Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Year of Summiting the Mount

(This blog post is reposted from, a weekly blog that I wrote in 2012 as I preached through the Sermon on the Mount at the Littleton Church of Christ. Below is my reflection and resources from the year.)

1 year.
12 months.
366 was a leap year.
8,784 hours.
527,040 minutes. 

All of it spent dwelling in three chapters of the Bible. Matthew 5, 6 & 7. 

It's changed my life. I'll never preach again without the Sermon on the Mount influencing everything I say. I'll never be able to walk through life again without snippets of this sermon floating around in my head. 

I'm grateful. I needed this sermon this year. Our church needed this sermon this year. 

But as I place my commentaries and resources from this series back on my bookshelf, I find myself a bit saddened. These books and these red letters have been my companions for the past 12 months. 

I believe the Sermon on the Mount is the center of Scripture. It's Jesus' central message. It's the life we're called to live as followers of Jesus. It's "The Good Life." 

It seems impossible. But at the moment I sense the sermon's hardest pinch in my life, I'm relieved to listen again to the first word out of Jesus' mouth in chapter 5...


And that's the way I feel at the end of 2012. 

If you've spent the year wandering through Matthew 5-7 with me, feel free to use this as a resource in the future. Pass it on to friends and loved ones. 

If you're stumbling upon this blog for the first time in this post, perhaps you'd like to start a similar journey through the Sermon on the Mount this year. The thoughts and questions found on this blog are just bread crumbs I've left for you to find your way toward "The Good Life" that Jesus offers.

Let me conclude with the list of resources I used this year as we journeyed through the Sermon on the Mount.

-Matthew 5-7 (the indispensable words of Jesus)
-Living the Sermon on the Mount - Glen Stassen
-The Divine Conspiracy - Dallas Willard
-The Good and Beautiful Life - James Bryan Smith
-Heaven on Earth - Josh Graves & Chris Seidman
-Lucky - Glenn Packiam
-Matthew and the Margins - Warren Carter
-Matthew For Everyone - N. T. Wright
-Various Commentaries - (Word Biblical Commentary & Interpretation)


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

How We Read the Bible - Part 10

10 posts. I thought it would be about 4, but I could have written 20.

I'm guessing this series has unsettled some of you.

I'm hopeful that this series has suggested a way forward that you might consider personally and in your church.

Now, let me end with a few cautions.

First, my proposal is likely very exciting for a younger generation that is caught in the midst of a postmodern shift. Any reading of Scripture that doesn't leave room for a diversity of interpretations will likely sound too narrow for those of you in that group. Be careful about your excitement. Check your motives.

Second, if this series has frightened you about the future of Churches of Christ, part of your discomfort probably derives from a fear that Churches of Christ might depart from the Truth (capital "T"). We had it right. Why do you young people have to come in and destroy what was working? Let me say: Your voice is needed.

Here comes the hard part.

Though it might have sounded like it at times in my blog series, I am not suggesting that we move toward a "Reader-Response Hermeneutic." A Reader-Response Hermeneutic isn't interested in what the original author intended to say...the work of exegesis. That hermeneutic suggests that the reader shouldn't seek to find meaning in the text, but instead the reader comes to the text to create meaning. In other words, however the text impacts the reader is the meaning of the text to that reader.

In reality, many of us do this when we read the text in our devotional time. We hear things in the text that couldn't have possibly been intended by Jesus or the Apostle Paul. Context is vitally important! If it's not, I wasted 6 years of my life in Abilene, Texas.

In the end, we don't declare our biases so that we can read the text independently from others and come up with our own opinions.

That's not why I've written this blog series.

Instead, we do the hard work of making our biases more conscious and more faithful to the story of Scripture so that we can engage in the reading of Scripture more honestly as a member of the Body of Christ.

Somewhere we came up with the idea that we check our church's decisions and judge them against our own notions about what church should be like. Does the preacher agree with me? Is worship done in a way that I agree with? Does worship move me emotionally?

When we allow those questions to determine what church we attend, we end up sitting in the pew with  people who share the same racial background, socioeconomic level, theological tendencies, and watch the same cable news channel.

But I'm suggesting that individuals should do the opposite. We should submit our biases to the community of faith...not the other way around.

I think I'm right about everything. I believe if the church would just do everything I tell them to do, we would be in a better place. I believe that my interpretation of Scripture is the same as God's intent in every case.

And I bet you do too.

But I'm not right about everything. I'm guessing, I'm wrong about a lot.

And that's why God gave us the church.

I am part of a generation that doesn't trust the church all that much. The church is a messy place. The church is part of the reason why unbelievers continue to reject Jesus. We're anything but perfect.

But I do believe something mysterious happens in a church that communally discerns through the power of the Holy Spirit. I do believe God works in a church that allows diverse, godly voices to interpret Scripture together.

The Old Hermeneutic (command, example, necessary inference) never really worked. It was supposed to be a way to agree to agree. But we find ourselves more divided than ever.

I'm suggesting a new hermeneutic. It's a hermeneutic that admits that we pick and choose. It's a hermeneutic full of bias. It's a hermeneutic of vulnerability where we submit our biases as openly as we can to the community of faith.

But ultimately, a new hermeneutic is useless unless we intend to read Scripture with the intent of being changed by what we read.

So, get a Bible and read. You might be surprised by what you find. And you might be surprised by what you become.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How We Read the Bible - Part 9

In this post, I want to suggest a model for how you might begin to make your biases more conscious.

A few years ago, I began to notice some consistent patterns in my interpretation of Scripture.

I noticed there were passages of Scripture that I turned to more often than others. Today, those continue to be the Scriptures that I superimpose (You can read more about this in Part 4) onto other passages when conflict arises in my interpretation.

But I admit that my theology is influenced by many factors. I'm certain that I have blind spots and I'm guessing my biases will continue to be shaped in the years to come. Ultimately, I'm depending on the grace of God to cover my sin and errors in my theology.

I truly believe I'm right about everything. If I didn't think I was correct, I would change my mind. Few people consciously choose to be in error. Usually those people have some kind of of mental condition.

And if I'm intellectually honest, I have to admit that certain parts of Scripture that if taken on their own would disagree with my theology.

So, I developed a list of Scriptures that support my hermeneutical biases and a list that contradicts my theological biases.

Now, that seems counterintuitive because we're so used to arguing for our side that we intentionally hide parts of Scripture that disagree with us. But I believe admitting weaknesses in our theology keeps us more accountable to the positions we hold.

So, here's my list. I won't describe how each of these texts supports/disagrees with my theology, but I'd be glad to chat with any of you who want to discuss my list in more detail...especially if you are interested in creating a similar list of your own.

Core Scriptures (Passages that support my core theology)
Genesis 1-2
Genesis 12:1-3
Exodus 14:15-31
1 Samuel 8
Isaiah 2:1-5
Isaiah 11
Isaiah 55
Isaiah 65:17-25 
Daniel 7:13-28
Matthew 5-7
Matthew 25:31-46
Mark 1:14-15
Luke 4:18-21
Acts 15:1-35
Romans 8
1 Corinthians 15:3-8
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; 1 Cor. 12:13 
Philippians 2:5-11
Hebrews 1:1-3
Hebrews 13:11-14
James 1:27
Revelation 18
Revelation 21-22

Problem Scriptures (Passages that trouble me or seemingly contradict my core theology)
Genesis 22:1-19
Deuteronomy 7:1-2
Deuteronomy 20
Deuteronomy 28:1-14
Joshua 6:16-17
Joshua 11:7-23
Matthew 10:34
Matthew 17:20-21; John 16:23-24
1 Corinthians 14:33b-35
1 Timothy 2:11-15
1 Peter 2:13-18
Revelation 19:11-21

Thoughts? You're welcome to leave your list as well.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

How We Read the Bible - Part 8

While I have many more biases I could develop, my three main hermeneutical biases are:

1) Privilege Jesus over all else in Scripture.
2) Privilege a metanarrative of God's eventual plan to restore all of creation.
3) Privilege a hermeneutic that results in love.

Many attempts have been made to deconstruct the Old Hermeneutic (command, example, necessary inference) that dominated Churches of Christ throughout the 20th century. In my first couple of posts in this series, I shared why that way of reading Scripture didn't work for its original purpose: unity.

My goal from the beginning of this blog series has been to create an alternative proposal for how we might read Scripture faithfully in the years to come.

In this blog series, I've attempted to show you that we all "pick and choose" in our interpretation of Scripture. We all have experiences and personal biases that impact the way we read the Bible.

In my last 3 posts, I've tried to model what we can begin to do in our churches as we read Scripture within a faith community. I have made some of my biases public so that they can be scrutinized and critiqued by others. Because the worst thing we can do is allow our biases to operate subconsciously or secretly as we maintain the illusion that we interpret Scripture free from any bias at all.

And my hope is that more of us would be willing to allow our biased hermeneutic to be challenged and critiqued within the community of faith. But this can only happen as others are willing to submit their own biased hermeneutic. This project cannot succeed if everyone is unwilling to admit their assumptions as they approach Scripture. But it can be incredibly powerful if a group of church leaders were willing to vulnerably "show their cards" as they discern Scripture together.

Perhaps it would change our elderships like it did one of my small groups a couple of years ago. Over a series of 10 Wednesday nights, each group member shared our faith stories. We shared deep wounds and great triumphs. It took one brave member who "got real" on the first night and each person was willing to go even deeper as we processed our lives together.

And let me tell you this: It's much harder to pass judgment when you know someone's story. And it's impossible to pass judgment when you bear your own soul to that same group of people. All of a sudden, you understand how life circumstances can shape a person's theology to be a bit different from yours. And over time, you realize that God gifts a church with diverse people for wonderful reasons.

And that's the dynamic that has to occur in our elder/staff meetings.

What would happen if we stopped coming to meetings armed to do battle with Scripture and started coming together to discern God's future for the church vulnerably with our wounds, stories, and biases well known to everyone in the circle?

Would you be willing to share your biases in that setting? How would that experience change your church?

In the next post, I'll suggest a model for how we might make think through our biases more systematically.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How We Read the Bible - Part 7

My third hermeneutical bias is to read Scripture with a bias of love.

Now, that might sound sentimental or nice, but it's not a goal that everyone sets out to accomplish.

I've heard it before from segments of Churches of Christ. "Of course we're supposed to love people. I love people...enough to tell them what's going to send them to hell."

That's one perspective on love. And it's a true question that gets at part of what love is about. But there's more to love than just letting people know when they're well on their way to burn in hell eternally.

One thing I've noticed in my life is that knowledge doesn't necessarily make people more loving. Paul says it this way in 1 Corinthians 8:1b: "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." Spend a day attending classes in any theological seminary and you'll see how relevant Paul's words are. I've been there.

Shane Claiborne says it this way: "I've learned that people can be right and still be mean!"

And to that I'd like to add: "You can be correct, yet if you have not love, you are wrong."

Because the aim of Scripture isn't for us to know more about the Bible. The aim of Scripture is for us to look more like the God behind the Bible, who just happens to be described as a God of love.

Later in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul writes a wedding homily for all of us in the 21st century. Paul says,

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing."

Ouch! On second thought, I don't think that's the preamble to Paul's wedding sermon. It's a stinging critique of people who are using God-given gifts without the required Christian ingredient: love.

And we might not have musical instruments on stage in many Churches of Christ, but I'm certain Paul would be much more concerned about the "clanging cymbals" of ministers and members who condone hate and division under the banner of "speaking the truth in love."

John puts it plainly in 1 John 4:7-8: "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."

Our reading of Scripture ought to produce a certain kind of person. What kind of fruit is our hermeneutic producing? The more we spend time with Scripture, the more loving we ought to be.


Monday, December 03, 2012

How We Read the Bible - Part 6

My second hermeneutical bias is to interpret Scripture in light of God's restoration of all things.

What do I mean? Let me explain...

Many of us make an error when we read Scripture. Many people start reading their Bibles in Genesis 3 and stop reading them in Revelation 20. OK...not literally. Every Bible begins with Genesis 1 and ends with Revelation 22, but we act as if the main storyline of Scripture disregards the first two and last two chapters of the Bible.

What do I mean? Let me explain...

If I were to ask you to explain the gospel (good news) to me, what story would you tell? It's a crucial question. And your answer ought to deeply impact the way you interpret the text.

Most current explanations of the gospel answer the question: "What must I do to be saved?" So, the good news goes something like this: Humans have sinned and been separated from God. On our own, we are unable to pay our debt, so God sent Jesus as a substitute sin offering so our relationship with God could be reestablished.

The old song describes this view well. "He paid a debt he did not owe. I owed a debt I could not pay. I needed someone to wash my sins away...Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay."

The problem is where this version of the gospel starts reading Scripture. It begins in Genesis 3 rather than Genesis 1. Genesis 3 presents the problem. And the rest of Scripture is trying to fix the problem.

But did you notice who the main character is in that story? Somehow I became the main character in the story. God is a supporting actor who works to makes me acceptable again.

It's a gospel of personal salvation. It's a gospel of justification.

But what if that's not the whole story?

What if the story actually began in Genesis 1? Then, the story doesn't begin with a begins with a vision of a good world. And if the story ends in Revelation 22, then maybe this story isn't primarily about me. Then, it would be about the entire world, which incidentally happens to include every one of us.

Give me a hearing...

The Bible begins in a garden...a perfect garden. And God calls his creation good. And when he creates humans, he calls us good. And once Adam finds Eve, he calls it all very good.

But things go badly wrong. These good humans rebel. It starts with a piece of fruit, but it quickly escalates into murder...which escalates into every inclination of people's hearts being evil all the time. Several relationships fall into disaster (God & humans, creation & humans, humans & humans). The world is now broken and in need of repair.

In Genesis 3, the curse is announced. And while many have concluded the curses are prescriptive. I don't see them that way. I believe they are descriptive. Once sin is unleashed on the world, tornadoes begin to wreak havoc, men tend to treat women as property, and work becomes our taskmaster.

But God never intended those consequences would last forever. He had in mind a community that would begin to reverse those consequences. And if you believe those curses shouldn't be reversed, then be sure to get rid of your epidurals (Gen. 3:16) and fertilizer (Gen. 3:17).

And so in an effort to reverse the curse, God covenants with Israel as his contrast community. Israel is to be a community unlike any other nation in the world. Rather than Israel dominating the world, God longed for his people to fascinate the world. But soon enough, they looked like all of the other nations. And then they were exiled and lived among the nations.

But God...clearly the 2 most important words in Scripture...but God sent his son Jesus into the world to live a life of contrast in ways that Israel never could. Jesus was the exact representation of God's being.  He announced and incarnated the Kingdom of God, which is the perfect reign of God in the world.

And through Jesus' resurrection, a new power was unleashed that made it possible for a contrast community (the church) to emerge that could live as the new humanity. Jesus called his church to live as a sign and foretaste of heaven on earth. We pray heaven to earth and we invite the Holy Spirit to bring heaven to earth through us. And that's why we consider ourselves like exiles and aliens who have our citizenship in heaven.

Yet, our hope still lies on the horizon. Because we dream of a day when God will restore everything back to the way he intended it in the beginning.

Which takes us back to Revelation 21 & 22. In the end, Scripture doesn't describe an other-worldly existence on the clouds with harps and chocolate fountains. In fact, the goal isn't to escape the earth and go to heaven, as I grew up imagining. Instead, Revelation 21 describes a picture of the New Jerusalem descending to the earth from above.

In the end, despite the Left Behind series and its message, God doesn't seem to want to create World War III. Instead, he fulfills the hopes of the prophets who describe a day when the wolf and lamb will feed together, swords will be turned into plowshares, and we will train for war no more.

So, how do we live? We live bearing witness to the world on its way. We give people a taste of heaven on earth. We live like Jesus.

And that has everything to do with how I interpret Scripture.

It's why Galatians 3:26-28 is such a crucial passage in my theology. Without the metanarrative I've laid out, it's easy to read Scripture in a way that supports slavery. It's even possible to read Scripture in a way that urges racism and tribalism. And in the minds of many, Scripture still supports a hierarchy, which relegates women to second class status in the church.

In Galatians 3:26-28, Paul argues that in God's new creation there will be no more racism, slavery, or gender hierarchy. Because we will all be one in Christ Jesus.

Unfortunately, the culture has led the way in fulfilling Galatians 3:26-28 ahead of the church.

It wasn't the church leading the battle against racism in all of its forms. Even today, 10:00 on Sunday morning is the most racially divided hour in our culture. And the church defends segregation on Sunday mornings in the name of "Church Growth."

It wasn't the church that led the Abolitionist Movement. Many preachers were writing sermons defending slavery rather than pointing the way toward God's future.

And all too often the church isn't lessening the divide between genders. We're perpetuating the curse rather than reversing it through our public silencing of the gifts of half of our church. And the body of Christ is worse for it. Culture is ahead of us again.

It should not be this way! The church should be the contrast community that points the world to heaven, but instead, we've followed the very culture we're called to fascinate.

Heaven is on its way. And it's the church's role to live into God's future. We are to put heaven on display to the world.

And that's a bias that's not just about me. It's about the entire world.