Monday, May 28, 2007

The Who What Where When Why and How of Reading Through the New Testament in a Year

Who: The easy answer is YOU. If you are reading this you are invited to read through the New Testament in the coming year beginning the week of June 3. The complex answer is also YOU. Bring your questions, the whole of who you are to this adventure. If you are a Christian, great. If you see yourself as a “seeker” – great.

What: The New Testament, writings which are at the cornerstone of Christian faith. Of course, Christians look to both the Hebrew Scriptures, more commonly called the Old Testament through the years, and the New Testament for inspiration and guidance. Why not tackle the whole Bible in a year? To read the Bible in a year is a manageable task, and something I have done more than once. It requires reading about four chapters from the Bible everyday. For those who may not have picked up their Bibles in awhile this can be intimidating, and for all of us, we know that there are stretches of the Hebrew Bible that require some heavy lifting in terms of reading. The New Testament is not always a picnic either, but reading through it in one year asks only that we read five chapters every week (260 chapters over 52 weeks). We need to start someplace. It might be good to say a word here about the differing viewpoints about the Bible, even within Christianity. For some, the Bible is the Word of God, inerrant and infallible. It should be read as literally as possible. Other Christians understand what it means to say that the Bible is special and inspired in very different terms. They believe that it can be both an inspired guide to life and faith and a human product at the same time. They trust that God’s Spirit can speak amidst fallible human words. This comes closer to my perspective as will be seen in the months ahead. The most important thing about reading the Bible is not the viewpoint we bring to our reading, but the kind of life that is formed as a result of our reading.

When: I am beginning this reading venture/adventure the week of June 3. In my church on that Sunday, I am going to preach about reading the New Testament in a year and what we might expect from doing so. Anyway, June 3-9, read Matthew chapters 1-5. I will publish some reading guidelines for these chapters June 4, and my Sunday sermon June 10 will be on a part of Matthew 5. June 10-16, read Matthew 6-10. Reading guides will be published here June 11. My sermon June 17 will be based on some part of this reading. This pattern will continue through May 2008.

Where: You can read it at your home, you can read it in the Dome. You can read it in the car, you can read it at a bar. You can read it while out for lunch, you can read it with a bunch. You can read it at the lake, you can read it while you bake. You can read it here or there, you can read it anywhere. Thank you Dr. Seuss.

Why: Christians claim the Bible as the primary source for the life of faith. “Christianity is centered in the Bible. Of course, it is ultimately centered in God, but it is the God of whom the Bible speaks and to whom it points. God is also known in other ways and other religions, I am convinced, but to be Christian is to be centered in the God of the Bible.” Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity. Not all Christians would agree with parts of what Borg has to say, but there would be wide agreement that Christianity is centered in the Bible. If we are Christians we should have a familiarity with the New Testament, but even more importantly, it should shape our lives. And the brings me to a second set of reasons for reading the New Testament – the potential for having our lives changed, transformed in the process. I am becoming more and more convinced that what matters most about Christian faith is having our lives changed, having our hearts and minds transformed. In turn, then, out of transformed hearts and minds, we act in ways that help transform the world for the better. In the New Testament itself, Paul writes that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. In other words, we will know the Spirit is working in our lives when they are more and more characterized by these qualities. A Buddhist monk named Maha Ghosananda also put it well, “if we cannot be happy in spite of our difficulties, what good is our spiritual practice?” The promise of our faith is that reading our Scriptures helps form these qualities in us, helps us live more authentically and joyfully even amidst life’s challenges and difficulties. Two other quotes help me answer the question of “why?” Franz Kafka: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” I think the New Testament has that potential, the potential to break us open so that our hearts can be more loving and our spirits more creative. Eugene Peterson, in the introduction to his translation of the Bible, The Message: “You are going to hear stories in this Book that will take you out of your preoccupation with yourself and into the spacious freedom in which God is working the world’s salvation. You are going to come across words and sentences that stab you awake to a beauty and hope that will connect you with your real life.”

How: These are some pretty weighty hopes. Are there ways we can read the New Testament that increase our chances of having it make a difference in our lives? I think there are. Many times we read to be informed, and many have brought that attitude to reading the New Testament. It has its place and in my writings on the New Testament over the coming year, I will provide information about the books, their settings and authors. All that is well and good and interesting. The problem is that we can get caught up in that kind of reading and stop there. I encourage you to move beyond information questions to formation questions. Bring your mind, heart and imagination to your reading. Ask questions, not just about information, but about formation. How is this text inviting me to think differently about my life? How is it inviting me to live differently? In his introduction to a translation of the Buddhist Scripture The Dhammapada, Jack Kornfield writes: “One page, one verse alone has the power to change your life. Do not merely read these words but take them in slowly, savor them. Let your understanding grow. Seeing what is true, put these words into practice.” I could not say it better as one approaches reading the New Testament. I would only add an invitation. Read prayerfully. Perhaps you could begin your reading with a simple prayer. “God, may I grow in faith, hope and love – love for others, love for the world, love for myself – as I read.”

Let’s begin.