Tag Archives: Bible study

No Agenda Required

Most people I know believe that they should read the Bible and pray more than they do. Even though I don’t really know the challenges of their daily lives, I know the challenges of mine, and I am pretty sure they are right. It isn’t always easy to “work in” time for private, intimate worship and study.

Still, the other thing people seem generally to believe is that they need a plan. They should have a guide for reading the Bible, or they should know more about how to pray before they begin. They can’t start reading the Bible and praying regularly, because they don’t know what to read or what to pray about. On this issue, I know they are wrong. You can read the Bible without a plan, the same way you read a newspaper or a novel. You can pray without a plan, the same way you have a conversation with the person you love most. These experiences will be good for you. They will help you grow into deeper faith and maturity. You do not need a plan.

To say that is not to say that plans are bad or unnecessary. It depends on a lot of things. Where are you in your faith? Where do you want to go with God? How on earth will you shoehorn into your day even one more thing? There is nothing wrong with plans or agendas, but if the lack of one keeps you from doing anything at all, that is a problem. If you don’t read the Bible or pray with any regularity today, and if you think you really want to grow in faith, and if you think that reading the Bible and praying is important to that growth, then a plan is not what you need first.

The first thing you need is five minutes. Five unimpeded, uninterrupted, absolutely committed minutes.

If you don’t have five minutes for Bible reading and prayer, then no plan or agenda is going to change that situation. I submit for your consideration this question: How can you ever follow any plan at all if you can’t even set aside five minutes for Bible reading and prayer? There is no cosmic barrier to your growth in faith. The barrier is a little five-minute appointment with God.

Just five minutes.

If you think exercise is important, you surely set aside time for that work. I doubt you think five minutes is enough exercise to have any good effect on you. If you think weight management is important, you probably spend more than five minutes a day thinking about what you eat and whether it is or is not good for you. It is doubtful that anything important in your day takes less than five minutes. Yet, five minutes for Bible reading and prayer could change your life.

I speak from experience. In the year 2000 my life took a dramatic turn. I became a consultant, and I began to travel to customer sites every Monday morning, returning each Thursday or Friday to my home. I worked at least 12 hours per day on project tasks, and I had a heavy load of continuous professional education and administrative work related to my business. My days were full to overflowing. On weekends I tried to do all the things I might have done in my spare time during the week if I had been home. I tried used my time catching up with my husband, worshiping at church, visiting with family and friends, and trying to put my house in order. It was a huge life change.

Along with that life change came the perception that this change had the potential to fracture my marriage, even though my husband and I had both agreed that this decision was the best way to reach some very important goals we shared. I worried that the frenzy of this life and the stress of separation would fray our relationship. I worried that either or both of us would start to think like separate individuals instead of like the two who had become one in our marriage. I felt that without God’s help, all our hopes and dreams could fall apart under the stress of all these changes. I thought I needed to make yet one more change at this particular time.

I found five minutes.

I decided that every morning, as soon as I had a cup of coffee in my hand, I would take five minutes for Bible reading and prayer. I told myself that even reading a couple of verses and praying two sentences would at least sustain my commitment to God. I wanted his help to keep our family strong during this very stressful time.

I spent five minutes each morning doing two things. I read two verses in the Bible. I prayed about whatever those two verses inspired. I asked God to help sustain my marriage.

Today I spend a lot more than five minutes a day in Bible reading and prayer. That’s a good thing. I have grown in many ways since the first day I sat down to read my two verses and say a prayer that didn’t amount to much more than “Help me, help me, help me.” Anne LaMotte says there are really only two kinds of prayer. This is one. The other is “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” As I slowly matured in my ability to spend five minutes with God every day, I occasionally had reason to pray the “thank you” prayer as well. I grew in faith, and I grew in my commitment, but it all started with only five minutes.

You have five minutes.

You only need to decide that you will without fail set aside five minutes, with or without a cup of coffee, to be with God. You will take five minutes to listen and to speak with the One Jesus taught us to address as “Our father who art in heaven.” Five minutes. You will be surprised what happens. I can’t predict how it will develop for you. I can only tell you that for me, it became a safe haven in each day that I did not want to miss. At first it was a pain to remember it. I had to devise various ways to assure that I didn’t forget. Now it is much easier, but make no mistake, The evil one does not want you to spend even five minutes in rich communion with God. It will never be a done deal. But it is worth the battle.

You have five minutes somewhere. You know you do. Just do it. Let me know how it goes.

 

 

Plagiarized Prayer

There is another approach to Bible study that is so tightly integrated with prayer that I don’t know what to call it. It absolutely energizes my prayers and often points me to either blessings or problems I have been ignoring. I call it plagiarized prayer. You can call it something else if that word feels uncomfortable.

I came upon this idea many years ago when I read a novel the name of which escapes me now. It was about a man who suddenly and inexplicably began to take the Bible seriously. When a problem in the city required his testimony in court, he took the oath every witness takes, “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Then he did exactly that. He amazed himself and everyone else. He put the name of Jesus in front of a community. People began to care for one another in amazing ways. It all began with a plagiarized prayer. (I wish I could remember the name of this book. Does it ring bells with anyone?)

I plagiarize a prayer by putting my own name in it. Here is an example.

Read Philippians 1:9-11

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Now, insert your own name in every possible location in this prayer. Make it a prayer that is all about you.

And this is my prayer, that Katherine’s love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help Katherine to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ Katherine may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

This is a prayer that motivates. The Apostle Paul prayed this prayer for the church at Philippi, where one of my favorite Bible characters lived. Lydia was already a spiritual leader when Paul arrived, and she was among the first people who heard him and met Christ and started the church. When this letter came back after Paul had left, Lydia was among the people for whom Paul was praying.

I see my own name in this prayer, and I think first of Lydia. When she heard this prayer read in church, she must have asked herself how she could grow in knowledge and insight. Somebody needed to do that, because a church without mature leaders will flounder. She had no church history to teach her about that problem, but I do. How, I ask myself, will my church thrive if I fail to grow in knowledge and insight? What will God ask of me if I do grow?

Oh, the answer is that I will be able to determine what is best. That is the point of growing – to become able to discern the best. The best for my church, the best for my family, the best for my country? What? Well, I may need to do some growing before I see where God will have me use my gift of seeing good choices and good strategies and wise words. This is huge. This is not the sort of prayer I pray once and move on. I may need to dwell in this prayer for a few days.

The prayer continues. I want to know what is best and make the best decisions because I want to be ready for Christ’s return. It is like the story Jesus told about people being ready for the return of their master. He wanted to find them busy about the work he had given them, not dawdling and napping and taking advantage of each other. Or the one about the foolish maidens who failed to have oil to light their lamps when the bridegroom arrived. When I know what is best and do what is best, then I will be busy about the work Christ wants me to do. I will be ready for him to appear at any time. He will be pleased with me, and I certainly want that.

The prayer concludes. It isn’t really all about me. The point of it all is a harvest of righteousness that points people to God. If I am doing what Christ calls me to do, I will inspire people to praise and glorify God. I can’t expect a Nobel Prize or a big appreciation dinner at church. I can expect what Paul received – stonings, beatings, imprisonment, shipwreck and curses. When God called Paul to do the work he was created for, God told Ananias to tell Paul that he would have to suffer for Christ. I feel confident that if I actually mature in faith and choose what is best and serve Christ to the glory of God, then I can expect suffering and sorrow along the way, too. It won’t all be victory parades.

So I need to live in this prayer. I need to examine what it means to have knowledge and discernment, two very different things. I need to learn how to grow up and become an adult servant of Christ, eating the meat of the word, having moved past milk and pablum.

Putting my own name into this prayer makes it personal, but amazingly, the prayer is less about me than most of my prayers. This prayer is not “I,” “me” “mine.” Rather it points me at all times to Christ and to the great commandments to love and serve God and to love and serve people.

Try putting your name into a prayer, and see where it leads your Bible study. As you meditate, I recommend you write down the things you discover. They may lead you to look up words and check out cross-references and commentaries, in other words, they may lead you to do some research. That is how you will grow in knowledge. Immersed in prayer is the very best way to research the Bible in order that your study opens your heart to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.

We All Need To Study The Bible

I have friends who tell me that they really want to study the Bible, but they don’t have time. Or they don’t have a place to do it. Or they don’t have any reference books for it. Or they have tried and they don’t understand it. I can’t argue with any of these explanations, but I can tell everyone the same thing: we all need to study the Bible.

The reason we need it is that life is terribly messy. If you think it is hard to understand the Bible sometimes, I can’t dispute your experience. However, I am sure that you think life is hard to understand sometimes, too, but you don’t opt out. In fact, I will hypothesize that if you made time to study the Bible, you would almost certainly get a better grip on life.

Notice that I don’t use the word “read” the Bible. I do that on purpose. You can’t study it without reading it, but you can read it without studying it. I use the word “study” because we need to read the Bible with the intention of learning and growing. There are all sorts of ways to do that, and today I will describe one of them. Yesterday I explained the TRIP method. Today I will introduce lectio divina.

Lectio divina is a Latin term which means “divine reading.” I use the Latin term instead of an English translation, because this approach to Bible study has its roots in the era when Latin was the language of the church. This method was first devised as a way for a group of people to study together in a formal way. That is the origin of this practice. However, it can be a lovely way to study the Bible all by yourself.

I recommend that you record your thoughts in a notebook during this process. There is something about writing down your thoughts that inspires more critical and attentive study. The Holy Spirit can use your writing to teach you things you did not think you knew. But even if you don’t choose to journal, lectio divina provides a form and discipline that can lead you to grow in deeper faith and the practice of your faith.

The method of lectio divina is simple:

  • Read a passage and think about it
  • Read the passage again and think about it
  • Read the passage again and pray about it

This is the high level explanation of lectio divina. Let’s dig deeper.

First, choose a passage. You can use the Daily Texts as selected by the Moravian Church and published annually by Mount Carmel Ministries. (By the way, I don’t get any commission for talking about this book so much. I just love it. I have used it for more than ten years. It is the backbone of my own daily devotions. Click here to visit the site. ) You can use some other reading plan. You can choose a book of the Bible and read it by chapters or smaller passages. Any choice is fine. I do recommend that the passage be not more than six or seven verses and reasonably confined to one topic, but you can set your own standards.

Second, pray for understanding. All Bible study must be immersed in prayer. When Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come, he said that the Spirit would lead us into truth. We need to be sensitive to the presence and the guidance of the Holy Spirit when we study the Bible. We have a Bible, because the Holy Spirit inspired the writers and acted through many people over thousands of years to preserve the texts. The Bible is the work of the Holy Spirit, and we need his guidance to understand it.

Then begin the process of lectio divina.

  • The first reading:

    You may read the passage more than once. As you read, listen for a word or phrase that speaks to you. Don’t be too critical. Listen with your heart as the Holy Spirit guides. Don’t choose a word. Rather, listen for a word. You want to hear God’s word to you, not to choose some word for technical analysis.

    If you are journaling, write down the word or phrase and any thoughts that arise from your understanding that this is God’s word to you. Some of your thoughts may be questions you cannot immediately answer. That is fine. Just write them down and come back later to deal with them.

  • The second reading:

    Again, you may read the passage more than once. As you read, listen for God’s invitation to you. Remember, your objective is to hear God’s invitation, not to try to figure out what it might be. As you read, listen with your heart. Let the indwelling Holy Spirit invite you to action or contemplation or commitment.

    If you are journaling, write down this invitation and your thoughts about it. Would it be hard for you to respond to this invitation? Does it seem like a strange invitation? Does it make you laugh, or cry, or ??? Be honest with yourself in your reactions to it. Be honest with God.

  • The third reading:

    Read the passage, maybe more than once. Now it is time to pray for help in living out God’s invitation and guidance.

    If you are journaling, the process of writing your prayer can be a time of great catharsis, or vision, or even confusion. Pray honestly. Use normal words, not “holy” words. Talk with God the way you talk with any good friend. Get things out on the table and name them. Listen. Listen. Listen.

The process of lectio divina is very simple, but it can help you to discover some profound truths.

You may have been wondering when I would get around to talking about dictionaries and commentaries. After all, don’t people need such things in order to understand the Bible?

Yes, they do. And No, they don’t.

When Martin Luther was translating the Bible into German, his goal was to get it into the hands of people so they could read it for themselves. He knew that the Bible was simple enough for anyone to read and understand. The lesson to “love your neighbor as yourself” is pretty simple. Any three-year-old can immediately comprehend that lesson. Living it is quite another matter.

Martin Luther never expected that the common people of Germany would have libraries of study aids for the Bible; he simply hoped that each one could have a Bible and read it. His advice to everyone was not to worry about any parts that were hard to understand. There was plenty of material that was clear and simple for all. The real challenge, after all, was to live like Christ, and there was plenty of guidance on that subject that did not require post-graduate education.

However, study aids are wonderful to use after you have become committed to study. The first reason to study the Bible is to grow your relationship with Christ, and as you grow and mature in your faith, you will certainly want to study more and more deeply in the truths of the Bible. Then you should acquire Bible dictionaries, commentaries and so forth. These study aids are all wonderful and enlightening and even inspirational. None of them, however, must be permitted to pre-empt the place of the Bible in your study.

If you don’t have a commitment to study the Bible and pray every day, that is the thing you need to develop. If you have a Bible and you decide to study it, then you have all the equipment you need to start growing in faith. Don’t burden yourself with some worry that you don’t understand everything you read. Worry that you don’t live what you do understand.

Think about this: Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” If you could read that sentence in koine’ Greek or in Aramaic, it would be a wonderful thing, but it would not help you to love people who treat you like dirt. In the plain English translation, those words set up a standard for daily life that is pretty hard to achieve. When someone calls you a dimwit Bible-thumping hillbilly, because you trust Christ and are not ashamed to say so, it is very hard to respond with love. That challenge is daunting enough for most of us.

Do not defeat your own desire to study the Bible by making it harder than it has to be. Let the Holy Spirit nourish your faith and help you make the time. The blessing you experience as a result will be carrot enough to bring you back the next day.

TRIP At Last

TRIP at last

I think I promised to explain the TRIP method for Bible study. Here goes.

The TRIP method was first explained to me in the book Daily Texts published annually by Mount Carmel Ministries. They borrowed their idea from Martin Luther. I somewhat modified their idea as I grew in study. Feel free to try it and revise it to fit your needs.

After I had spent most of a year simply reading and meditating in no particular form on the texts for each day, I decided to try the TRIP method. This method emphasizes an important truth about Bible study: Bible study is integrally related to prayer. You really can’t do one without the other. They belong together. They are two disciplines, but like the chicken and the egg, it is quite difficult to discern which comes first. The TRIP method incorporates them into one process.

You can read any text and use the TRIP method, although it would be best to use it for a relatively concise text. A long rambling story might be difficult to analyze and filter with this method, although it could certainly be done. You begin by simply reading the text, and you may want to read it more than once. Then you ask yourself four simple questions:

  • What in this text makes me feel thankful?
  • What in this text calls me to repentance?
  • What am I motivated to pray for after reading this text?
  • What do I plan to do today about what I have learned in this text?

The TRIP method is easy to remember:

  • T – THANKSGIVING
  • R – REPENTANCE
  • I – INTERCESSION
  • P – PROMISE (or PLAN)

I am an inveterate journaler, so I use a small notebook to write down my answers to the simple questions. Here is what a day’s journal entry might look like:

* * * * *

The texts: Proverbs 37:8, James 1:19

You can write out the texts if you think that will help you study and meditate on them, or you can simply note the reference. I have done it both ways. For this sample, I write the text to prevent the need for you to look it up.

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret – it only leads to evil. Proverbs 37:8

Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. James 1:19

T – Thanksgiving

I am very thankful for this reminder that angry outbursts accomplish nothing good. I have a quick temper, and when I feel frustrated, it often bursts out against the very person I love most. Often we are both upset by the same circumstances, and hateful words only make things worse. I am also grateful that with the warning comes the solution – listening. Whenever I am patient enough to listen instead of blurting out my anger, the situation always improves. I need this reminder. (I happened upon this reading the day after a key engine part on our boat failed to work, and we were stuck buying a new one while in a foreign country. Yup. I was angry.)

R – Repentance

It is easy to see what I need to repent of. I need to ask God and my husband to forgive me for shouting and pouting. That is no way to treat someone I love who is in the same boat – quite literally – as I. We have a problem. We don’t need to rag on each other about it. We need to help each other. Solving this problem will not be easy. I am very sorry I spouted off in anger yesterday.

I – Intercession

I need to confess my sin to God and ask his forgiveness. I need to do the same with my husband. I’m using the word sin advisedly. Worshiping self is the major sin of all humans, and until I topple SELF off the throne of my heart, I will continue to feel entitled to be angry about the way this situation is a big pain. O Heavenly Father, please forgive my hasty, angry words, and please put it in my husband’s heart to forgive me as well.

P – Promise

I like to use the word “promise” instead of “plan” because I want to be committed to do it. I promise that today I will listen attentively to God and to my husband as we work through the solution to our problem. Make me a servant listener. May my listening spirit be inspired to serve God and to serve people more faithfully today and into the future instead of focusing on my ego and the way it feels.

So, that is a TRIP Bible study and prayer. As you can see, prayer is interwoven into even this very simple Bible study method. Prayer is crucial, because when we study the Bible, we are not trying to learn a lot of intellectual things. We will certainly improve the intellect by Bible study, but that work is pointless unless it changes us into more faithful disciples. Knowing God’s teaching about anger is completely useless unless I recognize that I need to learn how to manage my anger and stop worshiping my own world view. Bible study and prayer, or prayer and Bible study. The two interlaced disciplines open us to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, and that is the real point of it all. It can be a real TRIP!

Why Don’t You Have Time to Read the Bible?

A lot of my friends accuse me of inappropriate pressure when I suggest that they should take time for Bible study and prayer. They say that I am retired, and of course I have time for such extras as Bible study and prayer. You may feel the same way. Maybe your life seems very hectic and maybe you think you already have enough demands on your time. You don’t need another thing on your daily schedule.

It is true that I am retired today, but I haven’t always been retired. I worked at some very hectic jobs along the way. I reared two children. I attended meetings, took night classes, failed to keep my laundry or housecleaning done to my mother’s standards, and yearned to read the latest breakout novel. I know what it is to think there is no more time.

Yet I observe that everyone makes time for the things that seem important. Just as people find money for the important things. If parents believe that a child has musical talent, they will find money for piano lessons and make time to drive the child back and forth. They will listen to practice sessions while making supper and they won’t complain that the recital falls on the very same Sunday afternoon as a playoff game. People make room for the things that rise to the top of the priorities in their lives.

When I was working, I had one job in which I traveled 100%. I got up at 4:00 AM on Monday mornings, even if it was raining or even if it was only 15 degrees Fahrenheit, because I had to be at the airport by 5:30AM in order to get through security and catch the first plane out. I got up even earlier if my plane left at 6:15AM. That was the way things were. I worked long days on that job, often 12 hours or more. I worked every business day of the week, and sometimes on the weekends. I was expected to put in not less than 40 hours on the projects to which I was assigned, and I was expected to be active in continuing education and personal professional development on top of those project hours. It was a challenging life.

Yet all those years, I rarely failed to start my day with Bible study and prayer. I won’t try to sound like someone who never failed in my personal devotional discipline. I am an imperfect human. I am not a machine. Sometimes I fail. But the failures were intermittent. My daily routine started with coffee, Bible study and prayer. Sometimes I had an hour for those purposes, and sometimes it was less, but always there was some time. I had time, because I made time.

My work in the area of technical support was a 24-hour responsibility. I was subject to be called or even scheduled to work at 2AM just as surely as I might be scheduled for a project meeting at 2PM, and those two responsibilities might both come on the same day. I had to make my time for work and protect my life and health without failing in my responsibilities. Yet every day, there was time for prayer and Bible study.

I am not an exceptional person. I simply have a priority. I think Bible study and prayer are important. I think I can’t live successfully without making time for these personal disciplines. In blogs yet to come I will explain myself, but today I simply want to say that you have time for whatever is important to you. When you look at yourself, you will see immediately that you make time when you need time. You may feel guilty about your priorities and you may try to keep a low profile about the way you use discretionary time. You probably feel that this issue is none of my business, and you are right.

How you use your time is completely your business. You are not accountable to me or to anyone else’s judgment of your priorities. However, I hear people express regrets that they do not know God well, or that they don’t have any peace or that they wish they had time for prayer and Bible study. I hear the regrets, but when I suggest that it is worthwhile to make time for Bible study and prayer, I am almost always accused of not understanding how busy everyone is.

Everybody is busy, and one of the biggest problems most people want to solve is how to do the important things and not feel burdened by all the other undone things. People need to feel that they are doing the right things and living the right way and acting with honor and integrity. There is a way to feel that way about life, and it starts with Bible study and prayer.

There were years in which I got up at 4AM every day, whether I had a plane to catch or not, because that was the only way for me to have time for Bible study and prayer. That discipline was hard. Sometimes it seemed quite unpleasant, and I bribed myself to stick with it by making sure I got the coffee going right away. But the most important result was a reassuring peace and a sense of the presence of God in every day that only grew more beautiful and more reassuring over the years. Today I am retired and my days are my own, more or less, but it is just as easy for a retiree to let the discipline slip as it is for anyone else. I still need to be committed to that time or it does not happen. I must make the time, or I don’t have the time. I do it, not because I am retired and it is easy, but rather I do it, because it is worth doing.