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Lent 2003 Bible

Keith Gough, 7 March

As an introduction, our speaker described how "The Bible and Me" refers to the relationship between him and the bible, not a cold book of instructions and something with which to interact - the Living Word. His talk centred around his own views on "The Bible and me" rather than "The Bible and others".

The scripture's inspiration referred to in 1 Timothy 3 16 could simply be about the Old Testament yet the letters of St Paul are understood to be part of the scriptures in 2 Peter 3 16. Keith Gough questioned how he could identify with these key elements of scripture, stating how the Bible is the foundation on which his life has been built. He feels the meaning of what he has read is more important than the literal truth - 'never a big issue for me'. Even so, the Bible must remain trustworthy.

In John 10 35 Jesus said "We know that what the scripture says is true forever". Are we therefore asked to believe some incredible things: God creating the world in seven days, making a woman out a man's rib and talking snakes. 'If I cannot believe that, am I an unbeliever and worthy of God's judgment?' Revelation 22 19 includes the warning "not to take away anything from the prophetic words of this book". How does the Biblical literalist consider that the cannon of scripture was not set until after those words in Revelation were written? Others would take away from the Bible all that would appear "sub-Christian" - that which promotes discrimination, injustice and oppression - inconsistent with a God of love (1 John 4 8).

Keith Gough considers his views to be more middle of the road by comparison. Many others, too, look beyond the surface of the words to search for the deeper truth they reveal. The function of the Bible is to reveal the nature of God and his Kingdom rather than to provide a "News at Ten" report. Arguing about the literal interpretation can divert us from the deep truth within the story. The story of Joshua doesn't ask if a fish could swallow a man, but raises the question of whether a prophet can escape his calling.

Christians holding a literal belief in the Bible who label people with different views as unbelievers causes him concern. Keith Gough says that the Bible is the foundation on which his life has been built. Keith Gough is more concerned with the interpretation by some that certain Bible passages are sub-Christian. He feels that the Bible always needs "to be interpreted for us - we cannot ever let the Bible speak for itself". But then, is the interpretation more important than the Bible itself? A radical scholar will interpret differently from a liberal and liberal differently from an evangelical. Whose interpretation can be trusted - and which one does God want me to trust? Differing interpretations can disturb the very foundation on which his life is built.

He adds that even though he cannot be told how to think about the Bible, making his own interpretation does not diminish his need for guidance on how to understand it. Knowing the context is necessary to make sure he understands what God is saying through a passage. He needs to understand how theologians interpret the passage so that his own interpretation is informed.

The greatest commandment - to love God and love your neighbour - is the measure in knowing what the Bible means. The passage in Matthew 22 37-40 continues with how the whole law and teaching of the prophets depend on these two commandments.

'The Bible is precious because it reveals Christ who was crucified so that I can die to selfishness and the guilt that imprisons me; it also points me to the Easter message that "He is risen" - enabling me to find new life - the life of the Kingdom of God in which I am liberated to love God and my neighbour as myself.'

A lively discussion followed; readers in the Harrogate Area are warmly invited to join the live discussion at the Friends' Meeting House, Homestead Road for future Lent Lunch Talks.

Rev Brian Hunt, 14 March

The song "Everyone needs a dream. Any old dream will do" is dangerous nonsense. Adolf Hitler (and others like Marx & Lenin) had dreams - some powerful, apparently giving sophisticated people a goal, a purpose, making sense of the world - but dreams that resulted in destruction.

Any old dream simply will not do; while, yes, we all need a dream, some vision which gives us significance and meaning and a sense of purpose - it is vital that the dream is the right dream. Here we see the root of the Western world's spiritual emptiness, despite its material richness. We live in a post-ideological world without a great story or what the philosophers call a meta-narrative.

The Bible gives Brian Hunt more than just history, fine poetry and wise moral teachings - the world is full of good advice. Brian needs a dream to give his life shape, significance and purpose, and that's what the Bible does for him. The world needs good news, and through the Bible God himself speaks. He speaks through weak, fallen, sinful men like Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Peter, Luke and Paul, but though his pure Word is of necessity refracted through the warped prism of those frail people's lives, it is still God's Word that we hear when we read the Bible. The Bible does not contain our dream for that would be nothing other than the record of human wishful thinking. The Bible contains God's dream for us and for his creation, fractured by sin. The Bible is nothing other than God's revelation of himself and of his purposes to us.

Through the pages of this sacred book God is telling us something which we simply could not have worked out on our own. "In the beginning was the Word" begins John's gospel; from the very beginning God has been reaching out to us to share something vital with us. That is Good News, not simply Good Advice. And the Good News is that this "Word" was God himself. So, for Brian, the Bible is God's revelation of himself to us, supremely seen in the person of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament points forward to him and the New Testament points back to him (Hebrews 1, 1-3).

Marx and Lenin attempted a framework or grid to make sense of human history. Science became a way to explain and make sense of physical phenomena. The Bible is God's grid, his way of explaining the pattern of life. The Bible is a standpoint: the world can look very different depending on which way you are looking. The Bible gives Brian the standpoint which makes sense for him, making life - notwithstanding its pains and sorrows - noble, hopeful and ultimately worth living. Brian does not look on life as a matter only of Darwinian survival or of Existential Nihilism; he finds these view points both demeaning and false.

As we soak ourselves in the thought-forms of the scriptures, God lets us see life from his point of view. The merciful God has provided us with a grid to place over the map of life so that we can see the patterns in life, good patterns, which give us hope, peace and joy as we pass through the good and bad times.

The Bible is an instruction manual; ignoring the manual for a petrol powered car - by putting diesel in it - will ruin the engine. Ignoring God's manual - refusing to see life from his standpoint - will wreck one's life. Christianity is not about lifestyle choices, it is about truth which people ignore at their peril. On the last page of the Bible God tells us that he does not give up on us as useless, but that through his Son Jesus he redeems us.

This is not abstract philosophy, it actually happens: God actually does things through specific people at specific times, in specific places. Examples include Abraham's life and children (a promise given to him by God when he was old and childless). Through Abraham's offspring came the Saviour of the world, Jesus.

From the Bible Brian has learnt that he is significant, made in God's image to have communion with him; he was worth Christ dying for him. From the Bible he learns that he has a purpose: to love God and to love his neighbour as Jesus loved him. The Caesars, Hitlers and more all thought that they called the shots, as do huge global corporations, but it is God who is on the throne. Psalm 2 4 says: "The One enthroned in heaven laughs, the Lord scoffs at them". It wasn't Pilate who changed the world - it was the silent Gallilean teacher. The Bible reminds us that God is on the throne and that he promises so much for us. The Bible shows the very characteristics of God himself; from the Bible Brian derives purpose, significance and values such as others before self, love, fidelity and truthfulness. The Bible tells of victory through the crucified, raised and ascended Lord Jesus. God's Word gives him confidence in daily life that God will not fail him and that his Spirit will empower him and that one day his Son will return to judge both the quick and the dead.

Yes, everyone needs a dream, and God has given us his dream for us in the Bible so that we can live his life joyfully, hopefully, and in confidence that it is his love that conquers all things.

Fr Bernard Bickers, 21 March

Fr Bernard was born the youngest of seven children in the 1940s; his mother (99) is Roman Catholic and father an Anglican. His upbringing with Latin Mass, prayers, devotions, benediction and the Stations of the Cross seemed to leave little space for the Bible. Aged 12, Bernard found himself at Ushaw College, the seminary for catholic priests in Durham, complete with clothes, shoes, sportswear and the New Testament - the whole Bible was considered inappropriate for children of that age.

Vatican II called for renewal; Pope John XXIII gave three reasons: the Renewal of the Church, the Unity of Christians and the updating of Church Law. Bernard perceived that this renewal was not going to be window dressing but an in-depth look at the Catholic church and its relations with other Christians and, indeed, the world. Most people experienced the effects through the liturgy and especially that of the Mass. The Liturgy of the Word was put on a par with the liturgy of the Eucharist. This shift in emphasis came with renewed understanding of the importance of the scriptures in the lives of all people.

Those training for the priesthood at Ushaw were given the opportunity of studying theology at Durham University; Bernard experienced what was then a revolution - learning from Christians of other denominations including C K Barrett, John Fenton and John Rogerson. It is to these men and people like Richard Taylor and John McHugh at Ushaw that Fr Bernard owes much. Accordingly he describes how the vast majority of his prayer and spirituality is Scripture based.

Every Sunday at Mass there are four pieces of Scripture proclaimed. The key passage comes from the Gospels. The three year Lectionary allows one of the synoptic gospels to be read semi-continuously Sunday by Sunday, currently reading from Mark's gospel (Ordinary Time 2003). A reading from the Old Testament is chosen to fit in with the theme of the gospel; this reading is followed by a Psalm, and a further reading is taken from the New testament - often one of Paul's letters (which may not continue on the theme). The aim of this three year cycle is to allow those coming to Mass to hear the most important parts of the Bible. The role of the priest is to help people enter more deeply into the meaning of the Scriptures through the homily. For Fr Bernard, one of the most important parts of his priestly ministry is preaching the Word, meaning much time spent in the Scriptures every week.

In practice this means that both private and public prayer will include more than 90 Psalms each week, expressing virtually every human emotion from ecstatic joy to the deepest depression; each week includes 35 scripture passages plus at least 20 other scripture passages at daily and Sunday Mass. All this could appear academic if it wasn't for the way of praying the scriptures. God put these words on the lips of the prophet Isaiah (29 13): "This people honours me with its lips, its heart is far from me". We all know the danger of lip service, going through the motions - a constant danger, especially for those with the privilege of presiding at services... for the third or fourth time on the same day. We also know when someone is half hearted or not pulling their weight, We also know when someone is fully engaged, when their heart is fully involved; Jesus reminded us that where our heart is, there is our treasure as well.

Fr Bernard works hard to honour God with his heart as well as his lips, currently using the method "Lectio Divina". His private prayer is built around the readings at Mass which often means that he is engaging the Scriptures in a very personal way, hopefully allowing the Holy Spirit to lead him in prayer. He decides the minimum length of time he will spend in prayer, aware of distractions and those occasions when the time passes more quickly than expected. Fr Bernard then asks the Holy Spirit to open his mind, heart eyes and ears and all senses to hear the Word of God speaking to him today. He will read and re-read a passage to see what strikes him, what draws his attention. When he is drawn into a passage, Fr Bernard notes how he is feeling and what he is thinking, perhaps even seeing, becoming more aware of a new awareness of God, and of Jesus becoming aware of how he can live this Word as a disciple of Jesus.

Fr Bernard responds to the Word in prayer: repentance, recognising faults and a real desire to turn again to God. It may be resolution, with God's help, to do something, or to stop doing something. Praise may come, recognising that without God he is nothing - that the God he believes in is the God who loves him unconditionally, uniquely, eternally. His prayer may be thanksgiving, intercession for others, begging God for peace in these desperately troubled times, or petition for himself. His prayer is a response to God's word already spoken. His prayer is God's gift to him, a response of his heart.

This can lead to simply resting in God's presence, humbly and quietly, letting go and simply being in stillness, finally drawing the prayer to a close and seeing how he will try and make this prayer part of the rhythm of the day ahead. It is a method of prayer which is based in Scripture, recognising that all prayer is response to who God is and what God has done for us.

Rev Alan Mair, 28 March

For Alan Mair, the subject of the ‘Bible and me’, made him think of 2 main parts of his life. He spoke, first of all, of his upbringing in a traditional Lanarkshire Baptist Church. His experience of growing up there through afternoon Sunday School, Christian Endeavour, Youth Fellowship and Church meant that the Bible was very much part of his life. He listened to the Bible stories, heard it being taught and was encouraged to realise how important Bible reading should be. An abiding memory from Sunday school was the annual Scripture Exam. This was an important event in his home church and his memories of it are still vivid. He recognised that such memories are shared by many who can look back to similar Sunday School days.

This Church tradition in which he was brought regarded the Bible as central to the life and experience of Christians and the work of the Church. Some suggest that the Supremacy of Scripture is first among Baptist principles with ‘each congregation having freedom under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to interpret and administer the Word revealed in the Scriptures’. Other Baptists, though, would contend that it is the freedom to do this that is the first among Baptist principles.He also suggested that approaches to and the use of the Bible is a wide ranging topic and over the centuries has produced much debate and even sadly division within denominations. Growing up in this Church tradition meant that the Bible was part of his life - he learned from it, heard it being preached Sunday by Sunday, discussed it within church groups. He was thankful for that background and to those who gave time and energy to teach the Word.

The second main part of his life in terms of ‘the Bible and me’, was his move to Theological College. This understandably moved him into a new phase of his life with regard to the Bible. Perhaps for the first time he was encouraged to think more deeply about how he used the Bible and also for the first time heard views which seemed to be critical of the Word.

Life at Theological College he found interesting, stimulating and challenging. His College Principal, the Rev R E O White, an excellent Bible Commentator and writer, was able to encourage and guide students in the study of the Bible. Under his guidance the challenge of Bible Study came alive. The main thrust of this was the endeavour to set the Bible books and passages in context in order that the original message could be listened to before expressing what the Word would say to our own day.

He noted that it was often said that understanding the context of Biblical literature is necessary if much of the Bible is to come alive and speak to us. Culture changes, the use of language changes and this needs to be recognised. He reminded us that even in our own lifetimes we recognise that our children and grandchildren may use words in a different way from ourselves (eg when they use the word ‘wicked’ they can mean something that is really good, wonderful, amazing - and not something terrible). This is something society comes to terms with.

With this in mind he suggested that there needs to be a recognition that every part of Scripture has of necessity to make use of the words, concepts, symbolism characteristic of its day. Not to recognise this could be considered as rather arrogant, forgetting that the Word is not just for us in the 21st century.

For our speaker this approach helped the Word to come alive in a fresh way. He emphasised that this approach does not put us as equals to the first authors of Scripture but makes us co-workers with them in the same task - that of hearing and proclaiming the Word of God. He also recognised that there might be those who could see such an approach as dangerous or subjective. But any way, which is used to approach and use the Bible, can be dangerous when those who come to it do so with minds closed to what God would say from the Word and there is always the temptation to make the Word fit our agenda and message.

But it seemed to our speaker that in the approach which took seriously the original context of the Biblical passages, the Word is allowed to speak afresh to the present day.

Finally in his talk he reflected on this approach and how it can be used in practice and illustrated this using Psalm 46 and also in how this approach can be used with the Book of Revelation.

Derek Carr, 4 April

Derek Carr described his respect and affection for the Bible by contrasting his deep love for it today with his views as a militant atheist in the early 90's. Like Woody Allen's description of War and Peace as summarised by a speed reader in just fifteen minutes - "It was about Russia", the Bible was in two halves about Jehovah in the first part, and about the Son of Jehovah in the second. Likem War and Peace, he viewed it as fiction and full of contradictions. Now he sees the Bible as the best book on the shelf, a companion and friend.

Today's speaker was in awe of the speakers in this series of Lent Lunches; after some eight years of study he now understands the background, historicity and the compilation of the Bible, but perhaps his contribution was his insight from having read the Bible from both sides of the ethical divide, as a non-believer and now as a believer. He has heard it said that most books have to be understood to be accepted, but he knows that the Bible has to be accepted to be understood. He had read it as a seminal document of Western civilisation, another book to read. The notions of sin and moral values were alien to him; trained in psychology he knew of genetics, the effect of the environment and early childhood as the root of problems in humanity. Issues like Judgment, the need of a Saviour were answered by a good therapist. The maxim "Do as you would be done by" was sufficient; answering to God was incomprehensible.

Derek Carr knew that the Bible was irrational, supersticious and beyond reason: 5,000 families fed - with left overs? Dead men walking? Yet when he read it, in an odd way it wasn't what he had expected at all in that it wasn't religious propaganda. The people God used included the dense, selfish, stupid, zealots, and in the Old Testament were weak and flawed. The Psalms included gasps of despair at a God who wasn't much help. Statements like "It will not go well for the wicked" impressed Derek because of the Bible's honesty. He was not untouched by Jesus and his inspiring teaching, but the idealism and all that salvation and eternal life wasn't easy; the cross didn't penetrate his understanding.

Many events came together at the right time for Derek when "the great fisherman had brought me to the shore" and his life turned upside down. He found himself in Leeds Parish church, close to his workplace, praying "Lord, I give in." The thing he had derided all his life was true - God was God and he needed a Saviour. When he read the Bible again it came to life, like one of those pictures formed by coloured dots which he could now recognise - he saw the true picture. Faith made a difference, it was supranatural, above reason, not irrational.

Was it happy ever after? In zeal he read other books by bishops, theologians and experts in interpretation; what he thought he'd understood now wasn't true at all! In addition, the doubts of fellow Christians (similar to those doubts he'd known as an atheist) made him not know what to believe. He was in greater need of someone to help him, rather like Trinny and Susannah, only "What not to believe"! The helpful people were Billy Graham and Charles Templeton. When the two powerful and charismatic preachers were contemplating deeper theological study, Templeton headed off to Princeton Theological College. Billy Graham was too busy. Templeton learnt much, but Billy Graham noticed that his old friend's faith was undermined by this new understanding. Charles Templeton lost the power in his preaching, became a journalist and was never heard of again. Billy Graham took the view that the Bible meant what it said and said what it meant.

Derek Carr had to make the same decision; he now has the faith and assurance and is firmly anchored to his faith. He reads the Bible with faith, believing that the Bible was written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He doesn't argue against scholarship, but recognises that the Bible has to be understood by people of all abilities.

The attitude which accepts that "With God all things are possible" says that the feeding of the 5,000 was an actual event and asks what God means by it. That same attitude looks for the connections: the link of Elijah feeding a widow with flour and oil with jars of oil left over tied to the feeding of the 5,000, for example, all illustrating how Jesus is the manna, the bread of heaven. He sees the Bible as a whole book, making the connections easier to grasp - the books are tied together so cohesively. He is helped by the picture of a tapestry: on the reverse, the stitches are all joined together, and throughout there is a crimson thread. Finding Jesus in the Bible is like finding the name "Jones" in a Welsh telephone directory.

Derek sees Christians as "the people of a person" rather than the people of a book. He admires those he know every chapter and verse, but knows that there is a danger of worshipping the book rather than the person it's all about. Derek knows that God's love is in control of the universe and that God is working out his plans. He notes that creation did not finish on the sixth day, God's plan is now being worked out in his life. Derek knows Jesus as his Lord, guide, Saviour and friend, found in the pages of the Bible. He was poor, wretched and blind, but now sees and knows the Bible to be the best book on the shelf.

Clare MacLaren, 11 April

The Bible is three things to Clare MacLaren: a Sounding Board, a Surf Board and a Springboard.

A good friend is a Sounding Board. Like the way the fur was rubbed off the Velveteen Rabbit, her Bible is starting to fall apart because it is loved. Over the years it has been filled with notes to herself, such as, next to Matthew 7 (Judging others): "Oh Clare - take heed!" She has added theological comments: beside 2 Timothy 3 she has annotated "Paul, you really don't like women!". Her Bible is worn out but loved. It is frustrating at times when she doesn't know what it is talking about. Clare MacLaren has learnt to persevere. When trying to explore things like the meaning of life, or thinking about the war in Iraq, or again considering personal news and issues, our last speaker in this series will take it to the Bible and ask "Well, what do you think?".

Clare MacLaren's relationship with the Bible could be described like the relationship between lovers, exploring each other's beauty and passion.. She has learnt that studying the Bible isn't just dry and cerebral but also about examining the text lovingly. Some things may be difficult for us to accept - but we learn to love the blemishes. The Bible, in return, does the same thing; we may be products of this age with things in us that need to be challenged and changed since they are unacceptable to God. The Bible is like a mirror - it provides feedback to us. And we don't easily forget our reflection.

Surfing now means many things - surfing the Internet or riding on a Californian wave. It is in this way that Clare MacLaren sees the Bible as a Surf Board: the Bible takes her soaring up to God in all his majesty. The Bible carries her on the crest of a wave. It tells us how God carried his people through in similar ways; it also describes how many crashed down to the depths, like Job, Mary at the foot of the cross, and again in the psalms, notably as Jesus quoted on the cross: "My God, why have you forsaken me?".

The Bible surfs back to the beginning of time to the nothingness before creation, and forwards to Revelation with all God's promises. It is an exciting journey on a Surf Board - it may be shaky, but like the journey with God takes us on, by faith we stay on. It may be scary, but it's exhilarating!

At school Clare MacLaren remembers the spring boards in the gym class. She see the Bible as a Springboard in the way God gives us opportunity to use the gift of imagination to understand the greatness of God written in the words. She can fly as she springs up to the text. As long as she stays rooted on a firm foundation, Clare MacLaren has enjoyed the richness within the stories of the Bible. She notes that not every story is literal - the parables may not have been exact examples of real events, but they are age old valuable stories.

The Jewish way of Midrash allowed folk to tease out what was going on in a story. The Bible used to be passed on by word of mouth and was written down to make sure people didn't change the important truth. Midrash allowed people to ask questions such as "What would have happened if Abraham had set fire to Isaac?", or "What is Peter hadn't sunk into the waves when trying to walk on water?" There is value in working out what this or that person was thinking to help to see the richness of the Bible.

Clare MacLaren has found that the texts spring to life when she reads them aloud - a wise thing when preparing to read to others. She recently read a part of one of Paul's letters, practicing over breakfast: the scripture sound so different with toast and marmalade in the mouth! Words are not so holy that they cannot have margarine stains on them - and that reflects the reality that the words were central to the lives of those in Bible times, and indeed are still central to our lives today.

Many stories in the Bible have been told in expressive ways to help people of all ages discover more of the background and reality of the settings, context and vivacity of the word. Clare MacLaren has written many herself, and read out an exhilarating version of the event where Lazarus was raised from the dead - indeed, the way she spoke brought the story truly to life.