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It could legitimately be argued that Justice Jackson's warning should have been taken more seriously. The court decisions of recent years have made folks leery of any religious references in the public square and particularly so in the public schools, and that has led to a culture-wide illiteracy about this book that has had more influence on the history of the world than any other.
So, should the Bible be taught in the public schools? I say YES. But I also say that the Qu'ran should be taught as well as the sacred writings of all the major world religions. This would not be a merely intellectual exercise but, in light of events like September 11, or social controversies like teaching creationism in public schools or gay marriage or stem cell research, this could help folks answer why certain people think and behave the way they do.
I would also insist, though, that the public schools are NOT the place for the Bible to be taught devotionally. That is the job of the church or the synagogue, not the government, and frankly, I would not be comfortable with an "amateur" doing the teaching anyway.
So now we find ourselves in church and hear our lesson say, "I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word." Nice thought, but I wonder. Most church people would agree that "not neglecting your word" is important, but most people would also admit that they do not do it. Strange. Even though the Bible remains the best-selling book of all time, and, according to the article, is the number one best-seller year after year after year, even though most every home has at least one copy, even though people confess it as the actual word of God, folks rarely (if ever) really study what it has to say, public schools or not.
Do YOU want to do better? All right. Let me offer some advice this morning to those of you who know you need to study scripture, who are willing to give it a try, and who would appreciate some direction for the task.
First, some preliminaries. Anyone about to do a job must have proper tools. For good Bible study, you obviously need a good Bible - I presume you have one. There are a number of translations available and all can be studied profitably. The most accurate literal English translation is the New Revised Standard Version (the NRSV) which was published almost 20 years ago.(2) There are several other recent translations which are also quite good for those who get bogged down and discouraged by archaic language; for example, the New International Version(3) which we use in our pews. There are also some excellent paraphrases of scripture, the most recent of which is another which I use, Eugene Peterson's The Message.(4) These can help scripture come alive for you, especially if archaic language has been a stumbling block.
Several publishers have produced Bibles specifically designed for study. Along with the Biblical text are extensive notes and comments to provide background information. The best of these, in my estimation, is the Oxford Annotated Bible(5) (which is the one I use) - it reflects the most up-to-date scholarship and avoids taking dogmatic doctrinal positions. Another good one designed for study-by-discussion is called the Serendipity Bible for Groups(6) - it uses modern translations and surrounds the text with questions to encourage reflection. Those are a couple of choices.
The next thing to have is a pen or a pencil. If you are going to really STUDY the Bible, you need to make notes. Make them in the margins or use a notebook. One writer has said, "The Bible study that is done in one's head is very apt to get out of one's head..."(7) Do not take that chance. Write things down.
It would also be helpful to have certain resource materials if they are available to you: a concordance which alphabetically lists each word in scripture along with all the texts where that word might be found; a Bible dictionary to provide background on subjects, people, and places; a Bible atlas to help you locate the settings of various passages. As I say, these are helpful, but not critical - if you do not have them, you will still be able to study and learn. However, these ARE all available to you (you have them in your church library - make as much use of them as you would care to). Of course, birthdays and Christmas are coming, and if someone asks you what you want, now you have some suggestions.
Now that the resources are all in place, the next step is a decision concerning how to proceed. Study cannot be haphazard. I remember as a youngster being challenged by one of my neighborhood friends about the uselessness of Bible reading. To prove her point, she opened a Bible at random and began to read. Of course, she had begun right in the middle of a passage which, needless to say, made no sense because she had not begun at the beginning. No other book could be read that way either. You cannot simply set your Bible on its spine, let it fall open anywhere, begin reading, and hope to get much out of it. You need a plan.
If you like, use a daily devotional. That will assign a passage and then offer a comment on it (for example, These Days or The Upper Room or any number of books from the church library or a Christian bookstore).
If you care to, use a Scripture Reading plan designed to take you all the way through the Bible within a certain time (there are one-year plans, three-year plans, and so on). However, be careful not to bite off more than you can chew - if the reading plan involves too much, you might get discouraged and stop. As has been said, "The important thing is not how many times you have gone through the Bible, but whether or not the Bible has gone through you."(8)
My own preference for study is to do it a book at a time. That method offers the continuity of a reading plan while not forcing you to try to digest more material than you have appetite for. If you choose to do it that way, I would also suggest the additional resource of a good commentary or two (which would also be available in the church library or a Christian bookstore). The caveat I would offer concerning this type of study is that, if you are new at this, you not choose a book that is particularly long or difficult; choose one of the gospels or Genesis or an epistle like I John.
Once you choose your method of study, it is time to get to it. You will find it best to set aside a certain time each day when you will do your work. Some will prefer early morning, some at the end of the day. The point is CHOOSE A TIME and then stick to it. The accomplishment of any worthwhile task requires discipline and Bible study is no exception.
Once that is done and you are ready to go to work, the next step is prayer. After all, the reason we study the Bible is that it is GOD'S WORD, so it is appropriate to ask God's help in understanding it. As you prepare to read, ask for guidance - ask that your mind will be clear and that your spirit will be open to the message to be found. D. L. Moody once said, "The Bible without the Holy Spirit is a sundail by moonlight."
Next, read the passage you have selected. Then read it again...and again...and again. Read it aloud if you like - that will offer a more focused concentration. But be a READER first, then a studier. Go about the process SLOWLY! The butterfly covers more ground than the bee, but the bee gathers more honey.
Once you have sufficiently read the passage, THINK about it. As one old book in my library has it, "The reason why so many get so little out of their Bible reading is simply because they are not willing to think. Intellectual laziness lies at the bottom of a large percent of fruitless Bible reading...One pound of beef well chewed and digested and assimilated, will give more strength than tons of beef merely glanced at; and one verse of Scripture chewed and digested and assimilated, will give more strength than whole chapters simply skimmed."(9)
Martin Luther said he studied the Bible as one would gather apples: "First, I shake the whole tree that the ripest might fall. Then I climb the tree and shake each limb, and then each branch and twig, and then I look under each leaf."
For your own shaking, climbing and looking, consider some questions and then jot down the answers in your notebook. What is the principal subject of this passage? Who are the characters? What is the setting? What is the main lesson of the passage? Which is the best (or most meaningful) verse?
Turn again to our lesson from Psalm 119 (9-16) to see the process. What is the subject? The study of God's law. Who are the characters? The psalmist and God. What is the setting? Probably a private place of meditation and prayer. What is the main lesson of the passage? The importance of knowing God's requirements for the conduct of a righteous life. Which is the best (or most meaningful) verse? Well, the best-KNOWN is verse 11 (which we learned in the King James as we grew up): "Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against Thee."
There are some other questions which might also be asked. For example, What (if anything) does the passage teach about the Lord? Simply that God does have a standard for us and has not left us to our own devices in trying to live lives that are pleasing.
Reflect too on how the passage applies in your own life. Is there, in these verses, an example for me to follow? To be sure! The example of the Psalmist in seeking divine direction for living and his willingness to follow the direction he learns. Is there, in this passage, an error for me to avoid? Absolutely. The error of neglecting God's commandments. Is there, in this passage, a duty for me to perform? Indeed. A regular pattern of meditation and study. Is there, in this passage, a prayer for me to echo? "Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes."
Will every passage apply equally to everyone? Of course not. In my first pastorate, I served a small country church with a congregation that was seriously up in years. In fact, in the entire church there were only a handful who had not retired - 20% were over eighty. During my years there, I happened to preach a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments. No problem...until I came to number seven: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Now, I have often heard that "just because there is snow on the roof does not mean there is no fire in the furnace," but in this case, there were few, if any, embers evident at all. I DID preach the sermon - if I had skipped that one I would have never lived it down. (Actually, several told me later that they had looked forward to that one more than the other nine.) But that was one message those folks did not really need to hear. The same will be true for you in your own study.
One more issue is worthy of jotting down in your work: Are there portions of the passage that are difficult to understand? If so, what questions are raised for you? Our lessons this morning are fairly clear, but there will be times when you will run into chapters and verses that are confusing. Don't be afraid of them - ASK. That is one of the reasons I am here.
When Daniel Webster was a youngster, he was anxious to read and learn, so he read the only book available to him at the time, the Bible. As he lay in bed reading the scripture by candlelight one night, he accidentally managed to set the covers on fire. In response to a strong scolding he explained that he was "in search of light, but was sorry to say that he received more of it than he desired." That problem seems to plague many who read and study scripture. They get more light than they want. Mark Twain said it was not the things in the Bible he did not understand that bothered him, it was the things he DID understand.
One way to avoid becoming stuck on a difficult passage is to study with others. Then you can hash out difficulties together. Two heads (or 22 heads) are better than one. Study in a group will also help you avoid incorrect interpretation. A great teacher of preachers once advised young pastors, "If you say something next Sunday that was never said before, the chances are a thousand to one that what you say will not be true."(10) It is the same with Bible study: if you come up with something in your reflection that no one else has ever come up with in almost 2,000 years of spiritual digging, chances are you are wrong. Study in a group will help prevent that. You might consider forming your own with friends or neighbors - you do not need a preacher to lead it. There are a number of helpful resources for doing it.
Profitable Bible study is not difficult if you are willing to use good tools, to pursue a plan, to exercise some discipline, to approach it with an open mind and heart, and to think. If you do that, I promise, YOU WILL BE BLESSED!
1. David Van Biema, "The Case for Teaching the Bible," TIME, 3/22/07
2. By the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, 1989
3. International Bible Society, © 1973, 1978, 1984
4. NavPres, 2003
5. Oxford University Press, 1991
6. Zondervan, 1988
7. Quoted by Irving Jensen, Enjoy Your Bible, (Chicago, Moody Press, 1969), p. 40
8. ibid., p. 30
9. R. A. Torrey, How to Study the Bible for Greatest Profit, (New York, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1896), pp. 100-101
10. Clovis Chappell, Anointed to Preach, (Nashville, Abingdon, 1951), p. 80