Friday, August 31, 2007

Dive In: John

“If only I could have talked to Jesus….” Kim was wistful in her longing. “I wish God would talk to me today so I could hear him like I hear you.”

We long for that personal touch, don’t we? Many are sure belief would be easier if they had lived in Jesus’ time.

How do we learn about events when we weren’t present for the happening? Often we seek out an eyewitness account. The news media is trained to search for eyewitnesses. The legal world prizes the eyewitness in a court case. The impossible is a little more likely if someone actually saw it happen.

John’s gospel takes a new direction from the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke). John makes his purpose clear in John 20:31:

But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:31

He writes so that others may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and so receive eternal life.

John leaves out much of the synoptic material and includes material unique to his gospel, evoking plenty of questions about his purpose. Was John writing to correct the synoptics? To supplement them? Why is his central theme so different from the synoptics?

Who did he write to? The Greek word that could be translated “continue to believe” or “now believe” appears well over 20 times in John. Scholars debate John’s audience. Was he writing evangelically, to move non-Christians to belief? Or was he writing to Christians, urging them to continue in their belief? There are many theories.

In the last 100 years, scholars suggest that John wrote to evangelize Gentiles while others say John wrote to evangelize Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora (those scattered). Most probably, John’s purpose was to evangelize Jews and Gentiles while encouraging Christians. The same arguments that could cause one to come to faith would cause another to continue in that faith.

John’s gospel is fascinating in its uniqueness. He chose seven signs – indicating in 21:25 that there were many more – to make specific points about Jesus’ authority. Those seven miracles showed Jesus’ power over nature, time, distance, quantity – those things that seem impossible to overcome, thereby showing Jesus’ divinity.

For the many who would question Jesus’ divinity, John tackled the topic head-on with eye-witness reports on Jesus’ power.

Those who doubted the divinity of Jesus had to explain John’s eyewitness reports. John saw the signs personally.

John 2:23 summarizes the process: many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name.

People were eyewitnesses: they saw Jesus’ work and they believed.

Today, we have those eyewitness reports. Who needs to read John today?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Dive In: Luke

The third gospel, Luke’s report, takes a different tack than either Matthew or Mark. Luke was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ life and makes clear in the first four verses of his gospel that his purpose is to present an orderly, well-researched and truthful account of Jesus’ ministry.

Luke was a well-educated man, a Gentile, and an historian. He seems to be writing largely to Gentiles in Syrian Antioch as a shepherd or pastor, although scholars suggest he had three more purposes: to make a historical record, to teach theological truths, and to defend Jesus’ teachings.

Christians in Rome were accused of being law-breakers, because they considered God’s Word to be above Roman law. Luke may have been explaining and defending Christian practices to the Romans.

Luke wrote a lot. The gospel and Acts make up nearly half of the New Testament. A brilliant historian/writer, Luke’s research and attention to detail is amazing. His command of Greek is impressive.

While Matthew aimed his universality at getting Jews to see outside their Jewish limits, Luke’s universality was aimed at Gentiles and social outcasts. He cared for people, especially the poor and outsider.

Matthew concentrated on Jesus and the Kingdom (Jesus as King) and Mark focused on Jesus as Servant God. Luke concentrated on Jesus and the people.

Luke emphasized Jesus’ humanity, including His compassion for the unclean, women, sick and poor. Luke also emphasized Jesus’ role as savior and teacher. Luke includes 15 unique parables and devotes a huge chunk of his gospel to the gospel teaching of Jesus, including 28 parables.

Today many confuse Jesus with a moral teacher or a strict disciplinarian. Luke paints a different story. Through Luke’s account, we see Jesus as the lover of the poor and downtrodden.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at John.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Dive In: Mark

Mark’s gospel, considered by scholars for centuries to be a “Reader’s Digest” version of Matthew (sort of a Matthew lite) , has finally begun to receive attention in its own right.

The gospel, an action-filled, picturesque telling of parts of Jesus’ life, is thought to be accurate but probably not in strict chronological order.

Mark was an assistant to Peter and traveled with him as the early church was being established. Some interesting things about the author: He belonged to one of the founding families of the Christian church, he was an eyewitness to Jesus’ death and resurrection, he experienced failure in his own discipleship (he abandoned Paul on his first missionary journey and probably fled when Jesus was arrested), and he was a companion of both Peter and Paul.

Why did Mark write his gospel? There are many suggestions: as an instruction book for new converts, to clearly establish Jesus as Messiah, to encourage persecuted Christians, to reveal Jesus’ influence by emphasizing his miracles.

Mark’s theme is simple: following Jesus. He writes an action-filled gospel, moving quickly from story to story, emphasizing Jesus’ works – including miracles – over His teachings. Jesus proved his clout through his actions in the book of Mark. Jesus is worth following through difficulty and sacrifice, Mark shows, because he has authority and power.

The gospel has much to say about the failures of Peter and the failures of the disciples. Yet the forgiveness and redemption of God’s supremacy shine through the narrative. Mark had failed Jesus more than once. He had special sensitivity to the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus, as did Peter, and included that insight in his gospel- an insight that would encourage some modern-day readers.

Who might be encouraged by reading Mark today?

Tomorrow, Luke.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Dive In: Matthew

Why the book of Matthew?

The Gospel of Matthew, probably written by Mathew who was one of the “lesser” apostles and also a tax collector (not exactly an honored profession in first-century Palestine), reveals the viewpoint of a man familiar with money, organization, and vice – a tax collector.

The most common assumption is that the evangelist wrote to Jews to convince them that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Yet the book is not that simple. On one hand, there are many references to Old Testament text to prove Jesus fulfilled prophecy. Matthew stresses Jesus’ role as son of David, His genealogy, Jewish customs and traditions.

Yet Matthew also emphasizes the universalism of Jesus’ ministry, including four Gentile women (and some with questionable pasts - like Matthew) in Jesus’ genealogy and recounting parables that predict the end of the Jewish leadership. The Great Commission at the end of Matthew shows the disciples sent to “all nations” not just Jews. Those don’t seem like the approach of a man focused only on the Jews. Was he writing to Jews or to all?

Scholars debate Matthew’s purpose, since he doesn’t specifically list it, as did Luke and John. Matthew may have been written to evangelize the Jews. Or perhaps as a manual to help disciple new believers. Was the gospel written as an apologetic manual to debate the Jews? Or as a church manual? Perhaps the gospel was meant to be a help for the persecuted church. Many scholars think it is an intricate weaving of most, if not all, those purposes.

Matthew brought a distinct viewpoint, that of a disciple rescued from a stained past where he had been rejected by his own people. Did his gospel reflect a second chance?

Who would be drawn to such a treatment of Jesus’ life? Would an artist? An engineer? A free spirit? Would the family downtrodden by tragedy rush to Matthew for some compassion and insight?

What do you think?

Tomorrow, we’ll look at Mark.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Dive In: the gospels

Skeptics are not a modern development. Cain heard God but ignored his warning. Noah was alone among earth’s people who honored God.

When Jesus encountered future disciples in the first chapter of John, he responded to questions with a simple “come and see.” He drew skeptics to himself.

So should we. But not to ourselves, in spite of what we sometimes think. Our task is to point them to Jesus.

Answers are found in the presence of Jesus, which is found in the gospels.

If we’re going to grapple with questions about the nature of God, the gospels bring us a tapestry of Jesus’ life and ministry. And Jesus was clear that he was the way to the Father. The gospels are the avenue to Jesus. We have to understand them.

Which brings me to my topic for today: why are there four gospels? There’s more in that question than you might think.

If the goal of the gospels is to present a historically accurate, chronological account of the life of Jesus, then there wouldn’t seem to be a need for four gospels. One could do that. But since there are four gospels, and they have been endorsed as canonical and inspired by God, we must dig deeper.

The gospels are not to be seen only as different views of the same historical account. How does one account for the gospel differences, especially those that seem contradictory? How does one explain why a gospel includes certain accounts and leaves others out?

For most of church history, scholars believed that the gospels were meant to harmonize. In other words, they were certain that if you read the resurrection story in all four gospels, you could piece them together to get the complete story. That implies each gospel is incomplete without the others. That could have presumptuous implications.

The thinking has changed. Today, many assume that the first-century writers had different audiences, different purposes, and different talents. Although the gospels address the same basic narrative – Jesus’ life on earth – they are not incomplete apart from each other.

Each gospel has unique purpose, audience, style, form, content and theology. Each evangelist wrote from his own gifting and viewpoint, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Today begins a short series on each gospel. I will include an overview of the purpose of each gospel and also some ideas on whom in the modern audience might be drawn to a particular gospel presentation.

If we’re intent on shining light on this world, we must show them Jesus. That’s the battle point, where the tension arises. Jesus is not safe, like some watery references to a higher being might be. When we bring up Jesus, we establish the front line of the spiritual battle.

That’s why we need to know the gospels.

Tomorrow, we’ll start with Matthew.

We’ll discover who he wrote to and what his purpose what. And hopefully when we’d want to direct someone to the first gospel.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Friday Five: Lord of all

In the beginning God created

Gen 1:1

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.

Psalms 19:1-2

The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.

Isaiah 40:28

For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Romans 1:20

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

Heb 11:3

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Cleaning out

I knew things were going to get a little sticky when I uncovered a CD for a printer that I don’t recall owning. Then there was the CD with a black Sharpie question mark label.

What in the world?

It was finals time so to speak. I had popped off the lid to my trusted plastic CD box. I had to deliver the goods just like a test at the end of the semester.

If you recall, my laptop computer crashed last week. After a stubborn time of trying to restore files, I finally moved on. (Did I say stubborn? I meant persistent, of course.)

The hard drive was re-formatted and it was time to re-install my programs. Although nobody accuses me of being well-organized (well, someone did once but that was before they saw my desk), I took some pride on my box as a shred of planning.

Every program CD went into that box. Well, except for the MS Office CD but that’s a whole ‘nother story that I can’t explain. It is somewhere in my office.

I am proud to say that there were no 5 ½ inch floppies in there. Using my system, that’s a miracle.

(Remind me to tell you the story of the Apple IIc that is stored in my son’s room.)

I found programs that won’t run on anything newer than Windows 98. I found programs for pre-schoolers. (Our youngest is 11.) I found a CD from our classical music days.

I haven’t had the time to check out the question-mark CD yet, although there’s the fleeting issue of why I’d save a CD inscribed that way. I’d like to blame this on the kids but they never open the box. I am the computer technician at our house. They just run the programs and don’t mess with the details.

Wonder where they learned that?

There’s a principle swirling in that plastic box. Crisis tends to reveal. What was once hidden becomes public in calamity. It became obvious that I don’t maintain my plastic box. I just toss things in there without seeing what is no longer relevant (or maybe never relevant.)

The past should have been worked through, not allowed to take up space. We grow, just as our computers change. Remember when Windows 95 was the big deal? Remember when our approach to problems was to eat or shop or party?

We need to keep our lives cleaned out. I’m wondering how many question-mark CDs I allow in my heart. And how many irrelevant CDs are taking up space I could be using.

A CD box isn’t the focus of my life, but my walk with the Lord had better not look like my box. I need to be in his presence daily, cleaning out the old and extraneous. I need my walk with my King to be free of garbage.

Paul put it so well:

I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.

Phil 3:8

I’m cleaning out my box!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

John's world

Why the book of John? At John’s writing, there were already three gospels, the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Why John?

First, we need to understand that each of the gospels was written to a specific audience. For example, Matthew, with its many references to the prophets and Jewish customs, was written largely to a Jewish audience.

John was written to an audience wrestling with unbelief, pummeled by society’s philosophies that were, at best, diluting the gospel message.

Gnostics were in search of knowledge (the word “gnosis” means secret knowledge). Irenaeus, an early church father (he was martyred in 155 AD), wrote that John refuted Gnosticism. Scholars today assert, however, that the Gnostic movement didn’t really have strength until the second century – Irenaeus’ time. However, the aroma of that viewpoint wafted into the church even in the first century. Influence was already beginning.

Early Gnostic teachings celebrated all that is spiritual and condemned all that is physical. That was at the core of their “secret knowledge” and obviously Gnostic thinking would deny God coming to earth as a man.

They toyed with such ideas as Jesus being a spirit who looked like a man but they denied Jesus as fully God and fully man.

John wrote to a broad audience – Jew and Gentile – but especially to those swaying in the wind of cultural philosophies.

The opening paragraph of John (v. 1-5) describes Jesus in a way that would have resonated with those early philosophies, using familiar terms (light/dark, Word/Logos) in a new way.

John’s ultimate goal was to present Jesus as truly God – as described in this opening of his book – and as truly human, as seen through the stories of his life.

He was the light of the world, God who became man to banish the darkness. This was the talk of philosophers and John chose his approach and word choices intentionally to refute false values.

John can be read, not just as another narrative of Jesus’ life, but as a brilliant literary work intended to defend Jesus’ incarnation. Yes, Jesus was God but he was also man – vital for belief in his redeeming work.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14 (NRSV)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dive In: Provenance

We’ve spent several weeks discussing the design of a book of the Bible. There many elements of design and we’ve only scratched the surface there. But we need to look at the second leg of our stool for balance.

There are three aspects to a careful reading of a biblical text:

  • Design
  • Provenance
  • Idea

We will begin our discussion of provenance today.

Provenance means, simply, the origins or beginning of something. Ultimately it is from Latin provenire, from pro-, "forth" + venire, "to come."

As we look at a biblical text, we must ask its origin. It’s tempting to look at the story in the text and assume that was when the author did his work.

However, take a look at Ruth 4:7

"Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel."

The author added this explanation because his reader did not know the custom being described in the text. That alerts us immediately that the narrative was written many years after the events actually occurred.

There are many other examples like this in the Bible, enough for us to know that many times a history was written years after the actual events.

We know, for example, that Ruth was probably written after David was king of Israel. Many scholars suspect that Ruth was written, in part, as comment on David’s reign. Did God want David to be king? Ruth answers that question with a triumphant yes!

The idea then becomes that the true kings of Israel come from David’s line. From the barrenness of Naomi and Ruth, God brought forth new life that became the future of Israel. The book endorses David’s rule and also opens the door to Christ’s reign someday, although the original reader probably would not have recognized that aspect like we do today.

When the text was written is important to the ideas it expresses.

So, as we begin our study of a text, we must ask:

Who was the author?

Who was the audience?

When was the work written?

What were some of the cultural and historic backstories for the text?

Tomorrow we’re going to apply those questions to the book of John. John’s ideas begin to spring to life as we examine these questions.

Next Tuesday, we’ll look at provenance further by examining a painting, The Graham Children, done by William Hogarth in 1742. If you get a chance, take a look at the painting and see what you observe in it. I think we’ll find next week that studying design alone won’t spring the meaning like studying the provenance.

(Thank Dr. Frank Ames, my Old Testament professor, for presenting these concepts so profoundly.)

This week, begin asking the questions of provenance, especially when. It’s vital to your understanding of the text.

Monday, August 20, 2007

In the beginning...

My 16 year old daughter breathes video cameras and praise songs. Here's a short clip she put together.

God's part

Great is the Lord....

(Photos from the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in southern Colorado.)
And greatly to be praised!


It was a blow that would have laid me out a few years ago. The anger would have gripped my day like a baby kitten latching onto a pant leg.

My laptop crashed on vacation.

Leisurely days of writing and of Bible study had beckoned on the horizon of our holiday. But it didn’t happened.

Now I face days of rebuilding. I have to re-install programs, locate passwords, download new patches.

My biggest grief was the loss of three years of journaling, my love letters to my Lord.

But I am not David, mourning the loss of a son. I am not Abraham, moving to a land I do not know. I am not Esther, facing possible death depending on king’s mood or Paul sitting in jail depending on the political winds.

God has been good to me. Virtually all my documents were on an external hard drive so I haven’t lost those. And I discovered a back-up of my journals from about 6 months ago, so I haven’t lost all of them. We have another computer at home for internet connections.

While we were gone last week, I opened a notebook and felt drawn to the book of John (more on that later).

I began a new love letter to my Lord and we’ll move forward. His presence, not a laptop, is all I need.

Friday, August 17, 2007


It was a wilting experience, to read about the impossible things seen in other places. A church planted by a foreign man passionate to share with his own people. Money arriving at the perfect time to fund a project. Enthusiastic volunteers lending a hand. Only God could do something like this…. And I had to admit I had not seen God do impossible things.

My fault.

I had never seen God do any more than I could do. I relied on him as my handy assistant, my god-of-crisis, the one who would grease the wheels on my decisions.

My heart began to yield that day. The search began with a yearning in my heart for more. More of God’s plan. More of the impossible. And less of my way.

That’s how I jumped into an impossible situation last year. I had a strong impulse – a calling from God – to host a bilingual children’s Bible club in the city park. I had two goals: to share God’s love with bilingual children and to introduce their parents to a bilingual pastor, hoping to begin a Bible study in a home.

I am not bilingual. And I knew our church was not enthusiastic about this venture.

The first step was to prayerwalk our town of 5,000. Coincidentally (you see that word a lot in impossible stories), Sylvia had called me a couple of months earlier wanting to prayerwalk our town. When I called, she was thrilled to join me.

So, for three months, Sylvia and her three children joined my children and me once a week to pray for our town and the upcoming Bible club. Only she didn’t know about the second part for a couple of weeks. When she learned, she was excited but then she leaned over confidentially.

“Um, how are you guys and us going to host a Bible club? We’re a little short handed, aren’t we?”

“Well,” I said. “We’re also going to pray for a mission team to come and teach the Bible club.”

So we did. And I put out feelers trying to find a team. Unfortunately (another key word in impossible stories), we had picked a week in mid-August – the only time we could do the Bible Club but impossible for most teams because their youth had to get back to school.

By June, we had no team but had prayed over nearly the whole town. I assured Sylvia that, if no team showed up, I had no clue what we’d do. “This is God’s idea,” I told her.

Well, as you can guess, the team showed up. They had opportunities to go in other directions but, for some reason (another impossible story term), came our way.

(We had no funding, either, but God took care of that faster than the team! We had more money than we needed, of course.)

We ended up with over 30 people deciding to follow Jesus that week. We had 150 people come to our family night, where they met our bilingual pastor. He was able to visit 28 families and has started a Bible study in a home.

This was all impossible for two moms and 5 kids. But not impossible with God.

I learned in the impossible is where God shines brightest. His idea, his resources, his way.

Now, I want to hear your impossible story. What has God done that only God can do? Link us to your blog story below. I’m anxious to hear some great stories.

Friday Five: Genesis Fruit

God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number…” Gen. 1:22

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” Gen. 9:1

I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. Gen 17:6

And God said to him, “I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body. Gen. 35:11

Now the Israelites settled in Egypt in the region of Goshen. They acquired property there and were fruitful and increased greatly in number. Gen 47:27

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Unscrambling culture

I had already whipped those farm eggs into a yellow froth when my husband leaned over my shoulder. “I was sort of hoping to have them fried this morning,” he said.
Ever tried to unscramble an egg?
Truthfully, that was my feeling after my first seminary class. We began to discuss culture and biblical truths, about how important it is to separate culture from our faith.
Sometimes we make a stand on a long-standing church practice only to discover it doesn’t have a biblical beginning. It may not be wrong, just not required. Churches have split over some of these practices.
For example, the altar call began in the late 1800’s as a result of revival camp meetings. But in some churches, a service cannot end without an altar call – including closing your eyes so that the convicted soul can make their commitment in private. Please don’t think I am against altar calls. Some dear Christians friends began their spiritual journey that way.
But I’m saying it isn’t a biblical requirement. Jesus didn’t require it. Neither did Paul. It’s not a requirement for redemption. It’s not a bad thing. It encourages a person to make a decision. It has merit but it isn’t required.
I’m on thin ice here but hang with me.
Harry Plantinga is director of Christian Classics Ethereal Library, a handy website where an incredible number of Christian classics can be downloaded and read. He commented,
Christian belief and practice in any time or place is much affected by the surrounding culture. It's easy to find yourself with beliefs and concerns that are cultural rather than essentially Christian.
It feels like unscrambling an egg sometimes to separate culture from Christian belief.
But Plantinga believes we have a powerful resource to help: the classics. He said:
Writings from the first century are very helpful and revealing in that respect, because they are so close to the time of Jesus' life and they come at a time when the church was growing dramatically. The gospel preached then is the one that quickly spread throughout the world.
Here’s my suggestion: plunge into a classic writing. The text can be a little challenging but it’s worth the effort.
Try some of the writings of these early church fathers to get you started: Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Clement, Justin Martyr.
We can separate culture and faith. It is easier than unscrambling that egg!

Christian Classics Ethereal Library

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Paul's Storm

Even the spectacular got dreary after a while. Dark livid waves higher than the mast, wind roaring for days, black clouds roiling and angry. The ship was carried along in a hurricane for 14 days, with no hope, no light, no way of escape.
Paul’s storm in Acts 27 was no small afternoon squall that sent the crew to an island like a first century Gilligan. An experienced sailing team had finally set the ship loose to flow with the storm, unable to drop anchor or fight the raging winds.
Imagine riding with a hurricane for 14 days.
The crew had lost all hope. They knew they’d be dashed by the rocks of opposition.
When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.
Acts 27:20
In that black bleakness rode Paul. He assured the soldiers, the centurion, the sailors that they would survive this storm. But he did more than hand out happy platitudes. He spoke of salvation. “I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me.”
In the darkness called hopelessness, Paul did not cave to despair. He was focused on his goal, to serve God by telling. And to serve others in the doing.
Paul insisted that the tired sailors – who had not eaten during the storm – get some food because they would need it to survive. He broke bread and gave thanks in front of them. He pointed them to Jesus in every action and response.
Paul could have slunk to a far corner of the ship and tried to stay dry. He could have complained about his lousy fate and how God had failed him. He could have whined a thin “I told you so” to those who had ignored his advice.
He chose to represent Jesus, bringing hope and courage to those in despair. He didn’t say a word about soaked clothes or stale bread. He shined with faith.
Know anybody in a hurricane? Maybe you’re in one yourself. Maybe the waves look devastating and you haven’t seen the sun in many days.
Find a Paul. Be a Paul. Have faith in God’s protection. You may survive the storm – or you may not – but no hurricane can separate us from God’s presence. Paul knew that and he was bold to share the vision with others.
Be a Paul. Stand strong in the storm.
They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Acts 27:36

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Dive In: Resources I

Your bookshelf is now going to be front and center in our discussion. You may wonder what my delay has been.

In diving deeper in the Bible, the first text you have to use is the Bible. You have to read it, ask questions, see patterns, look for the context and big picture. You have to begin to identify the design of the pericope. Several translations are very helpful.

The second thing you should open, after a Bible, is not a commentary. Commentaries are written by scholars with bias. They can’t help it, any more than you can help your bias. Commentaries are often helpful but never the final word. There is no commentary that can replace thoughtful reading of the biblical text. (We'll discuss them more later because I have some specific advice for them.)

In fact, the first extra-biblical text I’d suggest for your bookshelf is a good Bible dictionary. Don’t buy the two-nine-five paperback at the grocery store. Save up some money, ask for it as a birthday gift, have a yard sale. Do what it takes (short of breaking the law or selling a child) to get a good dictionary

Here are my suggestions for a helpful Bible dictionary:

Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Edited by Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit, Tremper Longman, Colin Duriez, Douglas Penney and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998.

Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation. Edited by John H. Hayes. 2 vols. Nashville: Abingdon, 1999.

Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers and Astrid B. Beck. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. Edited by Paul J. Achtemeier. Rev. ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

Holman Bible Dictionary. Edited by Trent C. Butler. Nashville: Holman, 1991.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. 4 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995. (ISBE)

Remember: always always always read a reference book like you eat a fish: keep the meat and spit out the bones. There are no perfect reference materials. You may be biased or the author may be biased, but the final word comes from the Bible. What does the Bible say about a particular topic?

Dictionaries are helpful in showing us cultural background and context, reminding us of locales and genealogies, identifying people and history. I like to keep one close when I’m reading.

My favorite book in the above list is the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, although I use it together with the ISBE.

Here’s an example of the help I get from the DBI.

I’ve been puzzling over the Sodom and Gomorrah account. Here’s something I read that gave me a toehold on meaning:

The contrasting of Lot and Sodom with Abraham is highlighted by parallels in the hospitality extended toward the divine messengers (Gen 18:1-8, 19:1-3). But the story in Genesis 19 quickly degenerates into a spiral of sin. The attempt at sexual violation by the entire male population, the offer of Lot’s daughters in the messengers' stead, the mocking of his future sons-in-laws, Lot’s hesitation to leave Sodom and his plea not to have to flee far away, and the fateful backward glance of his wife fill out this portrait of rejection of God’s ways (Gen 19:4-26). All Abraham sees afterward is the smoke of the judgment (Gen 19:27-28).

—Dictionary of Biblical Imagery

Suddenly I was comparing Gen 18 and Gen 19, looking for parallels and for contrasts. The dictionary didn’t give me the meaning, but helped provide information to pry loose the intent of the author. It’s a resource that helps me see comparisons across time and history when I might otherwise miss them.

Another entry tells me that salt is a sign of barrenness or sterility. Lot’s wife becomes a pillar of salt, although she had earlier had children, while Abraham’s wife, who earlier was without child, became the mother of the nation. That certainly gives traction to some ideas in the text.

Would you tell me what dictionary you like and use? Or what other resources you’d like me to discuss in coming weeks?

Keep reading and diving in.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Marriage: the battle

The news was hollow, empty, black and white where we wanted color and song.

“I’ve had enough,” she told her family and walked out the door.

The world looks like carnival mirrors, all distorted and unrecognizable. How could this be?

They are our friends, a couple we have respected for many years. They both have a passion for Jesus and a love for their children.

Their pain haunts me daily. I have no answers, not even a need to analyze my way through to one. I feel their disappointment, the ache in their hearts in this brokenness.

I know another couple thrashing about in the muck of infidelity. Their marriage didn’t fulfill like the lure of other arms. Now they wrestle: can trust be rebuilt?

A young woman has moved in with her boyfriend. There is no desire in her heart to marry, however. She sees the sorrow of marriage as inevitable.

We still value marriage in our culture. Why else would homosexuals be demanding its right? But we have seen the smashed remains so often that many are afraid of giving it a try.

And yet the thought that there really are no permanent covenants looms like a black hole. As we follow Jesus, we embrace the image of unbroken covenant. But even unbelievers want to think that some things are permanent. They are not willing to toss aside marriage as an archaic custom. It is a bond, a permanency that our hearts crave for.

Please pray for marriages. Pray for your own, for your pastor’s, for your friends. This is a battlefield and we must be warriors. What God extended to us must not be plowed under.

Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

Matt 19:6

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Considering a weed

When it comes to tenacity, it’s hard to beat a weed.

I was pulling the wild things this week, amazed at the depth of their roots and the thickness of the stalk. It’s as if they know winter is coming and time is short.

Their goal is simple: provide for next year. They utilize their resources carefully because no little weeds will be coming in the spring unless they produce seeds.

The harvest is their reason for living.

Usually we consider the weed as an analogy for the persistence of evil, but consider it today as our pattern.

Remember God’s first words to Adam: “Be fruitful and increase in number.” (Gen 1:28)

Are we as determined as that weed? This isn’t just about children but about spiritual increase.

Time is short for those weeds trying to conquer my flowers. They will cling by a tendril of root to life if I let them. They sniff out the pockets of rain and push their way upward to the sun.

The opinion of the flowers doesn’t deter them. (Or for that matter, my opinion!) They aren’t sidetracked by their favorite TV show or a shopping trip. They don’t spend their spare time at the lake or shouting at a baseball team.

They are focused on fruit. Their summer work is the link to the next generation.

I’m not opposed to rest and relaxation. But we’ve made entertainment and personal fulfillment the gods of our generation. What is our goal? Are we concerned for the coming spring or for our own summer? How can we weave fruitfulness into our daily plan?

I know you think this is silly because weeds endure. We fight them but we can’t get them beaten back. They’ll be back next year despite our best efforts. They are frustrating in their resolve, amazing in their concentration.

Isn’t that the point?

“I am going to make you fruitful and will increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.”

Gen. 48:4

Friday, August 10, 2007

New poll

Did you notice the poll at the top of the right hand column? It'd help me if you'd fill it in for me. Thanks!!

Friday Five: Names for God's Spirit

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-- the Spirit of truth.

John 14:16-17

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

John 14:26

The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him-- the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD--

Isaiah 11:2

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

Romans 8:2

how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

Heb 9:14

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Broken joy

Her face was aglow, raised to the sky, her arms embracing the joy of the moment. She was Lisa Smith, providing inspired signing at a Women of Faith conference.

Maybe you’ve seen her.

Joy is personified in Lisa. She blazes with devotion and adoration for Jesus. I have never seen such focused worship, the freedom of passion and commitment.

By the way, did I mention that Lisa has Down’s Syndrome?

Maybe you thought, O-o-o-oh, poor girl.

Don’t say that’s too bad for Lisa. She has what I wish I had. She radiates love and delight. With her arms outstretched, her body glows with zeal and commitment.

God has blessed Lisa with an incredible gift. He has taken a young woman with a condition that we pity and revealed an incredible truth. Who among us is more worthy to worship him than Lisa? We all come broken and humble before the magnificent throne of God but some embrace their worship and some embrace their condition.

Remember John’s description of the throne room? Day and night they never stop saying: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come." (Rev 4:8)

And this is an incredible picture of worship:

Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. (Rev 4:9-10)

Remember Isaiah’s vision? He saw God on his throne, surrounded by worshipping seraphs:

And they were calling to one another:
"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory." (Isaiah 6:3)

I can imagine Lisa someday joining those seraphs and elders in worship. She’ll be an awesome sight because she’s been practicing a long time. She doesn't let brokenness keep her away from the throne.

I think I want to get some practice in, too.

You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.

Rev 4:11

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Comment Circus: Results

I hope you’ve already read the comments to Saturday’s “Comment Circus.” If not, please take a look. I have pulled a few excerpts out for consideration, but that’s not to suggest my excerpts are better than the original comments, for they decidedly are not.

I have been encouraged by your zeal and passion. Here are some things I observed as I read your comments.

For some of you, following Jesus is better than managing your own life. Some of you have tried it your own way. Ann commented, “When I was in the drivers seat I ended up making a huge mess of my life.” Janelle agreed: “my life was a wreck of which I never want to return.”

That practical touch carried over to several other posts. Kittyhox said, “Without Him life doesn't make any sense, have any lasting meaning, and just doesn't work!” Darla added, “because it works, and there are no better ideas!”

Jen agreed: "I know what it was like to be me before I met Him."

Tam added a twist: “Why NOT follow Jesus? The truth about God is known instinctively in our hearts.”

The alternative was unacceptable. Alyson said, “Without him my life is empty.” Leah agreed. “I would be in a pit of sin so fast it would make my head spin if I didn't follow Him.”
Angela added, “He is my everything and I am lost without Him.”

Quoting Peter, Kate continued that thought. "Lord, to whom shall I go? You are the Holy One of God." (John 6:68-69)

Maxine remembered Jesus’ work: “He is the author and finisher of my faith; He is the One who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God, making intercession for me.”

Christine’s thoughts were of Jesus’ nature. “Jesus is the Vine…the Water…the Light.”

For Susan, the why was one word: “eternity.” Meg added, “my only hope.”

Cicilia highlighted Jesus’ role as mentor and leader. “He shows me how to love, to give hope to the hopeless, how to receive comfort, and how to know I am never, ever alone in this divinely human journey I am on.”

Kara also focused on the leadership: “No one comes to the Father but by Him.”

Jesus’ character attracts Zam: “He exemplifies obedience, and if I were a flower, then He'd be my sun.”

By limited comments to one sentence, I hoped the explanations would reflect the essence of your relationships with Jesus. I think it worked. I am awestruck by the richness of understanding, the tenderness of relationship, the passion of the remarks.

You now have a one-sentence response to those who might ask, “why Jesus? Why follow?” Your mini-testimony is polished and ready to use.

Thank you for your wisdom and grace in sharing. Did you notice, by the way, that we're over 15 comments? I guess the kittens stay home. Thank you for joining in!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Dive In: Questions

If I gave you two tools for deeper Bible study, they would be to read the Bible regularly and to ask good questions.

Questions are important. Scriptures are not diminished by our hard question.

I’ve been puzzling over Terah lately. Join me on a journey in Genesis 11. Take a moment to read Gen 11:26-32.

We see a pattern in the last half of Genesis 11, with each descendant of Shem getting two verses. You can almost cut and paste the names into the template. But the pattern is broken when we get to Terah? Why?

We meet three of Terah’s sons as well as a nephew and two daughters-in-law. Why? I know that Abram occupies several chapters in Genesis, but why are Haran and Nahor mentioned? Why do we need to know the wives’ names?

Why are we told that Terah intended to move to Canaan? Did he leave Ur because he grieved over his son? Why did he stop at Haran? Did he name Haran after his deceased son?

Why did Nahor stay behind? Why did Lot go with Terah?

Is Terah mentioned anywhere else in scripture? What can we learn from those passages?

As you ask questions and notice details, you’ll form a theory. Hold theories loosely because as more information from the Bible is revealed, the theory may need to be tweaked or even tossed aside.

Here’s a theory I have regarding Terah. I think he left Ur because he grieved his son’s death and established the town that he named after his son. He intended to go to Canaan but did not.

Take a look at a reference to Abraham (formerly named Abram) in Isaiah:

look to Abraham, your father,
and to Sarah, who gave you birth.
When I called him he was but one,
and I blessed him and made him many.

Isaiah 51:2

Notice the words “when I called him...” Abram was called to Canaan; Terah was not.

Why not?

Joshua 24:2 tells us that Terah worshipped other gods, as did Abram and Nahor at that time, while they lived across the Euphrates. Abram had a spiritual awakening. God spoke to him, inviting him to go. But God prevented Terah from going into Canaan.

Terah may have longed for Canaan – perhaps to flee memories of a lost son -but could not complete the trip. God kept him out, for God intended for Abraham to go there, as the faithful son of God, not as the idolatrous son of Terah. Notice that God called Abram to leave his country, people and father’s household to go to the land. (Gen 12:1) God separated Abraham from Terah. The death of one son, Haran, foreshadowed the separation of a second son, Abram.

By spending several verses on Terah, we are torn from the cadence of a lineage to the beginning of God’s family. Our attention moves from a formal list to a family torn by grief and idolatry. We see the eventual separation of Terah and Abraham. Genesis 12 begins a new story, one focused on Abram and his family rather than all mankind.

And it began with Terah, who was separated from his son in God’s plan.

Questions are vital to our understanding of a pericope. Choose a passage and ask many questions, looking carefully for details and inquire why.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Marriage: God's faithfulness

I had a nightmare once at 18, where I woke up with heart pounding and sweat pouring. In my dream, I was 28 and unmarried. I could imagine nothing worse and consoled myself with the fact I had 10 years. Surely I’d find a husband by then.

Did I tell you I was a late bloomer?

I was well past 28 before God opened that door. But this isn’t a story about loneliness or defeat, but about God’s faithfulness.

The year before I married, I met a nice Christian man. We dated, we laughed, we went for long walks on the lakeshore. I thought, finally.

God said, end this relationship.

I’m ashamed to say that I argued with God for two months. I was sure that I was giving up children at very least if I obeyed. Perhaps I’d find a husband some day but it’d be too late for children.

But you know that weight that comes from disobedience? Either you get so numb you quit noticing or you finally do what you’re told.

I finally followed. The break came in December, making it a hollow holiday season.

Then Matt called, asking if he could stop by to talk to me. A tiny ember of hope glowed. Maybe he was calling about a date?

No. His parents, who had moved in with him to care for his children, had been in a car wreck while on a holiday trip. He had to bring them home. Could I stay with his children while he was gone?

Sure. I knew then I had reached the end of it. I couldn’t even tell when a guy was going to ask me out. I knew the gift of singlehood was mine.

If you were here last week, you know the end of the story. After the rescue mission, he called me again. And this time, we did set up a date.

Today I have a precious husband and six wonderful children, all of whom call me “Mom.” I treasure the family God gave me. God was faithful to me and his path was better than any of my plans. As always.

For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you.

Deut 4:31

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The comment circus update

I am going to be compiling the comments from Saturday's Comment Circus
into a report later this week. If you haven't commented yet, sign up
and give us some insights. I have been encouraged by the remarks.
Thanks for your wonderful words!

Friday, August 3, 2007

Comment Circus

I’m a great listener. You may not know this because I seem to do all the talking here at Sumballo, but I want to listen today.

I want comments. More than that, I want to hear your heart. So here’s the deal. I’m going to ask a simple question. I want a one-sentence answer from you. Now it is a challenge sometimes to land that airplane in one sentence and I don’t care if you use comma splices and semicolons (after all, Paul could stretch a sentence over a couple of hours) but try to hold your answer to one sentence.

I’m very curious to see how many comments we can gather, mostly because I want to hear your thoughts. Here’s an incentive: if we get more than 15 comments, I promise NOT to e-mail each of you an extra barn kitten. (we have plenty....) However, if we miss our goal, be very careful opening attachments with a .cat extension.

Invite your friends to come over. I’d like to compile these into a Sumballo article soon, so the more, the merrier.

Here’s the question: For you, why follow Jesus?

Post your comments. (and post your blog address so I can visit). I’m going to post mine soon. And I’m anxious to listen for a little while.