Wrappings matter

two kids opening a Christmas present

Kids are experts at the hermeneutics of presentation.

Wait, what? Come again. English please.

OK. Let’s say that a little differently. Kids are experts at determining how good a gift will be based on its size, shape, and the type of wrapping paper it is in. There. The hermeneutics of presentation. Rare is the Christmas morning where parents have to say, “Timmy, stop opening up all the cards and reading them and start opening up the big presents.”

We have to teach proverbs like ‘beauty is only skin deep’ and ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ because we automatically treat beauty as skin deep and judge our books by their covers. Kids are experts at sizing up how valuable the contents of a package will be based on the way it is wrapped. Part of maturing is learning how to see through the wrappings and judge with greater clarity. Said differently, part of maturing is learning to read the way that wrapping paper guides you and choosing to accept or reject the message it sends.

And that’s a wrap

The importance of wrapping doesn’t go away when Christmas gifts turn from wrapped packages to cards with cash. The importance of wrapping hangs with us our entire lives. The ‘wrapping’ gives us cues all throughout life about what is on the inside…and how we should interact with it.

Interpreting through the wrapping is evident in why we make (largely) unconscious judgments about peoples’ competency and character based on what they wear.

Interpreting through the wrapping is evident in Ford vs. Chevy battles. Or the John Deere vs. … wait, does anybody else make tractors even worth buying? Although it is difficult to independently find any consistent, real advantage in one over the other, try convincing someone who has learned that the running yellow deer is a symbol of the unmatchable quality of whatever machine it is emblazoned on. Brands matter. And they are essentially wrapping paper helping you interpret the contents inside.

Get the point? We are always interpreting the contents by the wrapping.

The ‘Trump’ Bible

On Good Friday morning, I read in the news about Donald Trump endorsing the God Bless the USA Bible. This Bible—a KJV, for those interested (since the KJV text is in public domain no modern publisher needs convincing to undertake the potential risk in this endeavor)—not only contains the Bible, but many core texts that have become associated with patriotism:

  • Handwritten chorus to “God Bless The USA” by Lee Greenwood
  • The US Constitution
  • The Bill of Rights
  • The Declaration of Independence
  • The Pledge of Allegiance

And all of this wrapped inside a cover with the American flag emblazoned on the cover, proudly sporting the phrase, “GOD BLESS THE USA.”

Others can debate the potential motives for Donald Trump to ‘endorse’ a Bible. And they should.

I’ll tell you that when I read about this, I had two feelings: (1) bewilderment and (2) a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Have we really gone there?

You are free to think and feel many things about the current political climate and candidates of our country. As a pastor writing this, I invite you to think for a few brief minutes about interpreting the wrapping paper. Because everything is wrapped up to help us interpret it. Including the GOD BLESS THE USA Bible.

When you mix politics and religion…

Is there anything wrong with publishing a Bible that has several important American legal texts and a cult-favorite song attached to it? Is there anything inherently wrong with putting an American flag on the cover of a Bible? Or the words GOD BLESS THE USA featured prominently below the title HOLY BIBLE?

I invite you to consider that the answer is yes. There is something wrong. Wrapping paper matters for how we understand what is on its inside. Framing the Bible within a particular version of the trappings of American patriotism—a flag, the God bless the USA slogan, and American legal documents—sends a message about how to understand what is wrapped up on the inside. The very idea that a potential president stands in a position to endorse the Bible is itself offensive. What possibly is lacking in the Scriptures themselves, and in their long history within our culture, that Donald Trump feels he can add to with a word of endorsement?

When you mix politics and religion you get…politics. And Jesus had some cutting guidance for us regarding politics.

God and Caesar

When Jesus was asked about paying taxes, remember what he said?

18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:18-21 ESV)

A simple lesson from this: there are concerns in following God that are bigger than the concerns of the state. In terms of wrapping paper, the bigger wrapping of life should be “rendering to God the things that are God’s,” not “rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” It is instructive that the religious leaders hadn’t thought of this when they came up to Jesus with a question they viewed as a trap. The allure of political wins in the moment tends to obscure what is God’s and what is Caesar’s.

At this moment of high political conflict, I invite us all to reflect on this key point. What you do with voting and advocating in politics has many strands of influence and many motives. Make sure one of those—and a deeply important one—is asking the question, “Whose kingdom is this advancing, God’s, or man’s?” It is hard to imagine how wrapping up the Holy Bible in the trappings of American patriotism at this juncture of American history is aimed at advancing God’s kingdom.

If there is anything true about the current moment in American politics it is that it inspires passionate feelings. Whatever passionate feelings you have in this moment, I invite you to consider this. Are the interests of God’s kingdom advanced by such an overtly political wrapping paper?

Wrappings send a message: Are you listening?

The God Bless the USA Bible is not troubling because of the Bible. Nor is it troubling because of the American patriotic and governmental texts. It is concerning because it wraps the Bible up in the trappings of American politics as though the politics are the more important reality. That sends a message. All wrapping sends a message.

Just ask kids at Christmas time.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Why so many translations? Part 2

book shelf full of old bibles

This is part 2 of a 2 part series on why so many translations. This series began life as a Sunday School class, so if you were there, much of it will be familiar. Part 1 began by introducing some important ideas to help us better understand why different Bible translations end up being different from each other. In Part 2, I consider some more of the reasons why there are many translations, as well as work through 3 case studies to illustrate how different decisions and practices by translators work out in real translations. You can check it out here:

Which translation is the best and which should you use? My short answer–read the whole thing for a longer answer–is that there are many good ways to engage the Bible. All translations make trade offs, none is perfect, but most are good at doing what they do.

Advent is Coming!

advent candles and wreath

Advent is coming! *

Advent is a Christian tradition stretching back into the early church. It marks out a time to prepare for the high celebration of Christmas. In Advent, we look backwards at the promise fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. At the same time, we look forward to the Advent of Jesus yet promised, when he returns to complete the rescue of all things and reign in an eternal kingdom.

Check out this helpful description of the origin and development of Advent as a Christian celebration.

We will walk through Advent at church this Christmas season. For added depth to the experience of rejoicing in the Advent and longing for the second Advent of Jesus, consider following along through the Advent season with an Advent reading plan. There are thousands out there which people have put together. Some are a few days, some are weeks long.

If you use a Bible app like YouVersion, it probably has a selection of Advent reading plans built in!

I’m including here an Advent reading plan that will take you through the 28-day journey from Nov. 27 through Christmas Eve. Join in the time of preparation and longing this Advent season.

Since “Advent” just means “coming,” this statement is kind of a highbrow joke.

Why so many translations? Part 1

book shelf full of old bibles

Have you ever felt decision fatigue considering what English Bible to read? Or found yourself wondering, “If there is only one Word of God, how come we have so many translations?” If so, you are in luck! Here is the first part of 2 parts of written up notes from our 2-week class on why there are so many English translations–and which ones are good ones to use.

For those who were there, there is more information here than we covered in class. For those not there, here is a long (and probably more boring) version of what we talked about in class.

Part 1 describes some of the history of English Bible translations, along with introducing some important ideas to help us better understand why different Bible translations end up being different from each other.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in the not-too-distant future.

Do What You Wish

a medallion of two snakes eating each other leaning on the book the neverending story

“Do What You Wish” (or, the original German, Tu Was Du Willst), is the message found inscribed upon the mystical medallion called AURYN in Michael Ende’s fabulous fantasy novel The Neverending Story (German, Die unendliche Geschichte). This mystical medallion plays a central role in the unfolding of the story as Bastian Balthazar Bux, the main character (more or less), enters the world of Fantasica and receives AURYN and its powers. For those interested in these types of stories, read this book. Sparing the details of how the story works, the phrase on the back of the medallion is intriguing: “Do What You Wish.” As the book unfolds, Bastian finds out that this seemingly obvious message is more complicated than it first appears. What you wish, it turns out, is not so easy to understand.

Check out Searching for Something for some more thoughts on the search for something everyone is on.

The meaning of “Do What You Wish”

In short, The Neverending Story plays on two related but distinct meanings of the phrase “Do What You Wish”: (1) do whatever you want or (2) do what you truly want. Bastian, on first reading the message, assumes it means (1) do whatever you want. He travels throughout Fantastica following his creative whims, making the world his own story however he pleases.

Each act of “doing whatever he wants,” though, steals a small part of Bastian away. He is rescued in the end when he finally learns that “Do What You Wish” means “you must find what you truly want and do that.” Finding what he really wants leads him back to the normal world, peace with himself, and a restored relationship with his father.

The Neverending Story is a clever fantasy retelling of the perennial story that finding what we actually want is counterintuitively more complex than merely following what we want.

What do you want?

What you wish for is not simple. In line with the recent sermon series The Word Still Speaks, I have been thinking about how God’s word relates to “what we want.” To put it into a question: do we engage with God’s word because that is what we want, or do we engage in God’s word as part of the process of finding what we most deeply want?

Neither of these is wrong but engaging with Scripture merely based on our whims is not a sufficient approach. In Scripture, God asks us to surrender in the most profound way: to surrender our (sense of) control over our own lives and instead move into the world that truly is, where God reigns and all things happen in line with his intentions. Even for those who have made the initial step in following God, this sort of surrender is often not enjoyable, not what we want in sense (1) from above.

When we think about engaging the Word of God—and all of life, really—we must be careful about how we look for “what we wish.” The easy and intuitive answer of “what I wish” to do right now may be, and often is, completely at odds with what you really wish in life.

At any given moment in life, most people would be able to answer the question “what do you want to be doing right now?” without a moment’s thought. As I am writing this, I would like to be sitting out in the beautiful sunny day. That is what I want right now, in the sense of (1). But going from one thing we want to the next in this way would resemble a cat chasing a laser dot in a hall of mirrors: something always looks worthy of chasing, but there is little hope of ever getting anywhere. Part of the journey into adulthood is learning the fact that we often must do something other than what we wish at any given instant.

But growing up in this sense doesn’t mean we ever learn to question why we wish what we wish.

Finding “what you wish”

The Scriptures work more on the sense (2) from above. It speaks to the “you must find what you truly want and do that” part of life. A key reality of God’s word is that it serves to guide our hearts to understand what is truly desirable. The more we surrender to God in his word, the more our heart opens up to realize what it truly wants but hasn’t been able to put into form.

Back in terms of The Neverending Story, each of us has a similar fate to Bastian. We embark on life, receive AURYN and its “Do What You Wish” message and have to figure life out. Finding that can be hard. Getting lost and distracted along the way is easy. It is easy to get so lost in “doing whatever I want” that we miss out learning what it is that our hearts really want.

One of the many ways God gives us to learn what it is that we truly wish is the Scriptures. The Bible intends to be the norming story of our lives. It lays down the guidelines and guardrails to lead us along. But rather than thinking of it as a book of rules for life (and it certainly has its share of rules), we can think of the Bible as a guide. Words whispered—sometimes shouted—from the heart of God to draw us back to him. Because only in finding our way to God can we learn to “Do What You Wish.”

Some Bible Reading Plans

There are many plans designed to help guide reading through the Bible. Anyone with a little time on their hands could come up with their own variants. Different plans have different advantages, so I will point three main categories to think about.

Check out this collection of reading plans. Not all the links on the page are current, but this gives you lots of good options and some ideas on what else to search for if you want something different.

Read the Whole Bible

The classic (for good reasons) approach to Bible reading is to move in a structured way through the entire Bible. Whether starting at the beginning and reading through to the end, reading in multiple locations each day, or any variation therein, these plans aim to engage the entirety of Scripture.

Common variations will involve reading through the NT at a faster rate than the OT, say 2x per year as opposed to 1x per year, or reading Psalms and Proverbs more often. Of course, you don’t need to follow a year schedule. But having a checklist to mark boxes off is really helpful.

The major drawback of such plans is that, for many people, the idea of reading the entire Bible through is quite daunting. It is a large book. If you don’t feel up to this yet, consider a couple other approaches.

Read Key Stories

Various plans focus on hitting the high points of Scripture. These plans take you more quickly through the main stories and events which help give the big picture into which everything else fits. A trip through a reading plan hitting the highlights of the Bible pays great dividends in coming to understand what is going on in this world and what is going on in God’s plan.

These sorts of plans are especially helpful for getting a big picture and, since they are selective rather than comprehensive, they are a less daunting way to get into the habit of regular Bible engagement.

Read Key Themes

Another way to engage with Scripture is through thematic readings. Many Bible studies and reading plans take a thematic approach. Want to know more about the Holy Spirit? What the Bible has to say about race? How to respond in times of personal crises? People have complied important passages into plans dealing with these and scads more topics.

Reading plans organized around themes can be found online, in tandem with a book study, or as part of a Bible Reading app.

On Bible Apps

There are lots of Bible reading apps. Far more than I have ever bothered to use, let alone look at. So I will just tell you here that the one I have on my phone is YouVersion. It is a good app with lots of different versions, a variety of built in reading plans and, one of my favorite features, many of the Bible versions even come with streaming audio! Want to read another language, or know someone who needs a Bible in a different language? YouVersion has thousands of language version available. And everything on it is freely available.

Personally, I still prefer to read my Bible as an actual book. The appeal of a codex has not worn off on me. But, reading (or being read to) on an app is a great way to help engage with Scripture.

Just Read Something

As a final plea, whether shooting for reading the entire Bible in a year, the NT in a year, or hitting the major stories of the Bible, just make sure you are shooting for something. Whether reading or listening, make sure you are engaging in God’s word.

Meditating on Scripture

contemplating a flower

There are many reasons to talk about Scripture. Personally, I need regular reminders of the importance and benefit of engaging with Scripture. Like most healthy things in life, inertia kicks in over time and my practice starts to wear out. There is so much to do, things to read, good things to listen to and watch, and the primary easily becomes the secondary. This current sermon series, “The Word Still Speaks,” is in part a personal reminder to make the main things the main things. If Psalm 1 were to say that the blessed one meditates on Christian literature, or the most recent binge-watchable TV series phenomenon, then we would have more reason to get out there and engage with those things. But the path of blessedness is not in those things. So, here again is a short plan and plea to join in meditating on the Scriptures and to excel still more.

Meditating on Scripture 101: four steps

Here is a four step approach to Scripture meditation. These steps are easy and this is an easy place to start with meditating on Scripture. Although easy, the practice is deep and will grow with you and be able to sustain you into maturity. When Jesus compares the word of God to bread (quoting from Deut. 8.3), he gives an important image. Just as you never grow up to a point in life where eating becomes irrelevant, so too you never reach a point where chewing on the Scriptures is irrelevant. This practice of meditation, simple as it may seem, can (and should) become as central to your daily life and health as eating. While meditation is not a race, this practice can be done in 5 minutes.

What I am laying out here is my own version of what I was taught in seminary by Dr. Donald Whitney. He discusses meditating on Scripture, and many other valuable practices for spiritual health, in his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. I recommend it.

Step 1: Read

Start with reading something in Scripture. We all probably should read more of God’s word than we currently do. That is a truism. But start somewhere. If a chapter a day seems too daunting, then start with a paragraph a day. If that is still too daunting, then start with 1 verse a day. You will not grow very strong on a diet of one verse a day, but the choice for one a day will be at least 365 days of spending time steeping in God’s word in the next year, which I wager is more than many of us have done this past year.

Start with something you can do rather than something grandiose. You will almost assuredly fail at a  grandiose goal and then the sense of failure will hamstring your efforts and you will stop doing anything at all. So, start reading a manageable chunk of Scripture. Surely you can find space—make space—in the day to read one paragraph from the Scriptures. If that is more than you have been doing, then start there.

Step 2: Choose

Second, as you read through—whether it be one verse, one paragraph, or several chapters—pay attention to what strikes you. Now, I’m not suggesting that whatever sticks out to you in one reading of a passage is going to be the key to some profound and subtle understanding of a given passage of Scripture. That is not the point of starting out meditating on Scripture. We are working on chewing on the Scriptures as daily bread. Learning to engage with a 7-course meal is a different thing.

As you read, there is bound to be something in the passage that strikes you. Something in the text which presents a startling or comforting or challenging thought. Of course, you could use more elaborate methods of choosing a passage to focus on, and there is merit in that once established in meditation. But start where you are.

Step 3: Steep

Third, mull on the passage which stuck to you. The goal here is to go back to it and spend some time letting it steep in your mind and heart. What should you do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • reread it several times (try putting emphasis on different parts of the verse)
  • ask questions of the verse (you don’t need to answer them; the goal here is to spend time with the passage, not figure everything out)
  • consider how it could impact your life today

Step 4: Pray

Lastly, spend a moment in prayer shaped by the truths you just focused on. Meditation should open up a conversation with God. After all, since the words come from God it only makes sense to speak with God about them

“Meditation must always involve two people—the Christian and the Holy Spirit. Praying over a text is the invitation for the Holy Spirit to hold His divine light over the words of Scripture to show you what you cannot see without Him.”

Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 55.

Step 5 of 4

The fifth step: repeat tomorrow.

Final encouragements

While meditation on Scripture is simple, it is not always easy. That’s ok. Keep at it.

Meditation is not a race! It is a time to find spiritual food for the day.

Photo by Ester Marie Doysabas on Unsplash

Bible-reading second-handers

The truth about books: there are a lot of them

Recently I came across an old article from the early 2000s (well I guess it’s not that old) about reading and literacy rates. The author pointed to a certain Pierre Bayard who wrote a book entitled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book 😊. Maybe someday. Right now, I am busy reading books that I aim to talk about. All joking aside, it’s a funny sounding title and the idea of it is a little funny, though in practice it is not that strange. Many readers are second-hand readers.

Due to the sheer volume of things which are written and have been written and will be written, no one can read more than an infinitesimally tiny percentage of what is written and what is relevant for their interest. It is estimated that somewhere greater than 2 million new books are published every year around the world. A very dedicated reader may get through 100 or so books in a year, maybe a few more. Good luck.

In the academic context where I have been living the last several years, it’s actually quite common to discuss works one has either not read at all or read only in small part. Each subject matter and discipline has a sub-discipline within it that is devoted simply to keeping track of the history of the area of study. Whether you read theology, biology, the history of UFO hunting, or what have you, a huge portion of one’s knowledge about their subject matter comes from summaries of other books (or summaries of summaries of summaries, etc.). There’s only so much time to read, and more to read than could ever be read.

Talking about the (multitudinous) books you haven’t read

And so, part of me empathizes strongly with the basic point of this book (which I haven’t read). One who is generally knowledgeable about history, about current cultural trends, and about life, can talk about all kinds of books they haven’t read, movies they haven’t seen, TV shows they haven’t seen, places they’ve never been to, and other life experiences they’ve never had. It’s a rather peculiar aspect of humanity. We can persuasively and convincingly talk about and even coach other people through things that we have no practical experience with.

Are we “bible-reading” second-handers?

Setting academia, or hobby reading, or book clubs, or even schoolwork aside, does the habit of discussing things we haven’t read or seen seep into the life of following Jesus?

The world of Christian book publishing churns out an astonishing number of books. And, to be more honest with the way we engage with text, we have to consider blogs (like this one), magazines, YouTube channels, movies, podcasts, cartoons, etc. There is an entire swarming ecosystem of stories, information, and studies which promise to help you understand the bible, help with your Christian walk, improve your love life, improve your relationships, lessen your stress, make you happy, etc.

I don’t want to sound dismissive of the Christian literary apparatus which helps us understand the Bible and the Christian life. I myself have drunk deeply from many springs in this apparatus. It would be the height of arrogance to suggest that we don’t need to read what others have written and thought and taught, but should just read the bible and figure it out on our own. Yet a question calls for pondering: Have we become bible-reading second-handers?

That is, do we always engage the bible through a screen of someone else’s writing. We read someone else’s study, someone else’s blog post, etc. The default assumption in the information economy is that an answer, if not the answer, is already out there and someone has already figured it out. All you need to do is search for it online and it will pop up within the first 10 Google results.

The problem which I see in all of this is not that we don’t learn—one can learn an immense amount of information through second-hand reading engagement (or watching videos, listening to podcasts, etc.). The problem is that second-hander knowledge tends to be less transformative than first-hander knowledge.

An Illustration

Here’s the difference. I ran track and field in high school. I was phenomenally not good at anything in it, but I did do it. In one track meet my junior year, my coach decided to throw me into the high jump.

Up till that point, I had never competed in, or really practiced, high jump. However, I did know the theory of how you high jump. I know the sort of approach you’re supposed to take, the way you plant your feet, the way you jump up, the way you arch your back over the bar, the way you kick your feet up over top of the bar, and then how to land in the high jump pit. I could teach someone how to high jump. I know how it’s supposed to be done.

On top of that, at the time I was about 6 feet tall and had a solid 2-foot vertical. Starting height to clear was 4’ 8”. Just standing next to the bar and jumping up I could theoretically have stepped over top of the bar. Thus, in theory, clearing starting height posed zero difficulty to my high jump abilities, as lacking as they were. And that was all I needed to do. Clear starting height, and in doing so I would win points for our track team.

Well, as I presume you’ve guessed at this point, I didn’t clear starting height. The fact that I knew how to do it, and that I had all the physical abilities necessary to do it, didn’t add up to being able to do it. There’s a void which between knowledge on the theoretical level and knowledge in the experiential level. The only way to know how to high jump is to spend time high jumping. The only way to gain a deep knowledge of how to cook is to spend time cooking.

The only way to gain a deep knowledge of scripture is to spend time reading and living scripture.

Final thought

Should we read and listen to the thoughts of others on Scripture and life? Absolutely. After all, that is part of what the church is for. However, we need to be aware of the phenomenon of second-hand reading/consuming. Knowing about something is quite different from knowing something. Learning by reading what others write, or listening to what others say, helps us learn about the Scriptures. That is good.

I can’t help but wonder, though, how much we miss in terms of vital knowledge of God and life when we habitually turn to the database of knowledge from others for answers rather than seeking them in prayer and study in the Scriptures themselves.