3 Reasons why the Christian Calendar is Meaningful for today’s Church

By Joe LaGuardia

Our church, First Baptist of Vero, is hosting a short-term study on the Christian calendar during the season of Lent.  Although the sacred calendar has always been a part of First Baptist’s 101-year history, the church has often made an effort to educate the congregation on the importance and meaning of the Christian year.

Much of this work has come under the 20-year tenure of the Reverend Dr. Michael Carter, our music minister, who received a doctorate under the leadership of Robert Webber, a name church liturgists associate with the Christian calendar and ancient-future worship.

When I interviewed with First Baptist over a year ago, I was delighted that Dr. Carter was the resident theologian on liturgy.  I fell in love with the Christian calendar while attending a Presbyterian church in high school and Palm Beach Atlantic University, a Baptist college out of the Charleston tradition–a tradition that champions both biblical scholarship and orderly, liturgical worship.

On the heals of Ash Wednesday and while sitting under Dr. Carter’s teachings this past Sunday as he began his study on the Christian calendar, I remembered all of the reasons why I–and the churches I have belonged to and have known–cherish the sacred year.

First, the Christian Calendar reminds me that my faith in and with Christ is not all about me.  I grew up in a northern evangelical church that promoted a simple, but strong Protestant faith devoid of anything “ritualistic.”  We celebrated Christmas and Easter, but outside of that we tried to live by the adage that our Christian witness was more about a relationship with Christ rather than religion.

But something was missing in my Christian upbringing.  By the time we moved to South Florida when I was a boy, we were so “spiritual but not religious,” that it turned out that we were neither spiritual nor religious.  In fact, my tradition was so devoid of any ritual, my only memories of spiritual experiences were limited to attending Miami Dolphins football games and that one time I walked down the aisle to make a decision for Christ at First Baptist Church of Perrine.

When I started attending New Covenant Presbyterian Church during high school and, later, PBA, I experienced all of the nuances of the Christian year.  It did not come off as ritualistic, but a way of bolstering my relationship with Christ.  I felt that I was part of something larger than myself, part of a movement–the Christian faith–that stretched two millennia into the past and connected me to the larger story of God.

As Dr. Carter stated last Sunday, “The Christian year is about sacred time that tells of God’s story, about fusing our story with God’s story, and about making the Christ event the center of that story.”

I had a strong faith from my upbringing, but now I had the skeleton to hang–and to build–some serious Christian muscles in my walk with Christ.

Second, the Christian Calendar sustains me during seasons of spiritual drought.  We all have seasons in our walk with Jesus.  Sometimes we are on fire; other times, we feel distant from God, as if we are only stepping into each day with little connection to God.  That is natural; there is a rhythm to our faith that often mimics the four seasons of the very creation of which we are a part.

It is during those times of drought and “winter” of my soul that I come to rely on the Christian year.  The rhythm of sacred time gives me the bearings and the strength to keep walking, keep at it, to hang in there.  It encourages me to keep going because, though “sorrow may last for the night, joy cometh in the morning.”

It’s like brushing teeth.  We brush our teeth because its more than a routine, it keeps us healthy and keeps cavities away.  So too the Christian calendar is good for the soul; it keeps our hearts focused on God even when God seems far from us.

I found this out the hard way after my father died tragically as a result of gun violence.  After his death, I could not pray.  I could not focus.  I did not return to the pulpit for over a month.

The liturgy–specifically the hymnody, doxology, and congregational singing–was the only thing that got me through that time of grief and heartache.  If Jesus was hard to find in the midst of tragedy, I certainly found him in the midst of song–of hearing the congregation sing, and in following those notes sprawled across that trusty Baptist hymnal.

Third, the Christian Calendar teaches us good theology. At best, theology in the contemporary church is piecemeal, the sum of a thousand topical lessons and sermons that often fail to communicate the entirety of scripture.  I have heard this first hand–a 45-minute sermon in which the pastor presents a topic or thesis, and then strings together a barrage of scriptures as if those scriptures stood independently from the context of their respective books and of the scriptural canon as a whole.

The church year walks us through the entire Bible–starting with creation, the fall of humanity, climaxing with the birth, life, death, and resurrection in Christ; and culminating with the hope of the Second Coming of Christ.  It does not stumble from Christmas to Easter and to the next topical sermon; rather, the story of Christ stands central as we learn to be born again with him, pick up our own crosses, follow Jesus into baptismal waters, through hardship of Lent and finally the joy of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

Dr. Carter quoted Robert Webber as stating, “The life, death, and resurrection of Christ stands at the center of time.”  This is not an event divorced from the rest of God’s story, but entangled with the whole of scripture.

I am far from idealistic.  I will continue to visit with churches and Christians who have no place in their life for the Christian year.  That is okay; people walk with Christ on their own terms.  But for me and my family, being intimately bound with a story much larger than the “LaGuardia” story brings liberation, healing, a sense of purpose, and theology that corrects and rebukes and reproves.

It is sacred, and that is something to behold.

A Hunger for Bible Literacy, Part 2

cropped-coffee-and-bible.jpgBy Matt Sapp

This is the second post in a series designed to encourage more of us to read the Bible more often.

In part one, we talked about developing a basic understanding of what the Bible is and where the Bible comes from. When was it written? Who are the authors? Why were they writing and to whom? Most of these questions can be answered by reading the introductions and text notes in a good study Bible.

Today we’re going to try to understand how to engage the actual words of scripture on the page in front of us. We’re going to try to figure out how to read the Bible successfully and most profitably.

WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD I BRING TO SCRIPTURE?

As you read scripture, you should start by asking three questions:

-What does the text say? (a comprehension question)
-What does the text mean? (an interpretation question)
-What questions does the text raise? (an engagement question)

1.What does the text say? The Bible is an old and varied collection of books.  Sometimes it takes work just to understand what’s going on in a Bible passage, but basic comprehension is the first step toward successful Bible reading.  One way to do this is to use “who, what, when, where, why” questions.  Each passage may not answer all five questions, but if you try to answer as many as you can, you’ll start to get a good sense of what’s happening in the passage.

2.What does the text mean?  What can I learn from the text?  What questions might the text be trying to answer? What is this text teaching about God, the human condition, or the world?  This is an interpretive question and is the most important question to answer as you seek to understand how to apply the Bible to your life today.

3.What questions does the text raise in my mind?  Where do I want to know more?  What should I look up when I’m finished reading?  This is an engagement question that encourages you to learn more about what you’ve read.  Over time, following up on this question will help you get better at answering question two—the interpretive question.

So, first try to understand what the text is saying.  Then try to understand what larger truths the text might be trying to communicate.  Finally, identify areas for further study.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

If you want to get a good overview of the Bible in an attempt to understand the whole story, what parts of the Bible should you read first?  Here are my suggestions.  Admittedly, these selections leave out large and important swaths of scripture, but it’s a place to start.

These are twelve relatively short selections that could easily be studied and absorbed over the next twelve weeks.

THE OLD TESTAMENT
Genesis 1-11—The opening narratives of the Bible represent the first efforts of our religious ancestors to answer the biggest, most fundamental questions about human existence. They explore questions about human purpose, human relationships and our relationship with our creator. These ancient myths answer age-old questions about how and why we got here with profound insight and intuitive knowledge. The depth of understanding and the enduring truths revealed in these stories leave no doubt about God’s presence in their formation and preservation.

Genesis 37-50—The Joseph saga presents one of the most well-developed characters in one of the most well-developed plot narratives in all of ancient literature. Joseph represents an indispensable link in the story of Israel. Without Joseph, we cannot get from Abraham to Moses. And, as a character, Joseph has much to teach us about faithfulness, humility, judiciousness, wisdom and forgiveness.

Exodus 1-3 – This records an introduction to Moses and the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt.  These chapters include Moses’ birth and call to leadership at the burning bush. This is a necessary text to understand what comes later.

Exodus 11-14—These chapters recount the Hebrew people’s escape from Egypt.  This is the story that birthed the nation of Israel. The people who marched with Moses through the Red Sea developed the laws, customs and worship traditions of the Jewish faith.  These are the people who received the 10 Commandments and developed the rituals of temple sacrifice and worship.

Job 1-3, 38-42—Job is the oldest book in the Bible, but its insight into the human condition and God’s relationship with humanity continues to amaze.  The first three chapters are Job’s complaint to God about the unusual trials he’s facing.  In the last four chapters, God responds. You’ll notice this selection skips over most of the book.  The middle of the book contains the responses of Job’s friends to Job’s plight. If you have the time, the whole book is worth studying.

Psalms 1, 8, 23, 46, 51, 103—  The Psalms include a blueprint to the worship and prayer practices of the nation of Israel.  There’s nothing particularly special about this selection of Psalms. They’re just my favorites.

Isaiah 1-9, 40, 60-61—How do we act in accordance with the will of God? The prophets challenge us to live in accordance with God’s will and teach us how to do so even in challenging circumstances. Isaiah is one the Old Testament’s most important prophets. The language and imagery in Isaiah are exquisite. These chapters should give you a good idea of Isaiah’s message, and they include some of Isaiah’s most familiar and soaring passages.

THE NEW TESTAMENT
Matthew 5-7
—The Sermon on the Mount—the most important body of teaching in the history of the world. Read it. Then read it again.

Luke 2, 12-18, 22-24—Luke is perhaps the most recognizable gospel. Even non-Christians will find Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ parables, and Jesus’ death and resurrection familiar.

John 1:1-18 and John 13-17— Johannine Christology and Farewell Discourses—The first chapter of John develops a philosophical underpinning for the identity of Jesus and the nature of God.  In chapters 13-17 Jesus takes a private moment with his disciples during Holy Week to deliver his final instructions to them. At the end of his teaching Jesus prays for his disciples, and not just for the ones in the room, but for all who will come after them. When you realize that you’re reading a prayer that Jesus personally prayed for you, it’ll give you goosebumps.

Romans 3-8—The letter to the Romans is the most complete presentation of the theology of the Apostle Paul. This selection is the meat of the argument.

1 John—one early Christian community’s beautiful understanding of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. All you need is love.

WHAT TRANSLATIONS WORK BEST?

The Bible exists in all kinds of translations for all kinds of reasons. It’s best to use a modern translation that is the result of the best scholars using all of the available textual resources and manuscripts to achieve a translation that is both readable and faithful to the meaning of the original languages.

Four translations to try:

New International Version (NIV),
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV),
The Message (Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase),
Common English Bible (CEB).

You can use a Bible app to read scripture, like YouVersion on your phone. You can read the Bible online with biblegateway.com–a wonderful tool for searching scripture.  But the BEST thing you can do as you start to re-engage scripture is to get a good, printed study Bible.  The introductions to each book, the summary tables and timelines, the in-text notes, and the cross references will be invaluable as you seek to better understand scripture. You’ll discover that the extra notes in your study Bible are often able to answer questions you have as you read the text, and the background and insight they provide will make your scriptural explorations more meaningful.

A NOTE ABOUT INTERPRETATION

If reading and understanding scripture continues to be hard for you—if you still don’t feel like you’re getting anything out of it—you’re not alone. That’s why so many people study the Bible together in groups. Join a Sunday School class or find a weekday home group.

In groups, we can lead each other to deeper biblical insights and steer each other back on course if we start to veer off track.

Also, scripture reading ALWAYS raises questions. If you’re part of a study group, you’ll start to discover that others in your group have the same questions you do—and some may even have answers to your questions.

If you’re hesitant to interpret the Bible for yourself, that’s natural. But you have everything you need to read and understand scripture for yourself. Remember these things, though.

The criterion by which we interpret scripture is Jesus Christ.  As Christians, we read all of scripture through the lens of who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and what Jesus taught. If a particular passage of scripture seems to conflict with the life and teaching of Jesus, see if there’s a faithful way to reconcile the two. If there’s not, give priority to the teaching of Jesus.

Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If your interpretation of scripture leads you toward a more committed and complete love of God and neighbor (Matt 22:37-40), you’re most likely on the right track. If it doesn’t, you may need to look at how you arrived at your understanding again.

A FINAL WORD

I hope you’ll take the challenge and join me in re-engaging scripture for yourself. Biblical literacy is a foundational requirement for a healthy church. Our neighborhoods and communities NEED healthy churches led by healthy, biblically informed Christians.

The future of the church in America—and its ability to impact our world—depends on individuals just like you making the commitment to read and understand the Bible for yourselves.

A Hunger for Bible Literacy, Part 1

bible study handsBy Matt Sapp

Wanna know a secret? No one reads the Bible anymore.  Can you name the last time you opened your Bible at home? If you can’t, know that you’re not alone.

Whatever your background with church—whether you haven’t missed a Sunday since you were a child or you’re just finding a faith of your own as an adult—most of us have one thing in common.  Very few American Christians—regardless of their church involvement—read the Bible consistently on their own. 

Several years ago I sat in a church pew on a Sunday night listening to well-known Christian evangelist Tony Campolo. As he taught from the pulpit he called out to the congregation a chapter and verse of the Bible and asked us to recite the scriptures with him.

All he got back from the congregation was uncomfortable silence and blank stares.

I was never very good at recalling scripture by chapter and verse, and I’m still not. I’m no memory verse or Bible drill champion.  But all of us should know the Bible better. And to know the Bible better, we have to read it more. 

This isn’t a post, though, to blame Christians for not reading the Bible. This is a post to acknowledge that the church needs to do a better job of teaching people HOW to read the Bible.

Why don’t we read the Bible anymore?  The Bible is hard to understand. You can’t just pick it up, flip it open and start reading—at least not if you expect to get the most out of it. So, mostly, people just don’t read it in the first place.

That means that Christian leaders need to do a better job teaching the basics of scripture, and not just for our members’ sake—many pastors (myself included) could benefit from a review of the basics, too!

People have very basic questions when approaching the Bible like, “Where should I start reading?” And, “What should I know about the Bible before I start reading so I can understand it better?”

It seems like it should go without saying, but our churches MUST be prepared to intentionally engage these questions from our adult members if we want them to read the Bible more consistently.

When we open the Bible, if we want to understand it better, we should bring some basic questions (and answers) to our reading.

  1. How and when did the Bible come into existence?How did we end up with the sixty-six books of the Bible? What did the first Christians read before the Bible was formed?
  2. What Bible translations should we be reading from? Why do we have so many different translations of the Bible? What are the differences between them?
  3. What type of literature is the particular book of the Bible we’re reading—poetry, prophecy, history, gospel, letter? When was it written and where? And, what does that mean about how we should read any particular text?
  4. What is the author’s purpose for writing?Are there big questions the author is likely trying to address? What kinds of answers were the first readers of scripture looking for? And, what kinds of answers should we be looking for in a particular text?

Once we’ve answered these questions, we need to help our church members READ THE BIBLE—not someone’s application of scripture that turns it into seven easy steps for a happy life, and not someone’s interpretation of scripture that tells you why your political positions are blessed by God.

We need to JUST READ THE BIBLE, so we can seek to understand it for ourselves together in Christian community. Once we’ve developed an appropriate foundation, we need to trust our collective ability to interpret and apply God’s word in our own contexts and for our own lives.

That’s a long way of saying we need to recommit to the Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers.

Last week, my church Home Group met to talk about what we’d like to study together over the next couple of months. Here’s the feedback I got from my group. They simply wanted to know more about the Bible and how to read and understand it for themselves.

I nearly wanted to cry when I heard their responses—both for joy that there’s a hunger for meaningful engagement with scripture and in sadness at realizing how poorly we’ve engaged that hunger in our congregation.

So over the next several weeks, my home group is going to start trying to answer some of these questions as we simply READ THE BIBLE together.

And you wanna know a secret? I can’t wait!