God’s Story

A Kitchen of Feasting and Prayer

Setting up the kitchen has been one the most telling tasks so far of the work that will go into weaving together several lives, past and present, into a home.

Of course, my parents and I had a working kitchen over the past decade. Cupboards were filled with dishes and the pantry with food. In fact, we had two sets of dishes, one of 16 settings so we could host large groups. But once my mother passed and this space was to be my home in a new way, it was time to actively create a new space. Six boxes from an apartment sat in the garage, holding items from an earlier kitchen and dreams of living on my own. Items I hadn’t seen for over a decade. Each drawer in the kitchen contained memories of cooking with my mother. Now I had to merge the two. So, I invited a friend over to help me decide.

Did I need eight pie plates? No.

Two waffle irons? No

Seven aprons? Well, maybe.

At first it took awhile as I commented on a jelly pottery jar (in the shape of a bunch of grapes) that a friend of my mom’s made over forty years ago. Or, as I decided which of four dish sets I would keep. But eventually we hit a rhythm and just worked through the boxes and cabinets. I felt an active letting go of the past, along with a hope for meals with friends and family in the coming weeks and months.

Through this process life continued. It wasn’t about trying to retain what had been lost. It was about keeping this space as a place of living relationships. I was thinking about inviting over students and friends so I could make use of these pots and pans – and even the pie plates. I wanted toshare the feast of living with those who visit.

In the work of melding these stories and spending time with a friend, it was also a type of prayer. Of recognizing ongoing life that is not ours grasp, but to celebrate.

Recently I encountered George Herbert’s poem Prayer (I) that lists a multitude of images for prayer – starting with “the church’s banquet”.

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
-Prayer (I), George Herbert

As prayer itself is described as a banquet, manna, land of spices, I’m also seeing how a banquet and the enjoyment of a meal may be a form of prayer as friends gather around God’s daily bread.

Stepping into this reworked kitchen, I can only hope that my actions in it will be a prayer, a small part of the church’s banquet. That the cooking and baking here will celebrate the gracious gifts of the Father, that I will see Christ in the people served around the table, and that the Spirit of God, a spirit of Shalom, will invade the space.

IMG_3412Last weekend I had the privilege of hosting a group of former graduate students around the table and continuing this prayer. I used Pyrex bowls and steel measuring spoons that had prepared many meals before and new white and cobalt blue dishes that were seeing their first dinner party. A favorite recipe from an aunt and ones I found just last week. These kitchen items and the food they helped prepare and serve, provided the basis for a type of prayer – communication with God in the presence of friends as people reconnected and celebrated new life, new jobs, and voiced concerns.

It was a grace-filled image of what this home can become.

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A Fitting Story

IMG_3409Several years ago I spent a day at the mall with a friend who was teaching me how to select the best fitting clothes. It was a long and draining day of trying on dozens of jeans and t-shirts to see what sizes and styles worked on me. By the end, though, I felt renewed. I hadn’t been aware the difference the proper size could make in how I looked and felt.

These past weeks and even months I’ve found myself in another ill-fitting dilemma. This time with stories instead of clothes. Just as I used to hurriedly buy clothes so I could finish this chore I disliked greatly, I’ve attempted to inhabit several ill-fitting stories because work needs to get done: organizing property care projects at church; fundraising for ministry; and serving as my mom’s estate executor. So, I’m barreling my way through them not really thinking through the larger implications of the processes I’m using and my attitude.

Because these tasks are unfamiliar, it’s easy to pick an off-the-rack program and try to make it work. It’s been done and tested, right? Once I get through these tasks then I can get on with my real work. But slowly, those ill-fitting stories become the way I work and I lose my own style and the idealized ‘real work’ fades away. Sometimes the stories fit, but many times they just are not right and I’m left with a process that is too tight and doesn’t look like me at all.

Teachers, ministers, counselors, and writers are in the story business – helping others to understand the story of their lives as they find meaning behind the moment to moment details. As I’ve been thinking about my role in this work as a campus minister, I realize that I am tempted to tell others their story, or the one I think they should be following. I want to take the same jacket and put it on everyone, forgetting how uncomfortable that has been for me.

Recently I finished reading Eugene Peterson’s, Under the Unpredictable Plant that explores the vocation of pastor – not as the manager of an organization but as the pray-er and poet of the congregation. One who is interceding, resting on God for all work and the one who is in the midst of point out the poetry in the life of the church. Peterson sees Jesus’ gospel worked out in the lives of the people – not something that they need to have clamped down on them in the form of church programming or commanded disciplines, but something into which they can live and through which the Spirit is already working.

Thinking about the work of Christian ministry in this way, I realized that I can continue to struggle to fit into the clothes that others hand me or become frustrated with the inability of individuals to live in the story I designed for them. Or, I can stop. Take time to pray and enter God’s dwelling place to be changed. As Peterson reminds us, “Prayer rescues us from a preoccupation with ourselves and pulls us into adoration of and pilgrimage to God.” This is a first step of living a story that fits, to stop looking at myself and focus on God.

With this focus, it’s then possible to stop taking on responsibilities of living someone else’s narrative or trying to squeeze them into mine. I can see how God is working already, he is in these lives. As Peterson changed the focus of his ministry he describes how he “wanted to see the Jesus story in each person in my congregation with as much local detail and raw experience as James Joyce did with the Ulysses story in the person of Leopold Bloom and his Dublin friends and neighbors.” What would it look like to do this? To see the stories that truly fit each person.

Working in campus ministry, there is a truth that I do share the same jacket with everyone – God’s story, the Good News. However, this story is not one-size fits all in that everyone will look and act the same on the outside. Instead, its one size allows each person in their unique, God-created image, to live out this story. As Paul pleads for the Colossians to “. . . put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (3:10), we too are invited to put on this new self, our new clothes, our new stories. As Christ fits himself in our lives, the individual stories become more evident. Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses this beautifully in the familiar poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

It’s this new self that needs to be put on – a self dependent on Jesus Christ. Selves that, though grounded in the same story, reveal a myriad of images and fit well.

As I look again at the tasks before me, I’m seeking to find better ways to get them done. It’s not about trying to fit into a new program or another person’s expectations, but listening to and being part of the living story of Christ that is unfolding in my life and within the communities in which I am part. It may take time to try different ways of working out these responsibilities. But if my focus is on God, I believe I will find a better fit in the end. Who knows, maybe I’ll even find a spark of joy in the work I’ve been dreading.

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Holy Scriptures and Authority

Holy Scriptures II, by George Herbert

OH that I knew how all thy lights combine,
            And the configurations of their glorie!
             Seeing not onely how each verse doth shine,
But all the constellations of the storie.
This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
             Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie:
             Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,
These three make up some Christians destinie:
Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,
             And comments on thee: for in ev’ry thing
             Thy words do finde me out, & parallels bring,
And in another make me understood.
              Starres are poore books, & oftentimes do misse:
             This book of starres lights to eternall blisse.

 

In this poem Herbert implicitly compares the authority of stars – and their associated study – with that of scripture; and the stars don’t fare well.  For him there is no doubt that holy scripture is the touchstone of life that ‘lights to eternall blisse’.  Yet, this implicit trust in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible is not a given today even among Christians.

Where does the authority of any text come from?  One response is likely to be the author (from Latin – auctor(author, founder, originator), auctoritat (power, decision)).  If the author is an expert in the subject, uses reliable sources, writes truthfully, and has reputable colleagues, then people are likely to view the book as authoritative or at least willing to test it out.  When George Herbert penned this poem his authority came from his life as a parish priest in Bemerton, his knowledge of the English language, and a degree from Cambridge – a combination of external and internal sources.

Questions about authority don’t often arise in relation to a poem – unless it has to do with whether or not the state author actually composed the poem.  Yet, when we encounter something that is historical, scientific, or that may ask us take a position, there is a greater desire to understand the authority behind the text.  Who should we trust?  Political writings that skew statistics in order to denigrate the other side, memoirs that fictionalize a story presented as actually occurring, or historical writings and assumptions that are being constantly revised make us more wary of the trustworthiness of other writings.

The Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, Modern, and Post-Modern eras with the growth of scientific inquiry, industrial progress, historical research, and reliance on human reason has prompted many questions about the authority of once revered texts.  Nothing is to be assumed or taken for granted.  Does the essential meaning of a text come from the one who writes it or from the reader who is interpreting it?  Does the one who puts pen to paper or fingers to keys really define the author of the text?  Can a text claim to have authority any more as post-modern critical methods rip away the foundations of trust?  What does it mean for something to be true?

The discipline of literary criticism has have been discussing the idea of textual authority for decades whether it’s Michel Foucault’s asking what is an author, Harold Bloom exploring the anxiety of influence, Stanley Fish wondering what makes a text, or Elaine Showalter looking at the authority of male versus female writings.  These methods have bled into other disciplines.  With its historical and cultural importance, the Bible has not been exempted from, and has often been at the center of this questioning.

In 1633 when Herbert penned this poem, questioning of the Bible’s authority had already started and has continued such that the introduction to his poems in one anthology asserts that people continue to study his poems even though the common belief in biblical authority is now gone. It can be easy to be swept up into the view of scripture as yet another text to question like all the others.  That is, we must prove its authority through human reason.  However, C. S. Lewis’ relationship with this book prompted him to write that “the Bible is fundamentally a sacred book, and demands incessantly to be taken on its own terms . . . Stripped . . . of its divine authority, stripped of its allegorical senses, denied a romantic welcome it cannot achieve its function.”

So, on what do we base the authority of scripture in this age and take it on its own terms as God’s Word – seeing in it all the “constellations of the storie”?  This will be one of my explorations in the coming months.

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Living Scrolls

So small.  So fragile. So tangible.  Scraps of paper connecting people across millenia.

Here is a fragment from the second chapter of Daniel in the Hebrew scriptures.

 “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
     to whom belong wisdom and might. 

He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding;

he reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and the light dwells with him.

To you, O God of my fathers,
I give thanks and praise,
for you have given me wisdom and might,
and have now made known to me what we asked of you,
for you have made known to us the king’s matter.”

Two months ago I was leading a discussion on this section of Daniel.  In particular, I was drawn to how Daniel practices what Ignatius may term indifference – his focus solely on God and not the created things and circumstances around him.  In this poetic interruption of narrative, God is vividly shown to be the center of everything in the world and Daniel’s life.

thStanding before the earliest known copy of this prayer at the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center, the emphasis on God was before me again.  This time it was on a torn, faded bit of parchment – the writing of a scribe 100+ years before Christ.  On this fragment was the praise of God preserved and continued to be used as a prayer to this day.

It was part a display that sets the scrolls within the history, the culture, the world in which they were written.  The display itself emphasizes the importance of these fragments.  The cases holding the fragments are arranged in a large, circular table in the center of the room.  Other cases containing pottery, mosaics, and tools from the same era and region, surround the main exhibit.  No one can get too close to the actual scrolls.  Under glass, shielded with dim lights so the decaying process is minimized, these 2000 year old fragments are well-protected.

Yet, the importance of these fragments rests not in their fragility and age, nor in the scholars working on them, but in the wisdom, comfort, and truth contained in God’s Word on which people have leaned over centuries and throughout the world. As the prayer from Daniel attests – all these circumstances and created items surrounding the scrolls are nothing compared to the God to which they point.

Furthermore, the words on these scrolls live yet today – not on fragments of paper – but within people as God’s ultimate Word, Jesus Christ, lives through them.

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A Better Tabernacle

Where is God’s tabernacle today?

While the Israelites were in the wilderness, God wanted to have a place to be in the center of his people.  So, in addition to detailing how they were to live, he provided instructions about creating a tent where he would dwell – from the dimensions of the structure to the colors of the decorative thread.  Bezalel, who God had filled with his Spirit and skill, led many artisans to create this tent and its accompanying furnishings.  This was a holy, sacred place.  When it was finished, and Moses had made sure it was set up as God dictated, the Glory of the Lord entered.  Never before, since sin had entered the world, had God been so present in the midst of his people.

It was easy to see this was a holy place.  Set up in the center of all the other tents, it had special rules surrounding it.  Not just anyone could enter, especially the place where God resided, the Holy of Holies.  For the average Israelite, God remained distant.  All they saw were the structure of the tent, the rituals, and the priests.  It was beautiful, but inaccessible.  Eventually God became lost for the people, locked away.  They worshiped the external forms instead of the God to whom the forms were pointing.

The celebration of Christmas has taken a similar turn. The ideal image is beautiful – if you can get it.   If you want to have a good Christmas you better have a properly decorated tree; a well-dressed, happy family around the dinner table; and the latest toys and clothes for gifts.  This is when the Christmas spirit will come and fill your lives – or at least is evidence of it.

However, what happens if your Christmas is spent in the hospital, or with a father who is dying, or with your family on the street?  What if you are in a barracks a world away from your family or you have no money for any gifts?  Where is Christmas?  Only priests could enter God’s presence – and it seems that only the privileged people today can have the full Christmas experience today.  The trappings of the first tabernacle that were to provide a way to God eventually became a barrier to really knowing him; and the trappings of Christmas can be a barrier to people knowing God today.

Fortunately, another tabernacle entered the picture just over 2,000 years ago.  This time God did not require a structure built by human hands.  Human flesh became his tent, his tabernacle.  God’s glory, the same glory that filled the tent in the desert, now filled an infant in a manger.  An ordinary birth.  Later on this living tabernacle moved among people, and not always in the best places.

If we really want to celebrate Christmas, it’s not about making a winter wonderland, but going into the places where people’s lives are torn just as this infant, Jesus, would do. Jesus enters the hospital and sits by the bed and stands with the soldier away from home.  Amazingly we don’t have to go to this tabernacle.  He comes to us and we are changed.

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Advent Waiting

Advent waiting is usually focused on remembering when Jesus was born on earth and his eventual return.  It’s a beautiful image.  Waiting in which we long for the thing before us.  We may be impatient but we can’t wait to get there.  Like waiting to open our gifts on Christmas morning.

But what about waiting that is filled with dread?  The news from a medical test, the call in the middle of the night, the rejection from a job.  How do we deal with this type of waiting?

Fortunately this story of Christ’s coming is filled with the second type of waiting.  We can learn from the stories of Mary waiting to give birth to a child she did not conceive within marriage, not sure of how others would react, and of the small family escaping to Egypt, probably always a bit fearful that an agent of Herod would find them.  Yet, even in this fear Mary shows us where we can focus while we wait and gives us the words to do just that.

My soul glorifies the Lord 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

"Magnificat” by Macha Chmakoff

“Magnificat” by Macha Chmakoff

for he has been mindful 
   of the humble state of his servant. 
From now on all generations will call me blessed, 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me— 
   holy is his name. 
His mercy extends to those who fear him, 
   from generation to generation. 
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; 
   he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 
He has brought down rulers from their thrones 
   but has lifted up the humble. 
He has filled the hungry with good things 
   but has sent the rich away empty. 
He has helped his servant Israel, 
   remembering to be merciful 
to Abraham and his descendants forever, 
   just as he promised our ancestors.
 Luke 2:46-55

 

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Is this really God’s Story?

How are we telling God’s story?  So often my first instinct is to make the message palatable, connecting it to the needs of the person in front of me.  Do you need a better life purpose?  God has the answer.  What about a way to deal with evil?  That, too, God handily addresses.  Just believe God is with you in suffering and move on.  Maybe what I share is not a full-fledged health and wealth gospel, but I do really want people to like God’s message.  As if my re-creating the story will help God.  You know, God, your story is a bit bloody, challenging, and unbelievable at parts, so let me help.

I definitely don’t want to go to the opposite extreme and share only the hell fire and damnation stories.  But I have been moving too far away from the real story.  In the book, Telling God’s Story, John W. Wright explores how two larger narratives in our lives (personal salvation and national election) have eclipsed those that are in the Bible.  American Christians have often focused on how my/our lives are going to be okay – how I am saved and how I am part of God’s specially chosen people.  Once we see ourselves as owners of that final, happy ending of eternal salvation, we can continue in our lives without much discomfort – even through struggle.  A diagnosis of cancer is a test to my own faith, a flood shows how the community coming together and affirms that we are God’s special people.

As I thought about this more deeply, I started to see how this understanding of God’s story is quite shallow compared to what God shows us through his interaction with people throughout history.  In the American version, the story becomes a trite comedy merging together the narratives of the secular and sacred to such a degree that it can be difficult to tell the two apart.  Is there really any difference?  The focus – as in the literary definition of comedy – is on everything turning out for us in the end.  Being comfortable.  Resting in salvation.  Is this the narrative we find in the Bible?  Isn’t it rather a tragedy – something that wakes us out of complacency – in which we are never the heros.

Like pilgrimages, the biblical narrative is unsettling.  We want to travel toward a nicely tied up story that will change our lives with minimal effort.  Yet, if we really dig into this story, we find something else.  Pilgrimages work when they shake up our lives, when the liminal moments cause us to question the story we are moving towards and our place in it.  Perhaps these times make us confront our failings head on, turn from past ways, to be honest and move into a new story.  That should be the Bible – God’s word reading us instead of the other way around.  If we are honest, we see that life is a series of tragedies, a realization that all we do will fail.  The Gospel isn’t about a happily ever after, but a working out of God’s Word today.  In the midst of our groanings are the birth pains of the redemption God is working out.  It is humbling to not be in control of the story, but there is One who is.  The more we know of that One, the more we will allow Him to be the hero of our story, no matter how painful that is.

What story are you following?

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Truth Telling

I like truth, but in a safe, quiet way.  To turn it over in my mind, talk about it with friends who agree, and to pat myself on the back for believing the right things.  This type of truth isn’t difficult.  I tend to steer clear of speaking truths when I know there will be dissension.  And with students I don’t think I’ve ever really called them out to look at the truth in their lives – to examine how they spend their time, to challenge their thinking.  As with so many other people, I want to be liked.

As I look at life as pilgrimage I can easily fall into the trap of just allowing people to go off and learn on their own.  It’s their journey.  They will eventually reach their destination.  However, as pilgrims journeyed to sacred sites in the Middle Ages, knights along the way shared warnings about thieves ahead, priests and monks invited travelers to come off the road and rest, and fellow pilgrims sharpened each other’s views of God’s Word.  As faith ancestors of the elect exiles to whom Peter wrote his first letter and of Christian pilgrims over the centuries, we really should do no less with others on – and soon to be on – this journey of following Jesus.

Often I’m leery of the truth telling because I may be wrong.  Who am I to tell anyone about their lives?  Do I really believe God’s Word fully?  Do I really love Christ enough?  Do I sit at the cross?  At the cross.  This may be the best place from which to tell the truth –  in a posture of knowing my place as fully dependent on Christ for forgiveness and life.  The ultimate story Christians are journeying toward is wrapped up in God’s perfect mercy and justice that came together at the cross.  It’s not a safe place.  But the truth here gives amazing life.

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Trapping Jesus

In the Gospels religious leaders often confront Jesus, attempting to prove that he adheres to the wrong beliefs.  Should we pay taxes or not?  Will a woman have seven husbands at the resurrection?  Who is my neighbor?  If the question is worded just right, then the questioner, and everyone else standing around, will finally know whether Jesus is with us, or against us.  However, Jesus does not fall prey to these traps.  His answers turn the tables and often reveal the motivation behind the questions.  He refuses to be narrowly defined.

As I read these parts of the gospels I cheer – Go get’em, Jesus!  Isn’t it great we’re on the same side?  Yet, recently I started to wonder about the questions I ask.  If not of Jesus, at least of other Christians.  I want people to see things they way I do.  I want them, and Jesus, to affirm my doctrine.  I want to trap them into being either for or against what I believe.  What roles can women take at church?  Who really is a Christian?  How do you interpret the Creation story in Genesis?  Once I determine how they respond to these questions, I can spend time defending my side and taking comfort in knowing I’m right.  Yet, after such conversations I feel empty.  I am the one trapped. 

Not that these questions and thoughtful responses aren’t important at some level.  However, the amount of time I perceive Christians, including myself, dealing with such issues is disproportionate to time spent doing what we are called to do.  There may be some murky parts of the Bible that we will never agree on this side of heaven.  Even so, the real mission is hitting us in the face – worshiping God, loving our neighbor, making disciples.  Waiting for and ironing out the right answers in doctrinal conundrums does not save us from having to go out into the mess of showing mercy today. 

So I realize I need to stop trapping the gospel in the limits of my failed human understanding.  However, that doesn’t mean I need to stop asking questions.  I just need to be ready to hear some critical answers in response.  Jesus’ responses to the pharisees and others, though providing answers, often opened up more questions.  Maybe some of the opaqueness in the Bible is there for a reason and is not for us always to figure out.  Instead we can live in the ambiguity, trusting in the One who is the answer, while we step out in the story of forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation.

 
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Study Bibles

“Study Bibles are ruining community.”  I recently heard this statement at a conference on narrative and the gospel.   I may not like a lot of the study Bibles out there, but ruining community?  Really?

It used to be that people would read the Bible and seek to understand how it related to their lives through their interactions within a Christian community.  Pastors and other teachers would lay the foundations of how to understand God’s Word and friends and family would share stories of God working in their lives.  This was an interactive, living approach to God’s Word.  However, with study Bibles available for everyone from women to firefighters to environmentalists, an individual can select one that will speak just to her, get the answers, and then be on her way.  There is no need to engage with others in our faith walk.  The answers are neatly laid out for us.

This seems like an efficient way to learn.  It is also a lot safer for my ego.  If I’m not living up to the expectations I read in God’s Word, only I need to know about it.  It’s also much easier to twist the Bible to mean what I want if I’m not reading it with other people who are aware of my weaknesses.  But as we rely primarily on distant experts and stop sharing our stories with one another there is a loss of real community in our churches.  We become a group of individuals finding our own way to live out the faith and trying to convince others that we are doing well.

So what might be a response to this focus on individual faith – whether prompted by study Bibles or a multitude of other reasons?

  • Where do we find places to dig more deeply into our lives and connect with others?
  • Places where we can learn from one another as we see how God is working?
  • Places where it’s okay to tell about the mess in our lives, as well as the joys?
  • Places where questions and failings are welcome, and forgiveness is ready?
  • Places where we can be affirmed that we are living in God’s grace and encouraged to go out and live more fully into the story where we are called?

I find that such moments occur not within programmed structures or alone in study, but in the throes of life.  Sometimes it’s around meals or over coffee.  It can also happen in a writing group,  at a ball park, or among whispered voices in a chapel  These are places where we can open God’s Word as we are with others, connecting our stories with God’s.  Such building and living in community is definitely not efficient nor focused on knowing the right answer, but it is biblical.  It’s also quite freeing.

Maybe it’s time to promote a new type of study Bible.  The added “helps” in this Bible would change depending on the group involved because they would be developed out of Christians living in the midst of one another’s stories as they center their lives on God’s Living Word – Jesus Christ.

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