Posted by: alisonwalley | 3 January 2010

More Bible reading plans

Why bother to write a whole blog when someone else has done it for you?

Justin Taylor on the Gospel Coalition blog website has a list of many different ways to read the whole Bible.

I have also updated my page of resources to point to some of these. Both the Navigator’s Discipleship Journal and the Engage Scripture plans give you spaces to catch up days you missed and/or reflect on what you’ve read. The latter also pulls out some of the harder to read books (Leviticus anyone?) as ‘Scripture snapshots’, although if you read the introduction you’ll find there are supposed to be support videos and other materials you can obtain.

I like the idea of catch up days and days to think more about what you’ve read. It’s easy to be so busy reading your chapters that you forget it’s supposed to be speaking to you. This is not an exercise in how much you can read!

“Lord, open my eyes.”

Posted by: alisonwalley | 27 December 2009

New Year resolutions

It’s that time of year again, after Christmas and in the last days of the old year. Whatever 2009 has been like, a new year seems to offer opportunities to change, to start something new.

Actually, I’m going back to where I started this blog, which was a question about reading the Bible in a year. You could of course start any time, but 1 January seems the best one.

How are you going to do it? Take a look at my ‘Useful Resources’ page to see links to some plans. And here’s another good way to do it.

In 1998 IVP published a book called For the Love of God by Don Carson. The author states its purpose in the first sentence of his Preface: “This book is for Christians who want to read the Bible, who want to read all the Bible” (emphasis mine).

Carson took the Murray McCheyne Bible scheme as the basis for his book. This actually gives four Bible passages for each day. If you did read all four passages a day you would read the whole of the Old Testament once, and the New Testament and Psalms twice, in a year.

Actually, Carson bases his comments on the first two passages (volume 2, in the same format, is based on the second two readings). And he does so in a way which helps us to look at the big picture. Let me quote again from the preface:

“The rising biblical illiteracy in Western culture means that the Bible is increasingly a closed book, even to many Christians … It becomes all the more urgent to read and reread it, so that at least confessing Christians preserve the heritage and outlook of a mind shaped and informed by holy Scripture.”

Resolved for 2010: to have a mind more shaped by God’s word.

Posted by: alisonwalley | 20 December 2009

HarK, the herald angels sing

As Christmas approaches even nearer, Christmas songs are everywhere, ranging from the merely wintery (Frosty the Snowman), through Christmas as party season (I wish it could be Christmas every day) towards sentimental carols which romanticise the time of year (most by John Rutter), to songs which firmly imply that really, Christmas is to do with Christ.

It’s easy to get swept away in the emotion of Christmas, but in line with the theme of this blog, I thought I’d take a closer look at one of the best-loved and most enduring of our Christmas hymns, Charles Wesley’s Hark the herald angels sing (1739).

Of course to make a really great hymn you need an excellent tune, which Hark the herald finally got over 100 years later, when a great tune by Mendelssohn was harmonised for the hymn in 1857.

So why does the hymn fit with the theme of the blog? Because it’s firmly based on the Bible. The first verse is the most obvious:

Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
with the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! The herald angels sing:
“Glory to the newborn King!”

This is Wesley’s exhortation for us, for all nations, to join the angels’ song as recorded in Luke 2:8-14. The second verse is more densely packed and I’ve hyperlinked various parts to the verses Wesley might have been thinking of :

Christ, by highest heav’n adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord;

Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail, the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sing:
“Glory to the newborn King!”

In the final verse, the references to ‘Prince of Peace’ and ‘mild he lays his glory by’ take up two passages we’ve met already in the second verse. Isaiah 9 is often read at Christmas with its promise of a “wonderful counsellor” and “prince of peace”. Philippians 2 talks about how Christ “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”, laying his glory by. Another of our Christmas readings, John 1, talks of Jesus giving “those who believed him” the right to become “children of God”.

And with the final verse, we also come back to that last of the Old Testament books, Malachi. In the King James Version, which Wesley would have used, Malachi 4:2 reads: “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings.”

Hail, the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing:
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Great words, great hymn! But with these passages that stand behind we shouldn’t forget some of their contexts. John 1 says that many did not receive this Christ, Malachi 4 warns of judgement for the arrogant and evil doers, the passages from Isaiah are set in the context of “darkness and distress” and Philippians 2 reminds us that the reason Christ was made in human likeness was so that he could “humble himself and become obedient to death – even death on a cross”.

Have a great Christmas.

NOTE: Wesley originally wrote more verses than we now sing, and the words have been amended by various people from the original (which you can find here, though be prepared for the rendition of the tune on a tinny sounding electronic piano).

Posted by: alisonwalley | 13 December 2009

Are you ready for Christmas?

Being a middle-of-the-road Baptist church we don’t go in for the traditional church calendar much, apart from marking Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. But today is the third Sunday in Advent, and the prayer for this Sunday in the 1666 Book of Common Prayer reads:

O Lord Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee: Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen

The question which is the title for this blog gets asked a lot around this time. By it people usually mean: have you bought all the presents, have you wrapped them and sent them? ordered the turkey? written and posted the Christmas cards?

Thomas Cramner, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury who wrote the Prayer Book, was certainly concerned that people get ready for Christmas. But not exactly in the way in which the question is currently asked! By ‘ministers and stewards of thy mysteries’ I suppose he’s primarily referring to those in the church responsible for teaching others (that would have been the ordained clergy of the day). But he’s obviously thinking in terms of the Christmas story, of the angel’s words to Zechariah in Luke 1.

Proclaiming that Zechariah and his wife were to have a son (John) Gabriel says:

He will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (Luke 1:17, TNIV)

That phrase ‘turning the hearts’ goes back even further, to the prophet Malachi about 500 years before the birth of Christ. He prophesied that God would send a prophet like Elijah “before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes”.

We tend to think of Christmas as a joyful time, and so it is. But we tend to forget what Cramner remembered and the prophecy about John’s birth should remind us: God sent his son to deliver us from the judgement which rightly waited for us, rebels against God. Now is the time of grace, when we have the chance to turn to him.

Now is the time our hearts need to be turned “to the wisdom of the just”, so when he comes again, as he will surely do, we may be found acceptable in his sight.

Are you ready for Christmas?

Posted by: alisonwalley | 7 December 2009

No room at the inn

So here we are in the run up to Christmas again. I’ve already been to two carol services, but that’s not much – I have a friend who has totalled five so far between the school where she teaches, her children’s school and church. As to how many our pastor is going to be taking, I don’t like to think!

For most of us brought up in the Christian tradition, the Christmas story is one that we do know well. And when you know a story well there’s always the temptation to skip over it. But the trouble about Christmas is that it’s had so many bits added. And I’m not talking about Santa and his elves here.

Ask a group of children about the Christmas story:

  • Who came to see baby Jesus?
  • How did Mary and Joseph get to Bethlehem?
  • How many wise men were there?

Did we get ‘shepherds and kings’, ‘donkey’ and ‘three’ there? Shepherds, yes, but where are the other words in the Bible story? (OK I know there were three gifts, but there might have been more than three magi.)

And we all know that Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn, don’t we? Actually… the scholarly consensus seems to be coming round to the view that it doesn’t quite mean that. I see that the Today’s New International Version translates the verse in Luke differently: “Mary gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”

After living in the Middle East I was never convinced about our nativity play depictions of the unkind innkeeper turning Joseph and Mary away. This was Joseph’s ancestral town and in that culture you don’t turn family away. No, the word for ‘inn’ is more likely to mean the special room (usually on the roof of the house) reserved for guests, as indicated by the TNIV translation. This was already occupied, so Joseph and Mary had to share the family room, which would have had a raised part for people at one end, and the animals in the other half, with the animal feeding troughs in between.

In a way, it doesn’t matter. But to my mind, the difference is how very ordinary Jesus’ birth is. Not in a special room, in the everyday room, in the way hundreds of babies would have been born. An ordinary birth for a very special baby.

Let’s look again at what the Bible says about Jesus’ birth this Christmas and praise God he sent his Son as one of us.

Posted by: alisonwalley | 29 November 2009

Using the imagination

When I was first taught how to prepare a Bible study on a single passage, we learned to ask three basic questions:

  • What does this passage say?
  • What does it mean?

And the all-important, not-to-be-forgotten question

  • What does it mean to me?

And a very good basis for doing a Bible study these are. But I wonder sometimes if this is too cerebral a way of looking at the Bible. I nearly put ‘intellectual’ instead of ‘cerebral’ but I don’t think it’s so much a matter of cleverness, as looking at something too much with your head. A good father/child relationship is much more than about knowing, it involves all sorts of other things. And God is the father who truly loves his children.

God’s word does of course speak to our minds, but also to our emotions. How dull the Bible might become otherwise! And no wonder Jesus used parables to speak to people – whatever other reasons there were for this he knew that stories grab out attention and that we get really involved in them.

I was thinking of this during one of our studies in Hosea. As I said in a previous post, there’s a lot about judgement in Hosea. Now suppose you were pronouncing judgement: “This house is going to be pulled down because it’s been condemned as unsafe.” How could you ram the point home apart from repeating yourself?

Many of the prophets God sent to his people had to talk about judgement a lot. How did they get round repetition making people ignore them? If you read Hosea chapters 7 to 10, you’ll find many many pictures of the sin of God’s people and what would happen as a result. Here are just a few:

  • “Ephraim’s … hair is sprinkled with grey, but he does not notice” [Ephraim is another name for the northern kingdom, Israel]
  • “Ephriam is like a dove, easily deceived and senseless … I will throw my net over them; I will pull them down like the birds in the sky”
  • “Their leaders will fall by the sword”
  • “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. The stalk has no head; it will produce no flour.”
  • “Thorns will overrun their tents”
  • “Their root is withered, they yield no fruit.”
  • “Samaria’s king will … be swept away like a twig on the surface of the waters” [Samaria was the capital of Israel]

Pictures can speak to us in ways that facts may not. Pictures slip under our guard. God is so gracious that he will use all means to reach us. We need to let God’s word speak to our hearts and imaginations as well as our minds.

Posted by: alisonwalley | 20 November 2009

Home groups: the bigger picture

As home group coordinator for our church I’ve been asked to put a few ideas together on ‘the bigger vision’ for the groups. It’s a good exercise, because it got me thinking, what do we really want from them?

I should say that although these groups are for fellowship and prayer, I see the role of studying the Bible together in them as very important because that’s the way we learn and grow. So what would I like for them?

I think my bigger vision is that we’d all get a greater desire to know God better and for this we need to be studying our Bibles in the power of the Holy Spirit. We need to be taking taking the Bible seriously and taking serious too the power of the word of God in our lives. We need to have confidence in the Bible and come to it expecting it to change us.

Is this too big a vision? Why should it be? We have a great God who actually, amazingly, wants us to get to know him better. I think we should be praying Paul’s prayer in Ephesians (3:17–19):

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep in the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of Christ.

But he goes on: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine…” How big is my vision? May God grant it to be bigger than I can imagine!

Posted by: alisonwalley | 8 November 2009

And more on Hosea

The great thing about Hosea is God’s great love for that same rebellious people. More on that next week. Actually, it’s two weeks since I last blogged, but it’s given me the chance to prepare a Bible study, do it, and think more about the book.

Hosea chapter four is all about the ‘charge’ that God brings against his people. ‘Charge’ as in accusation in a court of law. It’s pretty drastic: “no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God”. Instead there’s “cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery”. The worst thing about it seems to be that the priests who should have been teaching the people how to live have in fact been the worst sinners and have positively encouraged them their way of life.

However, I don’t intend to turn this blog into a Bible study on Hosea, just to raise a question about applying what we study, particularly with regard to Old Testament books.

To us modern Christians, it is obvious (well I hope so!) that our faith has certain practical consequences for the way we live. There are certain things that as Christians we are urged to leave behind, “to put off your old self” and “put on the new self”, as Paul says in Ephesians 4:20–24. That means that we read Hosea 4:2 (“there is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery”) and immediately connect this with the “no acknowledgement of God” in the previous verse. So, when we do acknowledge God and we’re faithful to him, our lives should match up to our calling.

And indeed, that’s exactly what Hosea means. The Israelites had been called to be God’s special people. Because he had rescued them from Egypt, certain standards were expected from them – the 10 commandments were given to show them how to live in light of the fact that they now belonged to God. Similarly, if we have been saved through Christ and given new life, our lives should match up to the new standards expected of us, even if it’s usually more of a work in progress. So, an application from the passage to our situation.

And then we come to verse 3: “Because of this [the lack of faithfulness, love, etc.] the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and all the fish in the sea are swept away.”

Can we apply this verse in the same way as we did the previous two? Is the current ecological crisis a direct consequence of our unfaithfulness and the fact that we don’t acknowledge God? It’s very tempting to make the direct comparison.

Here is where we need to be careful. The people Hosea addressed were a particular people in a particular place. God’s people are now the church, who don’t have a specific ‘place’. The kingdom of God is not confined to one location. A better comparison would be to look at the curses of Deuteronomy 28:15–28 (which are given after promises of blessing). Disobedience will result in the curses, obedience in the blessings.

But do we conclude that Hosea 4:3 says nothing to us? I don’t think that’s true either. There is something in the fact that because we are sinful, we haven’t stewarded the Earth and its resources as we should, that we have and are too greedy.

So, tricky applications, but worth struggling with to see what God says to us in all the Scriptures.

Posted by: alisonwalley | 25 October 2009

Thoughts on Hosea

As you might gather if you read last week’s post, our home group have decided to study Hosea. Now might also realise that I’m a great believer in the Bible speaking to us and the need to read all of it.

So I’m wondering how we’re going to get on with Hosea.

Let’s just take the headings that the TNIV gives the various sections (from chapter 4 on). Bear in mind that Hosea was prophesying in the northern of the divided kingdom of Israel, to ‘Israel’ as opposed to ‘Judea’ (around the mid 7th century):

  • The charge against Israel
  • Judgement against Israel
  • Israel unrepentant
  • Israel to reap the whirlwind
  • Punishment for Israel
  • God’s love for Israel (oh good)
  • Israel’s sin
  • The Lord’s anger against Israel
  • Repentance to bring blessing

Notice a common theme here? Notice, in fact, a very great similarity in what most of the sections seem to be about? So, it looks as if we’re going to be talking a great deal about judgement and God’s people turning away from him. Are we going to be having the same discussion every week?

I think the answer is probably, yes and no. And is that a bad idea? Perhaps we skip over the bits we’re not comfortable with too quickly. Perhaps we need to be reminded of the seriousness of sin. And the great thing about Hosea is God’s great love for that same rebellious people. More on that next week.

Posted by: alisonwalley | 19 October 2009

Doing it differently

Sometimes Often it’s easy to get stuck in a rut with studying the Bible. Our home group has had a pattern of Bible study for quite a few years. We start with a question vaguely related to the subject of the study to get people talking, then we read the passage and discuss questions on it. The idea is to have a balance of questions which make people look at the text, find what it means, and then apply it.

Which is a good way to do Bible study. But sometimes you need to be a bit different.

We started studying Hosea last week after a marathon of nearly a year on Mark’s Gospel. Now Hosea isn’t the easiest of books (though it’s a lot easier than Revelation, one of the other suggestions!), so I tried another way. Here it is:

  1. You need printouts of the first THREE chapters of Hosea, with no chapter numbers, just the verses (so you can tell where you are), and no subheadings (the ones which modern translations insert). We used the NIV.
  2. Make sure the printouts have wide margins for people to annotate and that everyone has a pen (and something to lean the paper on).
  3. Pray first!
  4. Everyone reads the passage (to themselves, it’s a bit long for reading out loud and there are some difficult names)
  5. You also need a print out of the instructions, one for everyone. These are
    • Divide the passage up into sections (you can ignore the chapter divisions if you want).
    • Put an exclamation mark ! against anything that surprises you
    • Put a question mark ? against anything that puzzles you/you want to ask a question about
    • Put a star * against anything that encourages you
    • Give everyone about 5 minutes (more if you have slow readers) to do this. Then ask how people divided it, what they put marks against.

Finally, and very importantly, you need to ask SO WHAT? How does this apply to us, now?

We had a very interesting discussion!

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