Integrating Faith

Having spent most of my life in Iowa, moving to Texas at the end of last year has given me the opportunity to experience some different ways in which people live. I truly have enjoyed these new experiences and you can read more about them on my other blog. One of these experiences has been the openness about the sharing of faith. I realize that Texas is considered part of the Bible belt but I really did not fully understand what that meant. There is seldom a visit to a nearby Starbucks when I do not overhear a conversation regarding personal faith or a specific congregation. Many people come into the Starbucks carrying a Bible.

As I sat in Starbucks doing some research last week, two people were sitting at a table next to me. They were discussing which version of the Bible was their favorite. Then a man carrying two Bibles walked in the door, searching for the person he was supposed to meet. I began thinking about this openness and how I felt about it. Having grown up in Iowa, my experience with faith is that it was not something people shared publicly often. I seldom encountered people carrying Bibles into Starbucks and rarely heard conversations of faith.

Whenever I have had the opportunity to learn about another person’s faith, whether the person is a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or even someone who states they have no faith, I have enjoyed listening and learning from them. One result of this is that it makes me very mindful that not everyone believes what I believe. I have also learned that there are different understandings and practices in relation to the manner in which someone lives out what they believe. I was thinking a lot about these things when I was sitting in the Starbucks last week.

I admit that I had a reaction to the conversation which I heard and the man walking in with two Bibles under his arm. My reaction took me a little by surprise since it was a negative reaction. I thought to myself how it appeared that these individuals were forcing their faith on to me. Even though none of these individuals said a word to me, I had this immediate reaction. My question then was why I would react in such a way since I am a Christian and am not ashamed of my faith. The conclusion to which I came was this amount of openness was an experience which I had not had while growing up.

Another thought that entered my mind is how a non-Christian feels when she or he experiences a similar situation. Are they offended by such an outward demonstration of the Christian faith? Does the person feel uncomfortable? What I described here is definitely not an aggressive action taken by anyone. There was no attempt at proselytizing anyone. No one made derogatory comments to me, in fact, none of the people who I mentioned even said a word to me. Yet, I still wonder how I would feel if I were not Christian and I experienced this regularly.

As I have thought more about all this throughout the week, I realized that at one level it is refreshing to be in an area where people have no concern regarding speaking to one another about their faith. I do not believe any of these people were trying to flaunt their faith but instead were making it a normal part of their everyday life, even in Starbucks. I also determined that I would want a Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, or anyone else to feel comfortable to do the same. Everyone should have the freedom to integrate their faith into as much of their day in a manner they choose.

My first negative reaction to this new experience came out of a sense that someone was trying to shove their faith into my face. I was concerned about how it might also offend others who may not be Christians. Now I realize that not only was that not the intent of the people who I encountered but instead that I might actually have learned something from them on this day. I need to be more willing to integrate my faith even into trips to Starbucks. I will continue to be sensitive to those around me but I need to do a better job of not compartmentalizing my faith. While I may not carry a Bible around with me everywhere I go, I can still demonstrate my faith in my actions and words.

Lack of Language

This blog post is a continuation of the series which I began last week. The series is intended to give reasons which I believe cause people to say the church no longer works for them. Here are the earlier posts in the series:

Why Does Church No Longer Work

Lack of Authenticity

Lack of Relationships

Today, I am presenting the case that a lack of language is a reason which leads to the church no longer working in people’s lives. Let me be clear, the church uses a lot of words. However, those words are usually very difficult for people to understand unless they have had some training or education into the language of the church.

When I talk with people, I often hear them say that they feel they do not truly understand a lot of the words and terms which we use in the church. Most of these come from centuries long ago. They are not words which we use in everyday speaking. Some words have crossed over into discussions outside of the church but the understandings associated with them are very skewed or do not reflect the original intent of the word.

The late Eugene Petersen understood this was an issue over thirty years ago. In1993 he released a copy of The Message – New Testament. Petersen’s goal was to take the Bible and translate it into words that people of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century were using. Over the next nine years he would release the Old Testament translation in two sections and eventually the two Testaments together in one volume. Eugene Petersen understood that it was important for people to read the Bible in a language that made sense to them. Not a new idea since that is exactly what happened during the Protestant Reformation.

The language in which someone can read the Bible is an important piece but it cannot be the only piece. How many times do we use words such as grace, redemption, trinity, forgiveness, salvation, sin, atonement, unconditional love, or hope, yet never explain what we mean by them. What about the words we use in the building: narthex, sacristy, nave, sanctuary, altar, table, pulpit, lectern, or chalice. Again, words that we do not explain and assume everyone knows what we are talking about. The language of the church can be like a foreign language to individuals.

We need to take an example for Eugene Petersen. The church needs to translate its words into the language of today. Where an equivalent cannot be found, explanation and teaching is in order. Where we can use today’s words to describe a concept or aspect of our church space, then we need use today’s words and not the words of the sixteenth century.

Unfortunately, too many in the church seem to adopt the attitude that if a person wishes to be part of our fellowship, they need to learn the language. We expect change on the part of the individual. The problem with this view is that it presents a dividing of those who are in (the one’s who can speak the language) and those who are out (the one’s who have no understanding of the language). The bigger problem is that a large number will choose not to even attempt to learn this foreign language but instead walk out the door and find a place where they can understand what people are saying.

Word By Word

A variety of writing types are available for one to read. Each writing and book has its own purpose. Textbooks are intended to communicate knowledge to those seeking to gain insights into a particular field, skill, or set of facts. Volumes from throughout the ages contain poetry which are intended to inspire, comfort, encourage, or unleash creative thought. Other books are fictional in nature which paint stories for a reader to follow. Fictional books are intended to be for entertainment or relaxation. Some books actually contain elements of more than one of these genres. A book which contains more than one of these genres listed above is the Bible.

Within the Bible are historical facts and events. Some portions which give insights. Poetry and imagery is scattered throughout this book. Words of encouragement, comfort and inspiration are shared at various locations. You will discover stories that entertain, teach, and inspire. These wonderful elements written by different individuals over thousands of years are assembled in a book which we now call the Bible. The question is, what do you do with this book?

Some individuals have made an attempt to use the Bible as a history book. Others have chosen to look at this book as a rule book. Still other people see the Bible as just a group of fictional stories written by ancient people who were trying to explain the world which they experienced without any factual or scientific understanding. I would argue that the Bible was intended to tell the story of God, God’s people, and the world God created.

Here are some important realities which must impact our approach to the Bible:

  • Most of the writings included in the Bible began as oral stories passed from one generation to the next.
  • Writings are by multiple authors who lived in a variety of times and locations.
  • The cultures from which the stories and authors originated are in most cases not the same as your own but shape the way the stories, events and thoughts are communicated.
  • The original languages of the writings which we inherit are Greek and Hebrew, not English.
  • A fair number of Hebrew and Greek words do not have English equivalents.
  • Symbolism is frequent throughout the Bible.
  • Interpretation of meaning depends upon the interpreter.
  • Duplication of the writings before the printing press depended on a reader and a gathering of scribes who tried to write down what they heard read.
  • Edits of the texts have occurred from the beginning of sharing these stories.
  • The decision of which writings would be included in the canonized Bible was constituted by a group of humans.
  • While the writings were inspired by God, humans wrote them.

If you combine the different forms of writing along with the realities which I have listed, a great disservice is done to the Bible by anyone who would choose a literal interpretation approach when engaging with this book. Instead, the best approach is to look at a passage and seek the major meaning within that passage. Asking questions like,

“What are the key concepts presented here?”

“How might the people of that time understand this passage?”

“What is the overarching message here?”

are helpful. Doing a little research into the historical setting and the cultural background of the ideas will aid a person who wishes to place the passage in the correct context. Then you are able to find the connections with your own context.

The Bible was intended to give insight, not to be the sole source of understanding our relationship with God and each other. When you interact with all the elements of the Bible, you find it to be an enriching and a wonderful guide to deeper relationships. Do not take each word at face value or you will lose the true beauty of this book.