Friday, November 5, 2010

Dissecting Frogs and Bible Study

Here is a strange thing: throughout my Christian walk, I have had the experience of both losing and gaining intimacy in my relationship to God while studying His Word. I say this experience is strange, because one might understandably think that one would automatically draw closer to God while studying His Word, and yet often the exact opposite seems to occur. 

On the one hand, we have passages like Psalm 119 in which virtually every segment is a declaration of growing closer to God while reading and meditating upon His Word. For instance, the psalmist cries out, "My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to  your word" (Psalm 119:28). The psalmist sees a clear connection between his emotional well-being on one side, and the source of his encouragement in God's Word on the other side. 

On the other hand, I have often had the experience of drifting further in my emotions away from God while engaged in Bible study. For example, I found myself often drifting away from God while in seminary. While in seminary, I was engaged in deep study of God's Word in terms of exegesis, theology, and history. Yet, despite such a disciplined and systematic study of God's Word, I found myself feeling more removed from God in terms of love and spiritual sensitivity. I was becoming more educated about God, but less relationally connected to God. Additionally, the experience of drifting apart from God is not limited to my seminary experience, but is something I have faced often in the course of my studies as a "full-time" minister.

Why does the psalmist grow closer to God when he studies and meditates on God's Word, but I often seem to grow further away from God when I study and meditate on His Word? One difference between the psalmist and me might be illustrated by the experience of dissecting a frog. Perhaps like many, you have had the experience of dissecting a frog while in a high school or middle-school biology class. In order to understand the biological workings of a frog, students dissect the frog and examine a frog's inner workings and structure. The upside of dissecting the frog is students are educated, but the downside is the frog is decimated.  Our gain is the frog's loss. So, in studying the mechanics of "frogness," we kill the life of the frog.

In a similar fashion, we may study the Word of God as if we dissect a frog. We know the Word of God contains the promises of hope and life, and so we earnestly study Scripture. We want to know the mechanics of the Word's grammar, exegesis, history, and theology. We study multiple interpretations, and even dialogue about the applications, generalizations, and ethical implications of what we are reading. Yet, like dissecting a frog, we may become better educated about the mechanics of the Word, but possibly miss the life of the Word. 

One final example might be of help. When a cosmologist looks up at the stars, he or she may see the astronomical mechanics of mathematical calculations, the explosion of various gases, black holes, and gravitational relationships. The psalmist looks up at the stars and says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of your hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge" (Psalm 19:1-2). If, as the saying goes, we can miss the forest through the trees, so we also just might miss the glory of God through the stars.

Finally, I am not advocating we do not study deeply the Word of God,  or advocating we ignore what God has accomplished in creation. Rather, I am advocating for a particular kind of reading. The psalmist never seems to study about God as much as he studies with God. When we try to study about God, there potentially enters a kind of disconnect that is great for dissection, but poor for life. There may be a subtle distinction between these two prepositions, "about" and "with," and yet the distinction is substantial. God's Word is not strictly about education, but relation. If our focus of study remains about God, then we are not necessarily growing closer to God. Only when we study with God, will we draw closer to God. The psalmist did not experience the drift away from God when studying the Word of God (Psalm 119), because the psalmist never left God to learn about God in the first place. Therefore, what I need to do is not necessarily learn how to read better, but perhaps what I need to learn is how to read with a better partner!


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Does Church Attendance Mean Anything? (Part 6)

Throughout these series of bulletin articles dealing with attendance, I think at least one valuable insight has surfaced. The valuable insight that has surfaced is that attendance is more of a result than a cause. For instance, attendance by itself cannot cause an individual to be faithful anymore than a student merely attending college will guarantee learning. Now it certainly helps a student to become educated if he or she actually shows up to class, participates, and studies. In a similar fashion to a college student, an individual who attends and participates in congregational worship, Bible studies, and fellowships will also likely learn and grow in faith.

Additionally, we know from the book of Hebrews that at least one cause for the result of attendance is the fact that we see the Day of Christ approaching, and so we increasingly spur each other on to more and more good deeds and the fellowship of mutual encouragement (Heb 10:24-25). Therefore, if attendance is more of a result then a cause, then does attendance not partially serve as an outward sign of an inward belief and conviction concerning matters of faith?

We are now bumping up against a difficult question concerning what takes place in an individual’s heart. However, the truth is, there are multiple causes operative within an individual’s heart that may prompt him or her to attend activities of congregational life. Unfortunately, there is not a strict one to one correspondence between congregational attendance and purity of heart. In other words, a genuine belief and conviction concerning the coming of Christ and the common faith we share does not necessarily drive all the internal causes within the heart. Members attend for all kinds of reasons that may or may not be rooted to the best of motives.

One example of congregational attendance not rooted in the best of motives is the case of some Christians we read about in the books of First and Second Corinthians. In Corinth, apparently, there were individuals who gathered in part for the purposes of showing off, pride, and control of others (1 Cor 1:1ff; 3:1ff; 5:1-2; 12:1-13:1ff; 2 Cor 11:1ff). Another example of a faulty sign of attendance is from the book of Jude that speaks of men who are “blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves” (v.12). Now I doubt that individuals in Corinth or those of whom Jude speaks of actually stood up in the gathered assembly and said, “We are attending this congregation because we like to show off, flaunt our pride, and control and take advantage of others.” Therefore, attendance can be a deceptive outward sign of what is actually taking place in the heart.

Nevertheless, despite the above mentioned difficulties discerning the outward sign of attendance, attendance is still one criterion by which faith, belief, and conviction in the heart becomes manifest. Not all signs are false signs. The question, dear saint, is what does your outward sign of attendance say about what is truly in your heart?