Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

    I live and grew up in north west Montana. It is a beautiful area, with mountains, lakes, diverse forests and rich soiled valley floors. I did a significant part of my growing up in a town called Lakeside. It’s a small town, built on the shore of Flathead lake. It is built where the foothills of the mountains come down close to the shore. All of the roads are steep and houses are built into the bedrock of the hills. The people care deeply about their community. Most of them have moved from elsewhere, with a goal of owning a little piece of Montana. In the grocery, and hardware stores, conversations abound between friends and acquaintances as they run into one another. Politics and weather, are spoken of with good humor. Even in disagreement, the common goal of each is understood, to own a little piece of Montana.

    Later I moved to the CIty of Kalispell, about sixteen miles away. It is a sprawling town, built on what was once rich farmland, Up until the early twentieth century, most of the land was entirely without trees. Now when looking down from the surrounding mountains, houses can just be glimpsed through the thick foliage. Maple, poplar, and birch are some of the main choices. Trees chosen because of their ability to put down roots fast. Trees that are resilient to sometimes harsh Montana winters, beautiful in the fall, provide the fresh sense of life in the spring and thick satisfying shade in the summer. The people there are private and enjoy the privacy of their own homes. Most of their living is done outside of Kalispell itself. If they want to enjoy a summer day, they drive to a nearby lake. If they want to take a vacation, they camp in the surrounding mountains. Most people live in kalispell as a means to an end. They needed a roof over their heads, and Kalispell was the best option. In the grocery store and hardware stores, there is little conversation. On the streets, neighbors go years, evan decades without ever learing the names of the people that live next door.

    There are many more town in the area. Bigfork, with its emphasis on art and culture. Whitefish, with its many restaurants, bars, clubs, and gift stores, and sports equipment. Whitefish has a dual personality. The wealth brought in by tourism has given the town an appreciation for whatever is trendy and new. While a large part of the population live there because of their love for the outdoors and its proximity to world class skiing, hiking, and biking. Columbia Falls, with its factory and production focus with affordable housing built into the foothills of Glacier Park, Colombia Falls produces hard working men and women, who value their families, securit, stability and the beauty of the landscape that surrounds them. They build or buy homes they can afford and often have close ties to others in their community.

    As a local, I have often wondered what tourists think about Montana when they often spend the majority of their vacations in only one of these locations. When they go home do they leave wanting their own little piece of Montana like those in Lakeside. Or do they go home thinking of Montana like Kalispell, a place they could work and live to be near the real beauty. Or perhaps do they think of Montana like Whitefish, Bigfork, of Colombia Falls. Two people could visit the Flathead Valley in Montana, even for an extended period and come away with extremely different views of who Montanans are and how they live.

    But Flathead Valley is a very small part of Montana, if we include the rest of the state, the smells, tast’s. Sights, sounds and feel experienced by its visitors will continue to diverge greatly. I think of its college towns, it’s reservations, with their own governments and peoples. Its vast landscapes. Places you could drive for hours without ever seeing another vehicle. Places you could walk into the woods and disaper into the vastness. Places were ranchers don’t measure their land in acres but instead remember which rivers hills and valleys make up its boundaries. In order to really be able to state who Montana’s are and how they live, you would have to do a lot of driving, a lot of staying, and alot of living. We all live in places with diverse landscapes and people. If we have lived in a place for any significant length of time at all, we will begin to know the character of its counties, its towns, it’s cities and its neighborhoods. 

    The Bible is an awful lot like Montana. It has a vast landscape, with diverse peoples and ways of living. Whole different value systems are represented on its pages. Its books are its cities and towns, which can easily be gathered together into counties and valleys. These books on the Bible have their most significant meaning in that they are part of the whole. The Bible with its vast landscape, ecosystems, villages, towns and cities, all work together to tell a story. Based on which towns or cities we think are most important, we can have vastly different opinions on what the story being told is about. 

    I believe that the worst of the distortions of the Biblical narrative, come from not seeing the Bible as a vast shared landscape. Instead it is seen as little pockets of Islands. The continuity of the land and peoples is passed over. Instead the differences are either trumped up or ignored. Whole sections of the Bible are left out, sections that don’t seem to make sence next to other places on the map. If we are really going to understand the question what is the Biblical story about. We are going to have to dig deep. We are going to have to do a ton of reading, a lot of meditating, and alot of living, if we are to understand what the Biblical narrative is about.
    If we are going to be true student of Jesus, we are going to have to build habits of how we read the Bible. We need to spend time looking ate and thinking on the vast landscape of the Bible. We need to achieve a birds eye view. This can only be accomplished, by just reading it. Start at the begin and finish at the end, and then begin again. No word or character study is going to accomplish this for us. It is is this type of reading that we become familiar with the geography of the story. We glimpse towns and cities and rivers and valleys as we fly over. But we see them in their proper context. We see them as part of a whole. We begin to see the books of the Bible as part of the landscape, for every painting that every Biblical author will paint with words.

    We also are going to have to slow down sometimes and stay awhile. We have to not just drive through the town, but stay for a while, perhaps years if we are going to really get to know what the place is all about. In doing so, we will find ourselves learning about the towns and places next door. Sometimes we need to take the time to dwell on a single book or author for months or even years. Sometimes as we move in and get to know a place, God is developing in us a fresh understanding of the whole story of the Bible. 

    Other times, we are going to need to take the time to study the infrastructure of the whole Bible. We will get aconted with its languages, its roads, its water and power grids. Sometimes we can find ourselves following a single word or Idea through the whole of scripture. This is not to be confused with a birds eye view of the Bible. It is instead what a map is to a state, or a blueprint is to a house. It is certainly important. But it can never replace driving through the countryside, or living in that house. However, as we familiarize ourselves with the skeletal drawings of the whole, we find ourselves with a much deeper understanding the next time we drive through a place, or perhaps spend the day in a certain town.

    As students of Jesus, we will find ourselves drawn to one or more ways of reading the BIble at different times in our lives. The reality is we alway need to be participating in all of these disciplines as we read the Bible. We need the birds eye view, we need to dwell in certain landscaped for a season, ond we certainly need to take the time to understand the infrastructure if we are to get around with anything symbolizing accuracy. When we enter the Bible, we all start as strangers. If we stop with a certain book, or think that a certain topic is the most important one, we are certainly going to get a good deel of our understanding wrong.

    As westerners, we have a tendency to mistake the map for the landscape, and knowledge of a sewer system for the knowledge of dwelling in a place. In our eyes studying maps and blueprints are the most efficient ways to use our time. It is easy to believe that because we looked up the Greek, we know what an author ment. Evan knowing the most exact meaning of a word posible, there’s still a good chance we will miss his heart. Words are far more than their meanings. Especially in the Bible, words are often used to draw on a whole picture, or plant new ones in the imaginations of its readers.

    Studying the Bible is a lifelong act of worship. If our goal is merely to get the facts, or understand what the author meant, or perhaps to understand what the text means to us, we are likely to achieve it. But in doing so, we may completely miss the heart of both the authors, and especially the capital A Author, who has given us this book as a love letter to us. We read the Bible with the goal of knowing the Author of life, and also perhaps as importantly, we read the Bible with the goal of knowing the people of God.

    As westerners, we are often tempted towards the sin  of Joseph. Much of our theological emphasis pushes us towards believing that God has given us personally many colored coats. Our tendency is to read the Bible as a love letter to us personally, and we often miss that the Bible is a love letter to all of our brothers and sisters as well. We also miss that for several thousand years, God has been communicating to his people through this book. Many thousands of nations, tribs, tongues, cultures, through many generations, have found life and been challenged through this book. If we give into our tendency to see the Bible as personal correspondence between us and God, we are going to find ourselves on a very lonely journey that misses a great deal that God would have for us in this book.

    Studying the Bible is a lifelong act of love. Its pages call us to loving obedience of our God. Its pages also invite us to see ourselves in the shoes of those who came before us. There is a brutal honesty to our book that invites us to be part of a people we can relate to. The temptation to read the bible as written to us personally. Or the temptation to read the bible as a small group of christians who are getting it right, is bound to scue or biblical interpretations.  When Israel, Moses, Solomon, Peter or Cane, mess up, we are intended to see ourselves in their shoes, just as much as when that gian victory. We are the people of God, in victory and defeat

The temptation when applying scripture, is to ask the question, what does it mean to me, or how does this affect my life. These are both fine questions in their own way. But should not ask these questions without first asking, what does this passage mean to the people of God? or how does it affect the way we live? We must always see ourselves first as part of the whole, then as individuals. Otherwise, whole sections of the Bible become lifeless, or self centered. In doing this we will find that themes and stories jump out in ways that we had not seen before. We will find life in pages where previously we had only found confusion.

As believers, we are called to a nomadic life. Even our bodies are to be seen as temporary dwellings, anticipating the completed bodies we will receive in the resurrection. This posture is also true as we read the Bible. Even when we have camped in a town for an extended period of time, it does not mean we own it. Nomater how much time we have spent in a particular book or passage, it can never belong to us personally, it will always belong to us as the body of christ. Maintaining this humbled view of our own importance in relation to the Bible is key if we are to have proper appreciation for the community we are dwelling in.

Interacting with the Bible is a lifelong act of community. Now in my thirties the Biblical landscape has taken on a different texture to my senses than it did in my teens or twenties. I know that as I get older, my opretiantion for the diversity of its landscape will continue to develop and mature. Thankfully I have friends who have gone before me, and who are coming after me. Friends for whom the textures of the landscape are not less vivid, but seen from different perspectives with different histories. Friends who have spent greater time in different parts of the Biblical landscape than I have, and friends for whom parts of the text are still vibrant and fresh that have become dull and colorless for me.

These are the people who I share ideas with. These are the people who when I say the whole story of the Bible is like Lakeside, remind me of the very different place of Kalispell. As we pray for each other, study together and discuss our findings, we are all stretched out of our own experience. We find that we abide in different parts of the landscape, but when we come together, truths are revealed about the narrative of scripture that could never be grasped without rubbing shoulders together.

As I write the pages ahead, I hope you gain a picture of the landscape where I have been dwelling for the past few years. I hope that in these pages you find your own panorama gaining color and vibrancy. 


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