To Study or Not to Study?

God’s presence in our lives: what does that mean? Is “God’s presence” just another “churchy” phrase….or something vital?

Let’s look at one way to open our lives to God: study.

There is an old joke about defining a Presbyterian: a Presbyterian is a Christian with a college education. While that is not fair to our non-Presbyterian friends, it does point to studying, to education, as a major focus in our Presbyterian tradition.

–Presbyterians have a rich heritage of founding colleges and universities, having high educational standards for clergy, making learning experiences for children, youth and adults a priority in a congregation.

Yet there is a good reason NOT to study present in today’s scripture reading: Paul is spreading the good news of Jesus Christ…religious leaders are resisting him…the story is in the Book of Acts: 17: 1-11.

     –READ  Acts 17: 1-11

There are two ways to study: the first is the way of the religious leaders shadowing Paul.

–These people are certain Paul is wrong because Paul does not agree with them…they think they already know what is true….all necessary study has been done.

The second way to study is seen in the Bereans: they were willing to study, to “examine the scriptures,” question.

Both the religious leaders and the Bereans were knowledgeable about scripture….the issue
isn’t how much they knew…it was how they approached studying.

–The religious leaders say we already know the truth…end of story.

–The Bereans were open to considering there may be something more to learn.

When people ask me sometimes, are you liberal or are you conservative or progressive….I just say, “Forget all those labels; I am just right!”

–Everybody thinks they are right…most of us try to avoid being wrong, to avoid even appearing to be wrong.

–We say all humans are fallible, but when it gets personal….to the beliefs we hold, the politics we follow….I can’t think of anything I’m wrong about!

–Being wrong is embarrassing, being wrong is scary. So why is study often not helpful?

–Because when we are convinced we are right, when we have decided this is what scripture says because this is what I believe it says, guess what we find every time we go to scripture to study?

–We find out that we were right….because we seek out those stories, that saying, this scripture or that writer that supports us: “see, I am right.” If that is the way we study, DON’T waste time studying…. don’t sign up for one of the studies offered here.

Kathryn Schulz has written a challenging but illuminating book “Being Wrong.”

–She reminds us everybody thinks they are right…and when somebody disagrees with us, Schulz says we often go through 3 levels of response.

The first stage is we think the person who disagrees with us is just uninformed….they don’t know enough…so let me enlighten you….you obviously don’t know the facts…let me explain this to you and then you will be right, too.

Sometimes, despite our great explanations, they shockingly still don’t agree, so we move to a second stage.

–They are not just uninformed, they apparently are stupid…they don’t have the mental faculties to grasp it….so we pity them…maybe it was their upbringing…so let me speak in one syllable words you can understand…let me explain this, for I am right.

If they still don’t agree with us, we move to a 3rd stage: they are dangerous, they are trying to sabotage all that we know that is right….they are enemies.

The Jewish religious leaders following Paul had moved to stage 3, saying he is an enemy:Paul is not just uninformed, he is not just dumb, he is dangerous, evil, he is our enemy….he threatens what we KNOW to be truth!

–They do what we too often do: we make the other person the enemy because he or she is wrong….has to be wrong because I am right!

Sadly, that is happening even in our Presbyterian community: we have turned disagreement into enemy-making….all too many people think they have no need to study further because they think they know the truth….and that those who disagree are so evil we cannot be in the same group together.

Schulz’s 3 stages are also seen in our national, political life.

–The last time you disagreed with someone about politics, which category did you use:uninformed, just dumb, dangerous enemy?

The key is, if we don’t have humility, if we can’t say “I may be wrong, what I know may be incomplete”—then study is useless: close the book, don’t participate in learning.

And what is the essence of humility?
–It is knowing we are human, fallible…it is knowing deep within us that none of our convictions, however deeply held, are infallible. For the religious leaders, what Paul said couldn’t be right, because he didn’t agree with what they think is right…and they thought their views were the views of God.

The Bereans looked at the same scriptures and said, there may be more here, there may be more light yet to break forth from God’s word, from God’s creation.
–What we know may be true, but incomplete, or maybe there is another way of thinking.

Christian life, Christian renewal and transformation imply change…that something we used to know is not all there is to know…that even what we hold most dear may or may not be of God.

–So if we can’t come seeking what is yet to be learned, close the book, don’t study.Don’t study if you can’t come with humility….and don’t study if you can’t come with curiosity. Isn’t that what the Bereans did?

–There may be more….we haven’t put it all together yet…so they questioned, studied to find something more.

The point of study is not to be right, the point is to grow in truth….in the way of him who did not think equality with God a thing to be grasped….but humbled himself, taking the form of a servant…the point of study is to follow Jesus of Nazareth who opens to us this mystery which we call G-O-D….who is, in the words of  my favorite benediction, behind us, beside us, above us, below us, within us, and always showing us the way.

IF we study with humility and curiosity, our world begins to open up….and as we change,there should be evidence of something like love, joy and peace, patience, kindness and goodness, gentleness, self-control. If this is not happening, try a different way of experiencing God’s presence….try service or prayer, for example.

Study is one powerful way of sensing the reality of God in our lives, IF we come to it with humility and curiosity, with expectancy of what God is yet to do with us.

Thanks be to God!  Amen!


The Rev. Dr. Jim Brasel
Spirit of Life Presbyterian Church
August 24, 2014

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