Tag Archives: Bible

Reading the Bible Better

You can read the Bible better. It doesn’t take a degree in religion. It does require some skills that too often are relegated to the academy. Those skills can be acquired and practiced by everyday people.
You probably suspect that there are layers of meaning in the text. You hear great preachers and teachers reveal these layers. Maybe you think that level of understanding is beyond you. It’s not.
Here are some things you can do to begin reading the Bible in a way that reveals those layers. Who knows it may even change your life. (That is why you’re reading, isn’t it?)

Find Your Character.

While reading the Bible, determine which character is most like you. It may be that a main character is like you. It maybe that you are actually more like Jesus than the one he’s talking to. It may be that you are more like a character that is a bit off-screen (more on that in a second). The purpose here is enliven the scene by placing yourself in it. The Bible has enough distance to it: culturally, historically, etc. Reading it from a “third-person” perspective only adds to the distance. Finding your character may open up more questions than clarifications. That is a good thing. Each new question is an avenue of further exploration.

Consider the Jonah story for example. Are you Jonah running away from God? Perhaps not. Are you more like Jonah’s fellow passengers when a storm arises: just trying to do what’s right in a bad situation? Are like actually like God: desperately wanting someone to trust you enough to do something difficult but good? You may find that you are actually more like God.

Switch Characters, Uncover characters

Often we read the Bible from a single point of view. It may be a third-person perspective that takes us out of the story altogether. Once you Find Your Character in the story, you can then begin to play with other characters. Playfulness is a great tool for reading the Bible. Take for instance Jacob’s rivalry with his brother Esau. Maybe you identify with the younger Jacob always striving against your older brother. That’s great. But take some time to enter Esau’s world: he had to take care of his widowed mother who sold his blessing to his brother. And yet, when Jacob and Esau meet again years later, Esau seems at peace (Genesis 25 and following).

As you’re playing with characters in the text, look for unnamed characters. This could be simply groups of people like bystanders or background people like the Innkeeper in the Christmas story. One that shocked me was revealed to me in seminary: when Herod ordered the killing of all boys age 2 and younger in order to eliminate Jesus, the unnamed characters are the people who carried out the killings (Matthew 2:16-18). Were they fathers? Did they have sons?

Play with the untold story.

The Bible is big and at times the details can be so tedious. But there are also plenty of holes in the plot line. It is okay to play with the untold stories within the Bible. This is a great approach to test out your own experiences, morals and questions. Continuing with the Esau example, one of the untold stories is what happened to Esau after Jacob stole his blessing from their dying father. Esau disappears for the better part of 5 chapters while Jacob grows his family into an army. When they meet again famously in Genesis 33 Esau is successful and at peace. Of all the stories I wish the Bible told, the story of how Esau made peace within himself over his brother would be at the top of the list. The next best thing is for us to imagine how did Esau forgive his brother? What became of his relationship with his mother Rachel? You can make similar imaginings with the Samaritan woman, Pontius Pilate, Mephibosheth, Ruth, etc. (There is a great book called Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist which does this very thing).

Switch from Me to We

One of the problems of the Bible in English is that English renders the 2nd-person singular pronoun (you) the same as the 2nd-person plural pronoun (you). Reading the Bible in English means you don’t know when God is talking to you personally or you collectively. And American society is biased toward the individual. This means that when we see “you” we see the singular first. Our ‘default’ setting means we are prone to miss when God is talking to the community, the town, the nation, the family, the church, etc.

One way to unlock the layers of the Bible is to discover the communal aspects of it. When you can see that God is talking to a nation rather than a person…a whole new level of understanding emerges.

This may require a bit of technical assistance, unless you know biblical Hebrew or Greek. By technical assistance, I mean a good study Bible with footnotes that can help you know when the ‘you’ is singular or plural (NIV Study Bible does this well). Or you can try the Texas Bible App which is a plugin for your Chrome browser. The Texas Bible app will swap all plural ‘you’ for “y’all”. Yes, it’s a cool as it sounds.

Read in blocks.

One of the difficulties with reading only in worship is that we tend to read in very short segments. Sometimes not even whole chapters. But the scriptures were written as whole units, even the books that are pieced together from multiple sources. Furthermore, the minute dissection of scripture in church can literally cut out the drama in the text.

Take Mark’s gospel for example. Mark is a fast moving text where Jesus’ baptism is followed immediately by temptation in the wilderness followed immediately by Jesus calling the 12, teaching in the synagogue, healing a man with an unclean spirit, healing Peter’s mother-in-law, praying in the hills at night and healing a leper. That’s just chapter 1. The immediacy of the storytelling unlocks the desperation in Mark’s message. Mark really needs you the reader to pick up the mantle and finish the work Jesus started.

So read in larger blocks. This is easier than it sounds. Mark is readable in an hour. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) can be read in one sitting, too. The movements within help unlock the power of the storytelling. Each of the Psalms ought to be digested as a whole given their poetic nature. Rainy Sunday afternoons are great opportunities to break into the larger characters.

Read in Community.

It would be dishonest for me to say the Bible is easy. It would ALSO be dishonest for me to say that you can’t get it. Reading scripture with other people is one of the best ways to unravel the layers, discover new connections and air your questions. Different people are going to see different things. The point is NOT to all agree. In fact disagreeing is almost guaranteed. The point is to deepen your understanding of scripture and unlock its power to transform your life and your world.

Consider learning a new musical instrument or a second language. You can practice from the book all you want. But it’s when you join other players that your own skill can elevate. It’s when you get off the plane in Paris that you can really know how good your French really is. Your community will help you suss out your biases, reveal new angles of understanding, help you in living out what you’re learning and share in the joy of scripture.

Enjoy.

Have fun reading the Bible. It’s a pretty good book. I hope these tips help.

What has been helpful to you?

Bible Leads: Mark 10: 46-52

TEXT

Mark 10:46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher,* let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

  1. What It’s Like to Go Blind
  2. Two Blind sisters see for the first time
  3. On “Colorblindness”
  4. All About Eyes

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  1. What does it mean that Bartimaeus’ “faith has made [him]well”?
  2. When was a time when you could not see a truth that was right before your eyes?
  3. In what ways are people still offended by the suffering?
  4. What does it mean to be healed?

IMAGE

"Ray Charles 260971neu000" by Heinrich Klaffs
“Ray Charles 260971neu000” by Heinrich Klaffs

SOUNDTRACK

Spotify Playlist

  1. Long as I Can See the Light, by Creedence Clearwater Revival
  2. Visions, by Stevie Wonder
  3. Eyes on the Prize, by M. Ward
  4. When Will I See You Again, by Lord Huron
  5. Kid A, by Radiohead
  6. Subterranean Homesick Alien, by Radiohead
  7. Ridin’ in my Car, by She & Him
  8. BAKL, by Loney Dear
  9. When the Night Turns Cold, by Tobias Froberg
  10. Ask for Answers, by Placebo

HAIKU

Identified, weak / crying like a baby for / a mother, healer

Bible Leads: Psalm 111

TEXT

Psalm 111

Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.
Full of honour and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures for ever.
He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and merciful.
He provides food for those who fear him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.
The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy.
They are established for ever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
He sent redemption to his people;
he has commanded his covenant for ever.
Holy and awesome is his name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practise it have a good understanding.
His praise endures for ever.

  1. Congregation of Shape Note Singers
  2. Great are the works of the Lord
  3. On Wisdom
  4. Redemption…but only crudely so

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  1. Who is in your ‘congregation’?
  2. In what ways are you mindful of God’s covenant?
  3. What would it look like if your town were governed by the statute: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom?
  4. In what ways do you practice the “fear of the Lord”?

IMAGE

DSCF6058
Personal photo

SOUNDTRACK

Spotify Playlist

  1. My Home Town, by Blitzen Trapper
  2. Take Me Home, Country Roads, by John Denver
  3. All My Days, by Alexi Murdoch
  4. Can’t Exist, by Joseph Arthur
  5. Cigarette Daydreams, by Cage the Elephant
  6. Shake it Out, by Florence + the Machine
  7. Dreams Where I Am Sleeping, by The Tree Ring
  8. Keep Your Head Up, by Ben Howard
  9. Thunder Clatter, by Wild Cub
  10. DJ, by Alphabeat

HAIKU

Entering / Fade into many / but still one

Bible Leads: Psalm 48

TEXT

A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites.
Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God.
His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation,
is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north,
the city of the great King.
Within its citadels God
has shown himself a sure defence.Then the kings assembled,
they came on together.
As soon as they saw it, they were astounded;
they were in panic, they took to flight;
trembling took hold of them there,
pains as of a woman in labour,
as when an east wind shatters
the ships of Tarshish.
As we have heard, so have we seen
in the city of the Lord of hosts,
in the city of our God,
which God establishes for ever.
Selah

We ponder your steadfast love, O God,
in the midst of your temple.
Your name, O God, like your praise,
reaches to the ends of the earth.
Your right hand is filled with victory.
Let Mount Zion be glad,
let the towns of Judah rejoice
because of your judgements.

Walk about Zion, go all around it,
count its towers,
consider well its ramparts;
go through its citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
that this is God,
our God for ever and ever.
He will be our guide for ever.

  1. Korahites
  2. See Isaiah 30 for a different idea of what God’s realm is like, compare to the last stanza of this psalm.
  3. How to Write a Psalm
  4. Concerning towers and citadels: The Tower of David
  5. About “Selah”

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  1. In what ways is God your guide?
  2. What have you discovered by ‘pondering the steadfast love of God’?
  3. In what ways is God calling you to carry God’s name to the ends of the earth?
  4. What holy things would you discover walking around your city?

IMAGE

“Portland Aerial Tram” by Patrick M (cc)

SOUNDTRACK

YouTube Playlist (mostly live cuts) || Spotify Playlist
  1. Rise to the Sun, by Alabama Shakes
  2. Who Is It, by Bjork
  3. To Save Me, by M. Ward
  4. Running Wild, by Matt Pond PA
  5. Road to Zion, by Petra
  6. Fire’s Highway, by Japandroids
  7. Cayman Islands, by Kings of Convenience
  8. King of the Mountain, by Midnight Oil
  9. He Doesn’t Know Why, by Fleet Foxes
  10. Down the Hillside, by Jose Gonzalez

HAIKU

Looking up / for security / and splendor

Bible Leads: Mark 4:35-41

Bible Leads is a rendering of my sermon preparation: researching facts & cross-references, drawing up connections through personal experiences, art and music and discerning the essence of the text.


Text

Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

  1. Nine+ minutes of guys in a sea storm (might be some foul words)
  2. A bit of a tangent, but Sleeping Through a Revolution
  3. Peace Be Still
  4. Report of Slave Ship found wrecked off coast of South Africa

Reflection Questions

  1. In what ways has fear altered your decisions in life?
  2. Does Jesus care about those who are perishing? If so, in what ways does Jesus care? If not, why not?
  3. What has been your most fierce encounter with nature (tornado, earthquake, etc.)?
  4. What does it mean for you to remain calm in the midst of the storm?

Image

Rembrandt_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Lake_of_Galilee

“Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee” by Rembrandt (public domain)


Soundtrack

1) This Tornado Loves You, by Neko Case 2) After the Storm, by Mumford and Sons 3) Calm Down, by Loney Dear 4) Peace of Mind, by Bad Brains 5) Oceania, By Björk 6) Meet Me in the Basement, by Broken Social Scene 7) Go to Sleep, by The Avett Brothers 8) Last Boat to America, by David Gray 9) One Piece, by Dog & Panther 10) Someone Saved My Life Tonight, by Elton John

YouTube Playlist || Spotify Playlist


Haiku

Death swarms ’round / Lord dead to the world / unafraid

Bible Leads: John 15:1-8

Bible Leads is a rendering of my sermon preparation: researching facts & cross-references, drawing up connections through personal experiences, art and music and discerning the essence of the text.


Text

John 15:1-8

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

  1. See Isaiah 5:1-10: Cross-reference courtesy of The Jewish New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler.
  2. “Abide” in John’s gospel: John 6:51-61 & John 14:12-22.
  3. A grainy but informative video on pruning a fruit tree.
  4. Modern Israeli farmers are harvesting wastewater to grow their fruit orchards.

Reflection Questions

  1. What have been your most fruitful losses?
  2. In what ways does hope appear when you’re facing a loss?
  3. What fruit are you bearing today?
  4. What obstacles in your life need pruned?

Image

15272709751_bec18f0f94_k

Image: Backlit grapes, by Sheila Sund


Soundtrack

  1. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2.
  2. Lacrimosa by Mozart.
  3. Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell.
  4. The First Time I Ran Away by M. Ward.
  5. Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound by Nanci Griffith.

Full Playlist


Haiku

Dull pain replaces / That thing you thought unneeded / But I disagree.

Bible Leads: Luke 24:36b-48

The Text

Luke 24:36b-48

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened (see: fear in Luke), and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ (see: Luke 12:22-39 also see: Acts 28:16-31) Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.


Reflection Questions

  1. In what ways do you struggle with forgiveness?
  2. What was the most significant moment when your ‘mind was opened’?
  3. In what ways have you been a witness for Jesus?
  4. How might God be calling you to be a witness today?

Image

GaudenzioFerrari_StorieCristo_Varallo

Stories of Life and Passion of Christ, by Gaudenzio Ferrari (public domain)


Soundtrack

  1. Whatever I Fear by Toad the Wet Sprocket
  2. Unforgiven by Beck
  3. Heart of the Matter by Don Henley
  4. There’s a Key by M. Ward
  5. Resurrection Fern by Iron & Wine
  6. The Fall by Red Hunter

Full Playlist


Haiku

Hand on pounding heart / He’s alive, I gave him fish / He’s forgiven me.


Bible Leads is a rendering of my sermon preparation: researching facts & cross-references, drawing up connections through personal experiences, art and music and discerning the essence of the text.