Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Reading the Bible devotionally

I've been dissatisfied with the time I spend reading the Bible for devotional purposes. I've found myself finding it hard to open my Bible and read it. Sure, as a pastor, I spend heaps of time dissecting it, wrestling with it and preparing sermons or devotions or a small group studies for whatever it is that I need to get done. But stopping, taking time to read the Bible for no other reason than to be with God, and allow that passage to shape my prayer and form me as a person and a follower of Christ, that's been difficult. And then when I do read it, well, I seem to allow the words to wash over me and then it's done. What's the next thing on the list?

As I reflected on this, I wondered if there was a way I could re-shape some of my devotional reading and practices. Try and be more intentional about exploring the passage. And so I came up with three questions that I've found really helpful.

1) What is this passage about?

I take the time to write down in three or four sentences what the passage is about (I tend to read one chapter at a time). If I know that I have to write down a summary, it helps me to remain attentive to what I'm reading. Then writing the words down helps me to process a little bit of what I've just read.

2) What is capturing my attention? Is there anything I don't understand?

This is where I begin to note (by writing) some of the detail in the text and reflect on things that particularly seem to stand out to me. For example, I was reading through Lamentations 4 the other day and was struck by verse 10 (in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem): 'With their own hands compassionate women have cooked their own children, who became their food when my people were destroyed.' What an awful passage! It shows the depth  of devastation going on. And yet, the passage calls these mothers 'compassionate'. The situation must have been absolutely awful. It stuck with me and has been forcing me to wrestle with what was going on, and where is God in all of this?

On top of noting specific things that stick out to me, I also like to write down things that I don't know about or don't understand. People, places, customs, phrases or theological happenings like utter destruction that God seems to allow to happen or perhaps appears to be complicit in making it happen. I write these down so that maybe I can explore them further at another time, or perhaps leave them there as questions or wonderings.

3) What might God be saying to me/teaching me/challenging me through this passage?

This is where I move from simply talking about the passage to wondering what this might mean for my life, my understanding of God or my understanding of myself or God's world. Is there something that God might be calling me to do or remember or stop doing. How might God be speaking to me through this passage? Remember, this isn't a small group study but a time spent with God communing with God through the Bible and in prayer.

I then pick one of those things from the last question and take it to God in prayer.

This helps shape my prayer life, the things I want to say to God and reflect on what God might be saying to me. Going back to the Lamentations 4 example, I couldn't help but think of the situations in our day and age where compassion is doing what those mothers did. It profoundly affected me and my prayer to God that day (and since then).

I've been doing this several times a week for the past few weeks. It usually takes me about 10 minutes. But 10 good minutes to slow down.

This little devotional practice has helped me to become more attentive to God, more attentive to what God might be saying to me and helped shape my prayer life.

If you are feeling dissatisfied with your own devotional time with God (whether it is vibrant, barely existent or not existent at all) then perhaps this devotional exercise (or an adaption) may be helpful.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Digging into a Bible Passage

I've recently run a class on preaching at our church. We had twelve folks. Most had never preached before, and six of the participants were under the age of 21.

As part of the course, I developed a series of steps for digging deeper into a Bible passage. I wanted to develop it for people who didn't have theological degrees. So it needed to be weighty enough to get into the passage but simple enough so that the average person could use it. None of it is particularly new, but I reproduce it below in case it's helpful for someone whether for preaching or leading a Bible study or simply because they want to understand a passage more. Feedback is welcome.

Digging into a Bible passage
Ask God to speak to you through the Bible (and if you are doing this for preaching or for a Bible study) that you may be able to share that richness with others.

2)      Read the Biblical text several times
Read it slowly. Much of the Bible was originally written to be spoken out loud, so make sure you read it at least once out loud. Allow the words to sink in.

3)      Ask questions of the text/write down questions you have about the text
The world of the Bible and the world of today are very different. There may be people, places, ideas, things in the passage that don’t seem to make sense or you don’t know much about. Write down your questions. Feel free to write down any other observations you have or connections you are making that may or may not be there.

4)      Note the context
Context is all the stuff surrounding something that helps us make sense of it.

a)      Where does this book sit within the 6-act play?
The Bible as whole tells the story of God creating the universe, humanity falling and God seeking to save the world ultimately culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This can be helpfully understood as a 6-act play. Note where in the 6-act play (whereabouts in the story of the Bible) this book fits.

b)      What happened before this text?
Is this a follow on from a conversation? Does the preceding passage give any hints that might help us understand our text?

c)      What happened after this text?
Does what happened after this text help us to understand our text better?

5)      Dig into the details of the text
This helps us get into the details of the text.

a)      Who?
List all the people in the text
Who are the people in the text? Who is it about? What happens to them?

b)      Where?
List all the places in the text
Where are the places mentioned? In what place or places is this text taking place? What happens in those places?

c)      What?
List the things in the passage
What are the things that are mentioned in this passage? What role do these objects play? What happens to those things?

d)      How?
List the action that takes place in the passage
What happens in this passage? What activity takes place? What are the action words?

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

The Death of God

God is dead.

Those are three interesting words. Some would regard them mournfully, some joyfully, some with hope, others with pain, and a great deal many with indifference.

God is dead.

I've recently been pondering three images of God's death.

1) Nietzsche's parable of a madman
Friederich Nietzsche was a German philosopher who wrote at the end of the 19th Century. He wrote a parable where a madman runs into the village square proclaiming that God is dead, and that it is they who have killed God. Churches are now nothing more than God's tomb, the place where nothing but God's memory is kept alive.

Nietzsche's point is that Western society has no need of God. We are now the masters and mistresses of our own destiny. The highest one can climb is to become a god themselves dictating what they choose to do and to be. This philosophy, to pursue one's own self-importance, gain and pleasure, are what it means to become a god.

In this parable those who listened to the madman couldn't understand what he was saying. They couldn't comprehend the concept of God's death, much less that they were the ones who had killed God. A hundred or so years ago, Western culture was still largely religious, but Nietzsche's point is that the people lived as if God was no longer a factor, in life and in society. Nietzsche wasn't sad about this. Rather, he just wanted to point out to the readers that this was the case. And it makes one wonder whether the people in churches today actually live as if God is alive.

2) Wiesel's God hanging from the gallows
Ellie Wiesel was a Jew who, when he was 15 and 16 years old, spent time in German concentration camps. Wiesel's book Night recounts the time when he saw a young boy with the face of a sad angel being strung up and hanged. The boy was too light and it took some 30 minutes of squirming before the gallows finally achieved their objective. Somewhere behind Wiesel, a man yelled out, 'For God's sake, where is God?' And Wiesel replied within himself, 'Where is he? This is where--hanging here from the gallows.'

For Wiesel, the suffering and atrocities he witnessed left him with an impression that God is dead, or at least should be dead.

While in one concentration camp, Wiesel was invited over several nights to witness three rabbis putting on a trial. Who was the one on trial? 


They put God on trial for allowing the atrocities of the holocaust to occur. And their verdict?


God was found guilty.

And the sentence? Well, Wiesel, in that moment staring at the boy in the gallows, wondered that perhaps this should be God's sentence.

The suffering that Wiesel witnessed stole his innocence. His innocence about the world, about how humans treated each other, and even his innocence about a benevolent God that, before the concentration camps, he was determined to devote his entire life to.

God hanging from the gallows.

3) Christ's death on the cross
The Christian story also tells about God's death. How God became human, lived as one of us, and then was found guilty and nailed to a cross. After hours of pain and slow suffocation, Jesus finally succumbed to death.

Jesus' death, according to the Bible, is redemptive. It was part of God's way of drawing a broken humanity back into relationship with God. It was God's way of traversing the most awful of human realities to drag us from the brink of death and destruction into new and eternal life.

Because, as the Christian story tells us, three days later, Jesus rose back to life. Death couldn't keep God down. And death and suffering and pain and indifference would never win. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, 'Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?'

The death of God
God's death is met with mourning, joy, pain, hope, laughter, indifference. Whether it be Nietzsche's God who was killed by secularism and its decision, whether theoretically or in practice, that it no longer needed God, or Wiesel's witness of God hanging upon the gallows or the Christian belief of God's redemptive death on the cross.

As a Christian, I feel that I need to sit deeply with each of these three images.

I need to see how our culture has no room for God or God's meddling interference.

I need to be profoundly moved by the nonsensical suffering of others who faced a pain so deep that it felt like their God had been murdered, and if someone else hasn't already done it, then God deserves the gallows.

I need to be shaped deeply by the realisation that God cares so deeply that God would die on a cross to reconcile humanity and this broken world back into perfect relationship.

And while my life and my faith is shaped most by the third of these images, I still need those other two to deepen my faith, to force me to ask hard questions, to weep and to be angry, to see the connection between divine suffering and human suffering, divine activity and Western humanity's (and of course my own as a product of the western world) indifference toward God.

So, what's my reaction to God's death? Well, mourning, joy, pain, hope, laughter, indifference, gratitude...