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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Reformation Day Reminder

It's good for Christians to look back at history and remember this day back in 1517, when the sound of a hammer hitting a nail changed the world for a second time (really, taking the world back once more to the meaning of Christ's sacrifice). This other event's importance far outweighs the candy and the costumes today.

J. D. Hatfield at Voice of Vision tells the story. Check out his post,
Reformation Day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How To Read the Bible for the First Time, Part 2

I got one comment on the last post in this series (before LeAnne's guest post), and I've given it a lot of thought since I got it. In case you missed that comment, here it is:
Once a person has accepted the general truths of Christianity, he will probably need some more specific instructions for daily life. The Apostle Paul's writings are a great resource for that, although they can get a little "deep." Ephesians might be the right next step, followed by a good strong dose of James.
While I agree that new Christians need some guidance for daily living, I was worried that Ephesians wasn't exactly a good place to start (as for James, I think it's important to read early on, but not this early). To check up on myself about my misgivings about Ephesians, I reread the first two chapters of that book, feigning complete ignorance of the Bible. After all, I am talking about reading the Bible for the first time, right?

Unfortunately, Ephesians seems to be pretty far along on the Bible knowledge curve. Chapter one talks about tricky concepts like predestination. Chapter two gets more difficult, beginning with, "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins," which would need to be explained, since a person who hasn't read about the curse of Adam and Eve or read Paul's explanation of what that meant, would probably think, "Hey, this doesn't apply to me, since as far as I know, I've never died." Later in chapter two, Paul discusses circumcision, which would require a grounding in Old Testament Jewish law and citizenship rules to make sense of it.

So, my anonymous commenter, I respectfully disagree with you on your reading choice.(I sincerely hope that doesn't shut down all comments on this blog, since that's not what I'm going for, here). I'm not throwing out the whole baby with the bathwater, because the basic, underlying point you made is excellent and insightful.

That is, that new Bible readers could begin to believe, if they only focus on the Gospels and never read the rest, that being a Christian is as simple as being nice and believing that Jesus rose from the dead. Too often, Christians (out of either ignorance or malice) tell new converts that Christianity "isn't about rules and guidelines," but that is really a lie. That would mean that Christianity is lawless and anarchist, which is very, very far from it's basic teachings and what even Christ lived. One of the central building blocks of the Christian faith is that there are rules, and that everyone has broken them. Unlike other faiths, Christianity doesn't stop there. It offers grace, which contrary to popular belief, still had to come about by following the rules. Grace without boundaries is lawlessness and injustice (something now one could respect), but grace that doesn't break the rules is merciful while still being fair (which even non-Christians love).

The Law vs. Grace: Why Jesus Came, and What His Death Meant

If you've read only the Gospels, you know who Jesus is, and probably picked up on a whole lot of mysterious mentions about "the Law and Prophets." If you guessed that the Old Testament is all about "the Law and Prophets," you were correct. You also read the part where Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5: 17 NIV). So what is the law, and why did it need to be fulfilled?

The law was very important to the Jewish people (it still is), since it was given to them directly from God at an early stage in their history. It's basically a list of rules and symbolic acts that they understood that they had to obey to please God; breaking these rules displeased God.

Jesus was saying that He didn't come to abolish the rules (He wasn't an anarchist or a revolutionary, as He is often cast), but rather that He had come to follow them completely, even by (and especially by) modeling and obeying the spirit and meaning behind them all. At this early point in reading the Bible, it is essential to understand this.

This is why I'm recommending that new Bible readers should direct their attention to the book of Romans. It was written by the Apostle Paul, and just as the anonymous commenter said, it is a little "deep," but that's because Paul was endeavoring to explain some really deep stuff: the meaning of the Law, and how Jesus fulfilled it. Without understanding the law, none of Christianity makes any sense. That is why the book of Romans is so crucial.

Paul wrote extensively about the law and its fulfillment, because he was a scholar of the highest caliber on the Jewish law--a sort of professor emeritus or summa cum laude of Jewish theology. He had studied it his whole life, but until he met Jesus and believed what He'd said about fulfilling the law, Paul had no understanding of the why of all those rules he'd spent so much time memorizing. If you want to know the why behind Christianity (and the real value of Christ's sacrifice), you have to read Romans.

I'll be back soon with another post on this topic. In the meantime, I really want to hear your comments, because they do help direct me. I never brush them off. So I'll ask again, What do you think should come next in a first-time Bible study, and why? Defend your answer.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Reaching for Stars

And now for the guest post we've all been waiting for, coming from LeAnne Miller in Washington State. She's a Pastor's wife, mother of five and a music minister. She writes music and Bible studies in her spare time.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her to give us her unique take on certain issues the world, and the church, is facing today. So, without further ado, this is what she had to say:

I was reading an old English fable to my children recently, called “Touching the Stars.” It was a quaint little story with lovely illustrations. As with most fables and legends, it is a mixture of fairytale and fact; fact being most often figurative as opposed to literal.

As the story goes, a little girl is obsessed with the desire to hold a star in her hands. In the end, her determination drives her to reach her goal through the help of many unlikely new friends.

As I closed the book, I tried to tie in some Biblical truths to this piece of make-believe. I wanted my children to embrace that fact that determination is a good quality, and that having ambition and drive can take you far. But the more I thought about this misguided little star chaser, the more I wanted to teach my children the following things.
  • Sometimes the stars that we chase are not really what we thought them to be. This little angel of a child truly thought that twinkle of a star could be held in her hand. She had no idea that what she was reaching for was an optical illusion. A trick of the eye. A deception that would have her believe she could hold in her hand a thing that does not exist; at least in the manner that she has perceived it.
  • Often the “stars” we reach for are not what we thought they would be. What was attractive and shiny, in actuality ends up to be a flaming ball of gas, waiting to consume us. The heroine of our story had no idea what a star really was. She had no idea that the very thing she craved and desired, had the ability to ultimately destroy her.
  • At times, we spend so much time chasing unattainable stars, we miss out on the real gifts and blessings that are around us. The little dreamer in our story would eventually awake to find that perhaps, she had been dreaming. The author would then have us believe, as the young lass opened her hand, that there is a hint of stardust clinging to her palm; not unlike a carrot dangling in front of rabbit. Leading us farther and farther away from what is really important.
The fact is, that we all have a little stardust clinging to our palms. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to quash the dreams of little girls everywhere, but I think that if we are to teach our daughters to be women of a Proverbs 31 caliber, we need to examine the desires of our heart.
  • Know what it is you want in life. But more importantly, know what God wants from our lives. “Study to show ourselves approved...” (2 Timothy 2:15).
  • Count the cost. What price I will have to pay to reach my goal? Is it worth sacrificing the gifts and eternal treasures that God has provided? “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2 NIV).
  • Finally, wake up! Don’t let the enemy fill your mind with fool’s gold and stardust. All that glitters is not gold. Life is full of enticing opportunities for temporary happiness. But if these things are not a part of God’s ultimate plan for your life, they can lead us astray, and ultimately consume us.
So go ahead, dream! Reach for the stars. With God, nothing is impossible; no goal unattainable. There are many successful dreamers in our history. Our God is not stingy, withholding good things from His children (Romans 8:23, Matthew 7:11). He wants us to have good things. He wants our lives to be full. However, He has given us an important key. Seek Him first (Matthew 6:33). Dreams are wonderful. They give us hope for better things. Just always remember to delight yourself in the Lord, and He will place in you His desires (Psalms 37:4). Godly desires. These desires are the “stars” we need to reach for.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Get a Leg Up on Bible Study: How to Read The Bible for the First Time, Part 1

When I was little, I had to use a footstool to reach the cabinet above my bathroom sink. I can also remember times when I couldn't find the stepstool/didn't want to take the time, so I struggled to lift myself on one arm while reaching for the dental floss with the free hand. It's all a part of having short legs while living in a tall world. But there's another angle to that story. While I still needed help, I didn't want to stay dependent on others my whole life, so I was willing to do almost anything to gain the independence I craved.

So, today I want to share some information that could help new Bible readers "reach it for themselves" without outside help. I've already covered using Bible study tools (see What Does God Require Concerning Bible Study?). This time, I want to answer a question I've been asked often about reading the Bible: Where should I start?

The first time someone asked me that, I panicked, because I realized I had no recollection of where and how my knowledge of the Bible really began. I was in Sunday school before I could read, and I was learning Bible stories, even then. It seems as if the knowledge has always been there. What kind of advice would be best?

I'll do my best to try to suggest the easiest route through the Bible, but I can't promise that my advice is the best. There are tough passages that can throw the most knowledgeable Bible scholar through a loop, and there are a lot of passages that only make perfect sense when the reader has read other passages first.

Start at the Middle: The Gospels of the New Testament

The Bible is divided into two sections: the Old Testament (the history of the world, and specifically of Israel, leading up to the time of Christ), and the New Testament (Christ's life, the start of Christianity, the beliefs of the Christian faith, and the prophesied future of the world and of the church). These are big, general labels. All in all, the entire Bible can be read through, carefully, in about a year.

I've generally heard you should start studying the Bible by reading the first section of the New Testament called the Gospels, which are named after their authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are all accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. If they seem repetitive, you should note that they were each written from different perspectives, to different audiences. John is the easiest to read, since it doesn't make as many references to the writings and prophecies of the Old Testament. Luke explains the situation from a historian's perspective to a non-Jewish, Greek audience. Matthew and Mark, which had a more Jewish audience, quote prophecies and predictions that were written down in the Old Testament thousands of years before they were fulfilled in Jesus' life.

What New Bible Scholars Should Understand at This Point

The most central part of the Christian faith is the concept that Christ is God, who came to earth in the form of a man, to teach the world that He is the only way to reach Heaven and escape eternal death in Hell. Any other actions or beliefs, other than following Jesus Christ, will not get us into heaven.

The Gospels present us with a key decision to make: either believe that Jesus was a lying maniac and dismiss everything He said, or believe that what He said was true, and live according to that belief. They systematically show how Jesus was not just an ordinary teacher, how the events of His life had been predicted centuries before, and how His life embodied what we understand of God and His requirements for us. These accounts were mostly told by men who were not well-educated. They were written over the course of several years, and yet they line up. Most importantly, though, their message has God-given power and the ring of truth, which can only come from people who are led by God.

There is much more to be said about the order in which to read the books of the Bible, but I've talked a long time, today. I'll be adding more to this discussion next week. In the meantime, after some delays and crossed-wires, we're finally going to read that guest post I talked about last time. Don't forget to come back!

To start a discussion on here, I'll leave you with a question: After the Gospels, what do you think new Bible readers should tackle next, and why?
I'm anxious to hear what you have to say!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Unseen Footprints

Well, due to unforeseen circumstances, I'm late getting this post up, so I'm making it brief. Before I get started, I have some important news updates on this blog. First, I'll be welcoming a guest writer here at Savvy Sheep next time, so be sure to come back this Thursday to read the post she's prepared. Secondly, I'm looking into teaching myself the basics of CSS coding (I know, good luck without a manual or an instructor, right?) so I can make some changes to my blog template and perhaps make it more visually interesting. As always, I welcome your tips and comments!

So, what's on my mind this week? Well, I guess you could say I've been singing the blues lately. I've felt frustrated with the weather around my neck of the woods, but it took a late-night gripe session with God to get me to finally understand where my mopey, bad attitude was really coming from. Virtually every day I've been confronted with examples of human failings, or, more accurately, human transgressions. That goes for news broadcasts and internet news feeds, too. Every time I read about it or heard it, I felt hopeless, surrounded, and defeated. It was like someone had taken all the wind out of my sails. I felt so frustrated that I just wanted to lie down and cry. How had I let it get to me that way? Why?

The Need

I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered you, O God, and I groaned; I mused, and my spirit grew faint. Selah (Psalm 77: 1-3 NIV)
I felt so down last night that I vowed to stay awake until I found comfort talking to God and reading the Bible. It took a few hours, but I finally found the words I needed in Psalm 77. In the rest of this post, I'll walk through the sections of Psalm 77, interspersing the sections with a little bit of analysis. If this is how you've been feeling lately, maybe this post is for you. Let's read on, shall we?

The Problem

You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired: "Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?" Selah (Psalm 77: 4-9 NIV)
Basically, David was upset and suffering from insomnia because he felt that God had abandoned him. He couldn't see how the promise God had made to him (that he would one day be King of Israel) was ever going to happen. His life was miserable, and it seemed that God was letting his enemies dog him relentlessly without any sign of judgment in sight. He was feeling hopeless, surrounded, and defeated, just like me, lately. There's even a sense that he felt that God was angry with him and was allowing everything to happen to him because of some wrong he didn't understand he'd committed.

The Analysis

Then I thought, "To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High." I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah (Psalm 77: 10-15 NIV)
David thought back to all the times in his life when God had come through for him, and he realized the same thing that I realized about myself: In this case anyway, this hopeless feeling came from a loss of faith in God's power, both His ability to work miracles and his authority to punish evildoers. In my case, I realized how ridiculous it really was to feel depressed when I saw it all from that perspective. The day the God of the universe can be outsmarted or overcome, that's when I should feel helpless, and not before. Anything else is giving human troublemakers more power than they deserve credit for.

The Resolution: Unseen Footprints

The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the skies resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalm 77: 16-20 NIV)
David paints us a dramatic image of the awesome power of storms in nature, and God calmly walking through the middle of one, with the storm fleeing from Him.

The message is clear: Though our worst enemies may rise up to make our lives miserable, their power is nothing more than wind, noise, and splashing puddles when faced with the power of the living God. Even when we can't see God's presence as He is actively working in our lives, if we persist in following Him, He will clear a path for us through the dark times, and lead us through to the other side.

So, my favorite verse for the week:
Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen" (Psalm 77: 19 NIV).
Keep following God, and He'll get you through anything. I'll see you back in a couple of days!

*Oops! I got ahead of myself announcing the guest post just yet. Sorry about that; my mistake! I'll get that straightened out and see you all back here next time with more news and another post.*

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Next Step's a Doozy

I was talking with my mother yesterday about the process of falling into apostasy (pretty hefty subject, I know). It rarely happens that people wake up one morning and decide to believe the opposite of what they believed the previous day. People don't change their minds that rapidly without a reasoning process, especially on matters that are important to them, such as religious beliefs.

No, in matters of apostasy (abandoning one's principles or beliefs, to paraphrase the dictionary), people have to do it in steps. The slide starts with subtle things the individual may not even recognize as a threat to his/her faith. Eventually, these things penetrate deep into the individual's mentality, so they hardly even enter conscious thought. Once the person has placed very small erroneous beliefs into the category of "givens," he/she is open for less-subtle concepts that build upon these assumptions. And so, in baby steps, a person can be led away into foreign territory, until he/she is faced with the dilemma (the Hobson's choice, really) of choosing between faith and something else. But is this alternative to faith really built on fact, or is it actually assumptions or bald-faced lies?

On The Road to Apostasy

Take, for instance, one of the most powerful basic "assumptions" in U.S. culture (and it may appear in many other cultures, as well): Teachers know more than everyone else. I expect that this might make some readers angry or defensive, but before you jump to conclusions or write me off forever, please read to the end of this post. By that point, you'll at least know why you're angry with me.

As I was saying, people assume that "Teachers know more than everyone else." My objection to this stems from the absolute nature of the statement. Teachers who teach reading definitely know more about their subject than a kid who can't read, but they may not know more than other teachers in their own field, and they may not know anything at all about teaching algebra. It isn't really a true statement, but it is one that many people subconsciously accept without question.

This alone isn't a clear threat to faith. What's the worst that can happen? You ask your kid's reading teacher for some advice on an algebra problem, and she says, "I have no idea"?

The problem starts to arise when you follow up that assumption with another, subtle one: "It is foolish not to take advice from those who know more than you do." This, also, doesn't really sound like a bad assumption, but it can be. If you assume that teachers know more than you do, and then follow that up with this idea, you will probably think that it is foolish not to take a teacher's advice. If a teacher isn't an expert in the area about which you are seeking advice, his advice may be bad. Wouldn't it be foolish to take bad advice?

Okay, but say this teacher gives you advice on a subject in which he is considered an expert. At this point, you should consider the source of his expertise. After all, experts once taught that the earth was flat, that illness was caused by an imbalance of "humors," that the stars and everything else revolved around the earth, and so forth. Yesterday's expert teachers may end up being tomorrow's laughingstocks. The definition of "expert" may itself be built upon a multitude of assumptions, so be careful.

What am I getting at? Well, I see a pattern of belief emerging out of this complex set of assumptions. Don't you? Are teachers to be believed without question? Should we take spiritual advice from people who aren't claiming to be spiritual? Are even spiritual teachers and experts to be believed without careful analysis?

There are a lot of teachers out there who are now teaching us that we should question everything, but that we don't have the right to draw conclusions about what we see. That's not "in," not "trendy," not "modern." We are told to be content with not knowing the answers to questions that have been answered long ago. I honestly have to say that I have questioned quite a lot of things, and it led me to throw out the advice about not drawing conclusions, because it doesn't make any sense. It even undermines itself, because what conclusion led these teachers to preach such things? I do have answers to the last three questions I just posed in the last paragraph: No, no, and no!

So, back to what I said at the start of this post: apostasy is a series of baby steps away from what we know is true, which end up in a denial of faith. I know about this, since I've been led down this road, once, starting in my freshman year of college. Suddenly, late in my sophomore year, I found myself on the verge of denying my faith, and in desperation, I wondered how it had come to that. I looked back and saw the track of very subtle assumptions and lies that had been stepping stones, and I threw them out. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here, arguing for faith and for Christ. This really is a serious issue in a lot of people's lives.

Devil in the Details

I think it started with the assumptions about teachers that I've already dismantled in this post, so far. What followed was a series of bad advice from the teachers I trusted so implicitly. Once I assumed that several of the religious leaders in my life were always experts in spiritual things, I listened to them when they taught how it was wrong, even sinful, to call something someone else is doing, "sin." They based it all on the whole, "do not judge, lest ye be judged," misquote of the Bible, and said that I couldn't call a spade a spade when I didn't take into account the heart and the motivation of a person. Unfortunately, I temporarily was led to overlook the fact that the Bible makes no distinction between disobedience born out of good motivations and disobedience born out of wicked motivations. Machiavellian logic is not supported under God's plan! But, I didn't want to seem mean, or unwilling to take advice, so I accepted this.

The next step was worse. Multiple teachers (adults, slightly older or better-traveled peers, etc.) who did not claim spiritual authority began to teach how it is mean, xenophobic, even unchristian, not to accept other cultures in their entirety. It wasn't long before I was asked to accept the validity of these other religious beliefs, as well. Just to make sure I didn't protest too much, they all systematically compared other belief systems to my own, attempting to get me to accept the validity of these other systems ("You think yours is valid, so why don't you accept these others, which are just the same thing with different names?").

At a crisis moment (I seem to recall this happening late at night, as I was doing my homework), I found myself teetering on the edge of a huge drop-off. If I chose to believe them, I would be willing to accept that Jesus is not the only way to Heaven. I would be denying my faith in Christ, because I would be rejecting the most basic thing He taught. I would be walking away from everything I believed, and everything I had ever based my life decisions upon. The next step would be a doozy, if I chose to take it. But I didn't.

I prayed to God, right then and there, that He would help me see the way out of the tangled mess I'd fallen into, and He answered my prayer. So here's some of what I realized:So, if you find yourself in the murky waters of apostasy or teetering on the edge of the last step away from your faith, please listen to me, and don't go there. God can help you straighten everything out, you just have to be willing to listen to Him. Don't become one of those people Jesus was talking about, when He said, "For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible" (Matthew 24: 24 NIV). If you want help, ask God to make this come true in your life, instead:
If the LORD delights in a man's way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him with his hand." (Psalm 37: 23, 24 NIV)
Ask the Lord to guard your steps--your physical steps, your logical steps, the steps you take to reach your goals in life. And when you are finished asking God, be ready to listen to Him and do what He tells you.