The Journey of Bible Interpretation

Note: This post is a copy of a handout that I will be bringing to Rwanda to help teach pastors there.  This handout is on basic Bible interpretation. One of the criteria for all handouts is that the pastors there typically have a 4th-5th grade reading level, so this handout is purposefully geared toward simplicity.  I will also be teaching it through a translator, so simplicity works better!

A lesson I am learning about cross-cultural ministry is that different cultures think in fundamentally different ways.  The people of Rwanda, and African people in general, think and process in narrative stories far more than in abstract ideas.  With that in mind the handouts I am bringing are in narrative form, using a story to teach spiritual truth.  This is one of Jesus’ preferred teaching methods, which we call parables.

I would love your feedback on what I have here, and I hope it encourages you!

The pictures and basic outline are from J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word. I know Scott from meeting him at ETS in 2007, and have permission from both he and Danny to use the images and the outline for my handouts.  Please do not reproduce this for profit under any circumstances without clearing it with them and with Zondervan.  Thanks!

You are reading the Bible, trying to understand it so that you can do what God wants you to do. This is a good idea! But you have a problem. You don’t understand what the message of Ephesians 2:1-10 is. You read it, but don’t know how to live from what it says. You want to be able to live by its words and help the people you love live by them as well.
Imagine that at this moment you receive a gift. You get to travel back to meet with the Apostle Paul! You travel to the city he was in when he wrote Ephesians. You are very excited to get to meet him, and ask him to help you understand what he was saying when he wrote Ephesians 2:1-10.
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Grasp the text in their town

Paul is very glad to see you and invites you in to his home. He tells you that he is happy to help you know what he meant when he wrote to the Ephesian church. He also tells you that what he is teaching you will help you understand any book of the Bible! He shows you the steps that will work every time you want to be able to understand what God means in the Bible.

He begins by telling you what you must do to understand God’s Word. First, he says that you must understand what the writer was trying to tell his very first readers. When you understand that, Paul says, you will know what message he was giving them. This is very important, he says, because only when you know what he was saying to his readers will you know what he wanted to say.

You’re not sure how to find out what the writer said to his readers. So Paul sits beside you and you both open your Bible. Then he shows you the path. “First,” he says, “Look and see what I really said. You might be tempted to read quickly and get to what I mean, but resist! Stop and see what I was really saying. Observe, look closely. Look again! Really work hard to see what I actually said, because the words are important.

“Next,” Paul says, “Read before and after the passage you are studying. What is the topic I am talking about? What am I teaching on? This is called context, and it is very important. It will give you clues about what I am trying to say to people. Look in the whole book you are reading to see what my ideas and my purpose are. Then think about how this passage fits in with that whole idea.

“You also want to think about what you know about the person who wrote the words. Who is he? What did he do for a living? What is his passion? These can help you find the meaning. Think as well about the people he wrote to. Who are they and what are they like?”

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Measure the River

You are not done yet though! Now you must find the road home from Paul’s house to your own. There is a river between Paul’s town and yours, he tells you. That river is made up of the difference between your town and Paul’s town. You may have a different culture, a different language, a different time, a different situation, or a different covenant than the first readers. He says that you may be very like them or very different from them, depending on which book you are reading.

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Cross the Bridge

You don’t want to be stuck in Paul’s town. Now you need to get across the river and back home to your people! You think and think, and run out of answers. Just when you are about to give up hope of getting home Paul gives you an idea. “Why not build a bridge across the river?” Paul asks. He says that the bridge is made of the “big idea” in the passage that you are reading. It is the truth in the passage that any person at any time in any place can use to help them live for God. It is a timeless principle for God’s people.

Now, finally, you have a path home. Paul is very happy for you to head home to your town with the truth that God has taught in the Bible. Because any person can know this truth, you can use it in your home and in your life. In fact, all the people in your town can use this truth to help them live too! No matter who they are, they can take this truth and use it. You cross the bridge over the river and bring this truth home to your town.

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Grasp the text in your town

“Now you know how to make the journey from my town to yours,” Paul tells you. “You can make it any time you want. This is the beauty of God’s Word; the journey is always there for you to take it.”

The Parable of the Stool

Note: This post is a copy of a handout that I will be bringing to Rwanda to help teach pastors there.  This handout is on basic Christian discipleship and growth in Christ. (“sanctification” is the big word) One of the criteria for all handouts is that the pastors there typically have a 4th-5th grade reading level, so this handout is purposefully geared toward simplicity.  I will also be teaching it through a translator, so simplicity works better!

A lesson I am learning about cross-cultural ministry is that different cultures think in fundamentally different ways.  The people of Rwanda, and African people in general, think and process in narrative stories far more than in abstract ideas.  With that in mind the handouts I am bringing are in narrative form, using a story to teach spiritual truth.  This is one of Jesus’ preferred teaching methods, which we call parables.

I would love your feedback on what I have here, and I hope it encourages you!

A man in a certain town became a follower of Jesus Christ. He wanted to be a good one and desired to please God in his day-to-day living. He went to his pastor to get help. He knew that his pastor would be able to help him become a better follower of Jesus. He traveled to his pastor’s home to ask him how to be a better Christian.

“Welcome,” his pastor said. “I am glad to see you! How are you?” “I am fine,” the man replied. “I want to really know how to follow Jesus. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and I want to obey Him as my Lord and Savior. Can you help me?”

clip_image002When the man finished speaking, his pastor sat and thought for a time. He got up from his seat went to the back of his home, where a stool with four legs was in pieces on the floor. He took the pieces and brought them back to the front of the home to show his friend. “Is this a stool?” he asked. “Well, not a very good one!” came the reply. “It is pieces of a stool, but right now it’s no good to help anyone sit down. It can’t stand up or hold any weight.”

His pastor looked at him and said, “You are right. This stool is no good without its legs being firmly attached. What if I put a single leg on the stool? Will it stand now?” The man shook his head no. “Somewhat,” he said, “but not really. One leg is better than none, but this stool still will not stand up on its own. If I sit on it I will not fall, but I need to be very careful with my balance. And if I get up the stool falls over. It is still not a good stool.”

“Correct,” said his pastor. “What if I add a second leg?” The man thought a second and said, “A second leg is helpful to balance in one direction but the stool will still be unstable.” “And what of a third leg?” asked his pastor. “A third leg is really good,” the man said. “Now the stool can stand up on its own and is more stable. However, it is still not stable in the direction of the missing leg. Only when a stool has all four legs is it stable and strong.” “Exactly!” his pastor exclaimed. “You have said it correctly. Only when the stool has all four legs can it stand.”

The man looked at his pastor, puzzled. “Okay,” he said, “I understand that a stool needs four legs to be sturdy. Without all four legs it is not as good as it could be. But you haven’t answered my question! Stools have nothing at all to do with following Christ. How does a man become a better follower of Jesus?” “You are wrong that a stool has nothing to do with being a better follower of Christ,” his pastor replied.
“In fact, this stool is a wonderful t
ool to help you remember how to grow in your walk with Christ. Just as a stool needs four legs to stand firmly, a Christian needs to rely on four tools to become a mature follower of Christ. Each leg is vital; none can be ignored if a man wants to honor God with his life.

clip_image006The pastor began by putting a leg into the stool. “The first leg of this stool represents the Holy Spirit of God. Christians must depend on the Holy Spirit and live their lives just as God says in Galatians 5:16 and Ephesians 5:18. We must never forget to walk by the Spirit and be filled with the Spirit. This means that we listen to the voice of God and pay attention to the leading of God in our lives. We don’t focus on our ways or our desires, but listen to what the Spirit of God is saying to us. This means that we spend time every day in prayer, asking God for wisdom in living and to make us more holy like He is. This is what Paul taught us in Ephesians 6:18, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, and 1 Timothy 2:8.

clip_image004“Just like that stool, though, one leg of Christian discipleship is not enough. If we only listen to the Spirit we will not be the Christians that God wants us to be. We must add the other three legs! The second leg of the stool represents the Scriptures. We must read, memorize, and understand what God tells us in the Bible! In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 God tells us that the Scripture is His perfect book, and that the words in the Bible are what we need to be mature and ready to do what He wants us to do. In Luke 6:46 Jesus tells us that we must do what He says, and we learn what He says in the Scripture. So we must read it as often as we can, memorize its words and hide them in our heart. We must think about the words of the Bible and change our actions to do what they say.” With that, the pastor placed the second leg in the stool.

clip_image008“The third leg in the stool stands for the Saints of God,” he said as he placed the third leg in its place on the stool. “God tells us that other people who are following Jesus are important tools that God uses to shape us into the people He wants us to be. We can read in 1 Thessalonians 5:11 and Hebrews 10:24-25 that we need to encourage one another and build one another up. This wisdom from God is also taught in Proverbs 27:17. We must gather with other believers like the early church did in Acts 2:42-47 and learn from those who have walked with Jesus for longer than we have. Paul talks to Timothy about this idea in 2 Timothy 2:2, and Jesus tells us that we will become like who we learn from in Luke 6:39-40. God uses His people to lead us to be better followers of Jesus.”

clip_image010Finally, the pastor placed the fourth leg in its place on the stool base. “The stool can stand with only three legs, but it is not completely stable. It can still tip over! The fourth leg makes the stool sturdy and complete. That leg represents our Christian Service. In James 1:22-25 we read that to be blessed by God we must be someone who not only hears the word of God but acts on what we know. Jesus also says in Matthew 5:16 that we glorify God when we serve Him, which makes us better followers.”

The pastor placed the stool on the floor and sat on it. It kept his weight secure, and he was able to move from side to side and front to back without falling over. When he stood up the stool stayed in place and didn’t fall. “You see,” he said. “This stool stands strong with four legs. As Christians we must remember this stool and let it remind us of how to be strong in the Lord. As we add the legs of the Spirit, the Scriptures, the Saints, and our Service we become strong and true as followers of Jesus.”

The man thanked his pastor and friend very much. He went home thinking about the humble stool and what it taught him about his Christian life. And then he committed to living his life by the four legs on that stool! He began praying every morning and every night and listening to God. He prayed at regular times for his wife, his children, his job, and his heart to obey God. He prayed for his friends and for his church and pastor. He prayed and talked to God regularly.

He also started reading the Bible as often as he could. When he heard the Word of God preached he listened carefully and memorized what the Bible said. He thought about it and obeyed as best he could, praying and asking God for wisdom in how to live by what it said.

The man made another great change in his life: he worked hard to make friends with other godly people. He sought advice from godly people about his life and about following Jesus. He asked his pastor and other godly people from church for help in making good, godly decisions. He listened to them! He also tried to help other Christians to honor God with their life and know how they should worship Him. He served God in his church and in his business, making every day part of his worship to God.

Soon the man knew the truth of the stool. Before long, he began to see changes in his heart for God and in his life. He was really living for God, and his heart of praise to God grew right along with his ability and desire to do what God wanted him to do.

Keep Your Cool

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Last night I left kenpo at 8:40 as usual; it takes about 10 minutes to get out of class and packed up.  On my way out I called my mentor Fred to talk about a possible mission trip to Rwanda that he had suggested me for, and we were discussing it as I started down 35th Ave toward home.  All was normal with the world: I was a bit sore from class (thanks to another mentor, Joel, who likes to beat me up on the training mat), feeling good about the weekend ahead, and wondering about God dropping an opportunity in my lap to perhaps teach pastors in a remote part of Rwanda about how to study the Bible and teach it. (you can find some AMAZING pictures of the group’s previous trip at Chris Mattox’ blog)

All of a sudden my life got put on hold for a bit.  A car turned left at the light at loop 101 right in front of a truck driving south in front of me, maybe 20 yards ahead.  They hit each other moderately hard, and pieces of bumper went flying.  I quickly told Fred that I had seen an accident and needed to go, then hung up the phone and pulled in behind the truck that had been driving in front of me.  It had been struck pretty hard in the driver’s side front quarter panel and driven into the guard rail; the little Kia that had turned in front was smashed up in front pretty good and resting in the far right lane.

Now was not the time for panic but for assessment of the situation.  There was a woman in the truck who appeared fine.  She opened her door and confirmed that she was unhurt.  The driver of the other car, though, was pretty shook up and was starting to panic.  Though it looked like there were no serious injuries, I asked the first driver to call 911 to get an ambulance rolling just in case, which she did.  I then began a dialog with the young woman behind the wheel.

When I first approached she was panicking.  Her airbag had gone off, and while she was thankfully wearing her seat belt she still got thumped pretty good by it.  She had opened her door by the time I got there, so I crouched down next to her and began to reassure her that she would be alright.  Our exchange went something like this:

Her: “I can’t see!  I can’t see!” (crying heavily and hyperventilating)
Me: “Sweetheart, my name is John and I am here to help you.  You’re going to be fine, I promise.  Your eyes need a second to recover from your airbag.  That’s normal; just give it a minute.  What’s your name?”
Her: “Emily.”
Me: “Okay Emily, my name is John and I am here to help.  You’re going to be fine; we have the paramedics on the way.”
Her: “I can’t breathe!  My side hurts.  My knee hurts!”
Me: “I know sweetheart.  Sit still and wait for the paramedics to arrive.  How old are you Emily?”
Her: “19.”
Me: “19? Well it makes sense that you’re a little shook up.  That’s a lot to happen at 19 to a young woman.  I promise, you’re going to be fine.  You’re not badly hurt, but let’s just wait here in the car until the firefighters come okay?”
Her: “Okay.”

By that point she had calmed down quite a bit, though she was obviously shaken up.  I had to put my hand on her shoulder to hold her still for a bit, but crouched there and continued to talk to her.  Amazingly, a friend from church stopped at the scene and held her hand as well, acting as a wonderful comforting influence. (probably 30 cars just whizzed by without stopping before the paramedics got there… ~X( <>)  I took Emily’s phone and called her mom from it, let her know that Emily should be fine but that she was probably going to get transported to John C. Lincoln and that she should head over there.

Once the firemen arrived (the fire house was close enough to see from the scene of the wreck) my job was done.  The professionals took over!  I talked to the other lady and gave her my card, gave a report to the policeman who responded along with my information, and jumped back in the truck to head home.

I’m all about being a Good Samaritan, and of course helping someone in need always reminds me of the parable Jesus tells in Luke 10:30-37:

“Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. “And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. “Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. “But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. “On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.” ”

Being a neighbor isn’t where we live; Jesus tells us that being a neighbor is defined by how we act and how we care.  I was so proud of Barbara for stopping when she did and rendering assistance to that scared young woman!  Jesus commands us to help those in need and to offer assistance to others, even when it is costly and inconvenient.  I must admit that I didn’t see the wreck and think about this parable before stopping, but thankfully the Lord had it imbedded in my heart so that I didn’t need to recall it in order to obey it last night.

This episode also made me think of what God tells us in Scripture, though maybe not how you might think.  I didn’t really offer young Emily any medical help beyond making her stay put; I am not trained beyond basic first aid and even if I were she didn’t appear to be badly hurt.  What I offered her was an emotional anchor and reassurance that everything would be alright.  I was a psychological and spiritual support for a few crucial minutes.  That made me think of life with God as pictured in Psalm 23:4,

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”

If we are all alone and we run into tragedy or misfortune, we panic like Emily did.  Having someone at her side reassuring her that it would be okay was enough to bring her back and calm her down until help could arrive.  How much more do we need the reassurance of God that He is with us and that everything will be alright in the end? 

I can’t imagine life without having His presence to comfort and guide me.  Whatever comes, God is right there with His followers to comfort, to strengthen, and to encourage.  (and best of all, when the paramedics arrive he won’t leave you to go home, eat dinner and watch TV!).  When life gets tough and we are disoriented and hurting, it is His voice that comforts us and allows us to make it through whatever comes.

So my encouragement to you today is twofold: (1) remember, we BECOME the neighbor of those around us when we meet their needs, which God commands us to do.  So become neighbors whenever you can, and look for chances to be the hands and feet of Christ. (2) Whatever trial or problem you face, remember that God is with you to see you through it and to encourage you.  Take His hand and walk through it; you’ll be glad you did.

Oh, yeah, one more thing: fasten your seatbelt and drive defensively, too. 🙂

Life is better together

First off allow me to apologize for blogging so little over the last couple of weeks.  I love to blog, but it’s a task that is pretty low on the scale of responsibilities in my life.  If I don’t blog you, my wonderful readers, will likely make it through the day; if I don’t prepare a meaningful message for Sunday my congregation really suffers.  The past couple of weeks I have been absolutely buried in grading papers for the end of the semester, so my blogging time has evaporated.  My bad!  Thanks for hanging in there with me.

My family went to California for the weekend, so I had a bunch of free time this weekend.  I was “batching it” on Saturday night, so what did I do?  You guessed it: I graded papers. (being a grownup sucks sometimes…)  That is, I graded papers until 9PM.  At 9PM I got an Instant Message from my best friend in Arizona, commanding me to turn the TV on because there was an old Chuck Norris movie on cable.  Naturally, I quit grading papers to watch the Chuckitude!

The movie was called “Breaker! Breaker!”  Go read the IMDB reviews and you will note that this movie probably didn’t get any Oscar nods.  If you go read the user reviews on the link above you will get a good feel for the quality (or lack thereof) in this movie.  I agree with the title of one review, which said “I am dumber for watching it.”

So why was I quoting it before Bible study yesterday, yukking and joking and having a great time about it?  It was simple: Michael and I IMed each other through the movie.  We treated this movie like we were the MST3K crew. (If you’re not familiar with Mystery Science Theater 3000, click the link and choose “theater”)  We chatted back and forth about all of the plot holes and weird scenes, the odd dialog and cheesy action.  I enjoyed this movie thoroughly, even though it is potentially one of the worst movies in history, because I had a good friend with me while I endured it.

Michael and I will now have cheesy movie lines and odd characters as inside jokes for months, and that was what made the movie worthwhile!  Without that, I never would have watched it.  I might have made it 5 minutes hoping it got better before I quit, but with a good friend it became not only bearable but enjoyable.  I started looking forward to the horrible parts because they were where the humor was!

What a great lesson and reminder.  The principle of the “parable of the horrible movie” is that with friends, even the worst experiences can be manageable and even enjoyable.  I see the theme of community so often in the New Testament, from Hebrews 10:24-25 to 2 Timothy 2:1-2 to 1 John 1:3 to all of 1 Corinthians.  God wants us to have good friends in Christ to make the tough times bearable and the good times even better.  He wants us to live in community so that we don’t take ourselves too seriously or sink too low when times get tough.  He wants us to live by what Hebrews 12:12-13 teaches: “Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”

So let some people into your life this week.  Build the relationships that can help when life stinks.  I never could have enjoyed “Breaker! Breaker!” with someone who I didn’t know well; it wouldn’t have worked.  Likewise, sharing life only happens when we know people well.  So build some relationships in your church this week and this month!

Driving is Bad for my Discipleship

Tuesday morning Laura called me at about 7:30 in the morning.  She had just finished assisting a 27-hour birth (she’s a doula) and needed me to come get her at the hospital and drive her to her car.  It was about a 15 mile drive from church to the hospital to pick her up, then to where her car was at the home of the couple who had a baby.  No problem, right?

Except it was rush hour.

That 30-mile round trip took me an hour and 45 minutes.  (Thank you, Lord, for my 10-minute daily commute…)  Of course the freeway was packed, so I went down a major road that runs parallel to it.  The light of a major intersection on that road was flashing red…which took me 15 minutes to get through all by itself.  Then I got cut off (in my 6400 pound behemoth, no less!) about, oh, 154 times.  To add insult to injury I mistakenly got on a street that I couldn’t turn off of.  And of course I caught every red light imaginable in both directions.

There was a time that I really enjoyed driving.  When I got behind the wheel of my 1975 Pontiac Firebird (mine had a much cooler paint job) as a teenager, the world was at my fingertips.  I would drive anywhere my mom wanted me to.  Fast food?  I’ll run!  Gallon of milk?  I’m your man!  Don’t call your friends…drive over and see them!

Now, though, driving is hard on my discipleship. It’s really, really hard for me to see why people act so thoughtlessly and arrogantly when they are driving.  Honestly, if I were in line and someone asked to squeeze through to get past the line I was in, I wouldn’t think twice about letting them through. Of course I want to be kind and polite!  Put the two of us in our cars, though, and we are both apt to act like we’re four-year-olds playing a dangerous game of chicken.  You know that you’ve had that time when someone wanted to merge that you pretended that they didn’t exist so that you didn’t have to let them in! (“I can’t see you, so you don’t exist!”)

I really thought about this problem in my life this week.  I think that most of the challenge of traffic is that we stop seeing one another as people when we get behind the wheel.  We get so focused on getting to our destination and our loved ones and our tasks that we fail to realize that the other people on the road are doing the exact same thing that we are.  We tend to think of them as obstacles to our goal rather than as people created in the image of God.

Don’t believe me?  Ask yourself next time you get angry at someone for jumping into your lane ahead of you if you would be angry at them if they were your friend.  When you know the person who is driving next to you, all the frustration vanishes, doesn’t it?  You’ll slow down and wave them in, let them turn into your lane, and not get upset at them if they are not speeding as much as you want to.  Even if they do something ridiculous on the road, you’ll laugh it off with them.

What’s the difference?  You know them.  They are not just a car; they are a friend in a car.  You have a relationship with them, and that relationship will continue after the driving is over.  Rather than being an obstacle, they are a person endowed with the image of God from Genesis 1:26-27.

What if, though, we started treating people behind the wheel like friends, regardless of whether we know them or not?  What if we really allowed Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:36-40 to sink into our bones and affect the way we treated others?

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
37 And He said to him, “ ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’
38 “This is the great and foremost commandment.
39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’
40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

In Luke 10, in response to this understanding of God’s priorities, a lawyer asks Jesus who his neighbor is.  Jesus responds in Luke 10:30-37 with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which teaches us that our neighbors are those all around us, whether we know and appreciate them or not!  And yes, that includes the lady this afternoon who decided that the guy in the pickup who was pulling a trailer should have to make way for her to get ahead and jam on her brakes to make a right turn. (grumble, grumble, grumble…)

I think that seeing people as people, rather than as obstacles, is a huge tool to turn my driving back into the enjoyable experience it was in my teens.  It will mean that I need to leave a few minutes earlier so that I have time to be polite, but I think that the increase in peace in my soul will be worth it. 

This applies beyond driving, too.  People can be so mean-spirited on the internet when commenting on blogs (not ABF, thankfully!) or on news sites.  I have seen people say horrible stuff online, because they are anonymous and not accountable for their words.  On Facebook, though, your name and picture are next to your words, so people are a lot more careful.  We think about our friends and how our words will affect them because we think of them as people not as objects.

So I challenge you to walk with me on this path to humanizing your commute.  Make it a point to see the people in your interactions as people and not as obstacles in your path.  View them as bearers of the image of God and see what happens to your stress levels, your frustration at others and your walk with Christ.