Blue Parakeet 2

Scot McKnight’s excellent book The Blue Parakeet next addresses the question of what the Bible is. His point is that the way in which we approach the Bible deeply affects the truth that we draw from it. This section on The Bible as Story begins with a reminder from scripture as to the way that God speaks to His people in different ages:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. (Heb 1:1-2)

Chapter 3 opens with a deliciously applicable illustration. The image below is an autostereogram. When you first look at the picture you see the obvious repetitive abstract pattern. Kind of fall-like, maybe some maple leaves at the bottom.

 

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Now, press your nose against your monitor and slowly let your eyes adjust to the picture. As you slowly move away from the image, the picture in the picture begins to emerge. Do you see it? The bird, the donut? It’s easier for some than others but if you scan the web you can find dozens of these kinds of images.

What does this have to do with the Bible? In order for God’s word to take its full three-dimensional presence in our lives, we need to adjust our reading methods so that the picture in the picture reveals itself to us. Just the like the bird in the image seems to become a part of our plane of existence, so God wants to have his words move into our immediate experience.

Reading the Bible as story is what will allows the Spirit to move in this way in our lives. The challenge to us is that we must put away our shortcuts as they tend to obscure the story in favor of deriving other kinds of information. Do any of these hit home with you?

Morsels of Law

We read the Bible strictly as a huge collection of laws. God is portrayed as the impatient and irritable giver of laws and we are judged by how many of these laws we follow and how closely. Our relationship is then defined by how good as citizens we are.

Morsels of Blessing and Promise

If this is our shortcut we read the Bible as a collection of blessings and promise. The tendency here is to pull promising verses out of their context while ignoring the others. The sense of the Christian life that develops from this practice is that it is all good with no troubles clouding the horizon.

Mirrors and Inkblots

We’ve all seen the inkblot cards used in psychological tests. Splat! What do you see? Spronk! Now what do you see? The point is that you will see what you want to see. When you encounter Jesus in the Bible your mind sees someone a lot like you. He thinks and acts the way that you would. It’s amazing…until I talk to you and find out Jesus is more like you! How can this be.

Puzzling Together the Pieces to Map God’s Mind

The Bible is a puzzle that we are challenged to put together. The trouble we run into is that, unlike the boxed puzzle, we don’t have the picture on the lid to help us assemble the thousands of pieces. Without that picture, we have to rely on our imagination and anything that doesn’t fit goes back into the box.

Maestros

Reading to find the maestro answers the question, What Would Jesus Do? If he is the master, all we have to do is to imitate this model of perfection and all will be well.

These are all snapshots that give us an incomplete view of the Bible and the story that God wants to envelope us in. Do you agree with these shortcut descriptions. Is there another that was missed?

Life With God 3g – I AM The True Vine

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In the last allegory that we will examine in this series, we find ourselves once again meditating on one of the fundamental truths of our lives; the primary and most important relationship that we must maintain as disciples is with Jesus Christ.

I am the the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.

The image of the vine is sufficiently vivid as to fire our imagination. We receive the life giving nourishment only as we remain connected to that vine. To be separated is to die. It is the vine that has roots deep into the earth, drawing everything it needs from the creation. Some of the branches will make the most effective use of their junction with the vine and bear glorious fruit. Other will only see the connection in the most cursory terms, not drawing on it and simply surviving.

Dead wood is ruthlessly culled by the gardener. It harbors rot and danger to the healthy plant. Pruning of the live branches is nothing to be feared. Without this practice, energy can go into developing the branch’s wood rather than into bearing fruit. Cutting back the branch reorients its growth into the important task of bearing fruit, painful at first but beneficial in the end. Sometimes the branch that appears to have received the harshest cutback can produce the greatest fruit.

Life With God 4

It was this…intention that made the primitive Christians such eminent instances of piety, that made the goodly fellowship of the Saints and all the glorious army of martyrs and confessors. And if you will here stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it. ~ William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Intent rather than method. A bracing thought for the modern Christian who finds themselves enmeshed in the current intellectual culture of the Church. Spiritual formation is reduced to a set of to-do’s and application. Richard Foster leads us now to develop the proper mindset needed to read the Bible for spiritual formation rather simply information. Life With God locates the next chapter in helping us to draw the distinction between reading the surface of the text and encountering God. The greatest cultural challenge that we face is that we encounter daily the idea that the Bible exists to serve our needs. We are tempted to pick and choose verses that serve our needs while setting aside the context that might challenge our perceptions. When read this way, the Bible becomes a manual for moralism, a behavioral set of scales that substitutes for true relationship with God.

The approach that we can take to engaging the bible to participate in God’s transformation of our souls is called Lectio Divina. Our reading changes focus from breadth to depth. It is a way of encouraging our mind to descend to our hearts so that we are drawn into the love and goodness of God as it is spoken to us through the living Word. Our goal is total immersion in the text so that we a drawn into the story, becoming a part of the words.

There are four elements to Lectio Divina:

  • Lectio – this is the practice of reading with a listening spirit
  • Meditatio – we reflect on what the voice of God speaks to us
  • Oratio – in response to the elation of hearing from God, we pray the scripture in response
  • Contemplatio – most importantly, we contemplate deeply on what changes we will make in our lives in obedience to the Word

Engaging the Bible in this fashion is a challenge to much of what we may have learned. It is not compatible with a daily reading plan which schedules a number of verses so that the book can be completed in a year. We skim over the words that God has for us in our pursuit of the goal. Lectio is a much slower process, immersing us in a single passage, perhaps even a few words or a phrase so that the voice of God can get through to us. It seeps into our heart as we camp on this verse or passage and as our hearts turn, we act in obedience to demonstrate to the world the way of the disciple.

Have you practiced these methods with success? Has there been some culturally or in the Church that works against this method of engaging the text? Let’s talk about this.

Life With God 3f – I AM The Resurrection

image The I Am statement we immerse ourselves in today comes in response to the sorrow surrounding the death of Lazarus. The Lord has purposely waited until His friend had died and begun to molder in a tomb and He arrives in Bethany during the period of deep mourning. Does Martha accuse Jesus when she meets Him saying if He had been here Lazarus would still be alive? Perhaps not angrily but it could have been a question that had swirled between Martha and Mary’s lips for the preceding four days. We ask it ourselves from time to time; where were you God when this or that was happening to me? You could have prevented it or guided me away or, or …

Notice that the Lord does not rebuke  her for her challenge. Isn’t it good to know that God knows us well enough to not take offense at our outbursts? He knows the limitations of our hearts and our understanding. God knows that we can intellectually assent to the idea spoken through Isaiah, ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts’ but in our hearts we push this aside and reveal our innermost anger and hurts. In love, the Lord listens and is compassionate. Like Martha, we can pull out our intellectual reserve and repeat it when questioned theologically during our grief: ‘yes Lord, everything will be well at some point.’ But what about now we wonder, can you help me now?

Jesus said to here, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never dies. Do you believe this? " John 11:18

Do you believe this beyond the intellectual point? Immersing ourselves in this I Am brings us to a different point of confidence in this life. We no longer have to simply look ahead to the new life, we have it now in full and we have nothing to fear. Though we may die, we will not die! Making this a part of who we are leads us to follow Martha and Peter in exclaiming ‘Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God’ and then living as though we believe it.

Life With God 3e – I AM The Way and the Truth and the Life

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”    John 14:5-6

Nearly every Christian will have interacted with this passage on some level by the time this is written. What more can be said about this most definitive statement? The complete theology of the book of John is summarized in 14:6 where it serves also to challenge the modern feel-good canard of ‘many paths to God.’ Less discussed is the context of the farewell discourse and, in particular here, the continued lack of understanding that the disciples displayed. These were the men closest to Him, to whom Jesus had shared the greatest intimacy and still they failed to comprehend the trajectory of the Savior’s life as it hurtled toward the cross.

In many ways, our spiritual formation is challenged in the same fashion. We know Jesus intellectually and have the benefit of knowing the full story and yet, it can sometimes be said that we don’t know Him. As we meditate deeply on the details of Jesus, we are seeing the Truth, the ultimate revelation of God, in a form which we can relate to. Transformation comes in challenging our own flawed character to the Truth that we encounter. Christians are privileged in having the indwelling Spirit to leads us in the Life but we must encounter Him beyond the intellectual level. Perhaps the first step is to admit ‘we don’t know where you’re going’ and then follow Him anyway despite our urge to do the opposite.

Life With God 3d – I AM The Gate

I am the gate for the sheep…I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John 7, 9-10

imageAs we meditate on the Shepherd who will lay down his life for His sheep, these leading verses take on a new emphasis. Describing himself as the gate for the sheep would have painted a much more vivid picture to the first century hearers. A sheepfold might be built without a door or gate, requiring some manner of obstacle placed across the opening to protect the sheep within, both from enemies coming in from the outside and from the tendency of the sheep to wander out from the inside. The shepherd willingly lay across that opening in the dark to protect the sheep within, whether they appreciate it or not.

Are we like the sheep, unappreciative of the sacrifice The Gate? Do we see His presence blocking our path as a hindrance? As we think about how positively we view his willingness as the shepherd to lay down his life for us, we should also view his willingness to ‘pen’ us in when necessary so that we are protected from things that we are unable to see. In the presence of the Good Shepherd, we truly can ‘let not our hearts be troubled.’

Life With God 3c – I AM The Good Shepherd

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10:11

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We can meditate a good long time on this verse. It strikes our hearts on numerous levels but I’d like to narrow this discussion down to those who have a pastoral calling. If we are following closely in our Master’s footsteps, our call also may be to lay down our lives for the sheep entrusted to us. The wolves can attack at any moment and our calling requires us to be a bulwark. Is your heart being shaped such that you can do this without hesitation?

Can you do it when you sense that not all of the sheep appreciate your willingness to do so? Will your heart be turned to a greater flock if your celebrity grows, taking your protective eye off of those whom God has placed under your care? Can you recover if the wolf somehow infiltrates your flock and scatters them despite your earnest intentions?

It’s one thing to say that you are prepared to do so, yet another to actually do it. We must be certain that our public and private heart are one and the same.

Life With God 3b – I AM The Light of the World

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. (John 8:12)

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The second I AM statement that deepens our faith is this; Jesus is the illuminator of the darkness. Though we are born into a darkened world in which it is difficult to find our way, we have available to us a source of light that can never be extinguished. We no longer need to stumble.

Once we immerse ourselves in the light, we find it more and more difficult to step back into the darkness. It beckons us and we’re tempted to return to the shadows but the Spirit exerts a greater attraction as our character is molded. Even in those instances when dark overcomes us, the Savior will reach without fear into the shadows to pull His brothers and sisters back.

Life With God 3a – I AM The Bread of Life

image The ‘I Am’ passages in the book of John are good immersion points on which to meditate in seeking spiritual transformation. In these statements Jesus declares himself to us, encouraging and deepening our faith and our enhancing our ability to trust Him on a more mature basis. We become what we immerse ourselves in. The first is found in John 6:35;

“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

When we meditate on this verse in a non-theological sense, we hear the Lord speak and the Spirit move. We question the things that we pursue in life that sate only temporarily. We find nothing in our pursuit of food, sex, material things, feelings or challenges that results in anything but a momentary satisfaction that is soon followed by a desire to pursue more. Spiritual fulfillment replaces or subdues these fleeting desires with a permanent fulfillment. For sure, we will want more in the sense of going deeper but we will never hunger to fill the void in our souls that can only be filled by the Holy Spirit. 

Life With God 3

Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. Isaiah 55:3

Richard Foster emphasizes the messy reality of the the “I am with you” Immanuel principle in chapter three of Life With God. Reading the Bible with this in mind, one of the transformative themes that we can derive is that the book does more than just tell us about the immediate presence of God. Instead it unfolds for us how embedded the Presence is in every aspect of human existence. Whether we are running toward or away from God, we cannot escape the truth of His pursuit. He calls out, “I am with you” and asks, “Will you be with me?”

Our struggle with Immanuel is often spelled out in the tension between two ideas. We comprehend our value to God in His pursuit of relationships with us and yet, when skies cloud over, we identify equally with the Psalmist’s lament “why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? The space between these two poles is life guided by the choices that we make. In those choices is the ultimate act of spiritual formation, allowing God to perfect His will and His ways in our lives. In the pages of our Bible, we can see how the Living Word transforms countless other human beings and it speaks to us; surrender your will and come into relationship with me! In exercising our freedom to choose to trust in Christ, we open ourselves to transformation in the depths of life with God.

For spiritual formation, we want to read the Bible with two aims. First, we want to engage the story of God’s people who were immersed in God’s immediate presence, whether they were aware of it or not. We read of God pursuing relationship with His creations and of the blessings and consequences of choosing for or against this relationship. In fact we learn from those that have gone before us that turning back to God is not a mechanical transaction, not a rule to follow, it is a relationship.

The second aim that we want to approach the Bible with is hear God as he speaks to us through the Word. The stories that we read are replete with examples of failure and restoration. Human beings are not the most reliable partners in relationship and when we come to this realization it opens up a new horizon in how we view God. Because we are by nature fickle, the transformation that occurs in each of our spiritual lives is a unilateral commitment from our Father. He pursues and transforms. Our task to immerse ourselves in those things that can positively affect our character. It is at this level that the living Word works.

Foster refines this approach to a single statement for modern Christians in saying that the way into this life, the Immanuel life, is trusting in Jesus. The Lord’s words make it simple, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” (Mark 5:36) Our call is to live the Kingdom life now and not just approach the faith as fire insurance. Our way into the fullness of this life is through character transformation, something that occurs when choose for life in relationships with the Lifegiver and when we immerse ourselves in the Word that changes us into what we were intended to be.

I would love to hear of your experiences of transformation. Have you found any particular scripture verses or story that were particularly meaningful in this process? Let’s share and grow together.