Book Study: Surprise the World! — LEARN Jesus

Surprise the World! - LEARN

In this series, we are looking at Michael Frost’s book, Surprise the World!, with its challenge to live surprising lives. He uses the acronym B.E.L.L.S. to describe what this might look like. In our last three reflections, we looked at the first three letters, which stand for BLESS, EAT, and LISTEN. Today, we turn to the fourth habit: LEARN Jesus.

Frost talks about how important it is to LEARN Jesus Christ. He reminds us that everything we do as Christians is about Christ; it is built into our name. Jesus Christ is the reason for our hope. He is the one who has won our salvation and who teaches us what life with God looks like. Therefore, it makes sense that as Christians, we should know Jesus really well.

Catch the Jesus Wave

Frost tells the story of going to speak at a gathering of Christian surfers in Australia. He asked them who their favourite surfer was. They gave several different answers, but it was also clear that everyone was in awe of one superstar surfer: Kelly Slater. When Frost asked them to tell stories about Slater, the room erupted. People talked about all kinds of feats and awards.

Then he asked them to talk about Jesus. There was some silence, even though this was a Christian group. Some said things like ‘He’s Lord,’ or ‘He died for our sins.’ These doctrinal statements led to the point Frost wanted to make: what would it be like if they knew Jesus as well as they knew Kelly Slater?

Jesus is our teacher, our mentor, our guide, our saviour, our brother, and yes, our Lord. He did some amazing things, and taught profound wisdom. But if we are going to live like him and tell others about him, we need to know him as well as those surfers knew their hero.

Learn Jesus

Frost challenges us to spend some time once a week learning about Christ. The best way to do that is ‘a deep and ongoing study of the biographies of Jesus written by those who knew him best – the Gospels.’ Frost says that we need to not just read about Jesus, but to immerse ourselves completely in the Gospels, in the work and words of Jesus. In this way, we come to know Christ better and better, while we are drawn deeper into his life and are formed by him. This is our purpose. C.S. Lewis puts it like this:

In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw people into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.

Frost suggests three ways to know Jesus better:

1) Study the Gospels to Learn Jesus

Read, reread, and reread the Gospels. This doesn’t exclude other study, and you don’t have to do this all at once. But the Gospels are the heart of our faith because they tell of Jesus, the heart of everything. Set aside a period of time every week to learn Christ.

2) Read about Jesus

There are lots of great books about Jesus, both at a popular and scholarly level. Some suggestions:

Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright

Jesus the Fool by Michael Frost

King’s Cross by Tim Keller

The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright

3) Movies about Jesus

No movie captures everything about Jesus. By exploring a range of films, we can see how people encounter Jesus even today. Some of them, like Godspell, aren’t true to life, but seek to capture different aspects of Jesus’ character and action.

(NOTE: These reflections are only meant to be a synopsis and study of Michael Frost’s work, Surprise the World! Our purpose is to encourage our readers with these great ideas. If you interested in going further, please go read the book. We encourage you to support your local independent bookstore.)

How Do I Know What to Read in the Bible?

What to read in the Bible?

Lectio Divina Series: Conclusion

Lectio Divina is a great gift from God. I hope you have seen that this is not so much a technique as it is a simple way to connect with God through the Scriptures. God has always encountered his people in these sacred writings, and he is inviting you into deeper relationship. As we conclude this series of reflections, I want to answer one last question. How do you know what to read in the Bible?

Three Ways to Choose What to Read in the Bible

Through the centuries, Christians have usually approached this question in three different ways.

1) The lectionary

The first way (and my practice) is to follow a daily lectionary. A lectionary is a simple series of readings that the church appoints to be read everyday. It leads us through much of the Bible, including parts that we may not normally choose. The lectionary is used in one of our most common devotional practices, daily morning and evening prayer. As Christians pray together and read Scripture, the lectionary helps us know that wherever we are in the world, there are other Christians reading the same Scriptures and praying the same prayers.

If this interests you, it is easy enough to find the readings. There are usually three readings for each day, along with two sets of Psalms for morning and evening use. You can use them all in daily prayer, or you can choose one a day and use that for your Lectio Divina. The Forward Day by Day devotional booklets (online here) list the readings for each day. You can also find the lectionary online here.

2) A book at a time

The second way is to read through a specific book of the Bible as a way of praying through an entire book slowly. For example, you might pick a book like Galatians. Starting at Galatians 1:1, you would read a section at a time, over many days or weeks. Remember, the principle of slow reading means that you can’t read big chunks. You will need to discern how much to read and pray through in a day. Some Bibles break up sections with headings that make it easier to choose a shorter section.

3) By theme

The third way is to pick a theme that you want to examine more deeply, and then find a series of passages that speak to that theme. In the back of many Bibles is a helpful tool called a concordance. In it, you can look up a word that you want to pray about, ‘faith’ for example. Look up the word ‘faith’ in your concordance and you will find a list of ten to twenty verses about faith. You can pick one verse a day and pray through it.

Usually when I do this, I look up the verse and then read the larger section that it is a part of. For instance, let’s say you chose the classic verse from Ephesians 2:8 about being saved through faith. When you look at your Bible, you see that this is part of a larger section that goes from verse 4 to verse 10. Use that six-verse section as your material for the day. As you slowly pray through the list of verses about faith, over time you will gain a good understanding of what the Bible says about it. You will also find some profound insights into your own faith. You can do this with any theme. As a side note, you can also google “verses about faith” or any other theme, and you will be led to lots of verses.

In Conclusion

Remember, the point of prayer is not the technique. Lectio Divina is just a tool. No matter what you read in the Bible, the point is to grow deeper in your love of God and in wisdom about yourself. God is inviting you into a relationship. Don’t worry about getting it right; just show up every day, and you will grow.

Reading the Bible Prayerfully (Lectio Divina Series – “Meditatio”)

The Hope Canteen: Reading the Bible Prayerfully

In the previous article, I wrote about not hurrying through Scripture. Rather, we should read slowly and deliberately. This is because we are LISTENING, listening very closely. True listening is hard to do, because it needs to be without agenda as much as possible. Even so, taking our time and listening carefully opens the way to reading the Bible prayerfully.

For example, imagine my wife says that she has a good idea about what we should do this weekend. I already have an idea about what we should be doing this weekend, and without listening to her, I already know that my idea is a lot better. I have an agenda, and it keeps me from hearing what she has to say. I have already determined that it is not as good as my idea, and I am only listening to find reasons to show her why my idea is better. This does not honour my wife or our relationship. I would do better to put my agenda aside and listen to what she has to say. This act of putting aside my agenda and paying attention is what I am calling listening.

Deep Listening to Scripture

When we read Scripture, we use this same kind of listening, but we call it “meditation.” This could be confusing. When the Bible uses the word “meditation,” it doesn’t mean sitting in silence, something that is a lot closer to the Christian practice of contemplation. Meditation in the Bible comes from the Hebrew word “to mutter.” We see this in Psalm 1 as it describes the truly happy: “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they MEDITATE [mutter] day and night.” Muttering implies that the reader stops and repeats what they just read, so that they can get a deeper sense of what is written.

Ruminating on Scripture

In the Middle Ages, writers talked about ruminating on Scripture. Ruminating comes from the image of a cow chewing its cud. It means that they are covering the same ground over and over. The passage is full of meaning; we need to sit for a time with the image or idea we are meditating on.

The author of our Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer, wrote a wonderful prayer that describes ruminating on Scripture. He wanted to capture the Reformation desire that people would come to love the Bible as the Word of God. He wanted them to use the Bible, not just as a source of information or to do theology, but as a way to connect to the living God, who still speaks through its pages. The prayer goes like this:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.

By using that strange but delightful phrase, ‘inwardly digest them’, Cranmer asks us not just to learn the truths of Scripture by rote, but to absorb them into our very souls. Meditation is being spiritually nourished by Holy Scripture.

God Is Always Speaking Through Scripture

Lectio Divina assumes that, in reading the Bible prayerfully, you will find something that speaks to your heart. In his book on meditating on Scripture, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it like this: “In our meditation, we ponder the chosen text on the strength of the promise that it has something utterly personal to say to us for this day and for our Christian life.” This is an incredible promise! To claim it, we need to be able to listen carefully and put aside our agenda during our prayer time.

The Lectio Divina Practice of Meditating on Scripture

The practice of meditating on Scripture works like this: as you are reading the passage slowly, pay close attention to how you are feeling and what you notice. Usually, an image, a verse, a phrase, or even just a word will stand out to you. You may just note something interesting. At other times, you might find something you are excited about, or strongly dislike. Whatever it is, stop here and ponder for a moment. First, ask what it means for the Biblical writer. Then, ask what it means for you. Why do you think this place in your reading is interesting to you? You are trying to draw a living connection between the world of the Bible and your world. Our goal is to live in light of what God is doing in the Gospel.

Listening to God’s Word

When something in Scripture speaks to you, it is a good indication that God is using it to tell you something about a question or experience you are having. Sometimes, what God is saying will be clear. Other times, you will need to ponder and pray about it for a while. Either way, after you have meditated on your passage, turn to God in prayer. I will say more about this in the next reflection.

How Do I Meditate on Scripture?: An introduction to the Lectio Divina Series

Lectio Divina

If you were to ask me what is the single most important habit you could cultivate to grow spiritually, my simple answer would be to meditate on Scripture daily. There are so many benefits to this habit. Scripture is the primary witness to the amazing life of Jesus Christ and the faith of the people of Israel. It is also the primary way that God speaks to us. The Bible teaches that we receive faith through hearing the Word of God: faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)

Learning to Listen

What this means is that we really need to develop our skills in LISTENING. In the central confession of Judaism, the people are commanded: “HEAR O Israel, the Lord is one.” In the Bible, God is personal and speaks. God is not some impersonal force like the Platonic One. God is a God who enters into history, has a story, enters into covenant relationship with his people, and still speaks to us today.

We are called into a life-giving relationship with God, and the primary way we connect with the God who speaks is to listen to his Word. As we meditate on Scripture, we develop this skill of listening. True listening takes humility and time. We have to develop the skill of pondering or meditating on what the scriptures say. We need to pray deeply on the insights we find there, and finally we need just to be able to enjoy being in the presence of God.

Meditating on Scripture to Grow in Relationship with God

Over the centuries, the Christian church has developed a simple and accessible way to meditate on Scripture. This method is normally referred to by its Latin title: Lectio Divina. This simply translates to “Holy Reading.” It is a way of listening deeply to the Word of God. Lectio Divina has two purposes: to grow in love of God and in relationship with God, and to cultivate a heart of wisdom.

The Bible Isn’t Always Easy to Understand

The Bible is a hard book to read for most people. First of all, there are so many details! The pages of the Scriptures are packed with dozens of stories and hundreds of names and places we have never heard of. Because it is actually a library of books rather than a single book, there doesn’t seem to be a logical thread connecting the beginning, middle and end. There are so many different interweaving themes, literary styles and genres, that it can be difficult to keep them straight. How do we understand it all? Lectio Divina suggests that we don’t need to.

The vision of Lectio Divina is that we don’t need to grasp Scripture all at once. Rather, it is a much simpler vision of reading just a little, slowly and prayerfully every day of your life. You ponder the puzzles, make rich connections, gather insights, wrestle with ambiguities, and constantly ask, “How is God speaking to me in this?”

Meditating on Scripture to Take Our Place in its Story

We assume that Scripture is written ‘for them, but to us as well.’ To say it is for them is to admit that the Bible is NOT written for us. It was written for people who lived long ago in strange lands, referring to unfamiliar customs, and asking questions that were important for them, but not for us. Therefore, it is sometimes helpful to have a Bible dictionary or commentary handy to help us understand someone of the cultural things we don’t get.

We also assume that the Bible has an eternal voice. It is written ‘to us as well.’ It tells the story of God’s plan for the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ. The Biblical writers want us to see this story as OUR story as well. The story of the Bible forms our lives because it is the story of salvation.

The Lectio Divina Series

In this series, I am going to walk us through the stages of Lectio Divina. Some people teach this as a technique. This is not what I am trying to do here. Instead, I want to give you the principles that can guide a prayerful way of reading scripture. These principles can be used with a variety of different techniques. This way of praying scripture is very important to me because it is my daily bread and butter. I practice it everyday to grow closer to God and, hopefully, to grow in wisdom. And I am happy to share it with you.

  1. How Do I Meditate on Scripture? An Introduction to the Lectio Divina Series
  2. Steps of Lectio Divina: The Four Movements
  3. Slow Reading and the Bible (“Lectio”)
  4. Reading the Bible Prayerfully (“Meditatio”)
  5. Praying with Scripture (“Oratio”)
  6. Contemplative Prayer (“Contemplatio”)
  7. Praying with Psalm 131: A Personal Example of Lectio Divina
  8. How Do I Know What to Read in the Bible?

WWI and the Fall of Christian Empire, Part 2: Karl Barth

Every day in every way things are getting better and better.

Popular saying before World War I

World War I marked the beginning of a new era. In Europe and North America before the war, there was a general feeling of optimism about the future of humanity. Because of the success of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and the hope of the various revolutions of the 19th century, people anticipated the eventual creation of a just society on earth.

The ferocity of the Great War chastened that optimism. Many people were surprised at how strong the call of nationalism was on the human psyche. The Western Liberal project had to rethink the question of human nature and society. The same introspection had to happen within the Liberal theological project begun by Friedrich Schleiermacher as well. The person who threw the bombshell into Schleiermacher’s project was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). (Note: Barth is pronounced as if it had no ‘h.’ It rhymes with ‘part.’)

Continue reading “WWI and the Fall of Christian Empire, Part 2: Karl Barth”

Biblical Criticism: Hard Questions about the Bible

Biblical Criticism and studying the Bible (photo: Unsplash)

Most people understand vaguely that Christianity in the 21st century is in a different world than it was a hundred years ago. In this series of articles, I hope to highlight the story of how and why we find ourselves in a different world. These are meant to be short reflections about what I believe are key moments when we learned something new and important about the Gospel. I believe that the lessons learned are the tools we need to move forward in this odd time of being church.

This crisis of Biblical criticism was a crisis of assumptions. People who start reading the Bible for the first time often express surprise at its messiness. Because the Bible is inspired by God, we often assume that the message of the Bible should be clear and straightforward, that the stories should be simple and full of wisdom, that the application to help people lead meaningful lives and answer their questions should be obvious.

When they crack open the cover of the scriptures, they express confusion and frustration. Inside, they find four different accounts of Jesus that sometimes match and sometimes don’t. There are long meandering genealogies, laws given by God that make no sense, seemingly interminable poems about other places, terms they haven’t heard of, and disagreement within the Bible about important things. If a perfect God were going to write a perfect book, it shouldn’t be this messy! When I talk to be people about this, I find they struggle with their assumptions about how God SHOULD write the Bible, rather than their acceptance about how God ACTUALLY wrote the Bible.

Continue reading “Biblical Criticism: Hard Questions about the Bible”

The Heart of Christianity

On Palm Sunday, we read a story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem and people waving palms and shouting Hosanna! I want to get back to basics and look at why we are stopping here to read this story: it is about the heart of our Christian faith.

And what is that? The heart of Christianity is a personal, living relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Unseen but real, God is a creative, dynamic, living force who is in and through and behind all things. But more than a force, God is a presence. More than a presence, God is a person, a father who radiates life. God is the source of all we call love and goodness. And God wants to be in relationship with us. This relationship is life giving, dynamic, powerful. God has made us for relationship with God and each other.

The Bible doesn’t use the word relationship because that is a modern catch-all word. The Bible uses words like faith (our relationship with God), prayer (our language of talking and listening to God), assembly, and communion (the Bible’s words for our relationship to each other, rooted in God.)

How Messy Can This Get?

The problem is that we have an immense capacity to mess things up. We turn relationship into power, jealousy, and self-centered advantage. We have inhumanity within our humanity. In some ways, history is a long story of domination, power politics, and oppression. None of that is of God. 

Jesus: Healer, Saviour, Restorer

This is where the Gospel comes in. The Gospel is the good news that God intends to restore the human heart to its fully beautiful humanity. In this way, God restores human communities to being vibrant groups of creative, loving individuals who are compassionate and passionate. The Gospel is the good news that in Jesus, God has started a long process of rescue and healing from corruption.

The biblical word for this process is salvation. When we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are praying for God’s salvation to be made real in our lives and our world through Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God is wherever we live out God’s will and purposes. It proclaims that all people are the children of God, for in God’s kingdom there is no slave or free, there is no Jew or Gentile, there is no male or female. (Galatians 3:28)

Never Forget

This is why set aside time during Holy Week to tell the story of how God rescues the human heart and all creation. Holy week is the story of how God moves heaven and earth to restore us and the world. This is not through violent overthrow, but through the most surprising and profound act of sacrificial love ever.

It is so profound that ancient Christians set it at the centre of the church year to make sure we will never forget. So every year we take this week to walk the path of the cross. We feel the warmth of the last supper and experience the pain of Jesus’ betrayal. We weep to see our beloved Jesus beaten. Our heart breaks when he dies so cruelly on the cross. Never in all of human history did we expect that God would come as a human being and sacrifice himself out of love for humanity.

Please take this time in Holy Week to remember the great love of God poured out in Jesus… and give thanks.