Wednesday, September 25, 2013

My New Bible Reading Plan

(My plan doesn't rely on the high tech stuff, but this is my setup.)

Have you ever struggled to find a Bible reading plan that works well for you?  That has been my struggle recently, and I wanted to share with you what I have developed, and have found to be a great enhancement to my morning devotions.

Why did I need a new plan?
(Feel free to scroll down to the details of the plan if you want to skip the “why.”)

I've used several plans over the years. Usually, I default to a plan that includes some Old Testament, some New Testament, some Psalms, and some Proverbs each day.  But for a while I also used and enjoyed Professor Horner's system (link to PDF), which gave an incredibly broad overview of the Scriptures, with large amounts of reading from all over the Bible every day.

Each system has its advantages. But I found I couldn't stick with Professor Horner's system for more than about a year and a half before the frenetic pace left me a bit frazzled. There are great advantages in swallowing large amounts of Scripture every day for a while, but it does keep one back from a more careful, in-depth look at the Word.

Lately, I had begun to find myself dissatisfied with every Bible reading plan I tried. All involved multiple chapters a day, and I really felt I needed something that allowed me to give greater concentration to small amounts of Scripture.  But I couldn’t bring myself to embark on a one-chapter-a-day, Genesis-to-Revelation type of study. Perhaps it’s shameful to have to admit it, but there are certain books I just didn’t want to get bogged down in for a month or more. After a great deal of time spent in Deuteronomy, for example, I’m nearly gasping for the refreshment of the epistles. And while some of the Bible’s most beautiful words of hope can be found in Isaiah, it also has many, many chapters of judgments against the enemies of God’s people. All of that is useful, but one can only read so much of it at a time before one begins to thirst for words of grace.

I began to toy with the idea of creating my own Bible reading plan, one that would give me small amounts of Scripture each day, while giving me a great deal of variety in my reading. At the same time, I didn’t want to be reading things out of context, since context is such an incredibly important part of Scripture interpretation and understanding. So I certainly wasn’t going to choose some sort of random, “shut-your-eyes-and-open-the-Bible-and-read-whatever-page-it-opens-to” approach.

The more I puzzled about it, the more I thought that Professor Horner’s plan might have some answers for me.  It did offer lots of variety, it was not calendar-based, and it divided the Bible into sections from which one would read each day.

What if, instead of Professor Horner’s ten-chapter-a-day approach, I adapted it into a one-chapter-a-day plan, and read from a different section of the Bible each day? That way, I could get the variety that I thirsted for, could get the in-depth study that I knew I needed, and could keep my daily selections within their natural contexts.

And so, from these musings, my new plan was born. And I’m finding it to be everything I hoped it would be.

The Details of the Plan

It is generally recognized that the Bible can be divided into five or six different categories. Of course there is some blurring of the lines between categories, but for a weekly reading plan, you can do very nicely with the following divisions:

·        Law – Genesis through Deuteronomy
·        History – Joshua through Esther
·        Poetry and Wisdom – Job through Song of Solomon
·        Prophets – Isaiah through Malachi
·        Gospels and Acts
·        Epistles and Revelation

That gives me one different type of Scripture to read each day of the week. So Mondays I read one chapter from the “Law” section, working my way through the chapters in order, so that everything remains in its correct context. On Tuesdays I read a chapter in the “History” section, also working through that section in its natural order. And so on throughout the week. This way, I get a very nice survey of the Bible every week (except Sunday), while at the same time going through at a slow enough pace that I can spend time studying and taking notes.

Since this plan is not calendar bound, in the sense that you don’t have to finish at a certain pace, I am also free to divide a long chapter in half if I find that I want to spend more time on it. There’s no guilt for having fallen behind what someone’s predetermined plan says I should be reading today.

I find that this plan really helps me to get through the sections of the Bible that I find harder to read than others, such as the thundering judgments of Isaiah, or the grieving of Jeremiah in much of his two books. Since I know that I will only be reading one chapter from these difficult sections each week, I approach them with a better attitude. And that makes me more open-minded, and enables me to gain more from these valuable passages. And believe me, these are vital and valuable passages. It is my own sinfulness that makes it hard for me to appreciate these sections. With this new approach, I’m learning to appreciate them more.

While not everyone will agree with me on this, I also skim over the genealogical stuff. I know and believe that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable. I believe that the profit in the genealogies comes from the fact that they show that God knows every individual, and, more importantly, they confirm the necessary genealogical line of the Messiah. (That’s why the Bible stops keeping track of genealogies after the birth of Christ.) So, when I encounter a chapter full of names, I thank the Lord for His intimate knowledge of all people, and for His wisdom in bringing the Messiah into the world. And then I skim over it and move on to the next chapter. (But be careful if you do this. Sometimes there are real gems stuck in the middle of the lists of names. So don’t just skip them. Skim them, looking for those little nuggets. It would be a shame to miss them.)

So how do I keep track of where I am? I decided to borrow Professor Horner’s strategy here, too. I created a bookmark for each section, and I clearly labeled it to show what section it belongs in. I just move it forward with me as I go along. You can see a sample below.

(I chose to make magnetic bookmarks that fold over top of the page so they won’t fall out. I labeled both sides of the bookmark for easy identification from any angle, and then placed a distinctive mark on the side of the bookmark that shows which side of the page I actually left off on.)

Since in-depth study was an important consideration in designing this plan, I also needed to set up a note taking system that would work well for me. Being the computer geek that I am, I chose to set up my system in Evernote. You can of course use a much more traditional system, such as pen and paper. But whatever system you use, you may find it helpful to use an organizational strategy similar to the one I am about to describe.

I created six individual notebooks, one for each day of the week and its corresponding section of Scripture. Each notebook then has its own page devoted to a book of the Bible within that section. So, within the “Law” notebook, I have a page for Genesis, a page for Exodus, etc. (If you’re using pen and paper, you will of course need much more than a single page for each of these books.)

I then take chapter and verse notes wherever and whenever thoughts strike me. But I make sure that I date the notes, so that the next time I come to this section of Scripture, I can review the notes that I made last time. This is a great way to refresh my memory on important points I might have forgotten, as well as giving me a glimpse of my progressive understanding and appreciation of the passage over time.  (If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may recognize the fact that the notes on chapter 4 verse 5 turned into a recent blog entry!)

Please let me know if you decide to try this Bible reading plan, and how it works for you!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

My "Good Fight" For Today...Against Shame

Photo by jfg

The shame comes in waves.

It hasn't been this bad in years.

I'm endlessly re-living, constantly cringing at the memory of yesterday's Stupid Moment.

I literally feel my stomach knot up, every few seconds, as the memory assaults me again.  Often a little grunt or whispered word of distress escapes me.

And, underneath it all, there's the rage.

I can NOT be that stupid!

Well, yes...yes I can.  And, in fact, I was.

But I'm not willing to be.  I can't bear to be.  And on days like today, that means I can't bear to be me.

I used to get haunted by shame all the time, but by the grace of God, it's not nearly so frequent now.  But yesterday's Dumb Moment (which also turned out to be an Expensive Moment) was made worse because it was a semi-public event. (As in, I believe I was probably the laughingstock of the police department's locker room at the end of the day.)

Don't ask.  Just don't.

Coming home last night to face the usual nighttime routine (and the usual nighttime chaos!) of family was hard.  As you know if you've been reading this blog for a while, I'm an escapist by nature.  And all I wanted to do last evening was curl up in a ball in bed.

But God has been working, and I could feel something new inside of me.  A new strength that did not originate with me, but came as a gift of faith.  And again today, when the shame waves started crashing over me, I felt the Holy Spirit coming alongside me, bringing the truths of Scripture to mind from a whole new angle (for me, anyway).

I'm actually kind-of excited about this.

It's funny...yesterday morning, when I wrote the blog entry that I posted this morning, my Big Embarrassing Event hadn't happened yet.  And, when I wrote that post, I really didn't think it had any bearing on my life at the moment.  It was just a thought that had popped out at me from my scheduled reading in Joshua.  But after my Stupid Moment, when I became terrified by the memory of How Dumb I Can Be, I began to hear my own words coming back to remind me that I don't need to be afraid to relive what happened.  And I may even come out of this painful time with some brand new memorial stones to set up.

Isn't God good?

So, what does my "good fight of faith" look like today, when I'm fighting shame?

First of all, let me tell you what it's not.  It's not a fight to improve my self-esteem.

Instead, it's a fight to align myself with the greatest truths of the Christian faith, so I can live in the freedom of the truth (see John 8:32).  That's why it's called "the good fight of faith" (1 Tim 6:11-12).  We're to fight to increase our faith in God, not in ourselves.  It's the fight to walk in the light when the enemy (and our own egos) tell us to run or to arm for war against some human foe.

So, what truths am I loading into my arsenal?

How about this one?  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."  That means that I mustn't arrogantly insist that I BE something awesome (instead of being someone capable of really bone-headed moves).  I am to be at peace with my own humanity, NOT because sin and failure are no big deal, but because those things have been bought and paid for by my Savior in whom I have placed my faith.  And so I pray, "Thank You, Lord, that You are teaching me to live humbly with the reality of my shortcomings.  Thank you that the Kingdom is promised to those who are poor in spirit.  Help me to value poverty of spirit, to value humble acceptance of my shortcomings, to value Your kingdom more than my own imagined greatness."

And how about this?  "For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Col 3:3-4).  This speaks to the fact that, as a believer, I was crucified with Christ and raised with Him to a new life.  My life is hidden in God...and that means I can't see it yet.  But I must fight the temptation to find my life in other people's esteem.  My life is not hidden in their approval.  It's hidden with Christ in God.  "Thank You, Lord, that my life is hidden in You, and that I need no longer torture myself with what man thinks of me.  Help me to find my life in You more and more."

Or how about "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!" (Php 4:4).  I am not cruelly called to rejoice in my stupidity, but I am reminded that the Lord is in Heaven, reigning gloriously for the good of all His people (including me).  He knew in advance what I was going to do, and planned to make it work for my good (Rom 8:28).  So I pray, "Lord, help me to rejoice in all that You are for me, rather than raging over what I am not."

The "good fight" also looks like simply staying present when I want to run and hide, not just so I can "be strong" (there's that desire to be awesome again), but because God has promised to make me stand, and because He has work for me to do.

It means remembering (and praying) to be increasingly patient with other flawed people, when their flaws impact me. For we who have been forgiven much are to love much (Luke 7:47), and are to forgive others in return (Matt 18:21-34).

Do you know what began happening last night as I lay in bed and fought the shame with truth?  I began to feel a wonderful feeling of freedom from the fear of man, a fear which Scripture warns us against. It came back with a vengeance this morning, but that just means it's time to fight again.

"For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."  I want that.  I do.  It will be worth the fight!

When God Says, "Go Back There"

Imagine the scene, if you will.

Your name is Avram, perhaps, or something similar.  You're a middle-aged Hebrew wanderer, finally getting ready to enter the Promised Land.

All of your life you've heard about this land.  You've stared longingly across the forbidding Jordan at its verdant far out of reach of your desert abode.

You've heard of your parents' rebellion against the Lord, which stopped your national progress and doomed you to decades of wandering.  You've heard about the miracles they saw, but you were so young when they happened that you don't remember them yourself.

You have experienced daily miracles yourself:  A pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, each of which guides your nation in its wanderings.  You've seen bread fall from Heaven every day, without fail, except of course for the Sabbath...but the bread always fell in double portions on the day before the Sabbath, so you could gather extra then.

But these miracles have always been there, as far as you're concerned.  They're kind-of humdrum to you.

Now Moses, the great Man of God, has died, and Joshua is in charge.  And the 40-year exile has reached its end.  It's time to enter the Land of Promise.  That means, for starters, that it's time to do battle with the mighty city of Jericho.

But the even mightier Jordan River lies between, and to make matters worse, its currently in its flood stage.

Were the old stories of the Parting of the Red Sea really true?

Could it happen again, even without Moses?

You're almost ashamed to admit how amazed you are when it does happen again.  Your jaw drops at the sight of the turgid wall of water piling itself up.  That wall is trembling with unimaginable power, held back only by forces you cannot see or comprehend.

And you have to walk in front of and a few million others.  Including your wife and your children.  You look at them now, so weak and vulnerable next to the forces that threaten them.

And you have to lead your whole tribe, because you've inherited (and risen to) a position of power in that tribe.  So, you square your shoulders, hide your fear from your wife and kids, and step onto the now dry river bed.

The water-wall beside you seems like a raging stallion, eager to break out of its restraints.  And yet you walk.  Your mouth is dry, and you hope the Almighty can forgive your fear.

He promised, and He's done this sort of thing before.  We will get safely through.  We will.

And, finally, you do.  You turn to look back at the hordes which are still coming, and at the priests who stand along the way as God's representatives, almost seeming to hold back the walls themselves (but you know they're not the ones who can do that).  There they stand, though, and you don't envy them.  You couldn't get through that trial fast enough.  It was a creepy place to be, and you're glad you came through it in one piece.

Finally, the last of the nation has crossed, except for the priests, who still stand their ground.  And then Joshua calls all of the tribal leaders together.  You go to him, expecting your orders to advance toward Jericho.

But no.

He says, "Go back."


"Go back."

Go back into the danger zone, back into the place that so recently filled you with awe and fear, back into the trial you thought you were done with.

You can't believe your ears.  Why would we do that?

"This is what the Lord has commanded.  Go back into the heart of the Jordan and gather stones, one stone for each tribe, and bring them back to set them up as a memorial for future generations, so no one will forget what happened here."

You don't argue.  This is, after all, the man whose word had just parted the waters.  You don't play at dueling words with such a man.

So, you and eleven other men walk back into the place you just escaped from.  You feel even more vulnerable now, in such a small company of men. Just the other tribal leaders and, of course, the priests at their posts.

You don't rush.  You can't.  You know your job.  You've seen stone memorials before, and you've appreciated the skill that it takes to build one that will stand for generations to come.  You recognize that you have to get a rock that is not only very large and heavy, but also one that is suitably shaped for its purpose.

You have to spend a fair amount of time finding a good candidate, conferring with the other rock-gatherers until you all agree that the twelve stones you've found will work well together.

And all the while, the Jordan quivers against its restraints.

You hadn't wanted to be here once, and you still can't believe you're here again.

Why aren't we invading Jericho?  That's what we came across to do, right?  Why are we wasting time back here?

But finally, bending under your heavy load, you trudge back to where your family and tribe and nation await. You make eye contact with each priest as you pass him, and you nod.  His burden is greater than yours, and you know it.

At last you're back with your tribe, and you can drop your heavy burden on the ground.  You straighten up with some difficulty, and for some reason you can't stop yourself from looking back at the Jordan yet again.

I made it through.  Not once, but twice.  

And God held the water back each time.

You look back down at the stone you've carried. It's good that we have these stones.  It's good that our people will always remember.

And now, amazingly, you're glad that you were one of the few who had the privilege of walking that road again.


Has God ever made you revisit a scary place that you thought you were through with?

Maybe it was a real, physical journey.  Or maybe it was a journey of remembrance, a journey of telling others, of setting up your own memorial.

What was that like for you?

Could it be that you're still standing on the banks, afraid to step in again?

If you've been called to revisit the painful place, please look again.  What...or rather whom do you see?

There is not a row of priests there, like there was in the Jordan.

No, there's something better. Someone better.  The Great High Priest.  Jesus.  The One who held back the waters the first time, saying "This far, and no further."  He is still holding the ground you gained.  He's also on the shore beside you, and also at the Jericho that awaits.

And He knows, dear brother or sister, that you can better face your Jericho if you remember your Jordan.  If you revisit His faithful deliverance through it.  If you look Him in the eye and nod as you bring back your memorial stones.

Do it.

Trust Him.

He's still there.

And finally, a word to those of you still in the middle of your first scary trek.  Those of you who can't even imagine getting through the first time, much less coming back for a stone.  My word for you is this:  Don't worry that you don't have a heavy stone on your shoulder right now.  The command to fetch it hasn't come yet.  It won't come until you're safely through.

Please don't hear this harshly.  Please hear it as gently as I mean to speak it.  You're not qualified to set up a memorial yet.  It's not that you have to prove your qualifications...oh no!  Your trials are never about you proving yourself to God, or even to yourself.  Your trials are about seeing God holding the waters back. Your trials are about seeing God's power and His deliverance.  So if you haven't yet seen the salvation of the Lord, how can you talk about it?

If you have no memorial stone with you yet, just keep walking and trusting Him.  The day will come when you'll be able to come back and get one.

And you'll be glad you did.

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