Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A good book

This is my summer to read. I am reading a long list of books that have been collecting in a pile by the side of the bed. The other day, I realized that I had read over a dozen research methods and statistics books over the last three years. This is way more than any one human should have to endure. So, I promised myself a summer of reading things that are less analytical.

My first book of the summer was one by Lisa Delpit called Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom.

Go easy on me, I have to wean off of academic books slowly; I will be back to Dr. Seuss by August.

This author worked in New Guinea helping them to develop language and culture sensitive pre-school programs. While I admit, that fact may not be interesting to everyone, she tells a fascinating story about the native people of New Guinea and their early interactions with missionaries. The missionaries were surprised to discover that there was a strong interest in learning to read. The set about teaching people to read the Bible and happily gave them copies to keep. The students took their Bibles down to the docks, tore pages from them and handed them to those unloading ships with expectations that they would be given valuable cargo in return. They expected this because they saw the missionaries receive such cargo when they handed over papers with words. When they found out that their pages held no such magic, they crumpled them up and threw them away in disgust.

They looked to the words of the Bible to bring them good fortune. They thought the words of God were some sort of magic that would create wealth and fulfill their desires. They thought they had the ticket to happiness, if only they could read and use those pages.

As I think about the crumpled pages blowing down the beach in the wind, I think about how easy it is to misuse, misunderstand and mistake God's word. It is not that His word is unclear; it is in fact, abundantly clear. It is not that His word is ineffective; we know that it never returns empty. It is not that His word is less powerful in our hands. God's word is God's word, regardless of who reads it. It is as powerful as its author and is understandable through the work of His Spirit.

So why do we think God's word will bring us fame and fortune? Why do we think His word, if magically applied, will make all of our trials and tribulations disappear? Why do we continue to believe that the efficacy of God's word depends, somehow on us; on how we use it; on how we interpret it; on how we want it to work?

I don't know, for sure, but I think the answer's got to be sin, or pride, or maybe both.

God's word will do what God determines; no more and no less. It has nothing to do with us and it has everything to do with us. We cannot bend the word of God to our wants and desires any more than those who hoped the Bible pages could be traded for cargo. However, we do benefit from God's will: our faith grows. God's word is not our tool to make things happen or to prevent what we do not want. It is God's word; no more and no less. And that is enough.

I read a face book question recently asking for parenting advice. The responses were numerous and not surprising until I got to one that had a peculiar formula. This individual felt that the best parenting advice was to read the catechism with his children every morning and every evening. He had a long response with many Greek words to justify his position. It was his stated goal to counteract the influence of the modern world by surrounding his children with the words of Luther.

Now, I am a big fan of Luther and I taught the catechism to many children (including my own) for years as a teacher. I think there is much wisdom in that book and recommend it for study. However, I found this man's parenting advice to be a bit one-sided.

It was all law and no gospel.

We cannot take God's word, (or Luther's interpretation and explanation of it) and perform it like a formula in order to direct good things. That is law and law cannot save us.

The realization that God's word will accomplish what He wills, without our input or performance, is grace.

So, am I saying parents should not bother reading the Bible or the catechism with their children? NO! Each of us should study God's word, good books that help us to understand God's word, and prayers and hymns that enable us to praise God. Furthermore, we should do this on a daily basis.

It is just not a formula for getting what we want – a good job, attention, happy, successful kids, or anything else that might be on our wish list.

We read God's word because it is God's word, and we let it nourish us in the way He intended. This is law balanced with grace. This is joy.

"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty. But it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Isaiah 55: 10-12 (ESV)