The church with which I serve is embarking on a journey in Scripture.
Last year a group of Bible study leaders gathered to discuss, “What’s the best way to make disciples?” We must certainly favor regular servings of Bible classes and sermons, because it’s what we do weekly. So we divided into groups and discussed this question, “What’s the best way to make disciples with the Bible?”
Groups came back from breakout sessions and talked. Of all the things people said that day, I remember only one person and one thing. One of our youth leaders, Todd, had this idea: What if our church’s youth experienced the whole Bible during their high school years?
I’ve never thought four years ahead about anything, but now we were going to expect the youth minister and the youth to plan four years ahead?!
But like a flash of inspiration it made sense: what if the whole church went on a biblical journey together, one that would be our discipleship path as well. What if the Bible, God’s voice, is what shows us our next steps of discipleship?
This thought energized me, got my wheels turning, and has ruined all my other plans. Thanks, Todd. But those plans were my purposes. Todd’s plan seeks God’s purposes.
After much time, discussion, prayer, and thought, and we decided—as church leaders—on several things to do together. This was not just a preaching calendar decision that I made myself, and that’s a new path for me!
The big and urgent idea we decided on is to tell God’s story in worship gatherings and other settings, reading one Gospel each year, and selecting Old Testament and New Testament texts in order to take next steps and live them.
We are starting a plan to read, study, hear, live, make music and art from the whole story of the Old and New Testaments that will span four years.
Why four years? Four Gospels. Enough time to read and not rush the words of God. We’ll read and learn from one Gospel each year and cover a set of Old Testament books each year and a few letters of Paul and other writings each year.
The goal is not to “get through” the Bible, nor is our goal to get through it in one year, a decidedly rushed approach many churches have taken through the years for teaching or individual reading.
How do we prepare for something like this? The first thing we did was to get below the surface of how we view and approach the Bible. We have approached the Bible in some ways that run counter to what the Bible says or doesn’t say about itself. It’s as if we are holding a biology book and think we’re really holding a math book. We have approached the Bible as if a manual for living, God’s instruction manual, a how-to, but that’s really not what it is.
For some of us, we already know what the Bible is, right? It’s a love letter from God! That’s not really it either. How love letterish is, “God was grieved he ever made humans,” or, “I will spew you out of my mouth”?
We decided we cannot reduce the Bible down to a catch phrase, thinking it’s only one kind of book. In fact, it’s a book of books with one huge story to tell that invites us into it if we are willing.
Toward the end of this article, I’ll deliver a big “Duh!!?” point for you, but before I do that, I want to tell you a few stories.
The first story is about when I first experienced the Bible, a story marked by failure and realization something’s bigger than me here.
My parents gave me a blue KJV with this inscription: “We love you and pray you will always want to study God’s Word and follow what it says. May God bless you.”
I got that Bible in 1975 and started trying to read it.
Have you ever picked up in your church lobby a tiny print reading plan on the tract rack and tried it? I don’t know whose dumb idea this was, but we were urged to read the Bible through in a year on our own. We read the Bible a grand total of two minutes in church on Sundays, but here’s a schedule for an eight-year-old to put in three hours a week trying to slog through Leviticus and Judges yourself. Good luck and we’ll see you December 31st when we’ll give you another schedule and a guilt trip when you fail this assignment.
In those years I failed. Each year I tried to read the Bible, and somewhere about February 17 I hit a brick wall in Leviticus, every year. Ready for a preacher confession? Never in my life have I ever read the Bible through in one year. Yes, I’ve read every book, many very deeply, and some passages in original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Just never have read it on the annual schedule.
After all, there were dozens of episodes of Gilligan’s Island needing to be watched when I was eight. I really did (and do) have the time to read the Bible, which takes about 75-100 hours to read, according to versions on Audible. The problem is not time but for many it’s the confusion that comes when we read it alone.
A few of you have completed reading the Bible in a year (or less) and you feel accomplished. You did something Jesus didn’t do, and you feel accomplished to what end? Do we get the point of the exercise? My second story is about missing the point of the exercise.
Years ago when I was a youth minister, some grade school children and I visited an elderly man named Earl. After singing the two songs we thought he’d like and sitting in his living room looking at each other, I picked up Earl’s Bible from the coffee table. The inside cover had 18 prominent marks.
“What are these marks?” I asked.
“The number of times I’ve read through the Bible,” Earl replied.
I wasn’t the sharpest youth minister in the knife drawer, but I knew a teaching moment when I saw one. Noticing the bored kids, I thought I’d spice up this day by asking Earl what incredible insights he had gained, what great stories he could tell about this Bible he’d read 18 times!
“What is the best thing you’ve gained through reading the Bible so many times,” I asked.
Earl thought a minute, then said, “It has helped me to read better.”
Now, I’m all for literacy, but if this was a softball game, the count was now 0-1. So far I’d thrown one softball and he’d whiffed it like “Casey at the Bat.” Second question, second pitch coming up.
“Well,” I said, trying to probe this elderly, wise man’s mind, “What is the greatest truth you’ve ever learned from the Bible?”
Earl watched that softball come squarely into the center of the plate, pondered it, then a blank look crossed his face. Strike two. This was before more awareness of serious illnesses like Alzheimer’s, so please don’t judge me for making light of a man who could have had dementia, but he was lucid, well, and just whiffing at my pitches.
Silence was my only softball pitch left. We waited. But then a worried look came over Earl’s face, his eyes narrowed, his face grimaced, and he was ready to knock this softball over the fence. To the question, “What is the greatest truth you’ve learned from reading the Bible 18 times,” Earl said, “You just never know if you are saved.”
The blast of air from his third whiff came rushing over me and I was left breathless. My wife says I often drop my jaw in dumb fashion when I’m thinking, and I no doubt that day looked like Delmar from O Brother Where Art Thou, mouth agape (that’s not the Greek transliteration for love here).
Story one: I failed to read the Bible at eight years old and failed to get the point.
Story two: Others read the Bible and fail to get the point of the Bible.
So I asked some of my friends and family what their first experiences of the Bible were.
A friend from my hometown, Jody Burch, reminded me of patting a tiny Bible in Sunday School and saying, “I love my Bible.”
A friend from high school, Candice Bowerman-Morris, said, “My mom use to cook a fancy Sunday lunch (so we could practice our manners) and my dad would read a Bible story that my sisters and I each took turns choosing. My favorites were Noah’s ark and Samson! I use this same Illustrated Children’s Bible now as I teach high school girls.”
Our worship minister, Cory Legg, said after he bought his first study Bible, an important person in his life warned, “Watch out for the those study Bibles where you’ll be influenced by the thinking of other church doctrines!”
A former youth minister of our church, Deannie Johnson, said, “As a child, my mother Patty Medill read the Bible to us daily, and we would read all the way through from Genesis to Revelation each year. (I have mostly still maintained this habit she instilled, although I sometimes take longer than a year to get through depending on what other Bible studies/teaching I’m involved in.) I credit her for developing my intense passion for knowing and understanding the Bible. I hope I passed on that same love of the Word to my own children. It’s a legacy that is worth continuing!”
The Journey chief financial officer, Lisa Combs, said, “My family didn’t go to church but I went with friends. When we graduated, the church gave us Bibles, and I got one with my name on it. I guess someone told the church I needed one too, though I wasn’t a member of their church. I didn’t read it, not until I was in my thirties did I really start taking the Bible seriously, and I had the help of a preacher in San Antonio.”
One member of our church, Patty Garren, said, “My father was an alcoholic and my mother agitated him, and when they argued, I’d run get the Bible and read the Psalms, which comforted me, and I’d pray they would just stop the arguing.”
My mother Charlotte Taylor said, “It is interesting that my first experience is similar to yours. One of my first memories is having a dream that Jesus came back and took me about 6 feet off the ground and then drop me back down because I wasn’t good enough to go. It happened near the path to the barn at our Boise city home. So for whatever reason a lot of the guilt of sinning took precedence over the joy at that time of my life. I was probably around 10 years old at the time. So it was many years later that I learned to accept the grace and love of God. And maybe that is all part of maturing.”
About the Bible Mark Twain said, “In the beginning God made man in His image. And man has been returning the favor ever since.”
After all these stories: my first experience with failure, guilt and the Bible, Earl and missing the point even when reading so many times, and stories of first experiences with the Bible, here now is the “Duh?!” moment.
Are your ready for this?
The Bible is about God.
The Bible is not about me and my guilt. The Bible is not about Earl’s anxiety about being saved. There’s only one Scripture I can think of in 1 John that says anything about knowing we are saved. The question is not about knowing. The question is, do you trust God did save, does save, and will save you, that God judges justly and then trust him with your life?
The Bible, contrary to your way and my way of thinking, is really not about us. We still think we’re the center of the universe, so it’s hard to consider the Bible is really not about me but it’s about God. So Earl’s comment, “You just don’t know if you are saved,” is so self-focused and curling back on himself, looking to himself for the source of his salvation, whether he did enough or was good enough. These are emphatically not the questions Scripture tries to help us answer in the affirmative. If the Bible is about God, it reframes our questions to be about God and not us.
The Bible is about God. Duh? Do you think we’ve forgotten this? Take a look at a Christian bookstore and pay attention to how many books are about everything but God. Take a look at “The Church of What’s Happening Now” and do you find teaching about God or ourselves? Take a look at your daily life and routine, your work and play. What’s in it for you and what’s in it for God? Have you forgotten this? When you read the Bible, have you forgotten to ask one central question? Who is God? To illustrate, when we read Genesis 1-3, we may think the story is about Adam and Eve, animals, creation, right? Adam is mentioned fiv times. Eve is named once. God speaks, acts, reacts and is mentioned 57 times. Word counts don’t mean everything but do mean something.
Pray for desire to read the Bible because the Bible is about God. Pray for yourself, because if you are like me, you do believe the Bible is about God, but you forget this fact every time you read it! Pray for those in your congregation who think it’s a legal contract, those who think it’s an instruction manual or just a way to spice up their lives. We pray for those who ignore it, those who read it every day but like Earl miss the point. We pray for people like me who have failed to read it, feel guilty. And we pray that we can all agree on one thing as we read:
The Bible is about God.