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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Time to Raise an Ebenezer

By Carla Sunberg

When was the last time you saw an Ebenezer? “A what?” you may ask. It’s a rather old word about which we hear quite little. It does appear in the Old Testament in the book of 1 Samuel. On two occasions the word is used and we read of Samuel setting up an Ebenezer between Mizapah and Jeshanah, after God helped the Israelites and kept them safe from the Philistines. Quite literally, eben means “rock,” and ezer means “helper.” This is a rock that reminds the people that God is our helper. It also lets us know that Ebenezer Scrooge’s name was an oxymoron.

Over time the people of God marked their journey with an Ebenezer. This rock became a continual reminder that “thus far the Lord has helped us.” Every time they saw the rock, generation after generation would recount the way in which God had helped in a particular circumstance.
 
Throughout the years, it appears that there may have been more than one Ebenezer. Whether God had led the people out of Egypt, across the Jordan river, or helped to defeat the Philistines, a rock was set up as a reminder to God’s faithfulness. This rock was placed in a conspicuous location so that it wouldn’t be missed by God’s people.

Let’s fast-forward a few millennia to the time of John Wesley, where the physical rock, or Ebenezer, seems to have been replaced by testimony. The early Methodist societies encouraged its members to regularly speak a word of testimony, a verbal reminder that “thus far the Lord has helped us.” Weekly they would gather for a time of accountability and witness to the work of God in their lives. They spoke these to one another, and to anyone else who might be willing to hear the story of God at work in their lives. They engaged in an age-old practice, that of storytelling. It’s something that God’s people have done throughout history.

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Whether it was Samuel or John Wesley, it was the leaders who helped the people raise their Ebenezer. Samuel was a sensitive servant who spent time in God’s holy presence, therefore he was able to effectively lead the people. Wesley subjected himself to the rigorous accountability of his own Methodist societies.

Leaders must always have their own testimony so they can point out the Ebenezers along the way. A nearness to Christ is necessary if we are to lead a people of God. Occasionally becoming vulnerable before our people and pointing to dependence upon God is not a bad thing. A good leader recognizes that they don’t have all the answers but he or she demonstrates reliance, glorifying God in the process.

While the old testimony service may no longer be in vogue, maybe we need to recapture the value of Ebenezer. Space needs to be created for testimony, so that individually and collectively we can recount God’s faithfulness. There should be no monuments to ourselves, but only to God who regularly helps us in this journey of life. God has brought us this far, we will go no further without the Lord leading us, and so, we must provide the opportunity for our people to raise their Ebenezer.

The promises of God were not just for one generation, but for all. We are all to become active participants in telling the story, and there should never be just one Ebenezer. The rocks of God’s help should line the pathway of our lives, and that of the church. For the generations to come, we should continually point to the rocks, telling of God’s help. The Ebenezers become our lifeblood to the future. If we can’t point back to a time that God was our helper, we may just die. It’s time to raise an Ebenezer.

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.

The Reformation(s) of the Church

*During the month of October we will be focusing on the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

By Charles W. Christian

Looking back on the Protestant Reformation reminds us of God’s continual desire to be in right relationship with His Church. 

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Reformation before Luther

Though the catalyst to the series of events known today as the Protestant Reformation was sparked in 1517 by Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses to the church doors at Wittenburg, the Church had long before been engaged in the process of reformation. In fact, one could argue that ever since the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God has been reforming. The Church continues its process of reformation today.

The coming of Jesus and the new Kingdom He embodied was a clarification of the reform that God had been attempting throughout the Old Testament. Even after the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples felt the need for ongoing reform. The experience of Pentecost in Acts 2 assisted the Church in carrying out the admonition of Jesus (Matthew 28) to “go into all the world,” because the Kingdom of God defies societal limitations and borders.

The work of God among the Gentiles through the ministries of Peter and Paul added another dimension of reform, culminating in key agreements among early church leaders in Acts 15. Through the words of Paul and other writers, the rest of the New Testament demonstrates a variety of “mini-reforms” needed among a growing and changing constituency. God lovingly and consistently reforms the Church.

The “next generation” believers, commonly referred to as the Church Fathers and Mothers, experienced a myriad of reformation opportunities, the best known of which were the Ecumenical Councils and the formulation of creeds in the first eight centuries of the Church’s history. These steps toward reformation led to unity among several groups, but also resulted in schisms. Most notably, the Eastern and Western branches of the Church (the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic groups, respectively) experienced an official schism in 1054 A.D.

On Luther’s Doorstep and Beyond

Around the time of Martin Luther, the stage had been set for a particularly earth-shaking renewal. A century before Luther, for example, a Czech priest and professor named Jan Hus (1369-1415) had been put to death for writings and protests regarding the actions of key church leaders. In fact, after Luther posted his 95 theses, many began referring to Luther as a “modern Huss-ite.” Many factors surrounding Luther’s contribution to reformation in the early sixteenth century, such as his education, the invention of Gutenburg’s printing press, and Luther’s powerful friends, allowed Luther’s message to transcend the confines of his village and of Germany and become a key catalyst of reforms already taking place throughout the world. From there came other movements: Calvinists, Arminians, Anabaptists, Quakers, Puritans, and Wesleyans, just to name a few.

This article was originally posted at: Holiness Today