Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mixed Motives

This morning, I found myself reflecting on some of my early impressions of the Bible when I was a kid. We just finished our first Men’s Bible Study of the fall—beginning the New Testament Challenge at Ada Bible Church. One of our discussion questions this morning was, “What place did the Bible have in your home growing up?” Rich, a guy across the table from me, answered first. He talked about growing up in a home where the Bible wasn’t present all. He really didn’t know much about it until well into his adult life. Mark, who sat next to Rich, answered next. He talked about the Bible being part of virtually everything in his childhood home. He said they read the Bible together and he was taught to memorize verses of the Bible on a regular basis. It was interesting to watch Rich listen to Mark. There seemed to be a sense of appropriate envy in Rich’s eyes as Mark talked about growing up knowing about the Bible, and starting his journey in the Scriptures early in life. Rich asked Mark, “So, do you think learning all those things about the Bible as a kid has helped you as an adult?” Mark said he still has a lot to learn but he was very grateful to have that in his background.
When it was my time to share, I resonated with Mark’s story. I grew up in a pastor’s home with a Bible on every shelf. Learning the Bible was a big deal in our household. It was read after every meal we ate together. We listened to records and cassette tapes of Bible stories. We even played Bible board games. All of this was good, but there were some ploys of learning that actually fed a darker side of me. I was a competitive kid, so I was easily motivated to learn when a tasty reward was offered. It’s amazing how many Bible verses I memorized in response to the promise of a Snickers bar. If the reward was big enough, I’d go for it. I memorized verses with the simple motivation of winning.
But I was also a kid who craved approval and applause which fed another dark area of my young soul. The feeling of getting called up on stage to receive an award for memorizing the most verses during a week of Vacation Bible School was intoxicating to me. The result was that I could prolifically rattle off Bible verse after Bible verse, but I cared little about what they meant and what they were intended to say to me. That was my perception of the Bible as a kid. It was a way to achieve awards, candy, applause, and affirmation.

After I mentioned this to the group this morning, Rich smiled and said to me, “Wow, isn’t it cool how God has a way of even using our poor motives to teach us about him?” He was right. I had learned a ton about the Bible and God even though my heart was selfish and self-promoting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to promote bribing kids with candy to learn about God. I’m just suggesting that God wants to be known by us so much that he’s willing to use our jaded and tainted motives to reveal himself to us. In the long run, all those Bible verses and trivia nuggets would benefit me as I matured into a Christian adult. I look back with gratitude that my parents and my church loved me enough to give me opportunities to learn about God and his Word. I’m also grateful that he’s matured my heart to wanting the Bible to transform me, rather than just inform me.

Early in Israel’s history, God desired to give them a unique identity that would stand out in front of all nations on the earth. Their identity would be forged through the commandments he gave them. In following God’s law, Israel would express the rich character of God. In order to do this, God’s Word would need to be deeply imbedded in their hearts and minds. Here’s what God tells them to do with his Word.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6.4-9 
As you step into week two of the New Testament Challenge, ask yourself, “Why am I reading today?” Then thoughtfully examine your motives. Yes, God can use our mixed motives, but how much greater will this experience be when we approach God’s written Word with a pure heart?  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

On The Edge of Your Seat

It was the last day of the last class I would have to take to finish my college degree. All my papers were in and all tests had been taken. The temptation to skip that last class weighed on my mind that night. But there was something to look forward to, something I didn’t want to miss. Our professor, Ken Vandenberg, had promised to bless each of us. That blessing was something I deeply needed.
For two years, I had worked to finish my degree. I was in my mid-30s and entered into a program I had deemed “college for geriatrics.” But I had grown to love the program, my classmates, and a few of my professors—specifically Ken. Ken taught several of the modules over the two years and he developed a strong relationship with our class. Ken was not a very good lecturer and he knew it, so he taught our class like a small group. He’d ask good questions that opened up honest discussions and made room for self-discovery. He built trust and rapport with each person, while he challenged us practically and personally to think through the concepts we learned. We felt known and loved when he taught. So, when he offered to use our last class time together to bless each of us individually, nothing would keep me away. I wanted to hear his final words for our class and, more importantly, for me.
There were fifteen people in that room that night. We sat in a horseshoe facing Ken as he spoke to us. He started with the person on his far left and worked his way across the room using the same pattern with each person. He’d first tell the person what he enjoyed about having them in the class. He then listed the strengths that he learned about that person over the past two years. He’d touch on some areas he saw needed more growth and he looked into the future by saying, “In the future, I can see you_______________.” He’d fill in the blank with words of promise and hope. It was a powerful time in that classroom. Because Ken loved us and knew us, we gave him the authority to speak words of wisdom and encouragement into our lives. Every person sat on the edge of their seats when Ken came to them. We all wanted his wisdom. We craved his blessing in our lives.
Ken’s words to me that night made a lasting and changing impact. I don’t remember every word he said but there was one part that literally brought me to tears. It was something I already knew but I needed to hear it from someone I trusted. He said, “Phil, you’re a people person. All of your practical work in this class has been on how to engage people spiritually in small groups at your church. You are a discipler who needs to be turned loose to care for and spiritually develop others.” Then he paused, looked up from his notes and continued. “Phil, you know that you’re in the wrong line of work. You will never reach your full potential at United Parcel Service. My prayer for you is that God would bless you with a vocation that allows you to minister to others most of your days and most of your weeks.” All of those words were in my heart, but God used Ken to affirm the transition God was preparing me for. I was filled with joy, hope, and terror all at the same time. I look back to that night over 15 years ago and see it as oil placed on the hinge of a door. My life was about to swing open. I knew I needed to pursue a vocation in ministry.
Words are powerful. The words that Ken breathed on me that night made a long lasting, deep impact on me. They gave me guidance, confidence, and passionate hope. What’s interesting to me is that Ken is an imperfect man who certainly doesn’t know everything. Imagine the power of the words breathed on you by a perfect God, who has an infinite capacity to love you, who knows all things about you, and has the power to do anything he pleases for your benefit. If Ken’s words got me sitting on the edge of my seat, what should God’s words do for me?
In Paul’s letter, he wrote words of care and encouragement to his young friend and protégé, Timothy. I bet Timothy read this letter from his spiritual father on the edge of his seat with tremendous anticipation for hope and direction in his life. But Paul encourages Timothy to let God’s Word breath on him, to infuse him, guide him, and correct him. Hear Paul’s love in some of his final words to the young leader he discipled over the years.
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  2 Timothy 3.14-17
As you begin the New Testament Challenge this week, my prayer is that you read God’s Word from the edge of your seat, with great anticipation for the care and wisdom that God desires to speak into your life. He wants to speak to you through his written Word. You can trust his words. They were written with you in mind.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The New Testament "Challenge"

When I was in junior high, I attended a Christian summer camp where the speaker made an impassioned plea for everyone to develop the habit of reading the Bible every day. He promised that this routine would bring encouragement to tough days, strength to make tough decisions, and answers to difficult questions. What he was saying wasn’t new to me. My parents had encouraged this since the time I learned to read. But, there was something about this guy’s plea and the camp setting that inspired me to give it a try. I had a new found passion to read something every day and let God shape my life.

Our speaker was serious about us reading the Bible, so he created time every day for us to find a quiet place to read and pray. He suggested we read one of the Gospels or the book of James first. I don’t remember what I read that week, but I do remember what I experienced. I struggled. Really struggled. Unfortunately, I was a bit bored and distracted. I had a tough time focusing and I didn’t really understand what I was reading, let alone experiencing any kind of change. But what I struggled with most was guilt. Why wasn’t this working for me? It couldn’t be the Bible’s problem. Something had to be wrong with me.

As an adult, I’ve had similar struggles with reading the Bible. In contrast to my junior high experience, I’ve become more focused and now I understand a vast majority of what I read. But, my struggle lies with what I hear from other people about their rich and deep Bible reading experiences. My buddy, Doug, talks about times when he takes his Bible out in the woods, sits at the foot of his favorite tree, and reads and prays for hours. He talks about wrestling down life issues with God and experiencing the voice and presence of God as he reads and prays. Kristi is another person who describes Scripture as a love letter from God to her. She talks about God being near to her as she reads during her daily quiet time. This rarely happens to me. I hope that doesn’t unsettle anyone to read that a pastor struggles with reading Scripture.

All this doesn’t mean that the Bible doesn’t hold a vital, irreplaceable place in my life. It does. My struggle is not with the truth of the Bible, it’s simply with reading. So, I’ve had to learn to absorb Scripture in other ways such as listening to sermons then rethinking through the text that was taught. I love to write and writing helps me think and focus on passages of the Bible. I’ve memorized verses over the years and the small groups I’ve been in have played a huge part in embedding God’s Word into my life. I’ve noticed over the years that Scripture has been kind of like putting money into a bank account. Depositing is always fun; when you need money, you’re always glad it’s there to withdraw. Verses, passages, thoughts, sermons, and reflections have been “Bible” deposits into my mind and heart. Over the years, large and small withdrawals are made in times of personal need, times of celebration when God is given credit and praise, and times of counsel when others need encouragement or direction.

This fall will be a challenge for me as we dive into the New Testament Challenge. If you’re a prolific reader, this may come easy to you; but for me, reading is not my first learning style and I’m afraid that I may feel like I’m at that junior high camp again. But, I’m excited to push my mind and heart and try to grow stronger in this weak area of mine. If you’re feeling like I am, remember these five tips:

1.       Read what you can.

2.       Read something every day.

3.       Always have your Bible with you.

4.       Every week is a new week.

5.       Don’t worry about the parts you don’t understand, worry about the parts you do understand.

God bless you as you pursue a habit of ingesting the Word of God on a daily basis.