Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Why I Stopped Reading The Bible

When I was twenty years old I embarked on the journey of faith in earnest. As with most things in life, spirituality was something that I caught more than I was actually taught. What I caught was quite typical of modern American Christianity—a mixed bag of great and not so great theology and practices. Though some practices, such as reaching out to the poor and gathering for worship with other believers, were very beneficial, other practices concerning reading the Bible were much of the time unfulfilling and sometimes even detrimental to my spiritual growth.

There are two techniques to reading the Bible that I caught (as if by osmosis) in those early days. The first was the read-as-much-of–the-Bible-as-you-can approach. The underlying philosophy of this approach is that the power of the word is in direct proportion to the quantity of one’s intake. This approach is very tempting to the new Christian who sincerely wants to get on with becoming a good Christ-follower as quickly as possible. So every year for my first several years of being a Christian I would make the type of resolutions that people make about diet and exercise as they step into the new year, except my resolution would be to read more Bible. So my attempt would usually include some type of One Year Bible or reading regiment that would get me through the whole thing in one year. I would usually make it until the end of January or mid- February when the occasional missed daily readings would start to stack up on me. This combined with the daily readings in the daunting books of Exodus and Leviticus would finally find me dropping the one-year program all together. And like a dieter who has made a go at a new diet only to fail, I carried a sense of shame at how lousy of a disciple I was.

This made me a prime candidate for another kind of Bible reading—the ask-God-to-show-you-something-and-open-your-Bible method (otherwise known as Bible Roulette). This method was a spiritual crap-shot. Sometimes it worked wonderfully such as those times when I would open the Bible and read some profound word about loving others or dealing with anger but other times the results were a little confusing. For instance, there was the time when as a single college student I really wanted a girlfriend. So I prayed my little prayer for God to show me something (specifically something pertaining to getting a girlfriend) and then I opened my Bible. The pages fell open to the book of Isaiah chapter 55. Then my eyes landed on verse 12 “You shall go out with Joy…”—and what do you know, I actually knew a girl named Joy. So of course I interpreted this to mean that God wanted me to ask her out. It didn’t occur to me to question why my dating life would make it into the Holy Scriptures (pretty narcissistic of me I must admit). Well, you can see how this approach can get one in trouble.

So bit by bit I grew weary in my approaches to the scripture until I finally gave up on reading it all together. And this is exactly what needed to happen. For so much of my early years of being a Christian the Bible was something I needed to read to make God happy, or something like health food that I knew I must include in my spiritual diet (“to prevent truth decay!” as the church marquees frequently remind us) or even some kind of superstitious formula to get the things I wanted in life whether they be a girlfriend or money or position.

So I stopped reading the Bible…and started listening to it.
I stopped reading the scriptures and started praying the scriptures.
I stopped trying to get through as many chapters as I could and slowed down to savor the words of life.
I stopped treating it like an owner’s manual or recipe book or even book of magic to use for my own gain and instead have begun to find my story in its greater story.
I stopped looking at it as some kind of spiritual obligation and more as a sacred privilege.
I stopped looking at it as a sword to fight others and more as God’s scalpel to do heart surgery on me.
I’ve stopped trying to dissect every chapter into manageable bits that I can understand and have instead welcomed its mystery.

Sure, I have relapses more often than I wish, but for the most part, I am finding a richer path and a bigger story.

I have to admit that I read less Bible now than at many other times in my Christian journey and yet I am more nourished and sustained by it than ever before. I am finding that the words of Jesus truly are life to me. This doesn’t mean that I never study the scriptures anymore but rather than seeing the Bible as something to check off my to-do list, I may find one simple verse and chew on it all day or all week, letting it effect me at the deepest places and change the way I live. At other times the scriptures simply come alive in conversations with friends where we walk away knowing that we have just encountered God.

Pray As You Go
I will close this blog with something practical to help those frustrated with Bible Roulette as well as the trying to read-as-much-Bible-as-you-can method, or for those who have faithfully read the scriptures for years but yearn for a fresh way of reconnecting with them. Recently I stumbled across a great resource for meditating on scripture called Pray As You Go, a podcast produced by English Jesuits. The Pray As You Go podcasts are ten to fifteen minutes in length and typically have a song at the beginning to prepare one’s heart to receive from God and then a reading from the scriptures followed by some reflective questions. You can find the podcast on Itunes or at http://www.pray-as-you-go.org/

The podcasts are for Monday through Friday each week and can be downloaded at the beginning of the week so you don’t have to sync your ipod every day to get them. This week there are additional readings to go with the daily prayer readings that look at the way of Ignatius (a primer for St. Ignatian spirituality).

Sunday, July 27, 2008

…Got the T-Shirt

Tonight I was trying to put up my t-shirts in my t-shirt drawer when I realized that I have finally reached t-shirt capacity. Being that there are only a select few t-shirts that make it into my everyday apparel, I had to dig beneath the surface of the top 5 t-shirts and see what was taking up so much space. So I took all of the shirts out to see which ones I needed to ditch and wow it was a trip down memory lane.

There was the t-shirt from when my band played Buford Fest, and then the various Katrina relief shirts which I had worn in the outreaches and barbeques the year or so after the hurricane. Then there were the shirts from my SLU days commemorating 3 years of Jesus Weeks, the annual get together of all campus ministries to reach out to the campus. Then there were the promo shirts from music stores and sound companies, and the Precision Auto Tune oil change place that my band played the grand opening for years ago (a very strange gig indeed, but that’s for another blog.) And then there were t-shirts for places I’ve visited like my most recent trip to California, and my meal at Coopersmith’s Pub in Ft. Collins Colorado, and my most worn of long sleeve t-shirt which is green with a picture of a bulldog drinking coffee for a coffee house called Spankey’s in the grand metropolis of Big Spring, Texas. I could go on because I have only mentioned about half of the shirts.

So as I sat there on the floor reminiscing it occurred to me how I only wear about 2 shirts out of the whole lot to this day and how lousy a t-shirt really is for commemorating anything. I can’t say that I will likely ever wear that Jesusweek ’99 shirt again or the XXL shirt for Precision Auto Tune, but for some strange reason I found it hard to part with them; and this is something that disturbs me a bit. Why is it that I have kept so many of these meaningless t-shirts for 10 plus years now, when they are just taking up space. I can’t say that I’m really that sentimental about what any of them represent. Maybe it’s that I don’t think anyone else would want them but yet I feel bad about throwing a perfectly good t-shirt away. Well whatever it is, I would rather remember the events associated with the t-shirts with pictures instead or simply in conversations with old friends.

So after spending thirty or so minutes digging through old memories commemorated in cotton and polyester blends I figured out a way to pack them in the drawer a little bit more efficiently. That’s right, I didn’t end up throwing any of them away. But I am willing to part with any of them for $10 if anyone is interested…that is any of them except for the Jesusweek ones, and the Mary’s den ones, or the Spanky’s one, oh or the Coopersmith’s Pub one. But other than that the rest of them are completely meaningless to me because though some may struggle with being sappy and sentimental, I don’t.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

From Loneliness to Solitude

I have been reading a great little book lately entitled Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen. I am truly amazed at how this little book written around thirty years ago is so relevant today. One part of the book that seems to really speak profoundly to our times is when Nouwen writes about moving from loneliness to solitude.

“By running away from our loneliness and by trying to distract ourselves with people and special experiences, we do not realistically deal with our human predicament. We are in danger of becoming unhappy people suffering from many unsatisfied cravings and tortured by desires and expectations that never can be fulfilled. Does not all creativity ask for a certain encounter with our loneliness, and does not the fear of this encounter severely limit our possible self expression?” –Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (P28) http://www.amazon.com/Reaching-Out-Henri-Nouwen/dp/0006280862/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1217086300&sr=8-1

When I read these words I cannot help but wonder how so many of the things I busy myself with whether internet or emails, or ipods or books, or reality TV shows can so easily become distractions from confronting my fears of loneliness not too unlike the alcoholic or drug addict whose only thoughts about the immediate future are how to get enough euphoria-producing chemicals lined up so that he or she will not have to face the screaming silence inside. My addiction to the distractions of the modern world is evidenced by how hard it is for me to simply sit for any length of time in silence, and this is not good, because it stunts my ability to connect with what’s going on the inside and furthermore my capacity to connect with God and other people.

In the last few months I have made a conscious attempt to listen to less music, to read slower, to get outside more, to check my emails later in the mornings; I am finding that by making an effort at putting away distractions I am slowly beginning to confront that place of loneliness within and replacing it with solitude of heart.

The irony of our modern world is that it promises connection but only brings further fragmentation. The spiritual irony is that solitude of heart, achieved by purposefully eliminating pain-numbing distractions (even when they promise connection) actually connects us in a more meaningful way with ourselves and others.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Both of Them

There is something I love about my son’s outlook on the world. For my son every new experience is the best experience he has ever had. I am envious of his childlike view of life. For my son there is no ranking of things as favorites. Something is either on the “best” list or he doesn’t like it at all. I love trying to get him to rank things as favorites with questions like:
“Who do you like better Spiderman or Superman?” to which he will reply, “both of them!”
“Which do you like better pizza or chicken nuggets?” and the reply will be the same, “both of them!”
“Chocolate or vanilla?”
“Both of them!”
“Blue or Red”
“Both of them!”
“Swimming or riding your bike?”
“Both of them!”
“The Beatles or The Stones?”
Well you get the point.

I’ve been thinking about how when we are children we are so easily moved by things—music, colors, nature, food. For children, especially young children, everything is a new experience, a fresh experience, the best experience ever. But over time we grow up and the things which used to excite us lose their appeal. Maybe it’s because things become too familiar, or too common-place but instead of being people filled with childlike wonder we become experts in analyzing and critiquing. We become so wrapped up in the busyness of living that we cease to be moved by the music, the colors, and the nature all around us. Our “best” lists become more and more narrow and exclusive. And the few who manage to still be moved by life are relegated to the realm of poets and idealists.

It would do us good to get in touch with that place inside us that is not an expert, that is not a technician, that is not concerned with economics and productivity, that simply hears the music and moves, that is still dumbfounded watching the sun set over the ocean, that receives each moment as it comes as the best moment ever.

My dad has a theory that one can stay youthful by trying new things-things outside of one's comfort zone. He believes that the older we get, the safer we play it until life become more defined by what we won’t do than what we are willing to do. So my dad will frequently go for a walk when it’s pouring down rain, or go hiking through the woods during a full moon, or swim in the lake at night. Why? Precisely because it’s something that no respectable person his age would do. That type of behavior is for kids!

I think he may be on to something though.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Juro Fidelidad a La Bandera

"Juro Fidelidad a La Bandera..."
Ahh the first words of The Pledge of Allegiance (to the flag of the United States of America) only in uh Spanish. Imagine my surprise a few months back to hear my then four-year-old son saying these words of the Pledge of Allegiance in perfect Spanish. His pre-school has been teaching him Spanish this last year. No complaints there. I just wasn’t prepared for the irony that he now knows the pledge of allegiance better in Spanish than in English.
Happy Belated Independence Day!

Offending My Mind / Awakening My Heart

It is quite funny to me the authors who have really been speaking to me in the books I’ve been reading as of late. There is something in my non-denomination, evangelical, charismatic background that is so offended by the stuff I’ve found myself reading. It wasn’t too many years ago that I thought that pretty much anyone who was not a non-denominational, evangelical, “spirit-filled” Christian was not a “real” Christian. I figured God would probably let folks from those other streams of Christianity into heaven but I didn’t really think that any of those “others” were actually experiencing the fullness of God in the present. I have really come to see the error of my ways in recent years, how my own arrogance and ignorance has kept me cut off from some truly dear brothers and sisters in Christ from other denominations and movements that really do have so many rich insights on the spiritual life.

My current list of books I’ve been reading includes a deceased Catholic priest, a Greek Orthodox bishop, a retired Presbyterian pastor, an Anglican Bishop, and French Counselor from the court of King Louis XIV (about 300 years ago). I am utterly amazed at how these authors seem to be speaking to my life in such a fresh and relevant way when I have lived my whole life outside of any of their traditions.

So here are some of the books that have been rocking my world over the last few months:

Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen
Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright
The Orthodox Way by Kalistos Ware
The Seeking Heart by Francois Fenelon
Answering God by Eugene Peterson
Addiction and Grace by Gerald May