a complete life

First Things, an intellectual Catholic magazine, hosted its Erasmus lecture last night at the Union League Club. The topic was “A Complete Life.”  I had just arrived from trying, somewhat unsuccssfully, to work with children of incarcerated parents in Bed-Stuy at Children of Promise.

The contrast could not have been more marked.  I had just tried to tutor a child so full of energy that he couldn’t sit still or stop talking or joking or attacking or touching people or laughing long enough to sit down.  I took three subways to get to the Union League Club and walked into a crowded room full of people in dark suits, sitting still on stiff-backed chairs and talking quietly to each other.  The room smelled, not unpleasantly, of mothballs. High above us glowed lamps the color of lapis lazuli.

A hum of quiet energy filled the room. The editor of First Things, Rusty Reno, introduced the speaker, Gilbert Meilaender, Professor at Valparaiso, in his pleasant, good-natured, good-humored way.  The speaker’s topic was: “The Complete Life”.

I expected a talk on healthy food choices, regular cardio-vascular exercise, sleeping eight hours a night, praying alone and in groups, reading the Bible, volunteering, working cheerfully and maintaining close interpersonal relationships.

Instead, Meilaender approached the topic of a complete life as one that spans from birth to death.  It took a moment to adjust. I hadn’t thought about life from that perspective in a long time.  He said there are two different ways of imaging life: as a series of ages (or stages), or as a journey.  He said that to image life as spanning from infancy to decrepitude, with the prime somewhere in the middle, is a pagan perspective, adhered to by people like Aristotle. In contrast, the Christian sees life as a journey in which God leads us with his hand, and supports us with his love, as the evening prayer service puts it. In this way of viewing life, there is no difference between young and old. The initiative always lies with God, as Barth put it. No matter what stage one is in, one can live as if this were the only stage. Each age is equidistant from the God who calls.

Meilaender began and ended his talk – he “completed” it, you could say – with a poem by Wheelock, of a lover hearing the sound of a thrush and longing to recapture a former romance.  “Sing it again now,” the poet begs the thrush.  “Sing that self-same song.”

Meilaender has a head of white hair.  He wore the same dark suit as most of the other listeners. And yet he revealed a deep passion for the longing for love:  after he recited the poem a second time, he said, with a wry smile, “I guess you can tell I like that poem.”

The same longing beats in every breast, whether it’s a hyperactive child whose father is in jail, or a white-haired professor of theology.  We each want to hear the self-same song of love.  We each want to hear the song that tells us that what we do matters. We want to know that whether we are young or old, we are all equidistant from the God who calls.  Sing to us again, Lord, is the cry of our hearts.  Sing that self-same song of love. We need to hear it over and over because we die without love. And to think that God loves us that way is too incredible to believe. Tell us again.

Or as David puts it in one of my favorite verses: “My heart has heard you say, ‘come and talk with me.’ “And my heart responses, ‘Lord, I am coming.'”  Ps. 27: 8 (NLT).

We run to talk to God, because, as Peter once told Jesus: “where else can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” God sings to us of His love. He asks us to sing to Him “a new song.”  Ps 98:1. In the call of the thrush, we hear not just the sad song of human love lost but the joyful song of divine love found. This is a love that puts an arm around our shoulder; or holds our right hand; and sometimes has to carry us in his arms the way the shepherd carries his young. This is a love who walks with us every step of our journey, through every age, and makes our life complete, no matter what happens; no matter whether we are crawling or tapping a cane; trying to tutor someone who can’t listen; or sitting in the audience looking up at the lapis lazuli lamp and thinking: sing to me again, Lord. Please.

how to read the Bible

A lot of people don’t know where to begin with the Bible.  “Are there Cliff Notes to the Bible?” a friend once asked me.  Well, not really.  But one way to begin is by reading the New Testament.  It has 260 chapters, so if you read a chapter a day, five days a week, you will read it in exactly one year.  52 x 5=260.  Is this just a coincidence of math? Maybe.  But C.S. Lewis says  that “if you believe in God, there is no such thing as a coincidence.”

Other people wonder why they should read the Bible.  Was it really written by God, they wonder, or just by man?  And if it was written by men, shouldn’t we be able to pick and choose which parts to believe?

If we humans decided to write a book about God, He would not look like the God of the Bible.  He would look like us.  He would, in other words, look like the Greek and Roman gods: cheating, lying, jealous, petty, philandering, raping, and squabbling. How could we have come up with a God who saves by sacrificial love?  No other religion but Christianity claims that God himself came down in human form to die for our sins, so we could go to heaven and live for eternity with a perfect God.

Although I don’t think a human mind could invent this story, I have noticed that over and over again, the story that moves us to tears, is a story of sacrificial love.  It’s a story of someone sacrificing themselves for someone who doesn’t deserve it.  It’s as if our hearts were made to resonate with Jesus’ story.  It’s as if God made us to know the deep things of God, and nothing else will truly satisfy us.  As King David once wrote: “deep calls unto deep.” Ps. 42:7.  Or, as King Solomon put it, God “has planted eternity in the human heart.”  Eccl. 3:11.

And so, I ask: what if God wrote the Bible?  What if God inspired it?  What if what the Bible says about itself is true? The Bible claims: “All Scripture is inspired by God.”  2 Tim 3:16 (NLT).  It claims that the Holy Spirit spoke “through” King David and the prophets.  Acts 1:16.  It claims that the Word of God is “active and alive.”  Hebrews 4:12.  It says that the Word of God is like a “mirror,” showing us what we really look like.  James 1:23.  As my friend Eric Metaxas puts it: “we don’t read the Bible, it reads us.”

I once saw a painting of the apostle John writing the book of Revelations.  The painting shows John in a dark cave, crouched over a parchment, feather pen in hand, with a candle burning low. And just behind him hovers an angel, whispering in his ear.

That is the Bible I believe in.

I didn’t always believe in that Bible.  I was raised in a church that taught that the Bible wasn’t really true.  In other words, well-intentioned but misguided pastors had robbed the Bible of its power.  But God is stronger than any human.  God got a hold of me by allowing all my dreams to shatter at the same time.  I lay on my bed, and said, “God, I give up.  I can’t fix any of these things by myself.  I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”

Every time I opened the Bible after that, I’d say, “well, God, I don’t really understand this, but if that’s the way you want it, it’s okay with me.”  In other words, without knowing the theological term, I had “submitted” to God’s authority.  I discovered that it’s only when we submit to God, that He can truly begin to work in our life.

All my memories prior to that moment of submission have a darkness to them.  All my memories since that moment are like a sun-filled room.  Each day opens up into eternity in a way I can’t even describe.  I fall asleep and wake up with a sense of majesty.  The only analogy I can come up with for my sense of time is that sense of the wind sweeping through the tops of tall trees.  I am always stunned now when I hear people say how time “flies”, or complain of how “short” their summer was.  I have vague recollections of time being like that, but once you enter into a relationship with the author of time, everything changes.  Time is never short again.

I have had loss and sadness since I submitted to God. But the joy has never departed.  That is because the joy comes not from my circumstances, or my obedience, but from Christ’s presence in my life.  And believing the Bible opens you to a full experience of Christ’s presence.

Some people say they can’t believe the Bible because there are different translations.  The New Testament was not inspired in English.  So if you want to read it in English, it’s good to read lots of different translations, prayerfully, to try to get as close as possible to the original language.  The King James Version is lovely but hard for modern ears to understand.  I believe God wants us to understand his words.  The New Living Translation is simple and clear.  The New International Version is not quite as simple, but has a closer balance to the poetry of the King James Version.  And if you really want to dig deep, you can consult the Amplified Bible and find bracketed explanations of almost every word.  Biblegateway.com will provide you with multiple translations of the bible, with different search engines. I’ve provided links on amazon to several different translations at the end of this post if you’d like to buy one.

Other people complain that the Bible is inconsistent.  I used to think so, too, until I submitted to its authority.  It was only after I was willing to say it was accurate, that I discovered there are no inconsistencies.  If you assume it’s inconsistent, you can look for holes and find them.  If you assume the Bible is consistent, however, you look for ways to reconcile seeming discrepancies, and the answers bless you.

Here’s my favorite example for how your assumptions determine your viewpoint: Tim Keller once preached on the thieves who died on other side of Christ on the cross.  In one account, both thieves mock Christ.  Mark 15:32.  In another account, one of the thieves mocks Christ, but the other thief protests: “We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.”  The other theif asks Christ to remember him when he comes  into his Kingdom, and Christ says he will be with him in paradise.  Luke 23:39-43.  Tim Keller said that if you put the two accounts together, and assume they are both true, that means that both thieves were reviling Christ, and then one of them got it.   Suddenly, the two stories, together, become not proof of the errancy of the Bible, but rather proof of God’s miraculous salvation through grace alone.  That thief is pinned to a cross.  He is guilty.  He can never “do” anything for God.  It’s too late for him to start volunteering in homeless shelters, or doling out soup in kitchens.  All he has done is say he’s sorry – “we deserve to die for our sins” – and please – “Jesus, remember me.”  And salvation is granted based upon the free gift of grace alone, mediated through Christ’s sacrificial death.

If you make this assumption of the inerrancy of the Bible, it becomes like the most perfect novel ever written, where each part refers to every other part.  Agnes de Mille was once asked in a series on creativity on NPR if she would ever go back and revise parts of her famous ballet, Rodeo.  No, she said, because when I was in the act of creating it, I saw how every part related to every other part, and now that I’m not in the thick of creating it, I would disturb that balance.  Or if you read a Faulkner novel, you see characters telling the same story over and over.  Every time the story is told, it takes on new layers of meaning. The Bible is like that, only more so, because it was written not by a fallible human, but by our creator.

The fact that God inspired the whole Bible gives us the key to interpreting it.  As the English theologian John Stott put it: we should “let Scripture illuminate Scripture.”
The whole Bible is about Jesus. As my friend Sally Lloyd-Jones says of the Bible in her Jesus Storybook Bible: “every page whispers his name.”  
When you read any part of the Bible, whole layers of meaning unfold if you ask God: “how does this verse relate to the cross?”

Which brings me to my final and most important point: the best thing to do if you don’t understand something in the Bible, is to ask God for help.  God promises to help us if we ask him, if we ask for something in his will.  And how could he not want us to understand his word?  So if you ask to understand the Bible, he will answer you.  It’s guaranteed.  He will send people your way who will help explain it.  You will hear that passage illuminated in a sermon or on a Christian radio station.  And you will read other passages that will shed light on it.

If something in the Bible strikes you as odd, don’t gloss over it.  That is the very part to hone in on.  As my friend Simon Scott, a pastor in England, once told me: “stay with the irritant.  It is like the grain of sand in an oyster, that over time, as it turns and turns in your mind, becomes a pearl.”

If you’re truly hungry for the Word, you can read more than a chapter a day.  You can read the whole bible in a year if you’re ravenous.  It’s a great thing to do.  You discover things in the Bible that you’ve always known, but didn’t know came from the Bible.  For instance, I didn’t know that the saying, “a leopard can’t change his spots” comes from the Bible.  But if you want to devour the New Testament at a leisurely but achievable pace, a chapter a day is a good way to go.  Along the way you will discover that although we can’t change our own spots, God can change them for us.

We read the Bible because we are invited to.  God invites us to walk with him, just as he once did with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day in the garden of Eden.   If you read a chapter a day, he will be walking right alongside you.  It will be as if the two of you are in a valley, surrounded by high mountains.  God will have his arm around your shoulders, and he will point out all the beauty around you.  It’s a beautiful way to journey through life.

if you don’t have a Bible yet, buy whatever translation speaks to you best…  the New Living translation (modern contemporary prose).
The Amplified Bible (the one Joyce Meyer uses – with expanded explanations of every verse).
The Message (Eugene Peterson’s wonderful rendering of the Bible into modern slang and usage).
The New Revised Standard.
The New King James.  
The original King James.
An audio version (Thomas Nelson has a 79 CD bible with Jim Caviezel as Jesus, Richard Dreyfuss as Moses, Gary Sinise as David, Jason Alexander as Joseph, Marisa Tomei as Mary Magdalene, Stacy Keach as Paul, Louis Gossett, Jr. as John, Jon Voight as Abraham, Marcia Gay Harden as Esther, Joan Allen as Deborah, Max von Sydow as Noah, and Malcolm McDowell as Solomon).
It doesn’t matter.  No matter which version you use, the Word is always active and alive.