Whenever people ask me what I am reading, my first reaction is a long pause. Yes, I do read a lot, but more and more, I am rereading a lot. I am reading again great classics of the Christian faith. I am reading Reinhold Niebuhr. I am reading Richard Niebuhr, A.W. Tozer and of course, there is always C.S. Lewis.
I am finding again the great depth of theology and biblical thinking that is hiding in these great texts. The reading isn’t easy. The words and phrasing is a little dated and sometimes frustrating, but still with all of that, the richness of the truth discovered is worth the slow pace through the book. I have grown tired of books that seem to have been written during lunch, books that tie Jesus to the latest fad of the culture (would Jesus wear jeans?), or books telling me about a new program to reach a different target group. These books seem to come out every hour. I understand the need to adapt the presentation of the gospel to the sub-culture that you might be addressing, but we have so bought into the marketing approach to church (18-35 year olds do it this way, 15-18 years olds do it another way) that we forget the commonness of our humanity. For all of our superficial differences, we are amazingly similar underneath it all. We are all broken and lonely and Jesus answers it all. I don’t mean to sound simplistic, but the genius of the gospel is its simplicity. We have made it way too complicated.
So I am simplifying my reading…and by the way, most of my reading is Scripture. The more time I spend with the Bible the more fascinating the Book becomes. I have been studying the Bible long enough now to begin to see the subtle textures of the writing and the brilliance of the way these writers were used by God to bring His truth to us. I have grown to love reading entire narratives in one sitting (David’s life story, the story of Joseph or Daniel) or entire books at one time. This is the most important reading I do. So, I guess I would suggest that all of us just start reading the Bible instead of all those books about the Bible.
In my own personal study (reading without preaching or teaching in mind), I am going through the gospel of Luke. I did find it strange to be going through the Christmas story at the beginning of July, although, it did give me time to look at what was going on in the story. For most of the characters even those intimately involved in the birth of Christ, nothing special seemed to be happening. Rome occupied Jerusalem. There was no reason to hope the Romans would be leaving anytime soon. The economy for most people was hand to mouth. When you would look around, there would be no real signs that God was moving. But indeed He was moving. In a quiet village He found Mary, and through her He brought the Savior into the world. In that same village he found Joseph. Joseph would be trusted to protect Jesus and Mary, and he would be Jesus’ first teacher. Zacharias and Elizabeth were nearby—an older couple who desperately wanted a child. Through them, John the Baptist would come to prepare the way for Christ. Two things have struck me. First, each of these people is described in some way as being holy, righteous, favored. These people had a deep and vital relationship with God BEFORE God acted. And second, each one knew God well enough to trust His work, even when they didn’t understand it. I guess this is what I am working on now — trying to get my life focused so that, if God should desire to work, there wouldn’t be anything in my life holding Him back. Holiness has been misunderstood by our generation. We think someone is holy when they are boring, withdrawn, dark and quiet. Let me suggest an alternative definition — always prepared for service. Like a dish in the cabinet, there is nothing in our lives that would cause God to hesitate to use us. We are clean. We are not cracked or chipped. We are ready to hold whatever God desires to serve. I wonder what would have happened if Mary had been listening to her IPOD? Or what if Zacharias had decided to sleep through worship? What would have happened? I don’t know. God, I am sure, would have found another way and the Christmas story would have been much different. I guess this is what I am working on now. I want to ready for God’s use. I don’t want Him to hesitate or to decide He has to go with another plan.
When I graduated from seminary I was very prepared to pastor the churches where I went. I knew how to prepare a sermon. I knew how to lead a church business meeting. I knew how to visit the hospital. And then, everything changed! All of my study now is done on the computer. All of the books I had to carry around and stack up on my desk are now on a CD-rom and I page through them with a few clicks. I get on the internet and see what everybody else thinks about the passage. I can find illustrations and stories from endless sources. I read emails from people around the world who have used our web sites for Bible studies and for watching the worship services. People send me emails asking difficult biblical questions – I have conversations with people around the world and I never leave my desk. Everything has changed for the local church as well. The church is no longer the center of our culture. The church is no longer one of the prime influencers of our culture. We now have to see ourselves as missionaries to our culture. That means we have to study the language, customs, and concerns of the people around us just as a missionary in an international setting would do. You would expect a missionary in Japan to speak the language of that country. In the same way, we have to learn to speak the language of the culture around us. Bible studies have to be rethought to prepare us for reaching the world around us. We are no longer in a Christian nation. Yet, this is a great chance for the local church to make a real kingdom difference. No one answers the questions being asked by our culture like Jesus.
I’ve grown so very tired of what passes today as political discourse. People get on television or radio and they yell at each other. There are no real ideas discussed, or no solutions offered to the complex problems we face. Political success is viewed as shifting the blame to someone else. Responsibility is tossed around like the proverbial hot potato. No one wants to be responsible for anything! People are picking up what our leaders are modeling for us. People complain about the government doing too much. People complain about the government doing too little. We have become a nation of whiners. Does this whining make us feel better? Not really. All of our negative words and thoughts make us feel worse. We end up in a worse mood, snapping at friends and family alike. Whining makes us feel worse, which only leads to more whining. The cycle doesn’t seem to have an end. What if we all took a 24 hour break from whining? Would the world be better off? Would we be better off? I think so. How did the psalmist put it? “This is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.” This is the day the Lord has made—no whining.