Tag: Bible

Daily Bible reading, a key to ethical living

One of the keys to ethical living is to read the Bible daily. This does not come easy for many of us, and I stress the use of “us” there. Vocational ministers, like me, can struggle with this as much as other  church members.

My church, First Baptist in Athens, has stressed daily Bible reading and created a web site to make it easier — soapandsoak.com. Anyone can use it. SOAP and SOAK is a three-year Bible reading plan linked with a 36-verse memorization plan. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Three year reading plan— OT(1x), NT (2x).
  • Read/discuss with other believers for encouragement and accountability.
  • Simple weekly goals to fit your lifestyle.
  • A Scripture verse to memorize each month
  • Delivery Options: In the program each week, email once a week, daily email.

If others have resources or tools that can help in daily Bible reading, please share.

Looking inside to what’s really there

Images of the church lady from “Saturday Night Live” came dancing in myhead as I read a recent column by Daivd Brooks, “Let’s All Feel Superior,” in The New York Times.

Brooks’ Nov. 14, 2011, column came out in the aftermath of the child sex scandal at Penn Stae University, but I just now read it.  Brooks wrote:

“First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.”

Brooks said studies have shown that people often do not do what they ought to do or what they think they would do if they discovered such an atrocity.

“Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.”

In a 1999 study at Penn State, of all places, students were asked if they would “make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes,” Brooks reported. “When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.”

We’ve all heard stories of people standing by and watching as terrible things happended to others. But why?

The Apostle Paul said we do the things we don’t want to do and don’t do the things we want to do. In other words, our intentions differ from our actions.

David Brooks gets this point without allusion to the Bible.

“People are really good at self-deception. We attend to the facts we like and suppress the ones we don’t. We inflate our own virtues and predict we will behave more nobly than we actually do. As Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel write in their book, ‘Blind Spots,’ ‘When it comes time to make a decision, our thoughts are dominated by thoughts of how we want to behave; thoughts of how we should behave disappear.’

“In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

“But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

“Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: ‘How could they have let this happen?’

“The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.”

Ah, that “inner wonderfulness,” is such sweet bliss, but so is ignorance, and they are connected.

Back in the 1980s, a friend and I used to go for walks in Chatham, Illinois, for a little exercise and mostly for a little talk. Joe was a committed Democrat who worked for a U.S. senator from Illinois, and I described myself at the time as a “Reagan Democrat.”

While that is how I used to describe myself politcally, there was one thing Ronald Reagan used to say and imply something that bothered me. He was convinced of the basic goodness of people–that people, when given the chance, will do the right thing. That seemed naive to me then and it still does.

The Bible paints a picture of people being created in the “image of God” but having “fallen.” The Apostle Paul said we all are sinners.

The biblical picture seems more accurate than Reagan or others who espouse that “inner wonderfulness.” The image of God stills shines through in many people in many circumstances, but this image has been marred by self-centeredness–our sin, if you will. This sinfulness is in evidence, even among seemingly “good” people.

There is an “inner wonderfulness;” it comes from the Creator of all of this. There also is an inner sinfulness; it comes from our heritage of self-centeredness. It is dangerous to think either does not exist, because that is ignoring reality, that is living in a fantasy world of one’s own making.

Challenging the idolatry of power

Readings for a second day in a row confront me with notions of present day idolatry right here among seemingly Bible-believing Christians. Today’s reading comes from Walter Brueggemann in his book, Old Testament Theology: An Introduction. It is somewhat risky to pull out one paragraph from a lengthy, in-depth book, but it is worth the risk because it may stimulate thought.

Near the end of the book, Brueggemann is discussing hope as revealed in the apocalyptic book of the Old Testament, Daniel. Apocalyptic is described by Brueggemann as “the extreme conviction that God will make all things new.” (p. 364) This idea is all over the Hebrew Bible, but it takes a different form in Daniel, which I will not get into.

Brueggemann says one of the spinoffs from biblical apocalyptic (New Testament included) is in U.S. religion, which has a “great attraction”  to such modes of thought and speech. Now let me turn Brueggemann loose. (All quotes, pages 364-365.)

“That way of hope, however, has been cast into modernist modes of dispensationalism that for the most part contradicts the theological force of hope in God.”

A brief stop here. Yes, dispensationalism is a modern invention, and Brueggemann seems right — there is a real sense in which dispensationalism becomes a god in and of itself, thus distracting from the true God who is to be worshiped and trusted.

“Much of that current thought, prominently in the Left Behind Series, has an odd and disastrous alliance with right-wing politics that characteristically supports and celebrates U.S. military adventurism. This odd and widely embraced juxtaposition of apocalyptic imagery and superpower self-aggrandizement demonstrates in an unmistakable way how such daring imagery is easily pressed into the service of idolatry. The outcome of such an alliance is that the rhetoric of hope is matched to a politics of despair that intends at all cost to preserve the status quo of privilege, entitlement, and self-propelled security.”

In essence, Brueggemann here has offered an indictment of American Christianity. He seems to be saying that we Americans have taken the apocalyptic notions derived from Scripture and married them to a distinctly American religion that is more about us than about God. This alliance is formed to preserve three things that are not of Jesus, it would seem — privilege, entitlement, and self-propelled security. Jesus clearly stood for the under-privileged, spoke of responsibility not entitlement, and offered security through God not ourselves.

And lest my left-wing friends take too much joy in the above, let me say that they have their own odd and disastrous alliances.

I’ll let Brueggemann continue:

“Such a utilization of apocalyptic hope is a disastrous idolatry because the God to which apocalyptic hope attests stands precisely against such craven hungers of present arrangements of power and security. Hope stands as a contradiction of all such idolatries. Indeed the very superpower status of the United States, so valued in many forms of contemporary apocalyptic rhetoric, more likely stands, in the tradition of Daniel, as one of the empires that will fall rather than as an icon of the new rule of God. In the contemporary U.S. religious scene, such an idolatrous alliance of future hope and current power employs the rhetoric of hope precisely in the practice of hopelessness, bespeaking not eager trust but immense fear.”

It seems to me that since World War II, the United States has developed an out-sized trust in its own power — economic and military. During the war itself, I do not think that was so much the case, especially among the regular folk. This growing trust in worldly power is a back story to our declining trust in Yahweh, the God of the Bible.

I need not say more; there is enough here to ponder.

Thinking and acting as Christians first

A word from Jim Wallis to all of us idolaters:

What is the greatest failure of Christians in this country?

“When they don’t think and act as Christians first.

“Instead, they act first as Americans, consumers, partisans, or sports fans. This kind of idolatry can result in very un-Christian behavior. These kinds of Christians sometimes forget that we are supposed to love the immigrant, provide for the poor, and promote peace among all nations.”

“Idolatry” is a tough word, reserved in Scripture for people not on God’s side. But most of us must admit that we have been idolatrous at times, often too much of the time.

I once idolized the Dallas Cowboys. If they lost, it literally ruined my day, making me not a nice person to be around. The Cowboys’ mediocrity of recent years has made it a requirement that I give up this idolatry if I was to remain a decent person, but the temptation is still there.

I’m also tempted to idolize my family. My wife, children, children-in-law, and grandchildren are the subjects of much of my thought and attention. I would do just about anything for them. I would not say that I worship them, but people who know me might think I come close.

I’ve also come close to worshiping this nation of mine. I love the United States of America. Captain America is my favorite superhero. The American founding fathers are among my biggest regular heroes. Of course, that last sentence is really the key for me. I love what America stands for. I love our founding principles. I love our freedom. I love our opportunity. I do not always love what America does.

I’m reminded of a phrase I heard somewhere along the way — “America, right or wrong.” If by that, one means that he or she is committed to be a good citizen of the United States whether it is in the right or the wrong, then I can affirm it. If by that, one means that they will support a decision of the United States whether is is right or wrong, then I cannot affirm it. This is because, as Wallis entreated, I desire to think as a Christian first.

I referenced the American and sports fan parts of what Wallis said. While the consumerism and partisanship may not be my temptations toward idolatry, they surely are such for some. In fact, partisanship is probably the single biggest reason behind many of this nation’s problems. Since President Obama took office, the Republican Party’s overriding goal seems to have been regaining full control of the government. Of course, that’s the most obvious recent example. Highly partisan Democrats would do the same thing in defense of their interest groups.

Wallis, in his e-letter, offers a solution. “The antidote is simple. Christians need to read their Bibles more,” he says. When we read our Bibles, we realize what is important to the God of the Bible. The strange thing is that so many so-called Bible-believing Christians do not seem to share the overriding concerns of God as expressed in Scripture. It is, therefore, not just a matter of reading our Bibles; it’s a matter of reading our Bibles with new eyes. That’s not a easy task for those of us who are older, but it is not an impossible task because the Spirit of God is stirring in our midst desiring to help us see God’s truth more clearly.

A prayer: May we see God’s truth better in the coming year.

Getting the Bible’s big picture — compassion

Growing up, I heard one basic message in church — get saved, get others saved and live right. Most of the emphasis in my Southern Baptist churches was on the first two, and when it turned to the living right part it was generally about personal morality — don’t smoke, don’t drink and don’t have sex until marriage.

I’m thankful to those churches for leading me to a faith walk with God through Christ. I’m thankful to those churches for leading me to care enough for others that I would share my faith. And I’m thankful to those churches for giving me those solid moral moorings that helped me stay out of trouble, not that I did it perfectly.

While affirming all of that, I must say with equal honesty that I didn’t latch onto a deep concern for the marginalized of this world. It may have been taught, but the primary bent was toward the three emphases noted above. We heard less about compassion for the world than passion for reaching the world — helping those other people who were not good church folk like us to become church folk like us.

As I read the Bible now, I get a growing sense of just how much I missed earlier. God cares deeply, very deeply for the people who are not like me — the hurting. It’s all over the book.

The big picture of Scripture is about God and humanity reconnecting. You can say that sin is what has created the disconnect. But what sin? The sin that really seems to have gotten God’s attention is in relation to the injustices toward the marginalized of this world — the people who do not have power, wealth or other entrees to privilege.

That is the sin we should be battling most, but in my tradition that often has not been the case. Looking beyond my roots, however, I am encouraged that Baptists have been concerned for justice and compassion — Martin Luther King Jr. and T. B. Maston come quickly to mind.

So it was with interest today that I encountered an article titled “God Commands Compassion, Not Evangelism,” by Greg Garrett. I wish he had not pitted compassion against evangelism because I believe evangelism done right is motivated by compassion, but Garrett has some great points to make. Here’s one:

“The larger message of the Bible is about participating in the reality that God wants to bring into being to replace the sinful mess we have made, and a large part of that participation is about reaching out to those who are in need. God’s advocacy for the downtrodden against the powerful is clear throughout the Hebrew Testament. A wonderful way to read the Old Testament’s sections on the patriarchs, the subjection of their ancestors in Egypt, and their deliverance in Palestine is through the lens of God’s choice of the poor, the outcast, and the unexpected to be the recipients of His love and grace. Youngest children (not the oldest sons, expected to inherit everything), women (of no social value), and exiles (not even part of a society) are chosen by God for special roles.”

If we can just get this thing about compassion for the hurting, then we can get a lot right about following the God revealed in Scripture. I’m reminded that there is faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.

Keller: The Bible and poverty

Poverty “is seen in the Bible as a very complex phenomenon. Several factors are usually intertwined. Poverty cannot be eliminated simply by personal initiative or by merely changing the tax structure.” (p.34)

Timothy Keller, in his book Generous Justice, stakes out a biblical position on poverty and wealth that transcends polarizing views of the issues. In short, it takes no one off the hook, either the rich or the poor.

The second chapter of his book is titled “Justice and the Old Testament,” but it doesn’t just stay in the older portion of Scripture. It simply starts there. Here are some excerpts:

“The Bible is not a classist tract that sees the rich as always the villains and the poor as always virtuous.” (p.27)

“The gleaning laws enabled the poor to be self-sufficient, not through getting a handout, but through their own work in the field.

“How can business owners follow the same principle? … [T]hey should be willing to pay higher wages and charge lower prices that in effect share the corporate profits with employees and customers, with the community around them. … How could a government follow the gleaning principle? It would do so by always favoring programs that encourage work and self-sufficiency rather than dependency.” (p.30)

Regarding the story of manna during the exodus (Exodus 16:16-18):

“Any manna that was hoarded simply spoiled. … In 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 Paul interprets this as an abiding principle for how we are to deal with God’s material provision for us. He likens our money to manna. … [T]he money you earn is a gift of God. Therefore, the money you make must be shared to build up community. … To extend the metaphor — money that is hoarded for oneself rots the soul.” (pp.30-31)

“… [W]hen we come to the Old Testament social legislation, the application must be done with care and it will always be subject to debate. … Thoughtful people have and will argue about which is the most effective way to help the poor. Both sides looking for support in the Bible can find some, and yet in the end what the Bible says about social justice cannot be tied to any one political system or economic policy.” (pp.31-32)

“The three causes of poverty, according to the Bible, are oppression, calamity, and personal moral failure. … I have concluded that the emphasis is usually on the larger structural factors.” (p.38)

“It is not our lavish good deeds that procure salvation, but God’s lavish love and mercy. That is why the poor are as acceptable before God as the rich. It is the generosity of God, the freeness of his salvation, that lays the foundation for the society of justice for all.” (p.40)

(This is my third post on Keller’s book.  The first is here and the second here. I offer these posts in hopes to whet your appetite and to encourage you to read the entire book.)