Bible Basics

(1 Samuel 17:1-11, 19-23, 32-52 ; Mark 4:35-41) – J G White
11 am, Sun, June 17, 2018 – UBC Digby

Perhaps you have a spiritual practice each day of your life, and you spend some time in quiet.  Praying. Reading the Bible. Maybe using a devotional guide like The Daily Bread. I don’t use The Daily Bread, but if you do, yesterday you read this story, by Xochitl Dixon:  

During a vacation, my husband and I signed up for a leisurely rafting tour down Georgia’s Chattahoochee River.  Dressed in sandals, a sundress, and a wide brimmed hat, I groaned when we discovered — contrary to the advertisement — that the trip included light rapids.

Unlike the tour brochure, which clearly left out a key detail about the trip, Jesus explicitly warned His disciples that rough waters were ahead.

This comes out of yesterday’s reading from John 16, in which Jesus says In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart! I have overcome the world.

Like the lesson here, using the Holy Bible will get us into troubled waters.  There are both stillwaters here, and rapids. The challenges are worth facing.

I wonder if any of you happen to be reading the whole Bible right now?  Booklets like The Daily Bread have a plan: what to read each day to get it read in one year.  So, yesterday you read Nehemiah chaps 4, 5 and 6. Sanballat & Jobiah intimidate Nehemiah, as the walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt.

Remember that? Well, that story is surely more obscure that the well-known Bible saga I read earlier. The Story of David and Goliath.  Here is a tale told in classes of Sunday school children. Some of you have known this story for 85 years.  And what you did with this story back in childhood was likely different from what you do with it today.

Today, I raise this question: How do we use the Bible?  We people have many methods.  So much of what we have in these pages is story, narrative. David & Goliath! And story is powerful.  Humans tell stories. We love to do so. The Hebrews of old told their stories as a way to express their life with God.  Now, what we do with a story, even a true story, has great variety. The waters of the Bible get rough with rapids when we people emphasize different parts of the stories we retell.  It really is true that we can make the Bible say whatever we want it to.

The Holy Bible gets used, from time to time, in the public eye.  This past week, the Head of the US Department of Justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, quoted Romans 13:1 regarding lawmakers. “Obey the laws of the government because the Lord has ordained the government for his purposes.”  Responding to the plan Sessions was defending, of separating illegal immigrant parents from their children, late night show host Stephen Colbert, countered with the same chapter. Romans 13:10.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.  Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

I think one thing about love is it comes out in stories more than in rules or laws.  Love is about action, the stories of our days in this life. For instance, when we remember our fathers, and grandfathers, and generations back, it is stories that we tell. Stories have an impact. Stories we remember and that influence us.  

On this day of pondering the Bible, we also sang a scripture Song: Jesus’ Parable of the Banquet.  It is said that when the church sings it is like praying twice.  Well, it can also be like telling a story twice.

The song version we sang is one I learned when I was a young teenager.  Twenty years later I was at the Seminar in Truro, in June, with the author as our guest speaker, Sister M T Winter.  A Bible song that seemed a bit silly and Sunday-schooly took on more seriousness when I met the composer. And there really is great power in Jesus parable.  It has a simplicity, it is short, and it is itself a story.

When we sing stories, or Bible poetry, or prayers, or whatever, we remember in a different way.  We get it into our minds and hearts in a deeper way. How often we find people with serious memory problems – dementia – who brighten up, and move, and remember when music is sung and played.

Years ago, living in a nursing home in Windsor, was Mrs. Jodrey.  She had suffered a stroke: could not walk, could not talk, save the occasional single word.   But every Sunday her daughter visited, and sang hymns with her. Mrs. Jodrey could still sing hymns!

Question: What is the meaning of the Bible? When we have the words deeply ingrained, with song, inside us?  Or even when we simply memorize significant pieces of scripture – then its impact is greater.  When we know it and it comes out of us without even thinking, then the Word of God has meaning.  

So what does Jesus’ parable of the Banquet mean for you?  In one sentence.

Along with the scroll of the Hebrew Bible that I brought out today, is this artwork by the late Wanda Handspiker: Calm on the Sea.  Something visual, some artwork, has an impact upon us.  The Imagery of Jesus stilling the storm comes to us even without a painting.  In the imagination the Bible story comes to life and has power.

Calm at Sea, by Wanda Handspiker

Calm at Sea, by Wanda Handspiker

As we take time, through life, for the scriptures, and it touches our creative mind, we ask the Question: What is the Bible’s influence on me?  I have been wondering lately if this is a better question to ask.  Better than: what does it mean to us? Or: what did it teach me? Or: how do I apply this to my life?  What is the Bible’s influence on me?

What would you say?  In one sentence.

We do well to ask: what are the basics of the Bible?  As adults, what do we do with this text? Not what we did as children.  Often, we learn to do by doing.

Compare this experience: when you get a new smartphone, or tablet, or laptop computer.  How do we learn to use it? There’s not comprehensive user’s manual! We have to fiddle around with it, play with it, get confused by it, and ask others for advice, before we can do much with our new tool. Am I right?  And as we use our new computer, or phone, months later we still are learning how to do something new. Even years later, we figure out an app or program and how it works. Some things your technology does we never do get around to using. So it is with the scriptures.  

Bible Basics.  It is simply a matter of using it as adults, and using it together.  Read it. Talk about it. Study it. Wrestle with it. Sing it. Imagine it.  Be creative with it. Pray it.

Then we shall know it as Wonderful Words of Life.

Of Kings & Kingdoms

(1 Samuel 8; Mark 3:20-35) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, June 10, 2018 – UBC Digby

Kings and kingdoms will all pass away,
But there’s something about that name!

We’ll sing that in about fifteen minutes.
I’ve been meeting up with someone who would be king, uh… Premier, uh… Leader of the PC Party, at least.  Little does the candidate and campaign manager know that I am the most unlikely person to become member of a political party. Not to mention vote for a candidate who wants some economic development for Nova Scotia by bringing in the type of natural gas harvesting called fracking.  But, now, I am getting emails from this candidate.  So I am a bit more informed.

At our better moments, we want good leaders in our lives.  Inspiring leaders. People who, when they set out in a direction, get us following along.  

For the most part, I am uninformed and apolitical.  I don’t watch TV, news on the internet, or get a paper to read.  I hear bits of news on the Radio. I’m no great citizen, when it comes to our levels of government.  So my praying is weak, in terms of the advice to a young pastor in 1 Timothy 2.

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.  I guess Timothy needed to be inspired to pay attention to his political leaders, back in the first century.  

Kings and kingdoms, by whatever names we call them, go back, far back in human history. We time-travelled this morning back 3K years to the ancient Israelites in their Promised Land, wanting to have a king for the first time in their history. Perhaps they wanted to be inspired. The ‘wise’ elders of Israel gathered around Samuel. They critiqued his sons, who were doing a poor job of being judges.  They asked for a king to govern them, just like the other nations.

Samuel prayed about this.  The warnings he got from Yahweh were these:  If you get a king:

  • your sons will have to work with chariots and horsemen
  • they will have to farm the king’s land
  • they will be put to work making tools for agriculture, and military tools
  • your daughters will be put to work in the perfume industry, and in baking and cooking
  • the best of your farms the king will claim
  • a tenth of your crops will go to the king
  • a tenth of your animals will go to the king
  • a tenth of your slaves will go to your king
  • you will cry out because of your king, but God won’t listen because you got what you asked for!

Well, that’s my translation.  Aside from those who govern us here, is our King Jesus. And in our spiritual lives, we have the organization: Church.  We have our levels of size & authority & responsibility too. Does our setup inspire us? Lead us to follow Christ?

Just as we here have: Town Council, Provincial Legislature, Parliament, and then affiliations like the NATO and the United Nations, we Christians also have our levels and fellowships, under Christ.

Individual believer/member/priest
Local Church: UBCD
Annapolis-Digby Baptist Association
Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada
Canadian Baptist Ministries
Baptist World Alliance
World Council of Churches

Does our God want it this way?  Is this ordained – planned and commanded – by the Master?  And are there warnings to be heeded? Risks by being a spiritual organization made up of mere humans?

Unless you take part in gatherings of our Baptist Association, or CBAC, your experience is simply in the local congregation.  Unless you read Tidings magazine, or Mosaic from CBM, you just know us.  Some of you do get to visit other churches regularly, which is so helpful, so healthy, so eye-opening, and sometimes inspiring, I believe.  I don’t get to do that much. Two weeks ago I did attend First United Church, Truro, on a Sunday morning.

The longings the Hebrews had in the Promised Land continue in us today.  We want to be as good or better than others. Other towns. Other provinces. Other nations. Other churches.  Sometimes the plan we want to copy has dangerous side effects. Be it different leadership – a king, of sorts – or simply a different way of being organized, or of communicating, or of making decisions, or of being led by leaders, we usually want what seems better than what we have now.  And there is always room for improvement. Often, we desire not a real change, but the way things have always been, working better.

It will be our personal experience that will inspire us to work together, to follow leaders, to become leaders.  Biblically, we learn about servant leaders.

In his book, Church Governance Matters, Les Stahlke tells this story.

When I was only 14 I left home for boarding school.  One of the first group activities I can remember was a wholesale cleaning of the dormitory we called home, starting with the basement.  Believe me when I say that when you are only 14 and the lowest form of underclassman, you know you are going to get the dirtiest job.

I can remember clearly that room full of old chairs that had to be cleaned out to make room for a lounge for the residents of the dorm.  What I remember most clearly, however, is not the chairs of the work of cleaning that day, but the presence of the president of the school in jeans helping us with that dirty work.

I didn’t know anything about servant leadership at the time but I did know what a powerful motivator it was to have Dr. Stuenkel working alongside me.  It gave me an enormous sense of importance to the task and a sense that each of us doing the work was valued. (2010, p. 64)

In our personal lives, we are blessed when we have those people who inspire us to do something more.  Be… all that you can be.

This past week I have been grateful.  Grateful for people like Althea Saunders.  A woman I knew for only the last four years of her life of almost a century.  She had both grace of style and true graciousness, both loveliness and real love for others. Perhaps she will keep on inspiring such good things in my life.  

This past week I have been grateful for the music that surrounds me.  A choir from Nashville, Tennessee, gives a concert, and the sacred music stays with me for a week.  
Pious Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world,
give… rest.  Lamb of God, give rest.  
Everlasting rest.

With friends and colleagues I made music at our own concert, less sublime, but joyful and fun and hopeful.  I made a joyful noise. It was real, true joy. My musical friends lead my soul to better places.

This past week I have also been grateful for my hiking friends around here.  Friends who walked the spiritual pilgrimage in Spain, the Camino de Santiago.  Friends who do major canoeing expeditions and enjoy everything they experience in creation.  For four years the Fundy Erratics have led me, inspired me, to do more walking in the woods, more observing of plants and birds, more care as a member of creation, as a creature named Jeff.  I thank God for good leadership of me as a follower.

The stories of Jesus today from the end of Mark 3 illustrate His leadership, when some suggested the source of his power and authority was bad.  It is destructive when we have people in our lives who lead us away from the best paths, who hurt and destroy us in some small way. Then, after this talk about evil powers, good powers, strong men, and kingdoms, Jesus takes the opportunity to change the conversation.  Did you see what He did there? He switched from kingdom talk to kindom talk. Kinfolk, family. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” asked Jesus. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  

King and Kingdom are not the only models we have in our Faith story.  There is Kin and Kindom. Family of God. Jesus would lead us there, again and again.  Jesus, the servant leader, is unlike any king who came before Him in Israel. The true Suffering Servant, Christ leads in a way that touches all our pain, all our beauty, and inspires our souls.  We can trust Him to do this. To lead us. To save us.

Kings and kingdoms will all pass away,
But there’s something about that name!

(Proper) Theology & Doctrine

(Exodus 35:1-3; Mark 2:23-3:6) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, June 3, 2018 – UBC Digby

A few days ago I went to our Cemetery, Woodlawn, and buried the ashes of a local man I was acquainted with, a man, I was told, who read the Bible a lot.  His son told me, actually, that his father must have read it through many times, because he was trying to figure out the conflicts, the contradictions.

Perhaps he knew about Jesus saying, in Mark 2, that David once took the bread of the Temple to eat, when Abiathar was high priest.  Even though 1 Sam 21 tells us that Ahimelech was high priest at that time.

That’s a tiny problem in scripture; there are other Bible themes and stories that are more challenging.  

Theology is important.  But the study of God and of spirituality can be dull or way too complicated. The doctrines of the Christian Faith are significant.  But all the teachings about how all this God and Bible stuff works can go on forever, and seem very harsh.

The scripture readings we just heard are mere peeks at much larger stories.  In this instance about how followers of God have one special day each week. Mike read that bit from Exodus.  A severe warning about keeping the sabbath holy. On pain of death! This comes as Moses prepares the Israelites to build a portable Tabernacle – a tent for worship.

Out of the Jewish doctrines about God being holy, and the people’s need to be holy, and have a holy day, comes Jesus.  As Mark tells the Christ story, we read in these first few pages quite a few conflicts between the religious authorities and this new rabbi on the block, Jesus.  

Dianne read of His disciples, apprentices who follow, and they pick grain to eat on Saturday, the Sabbath!  Bad, bad, BAD. Next, Jesus does some work on the Day of rest – He heals a sick man.  Another no-no.

This new way – it seemed new back then, 2000 years ago – Jesus’ way, was not so much about rules, rules, rules; His path for life looked to be about including more people in the realm of God.  Certainly more that just those of the Jewish Faith.

The way a group understands who God is, and who they are as people, can make that group unique, different from others. I gave you each a copy of a historic, Atlantic Canada, Baptist document, The Basis of Union.  Here is the statement of doctrine – beliefs – that two groups of Baptist Churches agreed upon.  They united to become one group in 1905 and 1906. They agreed on these teachings, and agreed that this was just enough to unite them. We still are, officially, the United Baptist Church of Digby.

The Basis of Union is filled with words that need a lot of explaining.  Infallible, self-existent, vicarious; regeneration, justification, sanctification.  Enough to put even a preacher to sleep!  Yet these are powerful ideas. God talk. Spirituality.  

So we need to translate such stuff into everyday words.  Dennis Bickers counsels pastors and teachers in churches to be understandable to our audience.  Speaking “churchese” to people who were not raised in the church will not be effective.  (The Healthy Small Church, 2005, p. 29) He also wrote: Many churches may need to completely revamp their educational methods and find new, creative ways of exploring Scripture that will appeal to adults. (p. 31)

Glenn Daman wrote that what we believe, the theology of a church will have a greater impact upon the future health of the church than will all of the church’s programs and strategies.  But what we know about our basic doctrines and theology might be quite weak.  And what we believe about God and the world may be ‘all over the map’ in our one congregation.  So I wonder if Mr. Daman is right.

You may know what I mean if I said a certain Christian is doctrinaire.  I mean, the person is rigid, legalistic, taking religious rules and beliefs very seriously.  I don’t think I am doctrinaire. And I’m not hung up on doctrines and theology for a couple reasons, obvious to me.  One, I often do not quite agree with others about certain beliefs. So, I don’t want to stand out and be different, or be labelled a heretic.  Two, I do believe in diversity within Christianity. I want to allow others to think outside the box, because I still want to be accepted.

This is why I had a little study group years ago we joking called the ‘Radical Thinkers.’  This is why I have associated with a group that met yesterday, called the Canadian Association for Baptist Freedoms.  And why, in one week’s time, I will again attend the Atlantic Seminar in Theological Education. I have looked for and found people to help stretch my mind, my thinking, my beliefs, my ways of living with my Saviour.

I continue to find in Jesus a Personal Leader who takes the tried and true religious rules and bends them, boggles them, goes above and beyond them.  No wonder He got killed.

Our decisions about how to live with God are tricky too.  Even a mundane challenge like keeping the sabbath holy.  I read there is to be a weekly Farmers Market here in downtown Digby. I love the idea of such a market here.  But, I have this lingering idea that Sunday shopping is not for Christians. What do I do?  Will I support the new Market, or not?

Dennis Bickers’ chapter called Proper Theology and Doctrine sacres me. Proper?  I’d say good, good theology and doctrine. Because it keeps developing.  Getting better, in some places. Some wise person said that theology is “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”

It is our amazing task to read the Bible, and read our history and our present lives, and know God.  The Bible is filled with multiple versions of the same stories, and various ways of explaining what really is true.  There are a lot of perspectives, because we humans are different from one another.

I had John Churchill say to me yesterday something I have read from time to time: the people – you people – should do theology.  Think the Faith.  Everyone be involved in sorting out life with God, and how we explain it.  How to tell the Story. This happens some in our small groups that meet to study.  Sorting out spiritual things must be ongoing. The story goes on and keeps being told.  You and I can work things out and discover the way ahead, with X.

The Apostle Paul once wrote: work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  (Philippians 2:12c, 13)  So let us work together with our lives, with our Bible, with our God, to have good theology and doctrine.

AMEN.