This month: 181 - Online Church
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

Remember Me    Register ›

Archives for November, 2014

 Over the last 20 years I have come to believe that Exodus 34.6-7 is perhaps one of, if not the, most important texts in the whole Bible. This is fascinating to me because growing up and going to church all of my life previously I can testify I never heard of it. And since encountering the text I can also testify that many many believers know almost nothing of this Mt Everest of texts in the Bible.

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generation.”

This is THE self-revelation of God. There are three terms that leap off the page here that the Father of Jesus claims for himself. Yahweh claims to be “rahum” merciful, “hannun” gracious, and “hesed” that is full of steadfast love. These are stunning words. rahum comes from “rehem” which literally means “womb” and evokes the image of a mother’s compassion for her newborn child (what an evocative word!). Hannun denotes God’s inclination to bestow favor freely without expectation of return. Hesed is a hard word to put in English but is one of the most important words in the Bible. Steadfast love is what God is and it is so significant that God uses it twice. When I have called attention to this text it is not uncommon for many to fixate on a misconception regarding the third and fourth generation. We have to clean the wax out of our ears!! The author is creating an intentional contrast between a “thousand generations” that receive grace vs three or four. The emphasis is the astounding greatness of thousands (not just a thousand but thousands) vs three or four. The setting of this divine self-revelation further accents the supernova of grace that just exploded in the presence of Moses.

When I was biblically illiterate, (I speak of myself and no one else) because I was constantly playing hopscotch with the text, I never once noticed how important this text was to the Bible itself. Not only does this text appear again in whole or in part again and again and again in the Bible but it appears in all types of biblical literature. Moses himself is the first to anchor his life and death in this text. Numbers 14 in the face of staggering faithlessness and sin the man quotes this back to God (Num 14.17-18a) and the Father of Jesus replies “I do forgive, just as you have asked” (v.20).

The self-revelation became essential to the worship of our ancestors even if it was not in my home church. Thus we find Exodus 34.6-7 integrated into the Psalms of praise,

“The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”
(Psalm 103.8-10; cf 111.4; 112.4; 116.5; 145.8-9)

Our Spiritual ancestors in our family tree followed the example of Moses too. When times were bad or challenging or just plain hell they anchored their lives in this divine declaration as if it was life itself. So the Psalm of Laments we hear

“But you, O LORD, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”
(Psalms 86.15; cf. Lam 3.22, 32; etc)

Yahweh’s revelation was the motivation behind Hezekiah’s call for sinful, out of whack, unclean and the divided people to come to worship at the Passover …

“For the LORD your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.”
(2 Chronicles 30.9)

It is the grounding of Ezra’s great penitential prayer on Israel’s behalf …

“But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them {this is the thousandth generation thing in action folks!}”
(Nehemiah 9.17; cf. v.31)

God’s Supernova in Exodus 34.6-7 is found in Isaiah (54.9-10) Jeremiah (32.18) Micah (7.18-20) and in Daniel (9.4). Two prophets deserve special mention and that is Joel and Jonah.

“Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2.13)

“For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4.2)

The concluding words of Joel 2.13 and Jonah 4.2 are identical in the Masoretic Text (relents from punishing, “weniham ‘al-hara’a). Now what is so significant about these two texts is that Joel is addressed to the People of God while Jonah is addressed to the ENEMIES of the People of God. God’s self-revelation is not only for the church people but for the Assyrian! God’s mercy, grace and steadfast love cannot be contained nor controlled by church people!!

Exodus 34.6-7 is known as the Thirteen Attributes in Judaism. They are recited on many holy days and have an analogous function as the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles Creed in many Christian traditions. THIS IS WHAT WE BELIEVE! These attributes are what WE are called to be. We emulate God’s compassion, God’s graciousness, God’s patience, God’s kindness, God’s steadfast love, and God’s forgiveness. In fact it almost sounds like … the Fruit of the Spirit!!!

Exodus 34.6-7 appears over and over in the Bible. We have only scratched the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In the New Testament it also appears but I just never knew that because I did not have eyes to see or ears to hear. John 3.16 is a statement about the God who proclaimed Ex 34. When John wrote later that “God is love” (1 Jn 4.16), where so many disciples think the apostle is stating something new he is simply paraphrasing Ex 34.6-7 and its dozens of echoes in the Bible.

I am so glad I have discovered Exodus 34. Those who know me know I harp on this text a lot. I am so glad its significance is something the Spirit has been teaching me now for 20 years. Sometimes it takes a while because the blindness we have (rooted in our own prejudice at times … after all we must ignore the “Old Testament!) is so hard to overcome. The sooner we claim Exodus 34 as did Moses, the Psalmists, the Prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles the closer to the God of the whole Bible we will be. Jesus IS Exodus 34.6-7 in the flesh. His ministry and his cross are Exodus 34.6-7 in 3D.

Shalom

wordIt was late, but for some reason, I was keyed up. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep for a while. And so I went looking for a snack — even though my wife had thrown all my snacks out, to “encourage” me to lose some weight. Finally, I found my grandson’s stash of chocolate Teddy Grahams, and began to munch. And my phone rang.

It was Stanley. “Sorry for calling so late, but I had another question, and wondered if you’d mind talking for a few minutes.”

“Sure. I’m too keyed up to sleep. Let’s talk some Bible.”

“Well, I’ve been thinking and praying about our lunch conversation. I’ve talked to some friends. And it seems to me that you’re trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, you say you don’t care about the contradictions, and then when I bring up a particular contradiction, you always seem to have an answer
— as though there are no contradictions. How is that consistent?” Read more »

word“Sorry for the soap box speech. I get a little wound up with all this biscuits, barbecue, and lemon pie in me. And by the way, I’m buying. I enjoy talking about God, Jesus, and the Spirit so much that I happily pay.”

Stanley objected. “Look. I know you’re time is valuable, but I just have to ask a couple of more questions. And I’ll spring for the coffee.”

I was impressed. How did he know I found coffee irresistible after lemon meringue pie? Very astute young man, this Stanley. I should see if he is looking for a clerkship.

“So … for coffee … ask me anything.”

“You’re probably very familiar with this one, but I’m really bugged by Jesus and the curse of the fig tree. I have these notes from The Apologetics Press website

Another question to consider (and perhaps the one that is addressed most often in a discussion of the withered fig tree) is whether or not Jesus cursed the tree before or after the temple was cleansed. Since Matthew records this event before the cursing of the fig tree (21:12-19), and Mark places the cleansing of the temple after Jesus cursed the tree (11:15-19), it is supposed that one of the two writers was mistaken. The truth is, however, Matthew’s account is more of a summary, whereas Mark’s narrative is more detailed and orderly.

Read more »

word“So what does that mean about my faith? And all the other alleged contradictions?”

“Well, there have been some fairly lengthy books written laying out alleged contradictions, and some are pretty tough to sort out. This is one. But there are others.

“And I can only speak for myself, but they just don’t bother me in the least. I mean, I lose no sleep over these things, my faith is no weaker for my having read about them, and I only study them because every once in a while, I need to have a conversation like this. I mean, I see things very differently from most people.”

Stanley perked up. “You mean, there’s more? You have to explain that!”

“Okay,” I replied, “but this is personal to me. You don’t have to think this way. There’s been far too much telling others how to think when it comes to inerrancy. So I’m glad to share, but I’m not imposing. Understand?”

“Sure.”

We paused to order dessert. I had lemon meringue pie. Stanley went for the chocolate. A serious mistake in my book. The lemon is much better. Read more »

wordStanley leaned back and drew in a breath. “You’re right. But it still bothers me that there are these contradictions. They seem to seriously impeach the credibility — a good legal term — the credibility of these witnesses. If they’re in error about small things, then maybe they’re in error about big things.”

“Ah, we should talk about that,” I said. “It’ll give us time to order our entrées.” I ordered a pulled pork sandwich. Stanley went for the hamburger.

“Look. There’s not enough food on the menu to let us cover all the alleged contradictions in the Bible. And I’m sure I can’t address all of them from memory. We may have to call a recess and reconvene in a few days. But give me your number 1 contradiction — the one that gives you the greatest pause.”

Stanley chewed on a bite of burger and stared at the ceiling. “First Corinthians 10:8 gets the number who died in Numbers 25 wrong.” Read more »

wordI had just taught my Sunday morning Bible class when our campus minister approached me. “You know Stanley — he’s in pre-law at the University — don’t you?” I’m a lawyer, and so I usually meet the pre-law students who come through my church’s campus ministry.

“Sure. A good kid. I little intense, I think, but that’ll serve him well when he starts to practice.”

“Stanley would like to arrange a time to talk with you. Not about law. About the Bible.” He hesitated in a foreboding way. “About inerrancy. It seems his roommate has gotten into some literature that shows, he thinks, contradictions in the Bible. And now he’s in something of faith crisis. He grew up in a good home and good church, but he’s nearly been convinced that the Bible has contradictions — and this is making him question everything. Could you meet with him?”

I drew in a breath. I mean, I can argue before the federal Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit without fear, but these discussions are different. It’s not about winning and losing or even justice. There’s a soul  in the balance — maybe many souls. After all, if he surrenders his faith in Jesus, many other students and friends may follow him out of the church. You can’t decline such an invitation. Read more »

When I finished reading Michael Shank’s book Muscle and a Shovel, I was neither angry nor enthused. I was sad.

The arguments, proof texts, and methods were familiar, even the attitude was somewhat familiar. I had heard it before, and I had even used very similar, if not the same, arguments myself some thirty years ago.

Over those thirty years I have slowly shifted from reading Scripture as a legal textbook designed to provide a specific pattern to reading Scripture as a story in which we participate by imitating God. Rather than servile slaves whose obedience is rewarded and disobedience is punished based on keeping the technicalities of the law, we are God’s partners in the divine mission who are enabled by the power of God to participate in the unfolding story of God.

Here lies a fundamental difference between how Shank reads the Bible and how I read it. For Shank, the fundamental question the Bible answers is, “What does God require of me?” For me, the fundamental question is, “What is the story into which God invites me?” The former is a legal question but the latter is a missional one. The former wants to know what is legal or illegal. The latter wants to know the divine mission and how we might participate in it.

Muscle and a Shovel misses the central story of Scripture. Shank reads the Bible with a legal concern operating at the heart of his hermeneutic, and this obscures the missional nature of Scripture itself. There is little to nothing in the Muscle and a Shovel that gives us much hint about the grand narrative of Scripture—a loving God who created and nurtured the world for the sake of loving fellowship, who chose Israel as a light among the nations, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth to redeem the sin, pain, and hurt of this world, and who poured out the Holy Spirit to sanctify a community dedicated to good works. As an evangelistic tract, it does not tell the story of the gospel. Rather, it converts people to a church pattern, the data for which is mined out of Scripture, abstracted from its original historical context, and then used to construct something that does not exist in Scripture, that is, a specific legal blueprint for how to do church.

This perspective is important because it shapes how we read Scripture. In particular, it shapes how we read “commands” in Scripture. Are “commands” fundamentally legal tests of loyalty or are they modes of transformation? When we read biblical “commands” as legal tests of loyalty, then we reduce obedience in God’s redemptive story to “crossing lines in the sand.” Obedience viewed in this way becomes a mechanical technicality by which we comply with the command’s legalities. Obedience becomes a “check list” of requirements. But when we read “commands” as modes of transformation, obedience is how God transforms character by the mediation of divine presence. Obedience, then, becomes identification with God’s values and community. In this understanding, obedience has relational meaning. It is about shared life with God. The former approach understands “command” as a legal technicality, but the latter understands it as a mode of relational transformation.

Baptism, for example, should be understood as a mode of relational transformation. It is a means by which God encounters us, shapes us, transforms us, and engages us in the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We should not turn it into a legal technicality. When baptism becomes an absolute and technical “line in the sand,” then we have transformed it into something God never intended. We reduce God’s transforming work to a legal detail as if the whole of God’s work in a person’s life stands or falls on this one command. Indeed, when baptism becomes a legal watershed that divides the world between those who can “go to heaven” and those who cannot, we exalt baptism over transformation. When we exalt the means over the end we turn baptism into a legal technicality rather than a mode of divine transformation.

This way of reading Scripture misconstrues the heart of God. It pictures God as the judge of legal technicalities rather than the parental mentor who transforms us through loving guidance. God is not the God of technicalities, but the Father who lovingly pursues us and is gracious with our mistakes as we, trusting in Christ, seek God’s will.

Jesus thought people should understand this theological trajectory from their reading of Scripture. God desires mercy over sacrifice (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7). If the Pharisees, who condemned Sabbath-breaking by Jesus’s disciples, had understood the meaning of “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” then they would not have “condemned the innocent”(Matthew 12:1-7).

The importance of Sabbath in Israel can hardly be questioned. It was a ritual (a liturgically prescribed form), but it was no empty ceremony. God gave it meaning, and God used it as a tool of spiritual formation within Israel. “Ritual” is neither a bad word nor a negative thing. It is part of human life, family traditions, and religious community. Sacrifice, Sabbath, circumcision, and festivals were part of Israel’s walk with God, and similar rituals are still part of our walk with God (e.g., assembling on the first day of the week, baptism, the Lord’s table). They are important and formative practices, and they are divinely ordained.

Sabbath was so important that the Law prescribed severe penalties for those who violated it (Exodus 31:15). Consequently, Sabbath-keeping was serious business in Israel. As ritual, it mediated God’s own Sabbath. Israel rested with God on that day. To violate the Sabbath was to reject God’s gracious gift of his own rest.

Unfortunately, some in Jesus’ day viewed the Sabbath through legal lenses rather than relational ones. They regarded the Sabbath as a technical legality rather than a relational enjoyment of God’s presence. While they may have valued the relational dimension, when they exalted the technicality, they denied the relationality. In Matthew 12:1-14, the Pharisees subjected Jesus and his disciples to this technical critique, and Jesus rebuked them. Indeed, he sought to re-orient their reading of the Sabbath institution. He pointed to the relational function of the Sabbath rather than its legal technicality.

Jesus’s fundamental justification is found in Matthew 12:7. Quoting Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy not sacrifice,” Jesus appeals to a theological principle that underlies his two examples—David and temple sacrifices. Hosea 6:6 is not a third argument but an appeal to the underlying principle by which to judge what is lawful and unlawful on the Sabbath. As a hermeneutical—an interpretative principle—it governs the use and misuse of rituals and formal patterns. If Pharisees had understood the intent of the Law, they would have never attacked the disciples. If they had understood that God desires “mercy, and not sacrifice,” they never would have accused the disciples of doing anything unlawful.

Jesus had previously quoted Hosea 6:6 in Matthew’s Gospel (9:13). There Jesus justified eating with Matthew and his unclean (immoral) friends by an appealing to Hosea 6:6. It functions as a hermeneutical principle for Jesus. The word “mercy” also occurs in Matthew 23:23 when Jesus identifies it as one of the “weightier matters” of the Law. “Mercy” is more important than Pharisaic strictures on tithing. Indeed, it is more important than rituals. “Mercy” is more important than Sabbath. He concludes that it is lawful “to do good” on the Sabbath as a function of mercy (Matthew 12:12). “To do good” in Jewish literature is an act of benevolence or mercy (cf. Galatians 6:10; James 4:17). One may violate the Sabbath in order to show mercy. Mercy is the heart of the Law.

Sacrifice and Sabbath were essential and necessary rituals in the faith of Israel. They were neither unimportant nor optional. But both are subordinate to the principle of mercy. The rituals serve the goal of transformation. They serve mercy rather than vice versa.

Ritual is not the most important thing. The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath (cf. Mark 2:23-3:6). Ritual is made for humanity, not humanity for ritual. Rituals serve the ends for which God has designed them, but they must never be used to oppress and repress the heart that seeks God. When we use ritual to deny mercy, then we put ourselves in the position of the Pharisees.

The fundamental problem with Muscle and a Shovel is that it exalts sacrifice over mercy. It assumes that humanity was made for rituals (baptism, church patterns, etc.) rather than rituals made for humanity. It prioritizes “sacrifice” (ritual patterns) over “mercy” (transformation), and thus condemns the guiltless (to use the words of Jesus).

In other words, Muscle and a Shovel makes the same mistake that the Pharisees made. It does not understand that God desires mercy over sacrifice, that is, God embraces the heart that seeks mercy over the heart that exalts rituals—even prescribed ones!—over seeking, trusting hearts.

May God have mercy!

_______________

You can get Dr. Hicks’ 64 page review of Muscle and a Shovel in PDF here.

I love learning.

I love books.

I love conversations, lectures, study groups that stretch my understanding and give voice to my own ideas and questions.

And if I could, were it possible to do so, I would start another degree program today.

I love school.

I love education.

That makes me a strange bird in some circles.

Knowing my fondness for all the things mentioned above, I have had family and friends who for years have teased me about being a scholar. My skillset does lie more in the realm of reading, writing, and communication, but a scholar I am not.

They need to meet some of my other friends who truly are brilliant—folks who have opened my eyes, sparked my own thinking, pointed me in a better direction, turned me around, and more often than not, blown me away with the profundity of their thinking and knowledge.

Instead of calling me a scholar, call me a sponge instead.

Over the years I have leaned much in college and university. But with respect to the institutions that have helped shape me, I believe even they would say the formal education process is just the beginning of a lifetime of seeking knowledge.

It’s kind of like the way my faith family (me included) has inadvertently communicated baptism at times. Baptism is not the final moment in an act of salvific faith; instead it is the beginning of a life seeking to become more Christ-like, working out, as Paul says, our own salvation with fear and trembling. It is the beginning of being a conduit to others of the same forgiveness, mercy, and grace we have been given.

We have not yet arrived at a place where we are done stretching and growing our faith. In the same vein, there is still so much more to be learned.

And that includes how we read, understand, and communicate the unchanging truths of God’s Word.

Some of those aforementioned scholars can do a much better job of explaining how we should read/learn/understand the different parts of the Bible based on the genre of literature those differing parts inhabit.

Or, they might do a better job of helping us read the two different covenants in such a way that we might see God move seamlessly from the Old into the New. Most assuredly, there are those who can explain in great detail the contextual nature of each Bible book so that when we read, we do so through the right lens and thereby make a more principled and God-honoring application.

But me, I am just a wannabe scholar who sometimes exhibits just enough ability to understand and absorb what some of those really smart people think, teach, and write. And I am glad for that because there is eternal good found in reading, reflecting, discussing, understanding, and ultimately absorbing truth from God’s Word.

Growing up as a Christian, I often heard this particular verse from 2 Timothy 2:15,

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (KJV)

And from that scripture, lessons and sermons were developed about the importance of bible study and understanding the delineation between Old and New Testaments. While newer translations generally speak of handling or teaching correctly the word of truth, one thing will always remain the same: Reading the Bible appropriately—applying the message correctly matters.

There is also a common danger any of us can easily evidence when it comes to reading scripture. This is a danger for the schooled and the unschooled. It’s a danger for part-time preachers in little country churches whose influence we may never be able to measure; it’s a danger for full-time preachers in culture-influencing mega churches. Far too many of us tend to fall into the dangerous trap of reading the Bible to proof text an already drawn conclusion or one we are seeking to prop up with biblical credibility.

The further I get beyond the tragedy that has reshaped/reformed my life, the more I realize the ongoing nature of this transformational process. I am incredibly aware of the forward progress I make. I am also very cognizant of the backwards steps I frequently take. But, I am also acutely mindful of the role scripture plays in healing my heart, shaping my responses to life and people, and transitioning me to a place where I can be not just hopeful, but helpful as well.

And since I have ventured back into the world of full-time ministry, I have rediscovered for myself a more appropriate way to work with people. Instead of being critical or judgmental, instead of being condescending or arrogant about the rightness of my theology or the importance of my knowledge, I see so much more clearly the transformative nature of mercy and grace. I see without question my own ongoing need for redemption, restoration, and reconciliation.

I see the need for hope.

On my way back to the land of the living, rejoining those who are fully engaged in the beauty of life, I have had opportunities to tell my story–to help those who hurt, doubt, and struggle with God.

In that role, I have been asked about my battles, my doubt, and my deep questions of faith. I have heard the phrase a modern-day Job more times than I can remember. And let’s be honest, who in their right mind could enjoy or want to be tagged with a description like that?

As it turns out, as incredible as it might sound, I do.

No, I don’t relish nor enjoy the heartache and grief of loss. And no, I hate, truly hate the things that happened to my first family that fateful day. Indeed, I continue to wrestle with my pain and the pain of my children and other extended family and friends.

It still hurts.

It will always hurt on this side of the veil.

But the one thing above all it has taught me? That one thing I won’t give up for anything? The best thing Job got back?

Hope.

I have an incredible and amazing hope.

One of my oldest and bestest friends (I know bestest isn’t a word, but sometimes you just have to be rebellious) writes a wonderful blog with a fantastic name: Out Here Hope Remains!

Hope.

Hope.

Every tragic experience needs hope.

Every desperate situation needs hope.

Every broken heart needs hope.

Every grief stricken husband, wife, parent, or child needs hope.

Every desperate person needs hope.

Every pain filled existence needs hope.

Every sin-sick, sin scarred life needs hope.

Hope.

Hope.

Over the years, some in our fellowship (and others as well) have proposed seeing the Bible as a law book.

Still others have argued the opposite direction in that we should view God’s Word as one long love letter.

Rather than debate the merits or pitfalls of either approach, I’d like to offer an entirely different approach.

What if we viewed, read, understood, and keyed in on one central, undeniable truth? What if we read the Bible for ourselves and read it to others through the lens of hope?

Hope

Hope.

The Bible is a story of ongoing creation.

It’s the story of the relationship between God and man.

It’s the story of sin and redemption.

It’s the story of God’s pursuit of all those made in His image.

It’s the story of hope!

Hope.

The angels said we bring you tidings of great joy.

Hope all bundled up in a baby.

Jesus.

He would eventually proclaim a hope far greater than we could imagine on our own.

Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Indeed, Matthew records that Jesus fulfilled the words of Isaiah,

Here is My Servant whom I have chosen, My beloved in whom My soul delights; I will put My Spirit on Him, and He will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not argue or shout, and no one will hear His voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed, and He will not put out a smoldering wick, until He has led justice to victory. The nations will put their hope in His name. (Matthew 12:18-21, HCSB—emphasis mine)

Hope.

If Jesus had a middle name, I suspect it would be Hope.

That is His story.

Maybe we should start reading the Bible as His story, a story of hope.

A story of hope fulfilled.

A story of a hope yet to come.

Hallelujah, Come Lord Jesus, come!

The Apostle John recorded,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed. I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away. Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.” (Revelation 21:1-5)

Hope.

Try reading the Bible as a message of hope and renewal.

Try imagining a world where everything will be made new.

Hope!

 

5PracticesDevotional reading luxuriates in the text, waiting for ways that words, ideas, characters, and situations in Scripture can prompt insights. Below are five ways to spend time with Scripture, which in my experience provide ways to see the text anew. Sometimes what I discover is a new detail I never noticed before or a question I never asked of the text or myself.

  1. Retell the passage from the perspective of the different characters.

Usually the Bible tells stories in the third person; that is, he/she/they did this or that. Read a passage, and then retell the same story as each character would have told it. For instance, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 can be retold as if Jesus, Zacchaeus, and the crowd is telling it. Jesus’ story might begin something like this: “One day, as I entered Jericho, pressed by crowds, I noticed a little guy up in a tree.” By putting myself in each person’s shoes and seeing through their eyes, I always notice new aspects of the text.

  1. Interview each of the characters.

I often ask, “If I could ask this character any question, what would it be?” And this first question leads to other questions, and I end up interviewing the character. For instance, I’d love to ask the prodigal son: How old were you? How long were you gone? How did you lose your money? What was your relationship like with your brother before you left? What was your first conversation with your brother after you returned? Did you have a mom? What were the long-term consequences of your actions?

  1. Read the passage five times with each of the five senses in mind.

This one may seem a little odd, but I find that a text can either feel too distant or seem too familiar, and this practice helps me enter into the world of the text afresh. As an example, with the story of Jesus walking on the water, a focus on the five senses might prompt these thoughts: blisters from rowing hard; the salty taste of fish stuck in a back tooth from the feeding of the 5000; the sound (or not) of Jesus’ footsteps while walking on the water; the smell of sweat; looking through squinted eyes because of the stormy wind.

  1. Find the good news in the passage.

I presume that the authors wrote these texts to shape the hearts, minds, and communities of God’s people. Sometimes the good news comes by looking at God’s actions, other times through heroic acts of faith, and still other times through negative examples. Whatever the case, make an effort to discern the message of good news in each passage.

  1. Read the passage out loud.

Part of reading Scripture in a fresh way is making a familiar text unfamiliar. By reading a text aloud, we slow down and attend to specific features. To slow down ever further, read a verse multiple times, putting the emphasis on different words each time. Ask yourself where the emphasis is in the text. Good readers can go even further by exploring the nuances that emerge when emphasizing different words through pitch, tone, rate, and pauses.

With any of these five practices, transformation comes not because of a formula or a new trick but through reading in a way that leaves one open to God’s work in us.

Kenneth L. Cukrowski

Don’t Close Your Eyes: Psalm 4 and Me…Praying the Psalms (Part 1)Psalm4

Eugene Peterson has written that the Psalms are God given tools for “Answering God.” What a great insight. God has spoken and God has acted even when we do not perceive it. This means that the first step is to invite God’s own Spirit – the owner of this divine word – to become our companion as we come to his eat his gracious word.

The second step to praying Psalm 4 is to read it. We must read it again. We must read it well. Our step here is not to analyze the text but to absorb the text. I cannot over emphasize the importance of rereading to the point where we are breathing the words of the text. Open ourselves to the mood of the text and the rhetorical flow of the text. We seek to yield to the text.  I have found that each time I go through Psalms I encounter something fresh and challenging

Our third step is reflecting on various aspects of the Psalm. As noted above the Psalms are communal even when “individual.”  A few features of this text signal the pulling of the person praying into the great and long line of voices that have already answered God with this psalm. The untranslated word “Selah” indicates the text was integrated into communal worship. The psalm has the individual (and the group) connecting to Moses and the people at the same time with the same words.  “O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD!” (4.6). Moses begs God to“show me your glory I pray” (Ex 33.18) and more explicitly the Aaronic blessing upon the people in Numbers 6.25-26, “the LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD makes his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you …” I becomes a we and God grants me shalom as he grants it to us. The psalm connects me with the praying church. The Rule of St. Benedict (ch. 18) encouraged all the monks to pray Psalm 4 at Compline (the canonical evening hour before bed).  We are joined with Moses, Israel, the church through all the ages. Such is the individual yet communal nature of Psalm 4.

One final word on rhetorical structure before we look at responding in prayer to the psalm, which is itself, prayer. If we take this Spirit psalm seriously then we must honor the reality of injustice even when it is done to “me.” If the family of God is wronged then I am wronged as well. We cannot gloss over injustice.  This is why we need to catch the words “How Long” in verse 2.  There is pure frustration in those words. There is agitation in those words. There is emotion in those words … and they occur in scripture over 60 times. How Long …

I frequently pray Psalm 4 in the evening, like disciples have always done. I have come to call it “Don’t Close Your Eyes” because in my own situation I have often found the darkness and sleep to be a giant wrestling match. Praying this psalm is an act of faith that Yahweh has my back and he can take my eyes and shut them for me.

To the Psalm … from the NRSV (Psalm 4 in Italics)

Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.

O Lord, the night has come again. I am drained. I come to you because you are my right.  I have no secrets from you even if I tried to keep one.  Its been a tough day.  In fact it has been a series of tough days God.  I am trying to do what you want.  You know I am. I know that I have failed you all day in spite of my intentions. I beg you through Jesus who prays with me to have mercy.  I know that sometimes I sound like a broken record because I just keep lifting up the same old stuff. I am more tired of that crap than you are God. So hear me one more time.

How long, you people shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? But know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for himself; the LORD hears me when I call to him.

Father those people do not think I know what they said. But I heard.  And so did you!!  I do not understand it God.  I work hard to serve you and to be your servant. I sometimes I feel like Moses, Jeremiah, and even brother Jesus. when everyone is just whispering their gossip and destructive words.  I just don’t get it.  Some of the stuff that is said, from time to time, God is so obviously wrong that I find it shocking anyone claiming to be your worshiper would let pass their lips without feeling utter shame.  Its BS God and you know it, they know it, so why do they do it? I am asking you O Lord. Why!  But Father as flawed as I am, and I know my sins – they are many but they are not THOSE sins! Of those things I have not done.  I am grateful that my standing, Father, in your holy Family is not dependent upon them.  I am grateful that you know me and the faith that is in my heart. I am grateful that you hold me close and have given me fellowship with your Son and Spirit even when those in your family behave like adversaries instead of those washed in the blood of the Lamb.

When you are disturbed, do not sin;ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.

Abba I continue my prayer in the company of all your saints.  I hear them counseling me O Lord in my frustration, and just being worn out, that I do not allow myself to become part of the problem.  You know my mind Lord and I can dwell on this all freaking night long! It causes me stress because it hurts.  I do not understand WHAT has happened, nor WHY it has happened, nor WHY those who seem to gloat over it do what they do.  But Lord if you will give me strength through your Holy Spirit I will respond to pain and hurt and slander with love and kindness and attempt to be Jesus to even them.  May my worship not be hindered because of the animosity of others as I try to walk in trusting faith with you and them.

There are many who say, “O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD! You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.

Oh God! How I would love to see harsh criticism be turned into a blessing, not only for me but for them.  I would love, and it is my prayer, that healing take place and we can be a testimony to your grace. Father as you told Aaron many centuries ago, I beg you to reveal your glory and let your face shine upon us. Like the flowers that seek the sunlight Father make us seek your face.  Draw us together like roses with your shalom Lord so we can be your witness to the new creation rather than showing we still are bound to the night. Fill us with joy in our common grace as when we have had a few mugs of wine.

I will both lie down and sleep in shalom; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.

Father I know it has been the same song and millionth verse but I have laid my burdens at your feet. Keep me from picking them back up.  Help me to close my eyes in your shalom that no matter what anyone says or does I am yours. Please keep the dreams away.  Keep me in the palm of your hand until I wake filled with gratitude for a new day of grace and life.  Father I am grateful for the long history of your family and it is with the psalmists, Christians through the centuries and most of all with Jesus that I offer this prayer up to you.  Have mercy on us. Amen.