Sunday, September 21, 2014

Reading the Bible: The Church's Bible

From Lissa Wray Beal’s course on “Reading the Church’s Bible”:
Margaret Silf [tells] a story about a salad bowl. She tells of a friend’s induction [as a minister] and of the feast that followed. The members of the congregation tucked into the feast, and soon hardly anything was left … except for a large bowl of rice salad. Eventually she realized why: someone had forgotten to put a serving spoon in the dish. … This course is designed to provide a good spoon to begin (or continue!) the feast on scripture, which continually renews and satisfies our appetite. 
So this morning I want to help us understand how to read the Bible, our Bible, the church’s Bible. 

I begin with the kind of “principles of interpretation” that we used to always mention. They are still true, but secondary to the main point (which follows).
  Type of language: Pay attention to whether a passage is ordinary speech or sarcasm or metaphor or exaggeration, etc. Such as Jesus, “Take the log out of your own eye.”
  Type of genre: Observe whether you are reading poetry, or theological history (not the same as reading a newspaper), or parable, etc.
  The plain meaning whenever possible: Don’t use “interpretation” to twist the passage into what you want.
  Interpret Scripture with Scripture: Paul says in 1 Cor 14 that women should keep silence in church, but in 1 Cor 11 he says that they should wear a covering on their heads a sign of their authority to pray and prophesy (preach) in church. Listening to the whole of Scripture saves us from many problems.
  Context, context, context! Cultural context, historical context, literary context.
  And so on. 

We can learn from some of our Anabaptist cousins, in this case the Brethren in Christ. From a 1986 consultation on a BIC way to interpret Scripture:
  NT interprets OT: “The New is in the Old contained; the Old is by the New explained.”
  Both centre on Jesus: The disciples reinterpreted everything they knew about Scripture in the light of the amazing discovery that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.
  Pure heart and mind: If you are in rebellion against God, you won’t understand God’s Word Written.
  Commitment to obey: In order to understand, you must be ready to obey what you hear God say.
  Read in community: No “private interpretation” (an extension of 2 Peter 1:20f). 

But more important than all of these, and more important than others that we could mention, is the foundational principle: The Bible is first of all a story. In her syllabus for the course, Reading the Church’s Bible, Lissa Wray Beal quotes from Bartholomew and Goheen:
Many of us have read the Bible as if it were merely a mosaic of little bits—theological bits, moral bits, historical-critical bits, sermon bits, devotional bits. But when we read the Bible in such a fragmented way, we ignore its divine author’s intention to shape our lives through its story. All human societies live out of some story that provides a context for understanding the meaning of history and give shape and direction to their lives. If we allow the Bible to become fragmented, it is in danger of being absorbed into whatever other story is shaping our culture, and it will thus cease to shape our lives as it should. … If as believers we allow this story (rather than the Bible) to become the foundation of our thought and action, then our lives will manifest not the truths of Scripture, but the lies of an idolatrous culture.” 

We read Psalm 78 to begin with. Like Nehemiah in his prayer (Nehemiah 9) and Stephen in his defense before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7) this psalm tells the story of God’s people—excerpted from the great story of creation and fall to redemption in the Christ-event. So the most important thing is that the Bible is the story!
  Read the Bible as a story!
  Genesis to Revelation: the story of “God’s Mighty Saving Acts”
  Genesis: the problem: God made us—we pushed him out of our lives
  The rest of the Bible: the story of how God tries to get back into our lives
  A story with a difference: IT’S TRUE!

But, you may ask, “Is not the Bible full of promises of hope and directions to follow?” Certainly. Psalm 78 says to tell the story so that the children yet to be born will follow God, so that they will know his promises and obey his commands. But promises and directions are like the bacon in a wonderful casserole. No matter how much you like bacon, you don’t pick out only the bacon and leave the rest, and then say you have eaten the whole meal. Some might actually do this, but they would be wrong about nutrition, and if you do it with the Bible you miss the best thing of all, the way that God wants to transform you with divine reality. 

You see, the Bible is a story with a difference. There are many stories out there—Game of Thrones; Downton Abbey; LOTR; The Matrix; Doctor Who—but the Bible has something more. It is true! Rooted in history, but truer at even deeper levels than history: The Bible tells us the truth about God and all humanity. It is the story of salvation history, what G.E. Wright calls “the mighty saving acts of God”. 

The key to this story is Jesus. The whole Bible intends to bring you to Jesus, to “the human face of God”. In the garden the first human pair pushed God out of their lives. The rest of the Bible tells the story of how God seeks to get back into our lives, culminating in Jesus, the Messiah. So 1 Cor 15: I passed on to you what I received as of first importance: and then Paul tells the story of Jesus. 

A few weeks ago a couple named Peter and Liz stayed with us. We learned a bit of Peter’s story—from a Christian home, attending a Christian college, then he started reading the story of Jesus and met Jesus in a new and powerful way. He changed direction to follow God’s call, eventually graduating from college and going to Chicago to live in an intentional Christian community. Now they live in London, England, in an apartment complex with Bangladeshi families, building bridges between Christians and Muslims, being Christ to their neighbours. When Peter met Jesus as he read the gospels, Jesus transformed him completely. 

The Bible seeks to bring us first of all to Jesus. When we meet Jesus, he changes us forever!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Calgary has jumped the gun on the rest of Canada, starting its winter with a bang: somewhere around 30 cm. of snow in the first week of September. The newspapers called it a summer snow, but prairie people know better. It’s a foretaste of winter in Canada. 

When we moved to Manitoba 17 years ago, we were warned to expect the worst. The previous winter had been brutal, blizzard after blizzard so that people were piling up mountains of snow on either side of their driveways. (For many of us in Manitoba, the only mountains we ever see.) There had been weeks at a time of minus 30 temperatures. (Minus 22 for my American friends who speak Fahrenheit.) That winter led to the great flood of the Red River (which became for a time the Red Sea south of Winnipeg) in May 1997. Then we moved here, and the next five winters were mild. 

We had decided to enjoy winter. Instead of the dirty slushy mess that we had experienced in Indiana and Pennsylvania we found clean white snow. Winter weather is far too cold for the snow to get slushy or stick to the road, so driving conditions were good. The air is amazingly crisp—dry enough to let you get properly warm if you’re dressed warm enough. Unlike winters in the States, where the dampness meant you were always cold. 

Best of all is the sunshine. Winters on the prairies are bright and dazzling, with more days of clear sunshine than any other part of Canada. Bright sunshine on snow makes dark glasses required wearing for the duration of winter. For the most part, we have loved it! 

Then came last winter. We had more days of minus 30 than usual. We had more snow than usual, and it kept coming after Spring should have arrived. Spring was late. Summer was late. Long-time Manitobans, well accustomed to severe winter weather began muttering in their coffee mugs, looking around for relief. I have to wonder how many more visitors went to Phoenix or Florida last winter than usual. They needed it!


So our summer was shorter than usual, and snow in Calgary is not welcome news. We would gladly grant our Albertan cousins another month of warmth and sunshine, provided they share it with us. Instead, they got a foot of snow. Ouch! 

Oh well, autumn is a lovely season, and we’ll pray that real winter does not descend too quickly or too heavily on us. Whatever comes we will enjoy as much as we can. It’s the only weather we’ve got.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Drama of the New Year

Our theme this evening is of the year as a story or as  a piece of theatre, a play in which we are acting. Whether it is a tragedy or comedy, a piece of classical theatre or improv theatre is another question. Perhaps at a philosophy or theology or sociology lunch you can explore whether our lives are scripted or improvised; but for now we think of the image of the year as a play. 
You may have heard Shakespeare’s famous lines from “As You Like It” (Act 2, Scene 7): “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Shakespeare works his way through the infant, the student, the lover, the ages of career and family, retirement, and finally old age. But what does this play of life mean? Listen to these lines from Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5), spoken by Macbeth himself:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
That speech of course comes from someone who knows his life is about to end. We can hope that the drama of the coming year will be more than a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. 

What will happen this year? We each have a part to play, whether as one of the seven ages of a man—students and staff and faculty, we have most of these ages on the campus. But who writes our play? What does it mean? 

You remember Robin Williams, who died recently (as someone put it) of complications resulting from mental illness. He was in many movies of many kinds. I don’t watch many movies if I can help it, but I did see one with Robin Williams starring, “Dead Poets Society”. Williams’ character, John Keating, seeks to lead his class of young men—being prepped for entrance into the elite universities of America—into the deeper meanings of poetry and of life.
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life! … of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless … of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life? Answer: that you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” [Pause.] That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be? 
You notice how he segues from speaking of poetry into describing life as a play—“a powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse”. That description implies an author who gives the play meaning. But neither Whitman (who wrote the poem being quoted) nor Hollywood dare name the author. We can! 

C.S. Lewis has written an essay titled, “The World’s Last Night” (105-6). The title comes from a line from John Donne, “What if this present were the world’s last night?”

Writing about the Second Coming, he makes the explicit connection to the author of the play, whose work gives meaning to our small parts in the great play of life. Listen to how he puts it:
The doctrine of the Second Coming teaches us that we do not and cannot know when the world drama will end. The curtain may be rung down at any moment: say, before you have finished reading this paragraph. This seems to some people intolerably frustrating. So many things would be interrupted. … Not now, of all moments! 

But we think thus because we keep on assuming that we know the play. We do not know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. The Author knows. The audience, if there is an audience (if angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven fill the pit and the stalls), may have an inkling. But we, never seeing the play from outside, never meeting the characters except the tiny minority who are “on” in the same scenes as ourselves, wholly ignorant of the future and very imperfectly informed about the past, cannot tell at what moment the end ought to come. That it will come when it ought, we may be sure; but we waste our time in guessing when that will be. That it has a meaning we may be sure, but we cannot see it. When it is over, we may be told. We are led to expect that the Author will have something to say to each of us on the part that each of us has played. The playing it well is what matters infinitely. 

Lewis illustrates this point with a minor character from Shakespeare’s King Lear, known only as “First Servant.” All of the characters around him—Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund—scheme and work for their own advantage, and their lives end badly. But the first servant, nameless and only on stage for eight lines, knows right and wrong. When his master is attacked, he draws his sword in defense. He is quickly stabbed to death. As Lewis says,
He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination … taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out …: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted.

We don’t know the meaning of so much that happens to us, but we usually know what we should do right now. We usually know what action this present moment calls for. 

If you think that you are the author of your play this year, you will find when it’s over that the year really has been “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. The vision from Dead Poets Society is more cheering, calling you and me to write our own verse in the great play of life. But the Christian faith takes us a step further. God gives us the grace of freedom to participate, and even to write parts of some scenes; but in the end God is the author of the play. What gives our lives meaning, this semester and always, is God’s insertion of himself into the drama of our world, living and dying and rising to give us life and a reason to live. 

Knowing that, we ask God what we wants us to do—and we do it. Play your part well. Play your part with the Spirit of God leading you and energizing in all that you do throughout the year.