"What do you mean?" Pastor Riggs asked.
"There's only one Bible. But there are dozens of different churches, and each one thinks they're the only one that's right. Why? How can a person figure out which church to go to?"
"Good questions, Jay. I used to wonder the same things. In fact, I started searching for God and for truth during my Navy days in Vietnam. When I got back home, I'd read the Bible; then I'd go from church to church and just get more confused. Through trial and error, I discovered five principles of Bible study that simplified my spiritual search. I think they're related to your question."
"What are they?" I asked. I sat down on the landscaping timbers that edged raised flower beds by the main entrance of the church.
The pastor sat on the edge of the flower bed across the sidewalk from me. "First, 'pray for God's guidance before you study God's Word.' The confusion about what the Bible teaches should be a warning. Especially since the devil wants us to misunderstand God. As you pray for guidance and study the Bible, God will speak to you through it."
I thought back to New Age instructions about spiritual contact -- always pray for protection from evil spirits. "Makes sense," I responded.
Pastor Riggs shifted his weight. "Second, study the Bible with an open mind. Don't go to the Bible to prove what you already think. Let it speak its truth to you."
"Hm-m-m. I can relate to that," I said. "I've always been curious and open-minded. Want to get to the basics of truth. About everything -- airplanes, radio, God." I shook my head. "I don't understand people who make up their minds without evidence and refuse to face facts."
Pastor Riggs grinned and nodded.
"Like the adage," I said, "Some people's minds are like concrete - all mixed up and set."
"That's about right with some." He chuckled then turned serious again. "But with spiritual issues, eternity's at stake. It's pretty important to let God speak."
His words hung in the silence, then he continued, "The Bible doesn't always say what you think it's going to. But, over the years, I've discovered that Bible truth is beautiful. I just need to give God the chance to make it clear."
I thought of my early disenchantment with God, then of the things I'd learned later. "I couldn't agree more."
"Another principle is," Pastor Riggs said, "read passages in context. Whether you read Scripture, the newspaper, or Shakespeare, if you pick a phrase or a section without reading what's around it, you may totally misinterpret it."
He grinned. "Did you hear about the man who thought he ought to read the Bible for guidance but he didn't know where to start?"
"Don't think so."
"He closed his Bible, then let it fall open." Pastor Riggs demonstrated as he spoke. "Without looking, he raised his hand, then brought his pointing finger down on the open Bible. The verse said: Judas 'went and hanged himself.' 'That's not a good devotional to start my day,' he thought. 'I'll try again.' So he turned a section of pages and pointed again. This time the words at his fingertip said, 'Go and do thou likewise.'"
I shifted on the edge of the flower bed. "I hope the story's fiction."
"Probably," Pastor Riggs admitted, "but some people believe things that are just about as foolish because they don't read whole passages."
I nodded in agreement. "I've seen it happen," I said, thinking back. I laughed. "Maybe the ministers I ran into years ago knew something you don't."
"All they had to do was use a text out of context and I was gone. I didn't stick around and hound them with questions week after week after week."
Pastor Riggs grinned. His dark eyes sparkled.
"Just think of all the nights you could have gotten home early instead of putting up with all my questions hour after hour."
He laughed. "Just wait till I tell my wife I have a new method for cutting down my work hours."
Neither of us would have laughed so hard had it not been ludicrous to think of Pastor Riggs that way.
"Seriously," he said when we quieted, "always read a text in context. Ask yourself, 'What did the writer mean?' It's so-o-o important! You can make the Bible say some really weird things if you just take parts and pieces."
"I'm certainly with you on that," I said.
"Good. Fourth, 'Read everything the Bible says on a topic. He paused as if searching for words. "Don't build a doctrine or philosophy on one or two texts, especially if there are other texts that seem not to agree."
"What do you mean?" I asked. "Can't we depend on every text in the Bible?"
"Absolutely. But there are a few that, if read out of context and taken by themselves, may seem to say one thing when other Scriptures clearly say something different. But I've never found any real contradictions. If I study a little deeper and read everything the Bible says about a topic, the answers become clear.
"But doesn't that take a lot of time?"
He smiled. "Well, yeah, it does take some time. But ... tell me, if a husband and wife don't spend much time together, what kind of friendship do they have?"
One of my eyebrows lurched upward. I thought of my own three wives, three divorces, too many hours at work, not enough time at home. I sighed. "Little time, little friendship."
"It's the same with God," Pastor Riggs said. "With every hour I spend in the Scriptures, I learn to know God better. Because God is love, the better I get to know Him, the more I love and trust Him."
The words hung in the still spring air. "OK," I finally said. "One, pray for God's guidance." I counted the principles off on my fingers. "Two, keep an open mind. Three, context. Four, read everything on the topic. Didn't you say there were five?"
"You're a good student, Jay. Yes, there are five. The last one is this: Study for yourself. I'm a pastor, and I love to study the Bible with people. But don't take my word for what it says. Don't take anybody's word for truth. You are responsible to God for what you do with truth."
"Study with others; listen to others. That's fine. But, bottom line, study till you know for yourself what God says in the Bible."
Pastor Riggs smiled broadly. He lifted both arms and gestured freely. "God's truth is liberating. God's truth brings the greatest joy possible. Don't let anyone steal God's joy from you. Study till you know God."
I swatted a bug that buzzed to a landing on my arm. "I don't mean to be disrespectful...but I don't really see anything earthshaking in that list. I mean ... that's basically the way I've studied radio programming or management or anything else I wanted to learn. It's ... just logical."
"You're right, Jay. The principles are simple. But they're extremely important. If you'll follow them, then find a church that agrees with the Bible, you'll do fine."
I scratched my head.
"Unfortunately, Jay," Pastor Riggs continued, "it's really easy to accept certain beliefs, to get comfortable with them, and then to quit searching for truth. Keep following those Bible study principles the rest of your life. Let God change you as He leads you."
"So ... getting down to the nitty-gritty," I asked skeptically, are you saying that there really is only one church that has truth and that all true Christians belong to your church?"
"No. I'm saying that every human being ought to investigate truth. We're born babies and grow physically. Even after we reach our full height, till the day we die, new cells grow and replace worn out ones. A person who doesn't grow physically, mentally, or emotionally is severely handicapped. Don't you think we ought to grow spiritually too?"
"I'm saying," he continued, "that all Christians, whether they're in my church or any other church, ought to continue to study the Bible." He looked off into the distance, as if thinking, then continued. "Friends of God search for, value, and follow truth because it leads them into deeper and fuller friendship with God."
At home that night I prayed, "God, I want to be Your friend. Please help me to understand truth. Please give me the love and joy that comes from being Yours."
At work, every third time I passed Jennifer's desk, she had something more to say about my dating her friend. "No, Jennifer. Forget it. I'm not interested."
"But she's really nice."
"I don't care how nice she is! I'm not interested in dating anyone. Inki and I are doing just fine by ourselves, thank you. And I like it this way!"
Why won't she catch on and leave me alone? I have more than enough stress without a woman on top of it all! In my adult life, I'd never been without a partner for long. Now I realized it had been two years since Keyli and I split. In two years I hadn't gone on a single date. Being alone had been a new experience, but my resolve to stay single forever hadn't weakened an iota.
I looked forward to the weekend. One of the benefits of my job was an occasional all-expenses-paid weekend in Nashville. I ate well, and Inki and I stayed at a nice hotel. My favorite spot was the swimming pool. I'd swim and lounge, lounge and swim. The total relaxation contrasted completely with my regular pace.
Poolside, this trip, I pondered what I'd been learning. Some things had surprised me. Some had been downright shocking. But everything was straight from the Bible. It made sense. It all fit together.
I'd been praying for truth. That was easy when I thought I knew truth. But I'd learned a lot of new information in the last few months, a lot of corrections to former misunderstandings about God. Only one pamphlet was left -- "Are the Dead Really Dead?"
Annette, the pamphlets, Pastor Riggs -- they all used Bible texts carefully. The new information I was learning jigsawed together into a nearly-complete, beautiful picture. But they had to be wrong in this last pamphlet. I had studied about life and death for years. I had experienced former lives. I had read what spirits claiming to be advanced souls spoke or wrote through individuals like Edgar Cayce and Ruth Montgomery.
I spent more time in my hotel room than usual -- studying the Bible. By the end of the weekend, I was eager to question Pastor Riggs. After prayer meeting, I started in. Again, he led me to Bible answers. Finally I asked, "What if I can prove to you I'm right about what happens when a person dies?"
"Then I'II quit this church and join a New Age church," he responded instantly. "Maybe become a New Age pastor."
"You really would?"
"Absolutely!" he exclaimed without a second's hesitation. "In the last few verses of the Bible, where God is wrapping up what He wants us to know, He gives us two solemn warnings: One, don't add to Scripture, or the plagues will be added to you; and, two, don't take away from Scripture or your name will be taken away from the book of life and from all the joys of heaven [Revelation 22: 18, 19]. Truth is a serious matter. I don't care what it is. If it's truth from God's Word, I want it."
I will show Pastor Riggs the truth about reincarnation! I resolved. He's such a vibrant Christian now. He'll be dynamite when he understands reincarnation!
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