we have the power to become the great creators of everything we need, we strip the Gospel of its very power by trading the power of God to make a new creation in us for another shallow justification for what we already think, believe and live for.

Regardless of how or why we do make them, the gods of our imagination can’t bear the weight of the God we worship and have been given in Jesus.  These wannabe gods just aren’t big enough, don’t have the power to change us and simply cannot bring the redemption we need.

The confronting and convicting texts of Lent forcefully remind us of this – and they don’t politely ask us whether we like it or not. On Sunday, we heard that truth from Isaiah, who reminded us that our ways of thinking and patterns of living don’t necessarily come from God.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9

What we need more than anything else isn’t another place to listen to the news we want to hear but instead a way to encounter a power greater than we can imagine who can show us a new way of life with more meaning and hope than we have ever experienced.

The growth and change we all desperately need, even if we can’t bring ourselves to say it out loud, comes from admitting that God’s wisdom is greater than our own and finding our place in the enormous mission and kingdom of God.

That’s the conviction we draw from the stories of Scripture that shape our faith. How many times do we encounter stories of people who were convinced that they know exactly who God is and precisely how God goes about accomplishing God’s will for the world only to be shocked and surprised when their world is tossed upside down?

No one experienced that more than Paul, who had his whole religious upbringing and education turned on its head when he encountered Jesus on the Damascus Road – but he’s not the only one.  Abraham believed and trusted in a future he couldn’t see, Ruth learned the blessing of radical commitment and Job discovered that the wisdom of convention isn’t always the wisdom of God. The Bible is full of stories like these – people who God shocked with wisdom and purpose they could never have come up with on their own.

When we read and pray and allow ourselves to be changed by these stories, we realize that God is much less predictable than we prefer and that the God of the Bible seems to love upending our assumptions and is always in the process of doing a new thing.

This isn’t an easy thing to experience. This holy season reminds us that those who are most sure they know who God is and what God is for are often the ones who most profoundly and spectacularly miss God’s revelation and misunderstand God’s mission.

What the Bible tells us is that the key to experiencing Resurrection and New Creation is to learn how to humble yourself, how to become open to God, and how to watch for the signs of God’s activity in the world – even and especially when they hurl your heart and mind into the whirlwind.

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God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind and tends to do the same with us.

And so, these are the stories we need to keep close – the thief who receives the promise of paradise, the disciples who experience real presence in the breaking of the bread and the many who become one through a Spirit who blows where it will and authors stories of redemption again and again.

It’s easy to find your way off the path.  But we can always find our way back, by doing what doesn’t usually come naturally – admitting we might be wrong, listening for God’s presence, and allowing ourselves to be changed by the grace of a God who is greater and more creative than we can imagine.

Ways Off the Path

Week 1: Paying Attention to the Wrong Things

Week 2: Paralysis by Overanalysis

 

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The People of Enough

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Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

It’s the question, you know it, the one that just sits there and feels like it will never leave. It usually comes when we are around that person who seems so perfect and so put together, the one who never seems rattled by the things that send us spiraling out of control.  Sometimes it is someone on a magazine or starring in a music video, but usually it is just a friend or family member or someone we know in our real lives who has it all figured out.  And so it comes:

Am I enough?

Have I done enough to live up to the expectations that I have for myself?  Will I ever be pretty enough or smart enough or funny enough to make people like me?  Will I ever be enough to really chase my dreams? Will I ever be enough to live the life I want for me and for my family?  Can I ever be enough?

These aren’t isolated questions that we ask and answer and then move on.  They stick around and they keep our attention. We chew them over at dinner and they stare back at us in the mirror. They are at the heart of our evening prayers and in our minds as we sit in the pew next to our family on Sunday mornings.

For those of us trying to love and serve God, our story is shaped by the familiar story we encounter in Scripture. And it is there that we discover the truth that answers these awful questions.  What we find there is this – no matter what, you are enough. You are enough. Not because of the number in your bank account or your family’s last name or even the degrees on your wall. You are enough,quite simply, because God says that you are.

This isn’t just church talk.  This is truth that you can hold on to when life hits you with everything it has.  This is truth that you can cling to when you aren’t sure where to turn.  This is truth that anchors you when everything in your life seems to be slipping away. This is truth you crave when you are frantically searching for solid ground. You are enough – this is the truth you need and that will keep you standing when the ground underneath you is shifting.

I think this is one reason the Apostles left the church specific things to do in order to sustain them. The practices we find in Acts 2 and 4 aren’t just a list to be checked off in order to be a good Christian. No, they are a gift the Apostles received from Jesus and then gave to us. They left them for us because they knew that in the midst of life and stress and anxiety that would come with world-shaking it would be all too easy to forget the truth they had experienced in Jesus.

So they joined together with their friends to hear stories and to be reminded of all the ways Jesus showed up so they could keep going.

These stories are holy. This is enough.

They prayed together, because sometimes life beats you up and makes you feel that you will never be enough. They knew what we know when we can remember –  that when you pray with your friends and with the God who has done everything to call you friend, you remember what you need.

These relationships are holy. This is enough.

They ate together, because despite all the divisions and all the ways we become isolated from the people we share life with, there is something that happens when you sit down with someone at table. When you eat together, you are reminded not so much about what separates you but about what you have in common.

These meals are holy. This is enough.

They shared together because life at its most fulfilling isn’t about keeping it to yourself. We want to be self-reliant, but self-reliance is an illusion. We inevitably run up against something we can’t handle – whether it is a confluence of bills we can’t pay, problems we can’t solve or relationships that are so far broken that we can’t unbreak them. And so we need help and we need people to share our burdens and help us hold our lives together.

This sharing is holy.  This is enough.

We are the people of enough.  We are the people who are enough and have enough despite what all our fears yell at us. We are the people who belong to a beautiful and whole family whether our house is full of children or just children at heart. We are the people who are loved and embraced and welcomed whether we were the first to get asked to the dance or are the one standing against the wall desperately hoping to be asked. We are the people who are filled with hope and a future whether we have years ahead of us or we are reminiscing about a life that once was while waiting on the new life to come.

That’s why in my church it is important to us to receive Communion.  So, regularly as part of our life together, we receive something that on its face seems insignificant – a few crumbs of bread and a small bit of Welch’s. It’s crazy, but we believe that some how and some way that in this tiny meal Jesus is with us – present at our table and more importantly in our lives.

And it is enough, every single time.  It is enough to bring forgiveness. It is enough to change us with grace.  It is enough to sustain us, to heal us, and to give us what we need. It is everything we believe in one moment.

No matter what, it is enough. No matter what you need, there is enough. No matter what you are facing today, you are enough.

Hear that again – there is no more condemnation. You are enough.

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