What, exactly, is the Bible? Why do/should Christians read it? Is there a proper way to read it?
The Virginia Annual Conference for the UMC has an annual challenge of reading through the entirety of the Bible and Rev. Matthew Smith and I were recently invited to record a podcast for the conference about Bible basics. You can check out the episode here:
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
Most weeks we find leftover detritus in the pews after worship. There’s the occasional candy wrapper, a handful of loose change, and (my favorite) children’s drawings. The drawings are usually confined to the margins of various pieces of paper like offering envelopes or prayer cards and whenever I encounter one I am hit with waves of nostalgia.
There’s no telling how many bulletins I covered with Tic Tac Toe, Hangman, and comic book heroes over the years.
But, at some point, either from pressure applied by my parents or the wandering gaze of other church members, I gave up my artistic Sunday morning pursuits and I attempted to be a good Sunday morning worshiper. I said all the right prayers, sang all the right hymns, I stood up and sat back down just like everyone else. And yet, there were plenty of Sundays when the sermon could not hold my attention and I needed something to do.
So I did the only thing I could do: I reached in front of me, grabbed a pew Bible, and I started reading.
This is my confession: I fell in love with the Bible not because of some gifted homiletician, or from a remarkably profound experience of Vacation Bible School, but because I read the good book Sunday after Sunday while worship was happening around me.
There’s this moment in the Old Testament when the priest Ezra pulls the holy scriptures up and the gathered people rise in reverence and then fall to their knees in prayer. Their love for the Word is palpable from the pages of the Bible precisely because they understood it to be the remarkable thing that it is.
And yet, today, I’m not sure how we feel about the holy scriptures.
It doesn’t help that we often use it like a bludgeon against those with whom we disagree.
It doesn’t help that the words within it get cherry-picked to make whatever argument we want to make.
It doesn’t help that the Bible can leave us scratching our heads more than wanting to stand up in reverence or pull us down in prayer.
But perhaps we can reclaim a love for the scriptures when we start to see them as the strange new world that God has made for us. Or, to put it another way, maybe it would help if we stopped reading it as if it’s an instruction manual of religious behavior and instead we started watching it like a movie.
You can’t understand a movie, or say anything about it really, until you’ve consumed the thing as a whole. The Bible is the same. It is not meant to be taken apart in these little discrete segments – it is meant to be seen, appreciated, and understood as an entire proclamation.
When you start to see the Bible like a movie you start to appreciate how all the separate parts might be entertaining or enlightening but in terms of their meaning, you cannot know what it is until the end. Each story/chapter/verse seems like it’s going somewhere, but only when you see Christ on the cross and Christ risen from the grave, all the sudden you start to understand what’s behind everything!
So the next time you’re in church on a Sunday morning, or watching the livestream from the comfort of your couch, and you grow bored with the preacher up in the pulpit, reach for your Bible and enter the strange new world that God has made for you.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a, Luke 4.14-21). Todd is the lead pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, age differences, textual reverence, liturgical moments, the gift of rediscovery, the equity of the Law, restoration and reconciliation, new gifts, pulpit shadows, and Martin Luther. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Take It Up And Read
I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. Now a mediator involves more than on party; but God is one. Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
We were in the basement rooms of my seminary. Our preaching precept had eight students and one preceptor. Each week we would gather as a large group to listen to our distinguished professor wax lyrical about the ins and outs of homiletical theology, and then we would break off into our little small groups to do the work of preaching.
We would be assigned a text, offered tools for exegesis, and then one by one we would stand in front of our precept to preach.
It was awful.
It was one thing to preach occasionally on a Sunday morning for a dozing congregation, it was another thing entirely to preach in front of a bunch of soon to be preachers – particularly since we were required to listen to comments and criticisms immediately following our proclamations.
And don’t get me wrong, some of the sermons were really good. I can remember one of my classmates preaching on the institution of the Lord’s supper, that final evening shared between Jesus and his friends, and the theme of the sermon was, “We are what we eat.”
It was perfect.
I can remember another classmate preaching on the binding of Isaac, this terrifying moment in Genesis when Abraham is called to sacrifice his son and she, the preacher, kept slowly knocking on the pulpit over and over again whenever she talked about Abraham chopping the wood, or taking steps to the top of the mountain, and his heart beating in his chest, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more anxious in a sermon.
It was perfect.
But the one sermon that stands out the most wasn’t even a sermon. It was the prayer offered beforehand. One of my classmates walked over to the pulpit, opened up his Bible, called for us to bow our heads in prayer, and then he said: “Lord, I thank you that you have called men, and only men, to preach your Holy Word, be with me now as I do so. Amen.”
I opened my eyes in that moment to the five women in the room, one of whom was our preceptor, all who felt called by God to preach, and we had to sit through a sermon and I know not one of us listened to another word he said.
Why do women have certain roles in certain churches? That’s the question for us today and it’s a question I’ve been asked a lot in the short time that I’ve been here, and frankly it’s a question that I’ve been asked throughout my ministry.
The question is born out of the fact that, depending on what church you experience, there are a variety of understandings about what women can, and can’t, do.
I grew up in the United Methodist Church which means I saw women reading scripture from the pulpit, I saw women preach, I saw women serve as Lay Leader, and just about every other aspect of the church.
But in other churches you might never see a woman read scripture, or preach, or serve in places of leadership, and it’s all because of the Bible.
Well, sort of.
There are various verses in favor of limited female participation in church and there are various verses in favor of full female participation which is why, depending on the church, you can have wildly different experiences.
Perhaps the most well known, and often quoted texts, regarding the limiting of what women can do in the church comes from Paul’s first letter to Timothy:
Men should pray, Paul says.
Sounds good. But they aren’t allowed to be angry or have arguments – something we can aspire to I guess.
Women should dress themselves modestly, no braids in their hair, no gold, no pearls, no expensive clothing.
Okay Paul, that’s oddly specific, but you are the apostle.
Let a women learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.
Examining authorial intent, or community context, can be a slippery slope in preaching. We can certainly speculate about intentions or situations but it can only go so far. Nevertheless, perhaps it worth our time to recognize that, in the time in which Paul is writing, men and women would’ve sat on separate sides of worship spaces, only men were allowed to speak, and only men were allowed to learn, which would’ve left women required to be somewhere and yet they had nothing they, themselves, could do. There, anything they did do was seen as a distraction, from talking at all, to what they wore, etc.
And yet, scripture says what it says. You know, the whole Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God…
However, scripture says other things as well.
Take some time to explore the strange new world of the Bible and you can read about Miriam, who led the people Israel during the time of Moses. Or you can read about the judge Deborah who was in charge of Israel’s governance and military (there’s a particular striking episode during her time with a woman named Ja-el who runs a tent peg through the skull of a foreign enemy). Or you can read about Hannah the mother of Samuel who put the chief priest in his place. Or you can read about Queen Esther who save an entire nation of people from genocide. Or Rahab, or Ruth, or I could go on.
And that’s just a cursory glance at the Old Testament! And, to be frank, those women who make it into the hallowed halls of scripture do so precisely because they broke conventions, they upended expectations, they made the impossible possible.
And the Gospels are no different!
Mary the Mother of God who literally bore the fullness of the divine in her womb. Peter’s mother-in-law is called a deacon for serving the needs of Jesus and the disciples. MaryMagdalene who was the first to see the resurrected Christ and was the first Christian preacher! She’s the one who reports the Good News, the very best news, to the stumbling disciples hiding in the upper room.
Which is another way of saying: without women preachers, we never would’ve heard about the resurrection!
Even throughout the rest of the New Testament – female prophets were common among the churches that sprung up during the Acts of the Apostles, both Peter and Paul affirm this in various places. We can read about Dorcas, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, Aquila, Syntyche, on and on and on.
And that’s not even mentioned the powerful women int he first generation of the church! It was only in the 4th century, during the Council of Laodicea, when women were banned from ordination and being elders in Christian churches.
And this is what is really wild: up until that Council, Christianity was revolutionary with regard to women as compared to the wider culture. Women were afforded rights, privileges, and power though the church that they could receive no where else.
And yet, today, its as if things have flipped in certain churches – that is, women have greater rights and powers and privileges in the surrounding culture than they do in church.
At the end of the day, it’s not just about what women can or can’t do in the church – it’s about how we understand one another in the totality of existence. What we believe shapes how we behave. Or, to put it another way, what we do in church shapes what we do outside of church.
It we’re part of a church that limited what women can or, a church that belittles who women are, we’re obviously going to do the same outside the walls of the church.
Think, for a moment, about what that teaches a young girl about who she is and how she is to understand herself… Think about what that teaches young boys about who they are in relation to girls.
God calls both men and women to preach and to lead the church.
It’s really as simple as that.
And yet we’ve mucked it up centuries.
Which leads us to Galatians.
Paul, the same apostle who wrote to Timothy, also wrote to the budding church in Galatia about what it means to be the church. Again, we can only discern so much about the context behind the content, but it’s clear the community of faith was struggling between who was in and who was out, what was and what wasn’t permissible. And Paul’s words are remarkable.
Why all the rules? Those were added because of our inability to be good, they were given until we could come into the promise made to us.
Are the rules in opposition to the promises of God? Of course not! If rules were given that could give us life and life abundance, then righteousness would have come through the law. But the Word has imprisoned all things under the power of sin so that the promised might be given not because of what we do, but because of what has been done for us.
The rules were our disciplinarian until Christ came, but now that Christ has arrived we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian – we are all children of God through faith.
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
In his call for “no longer male and female” Paul isn’t combining the two or obliterating their distinctions. Instead he is eliminating the privileged position of men in the new reality we call the kingdom of God. His words insist on the equality and equity between the two with retraining the glorious uniqueness of each.
In essence, whenever the church attempts to claim what anyone can or can’t do, the church then attempts to limit what God can do. But God is the God of impossible possibility, God lifts up the lowly and brings down the mighty, God makes a way where there is no way.
The church is called to proclaim the goodness of God in Christ Jesus who came not to judge the world, but to save it.
Nobody, in other words, not the devil, not the world, not the law, not even ourselves, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. We can, or course, squirm around in God’s grip and make up all sort of declarations about the church and we can no doubt get ourselves into a heck of a mess by doing so.
But if we take seriously the proclamation that we are all made in the image of God then perhaps we should start acting like it. Amen.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.
It’s a bit I often use when I’m preaching for a wedding. Something about how, in the Gospels, people are forever asking Jesus about the kingdom of heaven and he has some rather strange and bizarre answers. The kingdom of heaven is like… a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like… treasure buried in a field. The kingdom of heaven is like… yeast. On and on. But the thing Jesus compares the kingdom to most of all is a feast, a party.
I like to bring this up at weddings because immediately following my part, the newlyweds usually lead everyone in attendance to a reception during which they celebrate. It is my attempt at showing how the marriage ceremony, the part with all the religious language, is connected to everything that happens after. Or, to put it bluntly: Jesus is just as much present in the celebration as the ceremony.
And so it came to pass, during one particular wedding, that the bridal party actually listened to what I was saying throughout the ceremony to such a degree that, for the rest of the evening, they shouted “Party Like Jesus!” every time they lifted their campaign flutes.
I’ll admit that it was a rather contradictory moment, and yet it held the promise of the Gospel!
Contrary to how we might like to imagine it, a fair amount of Jesus’ ministry took place over a cup of wine with friends. He, to use the language of Robert Farrar Capon, was literally the Spirit of the party. Therefore, we do well to remember that feasts (maritally oriented or otherwise) are blessed opportunities to have a little slice of heaven on earth.
I love that Jesus compares the kingdom to a feast because a feast (more often than not) is something we’re invited to. It is an ever ringing reminder that no matter what we do, or leave undone, God is the host, and God likes crowded tables. There is no bouncer at the party, save for a king who insists on dragging in people off the street. There is no list of pre-requisites to enter, save for recognizing that we have no business being at the party to which we’re invited. There isn’t even an expectation of reciprocation, save for the fact that we’re encouraged to stumble out from the party doing whatever we can to share the joy of it with others.
Or, as Capon put it:
“Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is the floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”
And, because I believe that music often does a better job at conveying theological claim than mere words alone, here are some tunes to put us in the party spirit:
Miner is a folk-rock family band based in Los Angeles. Their propulsive “Tomorrow” is simple in terms of its lyrics and yet profound in its arrangement. The thematic “waves washing over” are conveyed through the repetition of the vocals and the drums which build throughout the song. In a time when it feels like we’re bombarded by nothing but bad news, the proclamation of the Good News of better days is something, I think, we can all use right now.
Real Estate is known for their catchy guitar earworms, and their easy rock feel. When I saw them live a few years ago everyone in the audience exuded happiness as they swayed back and forth to the music. The band covered the Grateful Dead’s “Here Comes Sunshine” back in 2016 and I love returning to this track for a little boost every so often. I hope it does the same for you.
May Erlewine is a singer-songwriter from Michigan who teamed up with the Woody Goss (of Vulfpeck fame) Band for an amazing record in 2020. The single “Anyway” has funky drums, a picky guitar riff, and a smooth melody. Who wouldn’t want to hear “I’m gonna love you anyway” over and over?
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Isaiah 62.1-5, Psalm 36.5-10, 1 Corinthians 12.1-11, John 2.1-11). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the 5th Gospel, visible vindication, marital imagery, Good News For Anxious Christians, judgment as transformation, sentimentality, spiritual gifts, communal confirmations, the atonement, and new wine. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Operating System Of The New Testament
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
I was sitting in a basement office somewhere on the campus of Duke Divinity School with an administrator who was explaining the ins and outs of “Field Education.” She shared the convictions of the institution, the valuable and positive research of such endeavors, and (finally) she told me where I would be spending ten weeks my first summer of seminary: Bryson City, North Carolina. Every student would also be spending their summers working for various churches and para-church organizations so that we could take what we learned in the classroom and apply it to the field.
Before I had a chance to properly come to grips with the information shared with me, the administrator handed me a piece of paper and she said, “It’s covenant time.”
She watched me diligently as I weaved my way through the wording:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low by thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
I only later learned that the words I used can be found in every United Methodist Hymnal because they are part of “A Covenant Prayer In The Wesleyan Tradition.” And, I also learned that countless Methodists have come back to these words at the start of new years, new jobs, new relationships, and a whole assortment of other new endeavors.
It can feel a little daunting to “freely and heartily yield” all things to God’s disposal but, according to the strange new world of the Bible, that’s exactly what God did and does for us.
Looking back, I am profoundly grateful for the covenant I made that day because I carried those words with me to the people of Bryson City, North Carolina and together we encountered the Lord who encounters us.
Therefore, wherever you and and whatever you’re encountering, I encourage you to read through the words of the Wesleyan Covenant, let them sink deep into the fabric of your being, and know that “so be it” might be the most faithful words we can ever speak.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [C] (Isaiah 43.1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8.14-17, Luke 3.15-17, 21-22). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including unquenchable fires, stereotypes, perfect worship, formation, divine declarations, gear grinding, the voice of the Lord, the open Kingdom, baptismal difference, Phillip Cary, ill-advised liturgies, and righteous clothing. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Baptism By Fire