“Don’t Mess with My Tinkertoys!”

TinkertoysDo you remember Tinkertoys, that set of wooden sticks and spools you could build things with, wonderful things as tall as you were when you were a kid? I talked about Tinkertoys at church last Sunday, when I facilitated a question-and-answer session following Art Wright’s three-week lecture on “Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife.”

I talked about how all people build a “framework of understanding” to make sense of their experience. If you step outside and a bird flies past you say, “That’s right; birds fly,” and you hang that experience on your framework of understanding (this is where I always picture a Tinkertoy framework, with experiences hanging from it like Christmas tree ornaments). But if you step outside and a cat flies past you’ve got a problem; there is nowhere on your framework of understanding to hang that experience. You have to decide: “Did that really happen? Did a cat really fly past? Or did someone throw a cat across my field of vision? Or am I hallucinating?”

Birds? No problem. Cats? Big problem.

I said, “You’ve spent your whole life building and re-building your framework of understanding and it’s precious to you. You don’t want anybody to mess with it. But somewhere in there is your understanding of heaven, hell, and the afterlife, and I get the feeling that for some of you Art Wright’s lecture was troubling, that some part of it messed with your Tinkertoys.”

I saw heads nodding around the room.

That led into an interesting exchange about what we use to build our frameworks of understanding in the first place, and we acknowledged that much of what we have heard about heaven, hell, and the afterlife comes from books, movies, songs, and popular theology. Not all of it is authoritative. For believers, the Bible is authoritative; it’s that one source we can gather around and study together with general agreement that what’s in there is true.

My guess is that much of what Art Wright was teaching in his three-week lecture was biblical. He is a New Testament professor, after all, which means that he’s spent a good bit of time studying the actual text of the New Testament. I’ve done that myself, and I’m often surprised by what’s not in there as well as by what is. Sometimes it “messes with my Tinkertoys,” and forces me to rebuild some part of my framework of understanding.

I don’t like that.

My framework of understanding is precious to me. But it’s more important to me that it be right than that it be easy, and Scripture is the best way to ensure that. It is, in almost every way, the “blueprint” by which my framework must be built.

And I mean all of scripture: not just the parts I like.

Sharon Parks has a name for that framework of understanding: she calls it “faith.” I think that’s a good name for it, and even though there are ways to build frameworks of understanding that don’t include God, those are not ways I’m interested in. I want to build a distinctively Christian faith, one with Jesus right at the center of it. As far as heaven, hell, and the afterlife are concerned, I’m content to follow him. If I can trust Scripture on this (and I think I can), the Way that he is is the Way that leads to life abundant, overflowing, and everlasting.

Why would I follow anyone else?

How to Read the Bible

I don’t usually preach “how to” sermons, but I did on Sunday and several people have asked that I post my suggestions here.  And so, with acknowledgments to Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart (whose book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is one of the most helpful in my personal library), here they are:

  1. Start with a good translation of the Bible.  My personal preference is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which strives to be as inclusive as possible while maintaining a faithfulness to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic languages.  The HarperCollins Study Bible has almost as many notes as it has text, providing ready answers to most of my questions.  Fee and Stuart recommend Today’s New International Version (TNIV). 
  2. Get ready to read.  Sit at a desk or table where you can spread out a little, where you can open the Bible and also take notes.  Make sure you have adequate lighting and reading glasses if you need them (I seem to need them more and more).  If you are working on the passage I recommended for next Sunday (Luke 4:14-30), take some time to read the introduction to Luke in your study Bible.  Find out who Luke was, and when he wrote, and what he was trying to accomplish.  Find out how a Gospel is different from other kinds of literature in the Bible (history, poetry, prophecy, epistles, etc.) and think about why it makes a difference. 
  3. Say a prayer for illumination.  If it was the Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical authors to write (and it was), it will be the Holy Spirit who helps us understand what they wrote.  Ask the Spirit to open your mind, heart, and soul to the truth of God’s word, and to teach you through the words of the text.  The meaning of a passage is often found not in the words themselves, but in that space between the words and the reader where the Spirit does its work.
  4. Read the text.  Read it several times, slowly.  Let it sink in.  Make sure you don’t add anything that isn’t there or subtract anything that is.  I talked to someone recently who said he was amazed at how Jesus just “disappeared” at the end of this reading from Luke 4.  “Disappeared?” I asked.  “Yeah!  He just–poof!–disappeared!”  Fortunately I had my Bible with me, and when we looked at the text it said that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:30).  That’s not really the same thing as “disappearing,” is it?
  5. Write down your questions.  If you are reading for understanding (and not just inspiration) you will have questions: What was that synagogue in Nazareth like?  Did they have other scrolls, or just the scroll of Isaiah?  Why did Jesus sit down to teach?  Where was his mother when all this happened?  Why did the people try to throw him off a cliff?  Write down all the questions you have.  Don’t hold back.  The Bible can take it (smile).
  6. Look up the answers.  This is when you consult a good Bible dictionary or a commentary.  Not before you’ve written down your questions—after.  Otherwise you will read answers to questions you have never asked, and yawn your way through the commentaries.  If you are looking for answers to your own questions, however, it can be like going on a treasure hunt: exciting.  I keep the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible on my shelves and try to keep a commentary on each book of the Bible written by the foremost scholar on that book.  Bible dictionaries and commentaries are always available in your church library, and many of them are excellent.

This is a different way to read the Bible than the devotional reading I do during my “quiet time.”  This is serious study.  But if you read the Bible this way from time to time I think you will find it richly rewarding, and maybe, like those people in yesterday’s Old Testament reading, you will go your way “to eat and drink…and make great rejoicing,” because you have understood the words of the Bible (Neh. 8:12).