Opening the Bible by Thomas Merton

I recently had the privilege of reading a wonderful little book, called Opening the Bible, written by the renowned Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  His thoughts on reading the Scriptures were written decades ago but remain poignant and relevant as much today as in his time. Just to offer a taste, I will share three quotes.

First, to all of us who have ever approached the sacred text seeking to learn a truth or find out what to teach or preach, Merton demonstrates that we are missing the depth to which the Scriptures invite us to go:

“The Bible raises the question of identity in a way no other book does.  As Barth pointed out: when you begin to question the Bible you find that the Bible is also questioning you. When you ask: ‘What is this book?’ you find that you are also implicitly being asked: ‘Who is this that reads it?’” (p. 27).

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Have you ever experienced that? If not, your reading of the Bible has been woefully superficial! I admit that in my rush and my ministerial demands, many times I have not taken the time to allow the Bible to read me.  But only then will true transformation occur!  In fact, Merton says later that any reader of the Bible must be prepared to be changed drastically:

“We cannot enter into this dynamic of freedom and understanding unless, in reading the Bible, we somehow become aware that we are problems to ourselves.  The Bible is a message of reconciliation and unity, but in order to awaken us to our need for unity it brings out the contradictions within us and makes us aware of a fundamental division” (p. 80).

A lot of us are uncomfortable with those contradictions! We want the Scriptures to encourage and assure us, but when they examine and reproach us, will we invite God into even those most discordant of places?

Merton challenges us even further.  Many of us would agree that it requires great faith to accept God at his word without any backtalk.  But what if dialogue, and even argument, between God and us reveals an even deeper level of faith and intimacy? I leave you with the following quote:

“Any serious reading of the Bible means personal involvement in it, not simply mental agreement with abstract propositions.  And involvement is dangerous, because it lays one open to unforeseen conclusions.  That is why we prefer if possible to remain uninvolved.  In 2 Samuel 12:1-10, we read how David, a man of quick and hot emotional response, listens to a story of Nathan and becomes involved in it to the point of intense and righteous indignation, and then discovers that the malefactor who so angers him is himself!

We all instinctively know that it is dangerous to become involved in the Bible. The book judges us, or seems to judge us, on terms to which at first we could not possibly agree.

The Bible itself, in the Book of Job, gives us a pattern of healthy disagreement. Not only that, but throughout the whole Old Testament in particular we find people (like Abraham) arguing with God and being implicitly praised for it.  The point is, then, that becoming involved in the Bible does not mean simply taking everything it says without the slightest murmur of difficulty.  It means at once being willing to argue and fight back, provided that if we are clearly wrong we will finally admit it. The Bible prefers honest disagreement to a dishonest submission.

One of the basic truths put forward in the Bible as a whole is not merely that God is always right and man is always wrong, but that God and man can face each other in an authentic dialog: one which implies “a true reciprocity between persons, each of whom fully respects the other’s rights and his freedom” (pp. 43-44).

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Think on These Things

By Carla Sunberg

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9 (NRSV)

To quote John Maxwell, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” This is often the case, whether in the secular world or in the church. These words from the Apostle Paul are a reminder that those who are in leadership must be careful about their attitude. The way in which leaders look at the world will have an influence on those around them.

I have recently read the book, “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling. In this book, and in his TED talk, he begins to challenge our negative notions. Why do I bring this up? Because I find that the church often becomes a breeding ground for negative thinking and conversation. If we were to believe all we hear about Christianity and the church, we might all be ready to throw in the towel and give up. Spending much time on social media or listening to the news, can skew our perspective on the world. We have become addicted to negative news, and it is creating a crisis of anxiety in our world. Paul was trying to give us a prescription for that fear.

Rosling tells us that we have allowed the negativity instinct to kick into high gear, meaning that we focus much more on the negative than we do on the positive. Our instinct is “to notice the bad more than the good.” He gives three reasons for this: 1) “misremembering of the past,” 2) “selective reporting by journalists and activists,” and 3) “the feeling that as long as things are bad, it’s heartless to say they are getting better.”

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Just imagine if we were to put the church into this paradigm. Often we reminisce about the past and the “good old days.” We wish we could go back to those days when the “church was full” and “everything ran so well.” Unfortunately, we fail to remember the struggles the church faced then and that things may not be worse than that now. At the same time, we have a media that is ready to pounce on every negative story about a church leader they can find. As both religious journals and the secular news openly dissect them, we hear the details of major failures. Rarely is there news about the good work the church is doing in a community. Our hearts are stirred with empathy for the bad news we receive on a regular basis, but eventually compassion fatigue begins to settle in, and we become exhausted responding to the latest disaster.

Let us listen again to the words of Paul. “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” This is the antidote we all need because it will help us to reframe our lives from a positive perspective. According to Rosling, “The loss of hope is probably the most devastating consequence of the negativity instinct and the ignorance it causes.” Leading people to a place of hope is possible when we pull away from the negativity instinct.

Leaders must intentionally lead the way, helping the church community develop a more positive manner of looking at our world. God is still on the throne. Christ has not changed His mind about His bride, the Church! Remember, Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The reality is that in many ways the world is getting better. There will still be bad news and difficult times, but overall there is improvement. I believe this is true in the life of the church as well. Is the church in some parts of the world aging? Yes! Is that creating an issue that makes it difficult to show that there is a net positive increase? Yes! However, that does not mean that the church is not reaching out and still leading thousands of people to Christ every year. Did you catch that? Somewhere around 120,000 people made a profession of faith last year through the work of the global Church of the Nazarene. Last year 501 new churches were organized, and over 100 of those were in the United States and Canada.

As I write this article, I am in Mozambique. Yesterday I sat with leaders in this country who are passionate about following Jesus. A few years ago, the district superintendents and other leaders got together to talk about what was happening in their country. They recognized a deep spiritual hunger among the people and an open door to the gospel. Realizing that they had been handed a significant opportunity, they knew they needed to act. The synergy of God and man, working together, resulted in a five-year strategic plan for the expansion of the work of the Kingdom in Mozambique. This included the addition of new districts and centers for discipleship and pastoral development. In the first three years, the church grew by 10 percent, and soon they will be meeting to assess the current effectiveness of the plan. They could have been overcome by poor conditions in parts of this country. They could have made excuses about the lack of funding and the challenging climate. Instead, they chose to focus on the positive and move in a direction where God was leading.

It is time to change our thinking and allow the Holy Spirit to transform our minds. Then we can lead the church in the direction where Christ is going. This will only happen when we intentionally practice truthfulness, focus on what is honorable, do what is just, have pure thoughts, engage in pleasing actions, practice excellence, and spend time praising and commending others. Let us think on these things.

Salt of the Earth

By Charles W. Christian

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” — Matthew 5:13

Salt has, in some ways, developed a bad reputation these days. It can cause high blood pressure and heart issues when it is over used. Part of the reason salt has developed its reputation is that it is so accessible. That has not always been the case, of course. In ancient times, salt was relatively rare. Salt that could be used for consumption was even rarer.

In ancient times, salt could be a method of payment, and until the invention of canning and refrigeration, salt was the main way in which food was preserved for storage. While the overuse of salt can have ill effects on health, salt is an essential mineral for human life.

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Jesus calls His followers the “salt of the earth.”

This means we are God’s agents of preservation and health for this world. That is a big calling! God actually wishes to use us to help keep the world from rotting. We are agents that prevent the decay of our world by sharing the good news of God’s love and grace. When we choose not to participate in God’s agenda for us and for our world, we “lose our saltiness” and can actually become part of the problem.

As Nazarenes, we define holiness as both an individual experience and as an ongoing experience of participating with all of God’s people in the furthering of God’s ways in the world. In other words, there is both an individual and a social component to holiness.

Individually, we are transformed by God so that together we may be the “salt of the earth.” May we look for Spirit-led ways to be agents of God’s transforming love in the world this week and always.

Prayer for the Week:

Lord, we are Yours. As we surrender to You, may you move us from the ways of darkness to the ways of light. In so doing, may we become your instruments of peace, love, and preservation in the world, so that others can be prepared to receive your Holy Spirit and walk with us in the eternal glory of Your presence. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

*Charles W. Christian is managing editor of Holiness Today.

This article was originally published at Holiness Today.

Advent: Four Elements of “Wait Training”

In the previous post, we heard from Pastor Rich Villodas as he taught us about how Advent is a season for “Wait Training.” In part two of his article, originally published at Missio Alliance, we now look at four practical ways we can learn to bear fruit in our spiritual lives as we wait during this season.

By Rich Villodas

Four Important Elements of Waiting

1. Reflective Prayer

Henri Nouwen has said, “Active waiting is waiting that pays attention, is fully present to what is really going on, even when to all outward appearances, nothing is going on.”

One of the primary ways of this kind of waiting that pays attention is in reflective prayer. Prayer is not simply articulating our needs before God. It’s also making ourselves available for God to articulate his movements before us.

Advent is a season of waiting in a posture of prayerful attention. It’s often when we get silent that we can finally begin to trace God’s movements in our lives.

2. Friends on the Journey

Waiting is much easier when done in community. This is one of the reasons Jesus asked his disciples to join him as he awaited his death (unfortunately they fell asleep on him!). Advent is a reminder that waiting is a communal act.

Mary and Elizabeth wait together.

Simeon and Anna wait in community.

The people of God expectantly waited together.

Advent is an invitation to seek out friends on the journey who will help us process, discern and sit in silence with us as we discern God’s activity.

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3. The Hearing of the Gospel Preached

As we wait, our souls need to be grounded in hope that comes from the proclamation of the gospel. We each need a word spoken to us regularly that reminds us of God’s faithful coming in Jesus.

Sunday worship is not a time to get religious goodies and head home. It’s an opportunity to open ourselves to God’s creative word, which is to anchor us in a story that is often at odds with the stories we tell ourselves.

4. Waiting is an Active Activity 

To wait on the Lord doesn’t mean inactivity. It doesn’t mean a refusal to take initiative, or to seek and search for opportunities (a new job, a romantic relationship, etc.). Rather, it’s a refusal to move without connecting our lives to God in prayer and reflection, first and often.

Eugene Peterson has said, “Waiting in prayer is a disciplined refusal to act before God acts.”

Sometimes waiting on the Lord means “staying put” in a particular situation until you get further instructions. At other times, it requires us to move forward—but in a way that is grounded in prayer.

Ultimately, to wait on the Lord is a way of life that comes against our tendencies to be impulsive, to be anxiously reactive, and wise in our own eyes.

If decisions are being made that are anxiously reactive and impulsive, chances are we need some practice in waiting on the Lord.

Advent reminds us that God has come, is coming, and will come again. It’s a great opportunity to train our souls in waiting.

This article was originally published at: Missio Alliance.

Advent: A Season of “Wait Training”

By Rich Villodas (originally published on Missio Alliance)

There’s nothing that unites us in the experience of being human quite like waiting. No matter our age, our education, our accomplishments, or time spent following Jesus, we will have to wait.

This is why the Advent season is necessary for the shaping of our lives.

Each of the seasons of the Liturgical Calendar leads us in paying particular attention to Christian themes and practices. Lent reminds us, among many things, to place God’s way—and not our appetites—as the guiding principle for our lives. Eastertide calls us to live a spirituality of feasting and joy anchored in Christ’s resurrection. Pentecost gives us a vision of life filled with God’s power because the Spirit has been poured out on us.

The Advent season is one in which God trains us in waiting.

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Wait Training

This training is oriented towards the formation of our lives because what God does in us as we wait is more important than what we are waiting for.

Many of the stories of scripture point to the excruciating pain and trouble experienced by the people of God because of their refusal to wait for God. This has been our story to this day.

For example, in Exodus 32 (the story of the golden calf), the Israelites, in a moment of anxiety, impulsively fashion an idol to provide security for themselves because Moses was nowhere to be found. This idol creation came days after God informed them that this kind of religious practice was off limits now that they were delivered from Pharaoh.

Anxiety will make us do irrational things.

Their waiting was difficult because they couldn’t see what God was up to. 

It’s hard for us to wait—and not just because we are impatient.

It’s hard to wait because we often don’t believe God is at work in our lives.

But Advent reminds us that God has come, is coming, and will come again. It’s the annual reminder that God is for creation and moves towards us.

Even so, it’s hard to wait. One of the primary reasons it’s hard to wait is because our understanding of waiting has been incomplete.

As a pastor, I’m frequently asked to help people understand what it means to wait on the Lord. In the next post I will share four elements that I have learned along the way about WAITING. 

Welcoming the Wilderness During Advent

The following excerpt is from “Advent is a Season of Longing,” written by Carolyn Arends and published in Christianity Today.

People are rarely neutral about the approach of Christmastime. Some of us reside at a North Pole of intense anticipation and excitement, while others of us hole up at a South Pole of irritation and dread.

If the latter is the case, it’s important to remember that Advent is a season all about longing and emptiness and waiting. It is a season set aside to help us realize that we need deliverance from our current condition.

Not coincidentally, two of this year’s Old Testament and the New Testament lectionary readings—Isaiah 40 and Mark 1—each begin in the same place. They are both set in the wilderness.

In Isaiah 40, the Israelites are at a South Pole of political exile and spiritual desolation. After chapter upon chapter of warnings and judgment, God begins to speak assurance through his prophet.

“Comfort, comfort my people,” he begins. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (v. 1). And then a voice cries, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (v. 3).

This metaphor of a kind of superhighway being made through the wilderness is a favorite theme of Isaiah’s. It asks the listener to picture the rough, nearly impassable terrain to the east of Jerusalem being smoothed out into a wide and welcoming path. To the Israelite ear, the voice of one calling to prepare the way in the wilderness means not only that they are going to get to go home, but also that the Lord himself is on his way.

And it’s not just Isaiah calling us to prepare a way. In the New Testament Advent reading, the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark include a direct quote from Isaiah 40. Mark tells us that now the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” is John the Baptist, who has arrived on the scene as a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And John’s sole focus is heralding the coming of the king—of Jesus—who is the direct fulfillment of every promise ever made to God’s people.

It’s important to note that John is not only a voice crying to the wilderness—he’s a voice crying in the wilderness, from the wilderness. He’s a desert dweller, and his ministry is unfolding in the barren places east of Jerusalem.

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So, why did John choose to live in the wilderness? You would think a young man with a spiritual pedigree would set up shop in the most influential synagogue around—or better yet, in the temple—and wait for the religious leaders to recognize his authority. But John chose instead to head for the hills. What did he know about the wilderness that we don’t?

Maybe John chose to live in the wilderness because he’d heard enough of the history of Israel to know that God specializes in bringing good things out of unpromising places.

After all, God had worked out salvation history through childless couples, feuding brothers, stuttering leaders, wayward kings, and, now, in Jesus, a young man of questionable paternity born and raised in a series of backwater towns. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” a potential disciple had incredulously asked when he heard where Jesus was from.

John knew that, yes, when God is involved, something good could come from even a town of questionable repute like Nazareth. And something good could come from the wilderness, too.

So, if you find yourself at a South Pole this Advent, consider the possibility that you are being offered the gifts of the wilderness. Advent is a time for waiting, and the wilderness is as good a place as any—maybe the best place of any—to wait. If you’re feeling a little empty, maybe that’s a good thing. After all, there is a voice crying in the wilderness, and he’s asking us to prepare him room.

–Carolyn Arends is director of education at the Renovaré Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation. She is also a recording artist, speaker, author, and college instructor.

Analysis and Interpretation of the Pastoral Role

By Rev. Ernesto Bathermy

As we analyzed and interpreted the images of a shepherd/pastor from the Old and New Testaments in the previous article, those texts shed light on our work and responsibilities as pastors:

  1. Feed the flock

When we speak of feeding the sheep, we refer to teaching and instructing the believers in the Word of God and in Christian doctrines.  The Lord himself affirms that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). This declaration shows us clearly that the Word of God is spiritual food for the soul of a believer.

The apostle Peter referenced the Word of God when he wrote to Christians of the diaspora, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” (I Peter 2:2)

The writer of Hebrews also referred to the teaching of the Word as spiritual food for the believer. (Hebrews 5:12-14)

It is evident, then, that when the Bible speaks of the role of a pastor as the one who should feed the flock, it is referring to the pastor feeding the believers with the Word of God.

  1. Care for the flock

To care for the flock has a broader connotation than to simply feed them. Likewise, a pastor’s role is not only to feed the congregation with the Word of God, but also to care for them. Isaiah speaks of a shepherd that carries the lambs in his arms against his breast.  The lamb is one year old or less, so it is by definition young and inexperienced.  In the same way, a pastor should shepherd new believers and care for them with special attention.

Another aspect of caring for the flock is clear when the prophet writes that Jehovah will gently lead the newborn lambs.  It is a picture of the care that a pastor must have for the Lord’s flock.

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  1. Guide the flock

According to John 10:4, the shepherd rescues his sheep and later goes before them while they follow.  The shepherd guides his sheep not by staying behind them, but going ahead of them.  In the same way, the pastor guides the church by being an example to the flock. (I Peter 5:3)

  1. Restore the flock

As we saw in Ezekiel 34:4, there will be weak, sick and injured members of the flock.  At times they will stray and get lost.  The same happens in the church.  Some brothers and sisters are weak in the faith, and those are the ones the pastor must seek to strengthen.

Some believers, at any given moment, can become spiritually ill.  The pastor has the responsibility to aide in curing them. Other believers will wander, and the pastor must seek to guide them back to the correct path.

Though the pastor must care for the entire flock, some brothers and sisters require special attention.  The ones who are lost need to be helped to return to the fold.

Conclusion:

A study of both the Old and New Testaments shows that the Bible says the role of the pastor is to feed, care for, guide and restore the believers.  This understanding allows a pastor to develop his or her ministry with greater responsibility and awareness, but with less frustration about basing all “success” on tangible results.

*Rev. Ernesto Bathermy is the pastor of the Celestial Vision Church of the Nazarene in Los Alcarrizos, Dominican Republic. He is also the Dominican Republic Central District Superintendent and Rector of the Dominican Nazarene Seminary.