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Tough Sledding: How To Read Difficult Books

As a preacher, church and community leader and comunicator, I do a great deal of reading, studying and research. Much of this is difficult technical and academic literature. This reading gives people the illusion that I’m smarter than the average bear, but that’s not really true.
Truth is, even though I read a lot of demanding material; I’m not a natural reader and I don’t think that my IQ is higher than the average person. I merely went to graduate school, which forced me to read a lot, retain a good bit of what I read, and then deliver the same material, along with my own reflections, in ways that make sense to people. I’ve learned some simple strategies that anyone can employ in order to read difficult texts.
Here They Are:
  1. Read in Short Burst. I rarely read more than 10-15 minutes at a time. I cut out all other disctractions, set the timer on my iPhone, put my head down and plow through. When the time is up, I walk around, check e-mail or something else for 5-minutes, then set the time again. It sounds short, but you’ll be amazed at what you’ll get done in an hour.
  2. Set A Daily Page Count. Getting through tough reading becomes easier if you’ll covenant with yourself to get through a certain number of pages per day. For me, it’s usually 50-75 pages. That’s not many, but you can make it through a tough book in a few days.
  3. YouTube Videos. Some books (read: authors) are really difficult to follow. When you come across an author you don’t understand, stop reading and hop on YouTube! Hopefully you can find video of the author speaking. Doing this will give you a feel for the author’s diction and rhythm and the way they use language. (Confession: I never made it through a N.T. Wright book until I did this. After hearing him perform several sermons, his books flowed much more easily. I began to understand how he communicated.)
  4. Read The Conclusion First. I picked this up from my friend, Kraig Martin, as he was doing his Master’s in Philosophy. Kraig would read the conclusion of each chapter in order to get a sense of what was being argued. He’d then go back and read the argument. I tried it. It helps.
  5. Keep Resources Handy. I’m not picking up theologians like Mark Heim without my online dictionary handy. He uses words I don’t know. Without the resources hand, I’d be debilitated. Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know and look it up. There’s even a Wikipedia for theology.

These tips have helped me and my reading. Reading, in turn, helps me with everything else in life. Try them for a while. I bet they’ll help you too.

Share with us how you get through tough (but good) books.

Breakdown, The First Steps of Deconstructing Your Paradigm

Reading the Bible isn’t as easy as I was taught as a child.

For instance, a few months ago I walked a group of people through a class entitled, A Dangerous Word. Essentially we examined how we read scripture. It’s obvious – given the 1,000′s of Christian denominations – that people and ecclesiological traditions read the Bible differently. What’s less obvious – and this applies to all groups – is that “we” have a particular way of reading scripture. What’s more, “our” way of reading is largely culturally-conditioned and has it’s own beauty and it’s own blind spots. Texts that are crucial to one person or group are oftentimes marginalized or flat-out ignored by others – it’s called “privileging a text.”

This privileging of texts gets pretty astonishing at times. some traditions find themselves honoring and privileging one half of a sentence and ignoring the second part of the same sentence. For instance, the church of my childhood demanded that “Church of Christ” was the only proper name for a church because it was the only one mentioned in the New Testament (Romans 16.16). Yet, in those same churches, no one – and I mean NO ONE – ever exchanged a “Holy kiss” though that is also in Romans 16.16. As Scot McKnight has pointed out in his great book, The Blue Parakeet“every one of us adopts and (at the same time) adapts the Bible to our culture.”

In preparing the class I was once again reminded how difficult it is to peel back our constructs in order to build a better and more constructive one. Like many theology students, the death of our “first naivete” and the introduction of  the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” can be oft-putting. People, including myself, are resistant to the process of deconstruction.

For one, deconstruction is hard. In the process we have to examine our preconceptions and offer the lamb of our philosophical and theological constructs up for sacrifice. Only truth-seekers can truly do this. Those who desire to use their version of truth or partial truth reject the process out-right. There’s simply too much at stake – namely power. In order to get to the heart of truth one must be willing to clear the debris of partial truth, idols and comforting platitudes.

Second, the deconstructive process puts our past on the line. We are who we are because of our history. Even our painful experiences shape us. Since most of us like ourselves we protect our history. How disorienting it is to willingly engage a process that critiques both our current belief system and past beliefs…especially for leaders. We’ve given advice and walked through life with other people, offering the seeds of a belief system throughout the process. We bring into question the good we have done if we allow ourselves to questions the beliefs that gave rise to those good works. For Christians, this should be mitigated by belief that God is working through us and it was never about us in the first place.

Third, it’s easy to believe that if we don’t recognize or acknowledge something, it’s not really there. For instance, if we never talk about translation issues, hermeneutics, the role of genres, etc…then they don’t exist. Questions regarding the function of Genesis 1-12, Job, Daniel or Revelation aren’t easy to wade through, yet we need to nevertheless.

We need the deconstructive process for one simple reason: Truth! Many Christians live with false, ultimately indefensible, and theologically poor paradigms because we have simply swallowed  what was spoon fed us as children, teens, or when we first came to have a life-changing, though rudimentary relationship with Jesus. Yet, for many, the process is simply too painful to embrace.

But I don’t know anyone who deeply wants to live with an ill-concieved or false worldview. We don’t reject deconstruction because we desire falsehood, we reject it because it’s painful. Yet, it is Jesus who assures us that the truth will set us free. Therefore, when we examine the scriptures, we are seek nothing less than truth. The best Bible readers – both laity and clergy – seek truth with the fundamental belief that whatever else we sacrifice on our journey to truth is worth sacrificing.

Six Messages Kids Need To Hear

Yesterday I shared a post dealing with Barbara Coloroso’s Kids Are Worth It! : Giving Your Child The Gift Of Inner Discipline. Part of Coloroso’s work is teaching parents the six critical messages kids need. I think you’ll find you need them too.

What messages are you sending to your kids? How do you communicate them?

Have We Missed the Heart of the Gospel?

Reconciliation is the heart of the gospel. People have tried to have me think it’s something different. They’ve tried to tell me it’s about answers to 16th Century theo/political questions. They’ve tried to tell me it’s about saving the American family. They’ve tried to tell me it’s about 5 acts of worship. They’ve tried to tell me it’s about sin. They’ve left me unconvinced!

It’s about reconciliation. God reconciles us to Himself so that we can be reconciled to one another. It’s full-circle reconciliation!

Why do I believe this? Because the central issue at play in the New Testament is reconciliation; the bringing together of Jew and Gentile. This is in the backdrop of all of Paul’s letter and the overarching context of why he writes. It was Paul’s great work.

The apostle writes in Ephesians, for example, about why Jesus came to earth. He writes in 2:14, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,  and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.  He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

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Is There Such A Thing As An All Powerful Pastor?

I’m sick of it! Permit me to rant for a moment!

And if you’re a pastor/preacher/minister, you’re likely sick of it too. You’ve seen all the tweets and articles in magazines that act as if the pastor is a singular human in their organization, capable of creating and sustaining wonderful health and growth all by his or her own lonesome.

 

Here are some of the doozies I’ve heard lately:

  • As the pastor, you should be the happiest person in your church.
  • Pastor, what’s your staff culture? Remember, you set the culture for your staff.
  • If you don’t have 5 evangelistic relationships going on, how can you expect your congregants to have any?

On and on the lists go. It all adds up to this: As the leader of your organization you’re expected to have a great family, exercise daily, be studied in theology, history, culture, music, Bible and the local and national news. You’re also solely responsible for the culture and spiritual growth of your staff and congregation, as well as their intellectual and emotional health and growth. By the way, how up-to-speed are you on fund-raising and systems-thinking and strategy- implementation? What about addiction, co-dependency, visitation, guest-services, and community activities. Oh, before I forget, don’t you have a sermon to preach this weekend?

The problem with these little maxims is that they are partly true. As a pastor and leader, you do carry some level of responsibility for all these things. Yet there are so many things to be responsible for that no human can do them all well. I don’t mean to be snippy, just realistic. I pastor in the real world with real-world limitations. And many church leaders I know are stuck in systems that they are handling with as much hard work and determination they can muster. And still others, face challenges that they cannot overcome. There are simply more considerations than some evangelical leaders understand when passing down their leadership maxims. While these considerations run the risk of being labeled excuses, for many people it’s the water they swim in. In nearly 20 years of working near, around and in churches, I know these considerations to be depressingly true.

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