Saturday, May 25, 2013

Tools For The Treasure, Part Three

     Last week I promised to give some answers as to what to do with the questions and observations you make when you approach scripture in an observant, aware-of-context and curious manner. To do this, I will describe briefly a simple method I use in digging the treasure: SOAR (Survey, Observe, Ask/Answer, Reflect/Respond). Please note that there will be some repetition of what I said earlier because this method incorporates everything I have previously mentioned into some easy to remember steps. Okay, let's start "soaring."
     Survey the passage, asking yourself questions like the following.
  • Is this passage a complete unit of thought or a complete story? If not, how much context do I need to add into it to make it complete?
  • What kind of literature is this passage: a story (narrative), a teaching (discourse), poetry, prophetic literature, wisdom literature (like the Proverbs), etc. 
  • How is this passage connected to the rest of the book it is part of? 
  • Is there anything else I need to make not of on this first pass?
     Observe the passage carefully. I won't repeat myself here because last week I gave what you should be looking for. This is the step where you stop, look and listen, taking time to notice patterns, asking questions like who, what, when, where, etc.

     Ask and Answer lots of curious questions! This is where I will add some new thoughts. How do you answer all those questions?
  • Look again! Lots of times we can answer our questions by looking at the passage and its surrounding context a little more closely. For example, if we notice our passage starts with a "therefore" we can look ahead of it to see what is leading into it (see how the last verses in Romans 11 lead into Romans 12:1 ff.). 
  • Look at different translations. Many questions can be answered by seeing how another translation translates a passage. Also, comparing translations keeps us from building doctrine on something that a particular translation gets wrong. For example,  the KJV (a shaky translation at best for many reasons) translates Psalm 138:2b as "thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name," leading some to teach that God's word is superior to His name, a theological impossibility since God's name represents Him and all that He is and His word flows from that. A quick look at almost any other translation (except the NKJV which repeats the error) shows us that it's better to blend name and word together. The Holman CSV translates this as "You have exalted your name and your promise above everything else." 
  • Look around the passage in larger and larger circles to see if the context will help you answer some of your questions. 
  • Look it up. Yes, there are times when it's okay to consult a study Bible or commentary after you have run out of your own answers, but do this last, not first!
     Reflect in order to Respond. At some point you will need to summarize what you have discovered and listen to the Holy Spirit for His guidance as to how you are to respond to this new treasure. (For me, sometimes the responding is "automatic" because what I see is so amazing and fresh that I just can't help breaking out in praise or asking Papa how I am to make this part of my life). It is important for us to consider how we are to respond, of course. Otherwise we are like the person James describes in James 1:23-24, "For if someone merely listens to the message and does not live it out, he is like someone who gazes at his own face in a mirror. For he gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was." (New English Translation). But consider the promise that follows this warning (v. 25), "But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but one who lives it out--he will be blessed in what he does."

Soaring more and more, 

Tom, one of Abba's little children

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Tools For The Treasure, Part Two

     Last week I gave some basic convictions I believe are important as we approach God's written word. Today I will give a few thoughts on three principles that guide me as I work with Scripture.
     In a nutshell, careful observation, supported by a constant awareness of context, both fueled by curiosity are my top three principles. Stated in another way, if you want to glean lots of treasure from God's word: Be observant, be aware (of context), be curious. 
     Be observant. Most people will start discovering a lot more treasure in the Bible just by slowing down and looking more carefully at what they are reading (or hearing if they are auditory learners). Rushing through the Bible to get a reading program done rarely allows for the careful observation that exposes the gems in the Bible, so I often tell people, "Stop, look and listen!"
      But it helps to know what you are looking for, of course, so what should you be looking for? I could write a book about this, but here are a few things for those starting out on the journey of discovery. 

  • Look to see if the passage is a complete unit and for how it fits in with the rest of the book it's a part of. 
  • Look to see what kind of literature your passage is. Different kinds of literature need to be looked at in a different way. For example, an Old Testament narrative (story) is very different from one of Paul's letters (mostly written "discourse"), and Old Testament poetry is different from the Book of Acts. For a thorough understanding of this, I recommend How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.
  • Look for the main thoughts/themes or events of passage and for how the themes are developed (or how the events fill out the story if the passage is a narrative).
  • Look for repeated important words and other factors like emphasized words, connecting words (What is that "therefore" there for?, etc.) and other patterns.
  • If applicable, look for hints about the writer and those he is writing to that give you clues as to the purpose and main ideas of the passage. 
  • I hope this gives you a good starting point. Now let me illustrate how this works (just a little) from Ephesians 1:3-14.

     Take a careful look at Ephesians 1:3-14 and it won't take too long to notice that words like, "all, everything, every" are repeated quite often, that the passage is one big long praise to/of God (the phrase "praise of His glory" or something similar appears three times), that the words "redemption" and "predestined" appear twice (NIV), etc. There are many more things to notice in this passage, of course--I have just scratched the surface. But just a little closer look at the first "every" leads to a remarkable discovery that can leave us reflecting on it for the rest of our lives: we have been blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ! Just working through the implications of that one truth can change your life forever, especially when you remember that it's in the plural: all of us together and as individual parts of Christ's body have already been blessed with every possible spiritual blessing! And then there's all the worship in the passage, the rest of the "all, every" theme and much, much more. 
     One final thought about observation: careful observation can also help us see what's not there. What do I mean? I mean we get to question assumptions we or others have made. One of my favorite examples of this for me comes from the parable of the Sower. I recently realized that contrary to my previous assumptions, the parable does not imply only a 25% success rate, does not say that the word is planted only one time, does not say that the soil cannot change or be renovated or weeded, etc. All of these new things that aren't there have many implications which I cannot cover right now, but I trust they help you see what I mean by seeing what's not there.
     Be aware of the context. Words only have specific meaning in context. A word can have potential meaning by itself, but it can have specific and clear meaning only when we see it in its context. For example, you don't really know what I mean by the word "love" until I add some kind of context to it: "I love dark chocolate!" or "I love country music," or "I love my grandchildren!" And note that even the amount of context can be increased by adding more words. I can tell you what kinds of dark chocolate I "love." I can give you specific types of country music that I "love." I can elaborate (forever) on what I love about our grandchildren. 
     So it is with the words in the Bible. Surrounding every word in Scripture are concentric layers of context that give the word its specific meaning. These include 1) the words immediately surrounding it, 2) the entire passage it's a part of, 3) the book it is a part of, 4) the Bible and theology, 5) the history and culture of the writer and original readers. All of these can affect the meaning of the words in Scripture, and the possible meanings of a word can only be narrowed down to its one true meaning by thinking about its context. Now some of this thinking is automatic, so don't panic, but being aware of context as we read the Bible is one of the most essential parts of discovering God's written treasure.
     Be curious! For me, insatiable curiosity is the fuel that feeds the discovery process in my approach to Scripture. I find myself asking curious questions all the time: "Why did Paul repeat that word so many times?" "What was the writer feeling when he wrote those words?" "How is this connected to that other passage later in this book?" "What would it have felt like to be there when Jesus did that or said that?"  I think you get the picture. My observation of the passage gives birth to these questions, then the questions lead to more observation that leads to more questions that leads to more observation, so that it becomes a wonderful cycle of discovery that never really ends. Try it! Take a passage that you are familiar with and look carefully with your curiosity at full attention and see if you can arrive at questions you've never asked before. You won't be disappointed. 
     But how do we answer all of these questions and/or make sense of the observations? The answer to that will have to wait until next week when I will cover a simple method (SOAR) that will help you put all of this into practice and soar like an eagle on the winds of fresh discovery.

Marveling at the endless treasure,

Tom, one of Abba's little children

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Tools For The Treasure, Part One

     In a few weeks I will be teaching a brief class on "Discovery Bible Study" here in Houston, and as I have worked on it I have come to realize that I have never given "Tom's tips" for digging the treasure out of God's Word in blog format. So today and the next two weeks, in a very, very basic way, I want to give a few thoughts, a few "tools," for digging out more of the endless treasure contained in God's Word.
     Let's start with some basic convictions about studying God's word I believe we need to take with us as we approach Scripture.
  1. Everything that any follower of Jesus needs from the Bible in order to live the Jesus life is accessible to her/him. This is an unshakeable conviction of mine and very important. If we think we have to be experts to understand the important things of God's Kingdom, we will miss God's heart entirely and disqualify most folks from finding the treasure. It is always God's heart to make everything we need accessible to all of us. To think that He would lock up the truth of His word in complexity so that only a few could access it violates the very core of the good news of a God who is committed to removing every obstacle between us and Him. What this means for you is that you are qualified to dig for treasure, no special gifting required!
  2. On the other hand, some digging is required! Because God wants us to move past infancy in our life with Him, He chooses not to spoon feed us by just dropping truth into our mouths with no effort on our part.Taking time with God's word, putting some careful thinking into the process, seeking Holy Spirit's guidance, etc., are all part of mining the treasure from God's word. As I have said before, simple is not necessarily always easy. 
  3. It's best to approach scripture looking for the Promise-giver and not just promises, looking for the Person, not just principles. The Bible is ultimately His-story not a book of facts and principles, and we can encounter God in remarkable ways if we allow Holy Spirit to show us His ways and teach us His paths as we read it. Reducing the Bible to a packet of principles or passel of promises will move us back into religion and away from a relationship. If I am just looking for promises and/or principles, I am looking for things I can do: things I can claim or put into practice, and that tends to put the focus on me rather than Papa God, doesn't it? On the other hand, if I allow my reading of Scripture to draw me into increasing intimacy with the One who makes the promises and reveals His heart and character and imprints them into my life through Word and Spirit... you get the picture, I trust. I hope this is clear because it's really important, methinks. If it isn't, let me know and I will try again.
  4. It's important to remember that the Bible cannot be approached like any other book. In the first place, it's the only book in the world that is inspired by God Himself, the only truly "holy" book. Secondly, it is a collection of books written over a period of hundreds of years by many different human authors, so it can't just be read from "cover to cover" without thinking about the context and circumstances of the writers and recipients. We will talk more about this when we discuss reading it in context. In some ways, of course, we do read and study the Bible like we do other books, but there are many differences as well, and remembering that up front helps us approach Scripture with increased awareness of our need for Holy Spirit's help and our need to stop and think as we read. More on this next week.
  5. It's also important to be aware  of our "filters" as we approach the Bible. All of us bring to anything we read or hear our own assumptions, cultural biases and other filters. We can't fully remove these, of course, because they are an integral part of who we are, but we can be aware of them so that we can put them aside as best we can. If we succeed in doing so, we will be able to see what's really there and allow it to challenge our assumptions and adjust our filters. Perhaps I need to give a couple of illustrations here. The easiest filter for most of us to understand is the filter of our own 21st century western culture. Obviously, the world of the Bible was very different from ours but if we are not careful we will read the Bible as if it were written in our time and culture. For example, we tend to think of "church" as the very cultural, often building-centered organization of our day rather than the New Testament church which consisted of groups of people meeting mostly in houses. The "church in Philippi" was a collection of brothers and sisters meeting in homes throughout the city, not a visible collection of buildings--you get the point, I trust. Another set of filters we bring with us are those that have been put into us by our exposure to whatever "Christian" teaching we have been most influenced by. Being aware of what has influenced us and being willing to lay it aside or at least have its assumptions challenged will open up an entirely new world of revelation for most of us! Perhaps you may want to take a moment right now and ask Holy Spirit what filters you bring to Scripture. You will be amazed, I think, at what He shows you and how it helps to lay them aside!
     Okay, because this list took more space than I originally thought, I will give part two next week at look at some of the basic tools for treasure hunting that we all possess. But here's a preview of some of them: in addition to the most important tool of allowing Holy Spirit to lead you, other important tools are Careful observation, Curiosity and Context. We will look at these three "Cs" more thoroughly next week. 

Lost in the wonders of His Word,

Tom, one of Abba's little children