My own life is on the whole wonderful (no major illness at the moment, for instance) but never stress-free. Like many millions of people in my age group, I’ve have simultaneous care of two generations. My widowed mother is in a nursing home 500 miles away and I manage her financial matters. Her affairs, especially health care regulations for the elderly, can be complex. I get advice and help from knowledgeable people. One of the saddest chores, from which I’ve not recovered emotionally, was selling my childhood home, where Mom lived nearly fifty years.
Meanwhile my daughter is growing up. I’ve stayed home with her every summer since she was four. During one of the summers of this project, my wife and I helped her get ready for college three hours away, and we also helped her learn to drive. To paraphrase a saying, there are no atheists in the passenger seat of a newly-learning driver. But she learned quickly and now is quite a good driver. The empty nest is peaceful, but when she “flies” back for semester breaks, the family feels complete again
All these experiences, common to so many people, inspire me to prayer. They’re occasions that call for “extra grace.” I frequently ask God for confidence as I manage Mom’s affairs, for comfort for Mom in her lonely circumstance (how long will she live in her very infirm condition?), for guidance and protection for my daughter (the world is filled with “weirdos” and risky situations), and many other things. Recognizing the comparative stability my own life (and recognizing my very human tendency to feel my own problems more urgently), I think to pray for persons who have much harder circumstances. I love this quote by Oswald Chambers: “The real business of your life as a saved soul is intercessory prayer. Wherever God puts you in circumstances, pray immediately, pray that His Atonement may be realized in other lives as it has been in yours. Pray for your friends now; pray for those with who you come in contact now.”  A regular prayer life balances both personal and intercessory prayer, which in turn balances and empowers your daily responsibilities and, potentially at least, leads to the Spirit’s gifts of peace, love, and kindness.
These are not the only aspects of my life, of course. My wife and I have been married twenty-five years and friends for thirty-five. She has a complex and difficult job, which she does love, and which she’s developed (thanks to very providential steps) over the years. I teach college classes, write freelance for the laity on religious topics, and volunteer at our church; bridging academic and parish work has always been very important to me. I ask God for help with these things, too: for my and my family’s well-being, for the well-being of my students and people we know, for the people (unknown to me) who’ll read things I publish, for the ministries of our church. None of these things is “within my control.” Life can be strange and unpredictable even for the most conscientious pray-er. I’m a terrible worrier; God has not removed the trait even in my most sincerely relinquishing moments (2 Cor. 12:9-10), and so I pray.
I’ve always been interested in other viewpoints. Truth is neither relative nor subjective; nor is it solitary. I’ve Christian friends, from liberal to moderate to conservative, and also friends who profess other religions, friends who have been hurt and discouraged by religious people, and a few friends who are agnostics; I’ve learned things from humanist friends who show me how my religion is perceived by someone with a secular viewpoint, which, in turn, helps me know how better to be religious myself and how to read the Bible. My Jewish friends have taught me a lot, and I seek ways to understand the Gospel that are not anti-Jewish.  Although I’ve committed my life to the uniqueness and power of Jesus Christ, I dearly hope God provides ways by which persons outside the circle of Christian witness can experience that power and grace.  As a history teacher I know how badly Christians have failed historically and continue to fail to witness faithfully to God’s grace; God‘s patience with us is surely as long as it was with the people of the Bible. I strongly believe that if we are not kind and humble in our religious faith—if we are unwilling to allow God to know more than we do about the mysteries of his grace—then we risk becoming closed to God, and toward other persons, too. 
My grandmother died accidentally when I was fifteen, an event that, among other things, gave me an excellent object lesson in the unpredictability of life. I learned at a young age to make one’s life count, because you don’t know what’s ahead (and that, of course, is a biblical teaching). Here’s another favorite quote, this one by Mozart: “I never lie down at night without reflecting that—young as I am—I may not live to see another day. Yet no one of all my acquaintances could say that in company I am morose and disgruntled. For this blessing I daily thank my Creator and wish with all my heart that each one of my fellow-creatures could enjoy it.”  One of my favorite scriptures, James 4:13-15, calls us to be mindful of our inability to see the future, and to seek God’s guidance in the things we say and do.
This very human response to trouble is another reason I’ve found Bible study so important. God does, indeed, seem to let us down sometimes! Like Saul in 1 Samuel, we feel bowed down and defeated by the silence of God. Our best efforts don’t always lead to the kinds of blessings and peace that we one-sidedly associate with divine grace. People hurt us, betray us; accidents occur; we get sick; tragedies happen. The Bible “keeps it real” because human disappointments and discouragement are written into the word of God: read many of the psalms, or Job, or even (properly understood) the confident letters of Paul. As you dig deeper into the Bible, read the anguish of Jeremiah and other prophets who witnesses the defeat and exile of God’s people. The apostle Paul faced turmoil and occasionally violence in response to all his hard work and best efforts; and yet his letters are wonderfully helpful sources for one’s faith.
Our disappointment in God may be partly based on the way we, at least informally, perceive the Bible as a something separate from God’s grace in our lives today, as if the Bible were infallible legislation written long ago. The Bible tells us everything we’re not supposed to do—lie, swear, get angry, commit adultery, and so on—in other words, instruction for behavior. It’s a book we can literally or figuratively lob at someone’s head if they haven’t shaped up. But although the Bible most certainly defines and instructs behavior, it is much more than that. It is a living witness to God, written from different points of view over centuries and yet providing us the timeless promises that inform and guide us. The Bible tells us who we really are and how we can count on God’s grace no matter what happens to us in the world and no matter what kind of people we are. The Bible is of a piece with—never, ever separate from—the Spirit who freely gives us life and power every day.
And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work (2 Cor. 9:8).
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3:20-21)
Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (Heb. 7:25).
We so easily lose our proper focus and make our religious faith about … us, our respectability, needs, dreams, and goals. (“The hardest to learn is the least complicated,“ is a favorite line from an Indigo Girls song.) True, when we’re religious, we’re held to high standards in people’s perceptions, and we must be concerned about witnessing to God through our lives. But on the other hand, your religion is never about you, and, in fact, you want to guide people beyond your piety, struggles, and so-called achievements to the God who does for us that which we cannot do for ourselves, which is to save and transform us and to love us undeservedly. Being a Christian is always a balance between being a sincere, fallible, and, yes, sinful person, and simultaneously being transparent to God’s grace and a blessing for others, a clay jar filled with heavenly treasure (2 Cor. 4:7).  We can discover so much wonderful from God–unfailing access to God in prayer, power through the sacraments, providential guidance in our decisions, unexpected events, the life of God which provides us everlasting life–and God does not tire in showing us his love and grace. God knows our imperfections (Ps. 103:14) and meets each of us, not at some imagined place of greater saintliness years in the future, but at the place we are right now!
All of us do come to the Bible with different experiences and attitudes. The Spirit helps us interpret the Bible amid our special circumstances, just as that same Spirit helped the disciples when difficult circumstances arose (for instance, the Jerusalem conference, Acts 15). To make our personal experiences the norm of our Bible interpretation—and to assume our experiences should be normative for others—is always a temptation. That’s one reason why the Bible is best read and understood in a group of diverse people. Ephesians 4:15-16 defines the church as a place of mutual support and maturing. The Bible not only shapes us but also shapes a faithful congregation in which people love one another, the Word is preached, and the sacraments are shared. As God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in eternal relationship as the one Lord, so we are complete as human beings when we share in relationship with one another. But on the other hand, in the realities of everyday life, it’s not always easy to find a church fellowship where you are accepted unreservedly and nurtured as a Christian person.  As we live open to the Spirit, however, we may discover congenial congregations as well as styles and approaches to spirituality depending upon our individual circumstances, experiences and personalities. God uses many circumstances in order to bless our lives—and God does will to bless us and to share his divine life with us, through the Bible and other ways.