The Word: Halfway

The Word: Halfway

Thirteen days ago turned to page 855 in the book I’ve carried for thousands of miles. It’s been on almost every trip I’ve taken in the last 3 or 4 years. I’ve used it to prepare and preach from pulpits in both Brazil and the US. The words of Isaiah 35 brought profound insight and encouragement last December when I was in Houston. As I opened to page 855–chapter one of the Gospel According to Luke–a new and unexpected journey began.

In the Christian circles I tend to run it we frequently open our Bibles together. Usually it is because someone is teaching and asks us to open to a specific verse. Honestly, this has confused me a bit from time to time…the teacher always reads the verse, so why do we turn to it? We’re don’t read entire chapters together, and certainly don’t have the time to read entire books. Sure, it can be helpful to mark a passage or scribble some notes in the margins, but how many of us really do that during a sermon?

Still…the Word beckons.

On January 1 as I read the first word in Luke 1 (“inasmuch”), a bunch of friends did the same. We aren’t physically together and we’re not reading at the exact same time…but folks said “I’m in” and began the two month journey through Luke and Acts. Everyone is going at their own pace, which is wonderful. I’m reading 6 chapters per week in Luke, but grace is abundant. This week, Wednesday was simply too busy and I was too exhausted. So I didn’t. I shared that I didn’t. As expected, people responded with grace, not condemnation. That’s what life together is supposed to look like. That’s what we do.

Having just finished chapter 12, I am now halfway through the book of Luke. Just a few small steps every day and here I am. Halfway. Most days it takes longer for me to write a few thoughts about the chapter than it does to actually read it. This two weeks of reading has taken me to page 872. Seventeen pages in twelve days of reading. On one hand, it doesn’t sound like a lot. On the other, there has been so much ground covered. Remember…we’re reading text that was written almost two thousand years ago. It’s not necessarily all going to be straightforward and easy. It was originally written to a different people in a different culture living at a different time. Some of it seems quite foreign.

As I pause today in the journey through Luke that we’re on, I have a couple of areas I’ve personally noticed change.

Community

The last two weeks something really cool has happened. People are sending me messages letting me know they’re with me on this journey. I’m getting insightful takeaways from my friend Tamarah. I got a message from Mike letting me know he’s reading with us while he’s traveling. Some people tell me they’re behind but still with us. Dear friends are engaging with Scripture at a level they never have before. Because we are doing it together. I’m learning that we all get more out of God’s word when we go through it together. We have a longing for community because God designed us to do life together. It makes sense that His Word is experienced better together.

I’m afraid most of us carry around a lot of baggage about God’s word. Many Christians carry an unnecessary burden of guilt…perhaps because they think they don’t read their Bible enough. Or perhaps it’s because they have tried and just don’t understand it. We want to love God’s Word, but find it intimidating or unapproachable. We look around us and see Bible verses printed floating around everywhere…sometimes used like fortune cookies or horoscopes, bringing brief feelings of hope and encouragement…but sometimes used as daggers, thrown at others with the intention of drawing blood. But there has to be more, right? Surely God’s Word is more profound than a fortune cookie. Surely it has some other purpose than to wound and condemn. Unfortunately, guilt and pride keep us from opening those pages and even more, it keeps us from asking the questions we find embarrassing.

We’ve all been there. Nobody was born understanding Scripture. Way back in the early chapters of Luke it says that Jesus grew “in wisdom and stature.” It was even a process for Him. Personally, I remember sitting in Mike’s class and asking if John the Baptist was the same dude who was one of the disciples. Was he the one who wrote John, or was John just about him? Was Luke a disciple? Are Christians supposed to take every word of the Bible literally? Can God make a rock so big He can’t lift it? Why do people think Jesus was God? How can there be one God if the Father and Son both claim to be God? What’s up with this Holy Ghost thing…is that like Christian Gatorade or something? Do we even need the Old Testament anymore? What’s up with all those lists of names? Why don’t all Christians read the Bible?

I asked all of those questions at some time in the past 10 years or so. I’m not embarrassed in the slightest about any of them. That’s how I learned who God is. That’s how both my faith and knowledge deepened. And now that’s happening around us…as we read together, we can learn from each other. We’re all travelers on a journey and all have something to contribute. We’re a community.

Our community is a bit disorganized, but it’s beautiful. I cherish every interaction. Nothing’s off the table or out-of-bounds.

Personally

Knowing others are also reading changes my own perspective. I’m not only reacting to what resonates with me, but I’m anticipating what others will respond to as well. It broadens my view and allows the Word to challenge me in unanticipated ways.

In the first twelve chapters, I have found myself comforted by the narrative. The story of Jesus’ life and ministry is familiar. When the disciples feed the crowds, I’m delighted. As the people lean in to listen to the incredible teachings of Jesus, I’m amazed. Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds…it’s like visiting old friends.

But there’s more that has been happening. In addition to the life and events, there is conflict. There are teachings that are hard. As I read Luke, I see Jesus continually warning us to stop focusing on things of this world. He tells us to seek the Kingdom of God, which seems to be a stark contrast to the kingdoms we build for ourselves. He tells us that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15) That brings my mind back to the woman with the alabaster flask in Luke 7, who out of gratitude washes the feet of our Savior with her tears and anoints His head with oil. This woman who had nothing pours out everything she has for Him, simply as a worshipful response to the forgiveness she has found through Him…the new life she has found. She knows Jesus and has been transformed. She is no longer who she was…she has walked away from her old life completely. Her future is completely unknown except for this…that she is trusting Jesus with it. There is deep meaning in the anointing of Jesus here, but for her it represents letting go of her “before” to step fulling into “next.”

As I read I wonder what pieces of my past am I still clinging to that are keeping me from fully following Him? I often think of emotional baggage like the tattered and worn suitcases we bring back from Brazil. Rio is really hard on luggage. But what if the weight I’m carrying around is an alabaster flask, beautiful and full of a substance of great value? Do I trust Jesus enough to break that flask and pour its contents out for Him? Do I trust Him with my future, even if it is uncertain and difficult? At the end of chapter 9, Jesus seems to be telling us that we can’t look both back at our old lives and continue forward with Him. As He said in chapter 11, “a divided household falls.” And so I look at my heart and pray the end of Psalm 139: “Search me, God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts. And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” The reality is, trusting Jesus with eternity often seems much easier than trusting Him with tomorrow.

Even so…among all these teaching that challenge me so greatly, Jesus never gives up on anyone. Sure, He rebukes Pharisees and Scribes. We see plenty of people leave His side when the teaching gets difficult or the cost of following Him grows too high. But He never turns His back on anyone. This is where I find hope. In these chapters it is abundantly clear that following Jesus is not an easy life. He never guarantees that…in fact, He repeatedly tells us the opposite. When we follow Him, though, He remains with us. He does not abandon us, even in the middle of our messes and failures, even in our deepest hurt and darkest places. When friends abandon us or tragedy strikes, He is there with us…lifting our face and pointing it toward eternity…toward a time when there will be no more tears or pain. These chapters remind me that we don’t get there by breaking our jars and unloading our baggage. Those things bring us closer to Him in the journey, but ultimately all of our hope is in Him. We get a beautiful glimpse of Him on the pages of the Gospel According to Luke.

 


On December 31 I posted an open invitation to join me in reading Luke and Acts. There are no checklists and no discussion questions, just a ragged band of misfits wandering through the Word together. I’m reading 6 chapters of Luke each week and plan to read 7 chapters of Acts per week when I get there. I set that pace because it seems achievable and I’m just dorky enough to need that kind of symmetry. Four weeks through Luke and four weeks through Acts. But if you want to take this journey, do it at your pace, not mine. Read 30 minutes a day if you want…perhaps that will be 2 or 3 chapters. Read more or less…just keep reading. I’ve been posting a few thoughts and my progress on my personal Facebook page because that’s where this all started, but I’m happy to interact with anyone anywhere. Reach out to me and let me know how it’s going. And if you’d like me to reach out to you a couple of times a week to see how you’re doing, I’d be happy to.

The Word: Six Steps

The Word: Six Steps

One week ago I cast a message in a bottle out into the sea of social media. It was both a declaration and an invitation. I publicly pledged to kick off the new year by systematically reading Luke and Acts. With that pledge was an invitation to take this journey with me. No formal plan…no checklists, daily email reminders, or study questions. There’s no medal at the end and there are no tests. Simply: read through Luke at your own pace. Then read through Acts. Share what you want to share, but don’t feel obligated to do so. 

The pace I set for myself was six chapters of Luke per week. When I got to Acts, I’d move to seven chapters per week. At that rate, it would take 4 weeks per book. It’s a reasonable enough pace that it should be approachable by someone opening the Bible for the first time. It’s also possible to catch up if you fall behind but want to stay with the group. In my Bible, each chapter is only a page or two.

Something interesting happened… quite a few friends chimed in with “I’m in.” As people volunteered to go on this journey with me, my excitement grew. After the clock struck midnight, I stayed up until about 2:30 talking with my oldest son. Right before turning in for the evening, I thought, “hey…I could go ahead and read chapter one! It’s January first!” As much as I love reading Scripture, knowing so many others were going to be enthusiastically turning to Luke 1 in the morning brought new joy to it for me, too. One of the lessons I think scripture quite clearly gives us is that we are not meant to walk our spiritual journey alone. God brings people into our lives specifically so we can encourage and sharpen each other. Every “I’m in” has affirmed this in the past week. The questions, comments, and insights shared with me through Facebook, the blog, and in person have been delightful.

Some who messaged were reading the Bible for themselves for the first time. Some were adding this to their “though the Bible in a year” plan they had repeatedly done for years. All ages and all levels of people bravely jumped in. I got questions as wide-ranging as “where can I get a Bible” to “what was the meaning of the incense at the altar in chapter 1?” It was beautiful and good.

And we made it. We’re six chapters in. We’ve taken the first six steps through the book of Luke. We’ve seen the births of both John the Baptist. We met Simeon and Anna in the Temple. Jesus grew up and was baptized. Both John the Baptist and Jesus started their public ministries. Jesus shared the beatitudes in His famous Sermon on the Plain. And so much more…

On my agenda for this next week is chapter 7-12. We will move into the heart of the ministry of Jesus. We get to see the first parable of this Gospel. Parables are simply stories told to illustrate a point and were one of Jesus’ favorite ways to teach. There are a couple of parables that are unique to this Gospel, including my absolute favorite (although that one doesn’t come until chapter 15). This week we also will see quite a bit of healing and miracles as well as a few nuggets of truth coming from the lips of our savior. As you go through the week, remember that every word is important. I’d like to challenge you to contemplate both the transfiguration and the cost of following Jesus in chapter 9. Notice the attitude of Jesus toward the Father. Be on the lookout for the Holy Spirit. Notice how much time Jesus spends in prayer.

Above all else, don’t give up. If something challenges you, allow it to challenge you, but don’t let it stop you. Make a note, write down a question, but keep going. If you have trouble reading, then listen! That’s not cheating at all…that is how Christians have taken in scripture for thousands of years. The Youversion Bible app has a “play” button that reads the text to you in multiple interpretations and even multiple languages. Explore a little and find what’s right for you. The Bible.Is app has an audio option, too. Both apps are free. Even listening, you won’t understand every little thing the first time through and that’s okay. The important thing is to persist. God’s Word is designed to be read for a lifetime.

When traveling across the country, there are many options. You can fly from coast to coast. You could drive. If you’re Forrest Gump you could even run. A different perspective is provided with each. The view from an airplane gives a broad view from above. On foot you move a lot slower but get a lot more detail, experiencing sights, sounds, and smells not available from a plane. This chapter-a-day path through Luke and Acts is much more like looking out the window of an airplane than it is a road trip. We’ll see themes, events, and attitudes but might miss some of the more subtle points and people. That’s okay. Enjoy the ride and learn to long for a return trip through this same country.

Have you seen anything new or unexpected so far?

Once again, thanks stepping into this journey. One week from today we’ll be halfway through the Gospel of Luke!

The Word: Day One

The Word: Day One

Day One

Yesterday I shared my desire to start the year with a simple, approachable Bible reading strategy. As much as I love a good plan, the intent is for our time in the Word to be something enjoyable and uncomplicated. There are no formal checklists, questions, or study guides. Our goal isn’t to climb the highest mountain, but to take a few small steps.

To be honest, I had no expectations when I hit “publish.” Having strongly encouraged others to begin Bible reading with the books of Luke and Acts, I had a bit of an internal conviction. How could I continue to recommend something I’ve never done myself? There are no other words for it but to say I felt led to not only follow my own advice, but to do so publicly. I have no agenda and no formal structure. And yet…I start the New Year with quite a few brave souls who have said “I’m in.” I find myself craving structure that will allow us to connect and communicate. I want us to be in a small group, holding each other accountable and answering each others’ questions. I want that because I’m comfortable there. I love to hear what everyone else is experiencing. I love to answer questions. I love to hear how God is working in each person’s life. I love encouraging others, praying for them, and lending an empathetic ear when things aren’t going well.

My desire is to connect with and unite all of us who have expressed a desire to do this Luke/Acts plan. The original call, though, was simplicity. The call was to a personal journey through the scriptures. So, for now, I’m resisting complicating things by pulling everyone into a group. I’m not a ringleader, I’m a sojourner. Feel free to send me questions, observations, and feedback, but I’m not driving this bus. I love to hear about how people are engaging with the Word and what they are learning.

Today, on Day One, I’d like to share a few tips and answer a few common questions. If these are helpful, super. If not, that’s fine too. Share your own tips with me so we can all learn from each other.

 

What’s the schedule? The plan is to go through Luke and then Acts. I’m shooting for a chapter a day, with a little bit of built-in grace. For Luke I’m shooting for 6 chapters per week. For Acts I’m looking at 7 per week. If that’s too much, then just stop when there are natural breaks. My Bible has 6 headings within the first chapter of Luke, and each of those would be fine stopping points. The goal here is to find your own rhythm. Don’t let it become a burden, but don’t give up either.

 

What translation should I use? Whatever you’re comfortable with. There are a billion articles on the internet talking about the different English translations of the Bible. Most “ordinary” people I know still like the NIV. The more scholarly types I hang out with prefer the NASB or ESV because they are a more literal translation of the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. The CSB is a newer translation that is approachable but is also sticks closely to the original text. Some people prefer the Message, which is a paraphrase and not a translation. Personally, I find it poetic and fine in small quantities but distracting. It is old enough now that the “modern language” found in it is already a bit dated. But, the best translation for you is the one you’ll actually read. Don’t force yourself into King James if the NIV is easier for you to read. If you grew up with the KJV and find the NIV or ESV to be too informal, then by all means continue on with King James! For this study, I’m going to be using my trusty ESV journaling Bible. I’ve carried this Bible to Brazil a number of times and have spent hours in it already. I can take notes in it, highlight it, and carry it around everywhere. Although I use the Bible on my phone a lot, there is something about a physical Bible that is more inviting and intimate.

 

What commentary do you recommend? My goal is still to keep this simple. Personally, the best approach I’ve found if you’re struggling to understand the text or if you find you have a lot of questions is to get a good study Bible. When I first became a Christian at the age of 32, one of my first purchases was an NIV study Bible. The footnotes and brief commentaries were helpful but not distracting. They were there if I needed them, but were out of the way if I didn’t. There wasn’t devotional content (which I find distracts from the text). I’ve since “upgraded” to a really big ESV study Bible that I got on sale a few years ago. It has a lot more content in it than the NIV Bible did, but either one is sufficient. There are good study Bibles in all the major translations. An alternative (and one that fits in nicely with the overall vision) is to write out your questions and stumbling blocks and then just keep reading. Don’t seek the answers yet, just let them simmer in your mind. You may find that the answers become apparent (or irrelevant) later. I’m not saying ignore your questions…I would never say that. I’m saying enjoy this first soak through these two books and then return later for a deeper dive. If you’re looking for more insight without any additional cost, check out my New Testament professor’s web site. Here is the link to Luke 1 and 2.

 

Any other advice? Pray. Persist. Pray some more. From the very opening chapter of Luke we see God responding to prayer. God acts. God moves us. Why not invite Him to illuminate His Word? Invite Him to continue to transform your mind, heart, and spirit as He draws you into His Word. Pray for persistence as you spend the next 2 months reading Luke and Acts. Pray for the Word to bring you joy, that you eagerly anticipate the next reading and that you begin to long for it. I’m already praying these things for all of us. Join me. I know we have a few non-Christians joining us as well. You all can go ahead and pray too, okay? What’s the worst thing that can happen?

 

If you have any other questions, please share. As part of my time in Luke and Acts every day, I will be praying for each of you. If there is anything specific I can pray for, let me know.

I’m thrilled that so many people have decided to join this journey and I’m excited to see all that the Lord is going to do.

The Word: Luke

The Word: Luke

A new year breaking through brings fresh start. As we take down our old calendar and hang the new, we say goodbye to last year. 2018 is a blank page, ready to be filled with stories, adventures, and friends.

For believers, a common goal each year is to dive into scripture. We know that God’s Word is important, but for some reason we struggle to establish a consistent reading habit. I’ve managed to establish this habit, which has resulted in a true delight in the Word. Sure, I can be inconsistent. Some days I honestly don’t feel like opening the book. But when I’m away too long I miss it. I long for it. It’s important for believers to be connected to the Word.

I taught small groups Bible studies at church for more than seven years. I’ve developed curriculum and guided discussion for both adults and young teens. In 2017 I stepped away from that for a time, but the love for the Word, the discussions it brings, and the lives changed has never faded. Year after year I’ve had believers express a desire to learn more about the Bible…learn to read it for themselves, understand it, and have their lives shaped by it. This year, let’s do it.

My own personal experience tells me there is nothing mystical or mysterious about Bible intake, it just takes a little persistence. It’s a big book. There are a number of different literary genres at play. While it’s possible to start January 1 with Genesis 1:1 and move straight through, that really isn’t an approach that is likely to lead to much success. While much of Genesis can be engaging, by mid-February Leviticus hits…this is where even the best intentions of Bible reading go to die. I’m not saying to avoid this book at all costs, there is plenty of great stuff there. It just takes a lot more work than other books. Why do the heavy lifting so early in the journey?

The strategy I’ve recommended for a couple of years is modest. It’s two books of the Bible, Luke and Acts. I love this approach for a number of reasons. First, both books are written by the same author so it’s the same writing style and voice throughout both books. Second, Luke was writing to an audience not intimately familiar with the old Jewish texts. Kind of like you and me. Third, Luke was highly educated and had a great attention to detail. Because of this, he paints vivid pictures of what is happening throughout both books. Fourth, Luke set out to preserve history. These two books read like part one and two of a historical narrative. Much of it reads like an adventure story. Fifth, a lot of the narrative is already familiar. The traditional Christmas story comes largely from Luke. Jesus’s familiar teaching and life events are here. Much of the passion narrative is also here. Luke includes the resurrection, Great Commission (Acts 1:8), and the ascension. Sixth, Luke includes things that you never knew were in the Bible, too. While there will be a lot that’s familiar, there are some fun discoveries to find as well…like the night Paul preached so late that a kid fell out a window and died. Yikes! It’s okay, Paul healed him. Seventh, Luke provides the “what” of the Gospel in the Gospel of Luke, while giving us the implications of the gospel in the book of Acts (the formation of the early church, evangelism, helping others).

So here’s my big confession…although I’ve shared this strategy countless times I’ve never actually done it myself. So, as I hang my brand new calendar, I’m going to walk this path. Feel free to come along with me if you like.

Here’s my plan: I’ll start with Luke 1:1 on January 1. My goal is to read 6 chapters per week, which will complete the book of Luke by the end of January. I’ll move on to Acts, which I’ll read at a pace of 7 chapters per week. That will be 4 weeks for Acts. If I go a little slower, that’s okay, too. I’ve got a lot of reading to do for grad school, so I’ll adjust as necessary. Grace happens. Once per week I’ll write up a blog post about what I’ve read that week. Six chapters are a whole lot of content, so my post will be a simple highlight or application from the week’s reading. I’d love it if you’d join me in the journey…share with me what you’re getting out of the text or your struggles. Let’s hold each other accountable, too. Sometime in March, maybe we’ll go on and start a new journey after this one.

You can get email updates when I publish a blog post by subscribing. Or just check back every now and then and see what’s new.