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Why the Bible?

Psalm 119.33-40

What have you read today? The back of your cereal box at breakfast? The Journal World on the back deck? Your Facebook updates? We read all the time. We have more words in front of us now than we have ever had. The TV’s at the gym don’t need the sound up, because summary words are splashed all over the screen. The construction updates are scrolling across the top of the highway. Our phones are an endless stream of words, beeping and texting and twittering across our brains. We are always reading.

But why have you read today?

Probably one of two reasons. One – for information. The number of calories in the box of Wheaties. The latest political update in the paper. How long it is going to take to get around the construction on the highway. Words inform.

Or two – for entertainment. For levity. For distraction. Did you see what Beyonce tweeted last week? I didn’t either. But a lot of people did. And a lot of people care. We read words of a post, or a novel, or an article in US Weekly…so that we will be entertained. Words entertain.

But what have you read today that has changed you?

How often have the words you read changed your mind? Changed your life? Changed your heart? It happens, but not all the time. A third category, which simply doesn’t happen nearly as much as the first two, is that words transform. You read an article that changes the way you think about an issue. You read a book that changes your life. You read something and are transformed. It happens less often, but it happens.

Now, what have you read today from the Bible?

And maybe more important, how have you read it?

Again, our three categories are relevant when it comes to reading Scripture.

One, some people read the Bible for information. What does the Bible say about _______? Or I have a problem and I need a solution NOW! Or I have a point I want to make, I and I want to use the Bible to prove that I am right. Often times, this method of reading the Bible for information is called proof-texting. I am looking for a Scriptural text to prove what I need it to prove. The Bible has been used to proof-text just about everything. And just about anything can be proven from the words of Scripture somehow. Reading the Bible for information can be a dangerous thing. You are not being changed by Scripture, but are bending Scripture to say what you wanted to say anyway.

Two, some people read the Bible for entertainment. This one is less common, because in terms of current entertainment trends, a 4,000 year old book doesn’t tend to knock it out of the park. That is not to say the Bible is not entertaining. Soaring epics. Witty one-liners. Talking donkeys. There is some entertaining stuff in there. But for the most part, in order to make it entertaining to today’s audiences, it needs a little work. But again, reading the Bible for entertainment can be a dangerous thing. If that is your goal, then before long, you are likely to find something else that is more entertaining.

A few weeks ago, the worship team had our annual brainstorming and creative dreaming session, and the team kept coming back to this theme of the basics of the Bible. Where did it come from? How do we read it? Why does it matter? In a world of plentiful reading material, why does the Bible matter? We have plenty to read out there that entertains better than the Bible would. And plenty that provides more specific information than the Bible does. So why bother?

I think an answer to that last question comes from the third reason why we read: we read to be transformed. My guess is that the team’s yearning to have this meta conversation about the Bible stems from a desire to be transformed by its words. We read enough words that have little or no lasting effect on us…we yearn for something more. Something deeper. Something transformative.

Frederick Buechner sums up that quest for something deeper well:

If you look at a window, you see fly-specks, dust, the crack where Junior’s Frisbee hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond. Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a Holy Bore and those who see it as the Word of God which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves.

How do we read the Bible as if we were looking through the window, and not just at it? How do we get to a place where it is more than just information to proof-text or stories to entertain? How do we understand it in the context of the “depths of ourselves?” How do we get to the point that the Psalmist did, when he or she wrote about Scripture – or the law – in this way in Psalm 119:

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.

Have you ever looked at the 119th Psalm? It’s huge! It’s 176 verses long! And the whole thing is this love affair with the Torah, which would have been the heart of the Psalmist’s Bible. How do you get to the point where you love the Bible enough to write 176 verses about it? To “delight in it”?

I have a few ideas. Things that have helped me. Admittedly, I am a Bible geek. I do this for a living. But for me, it is always a challenge to look at the Bible for more than just the cool stories or the information. It is to read the Bible in ways that transform, instead of just inform or entertain. Here are a few practical suggestions.

One, go deep.

Part of the problem with so many words that surround us is that we often don’t take time to allow any of them to actually sink in. We skim. We multitask. We speed read. You will not be transformed by skimming the Scriptures. Instead, carve out some time to go deep. Turn off the TV, and maybe the music. You are fine to read the Scripture on your iPad or phone, but know that you are likely to want to check the score or read the email that just popped up. Again, transformation does not come from multitasking. It might be better to pick up the old fashioned book with the thin little pages and dig in. But, before you do, say a prayer. John Calvin famously said that the Bible is worthless – a dead letter, he called it – unless we pray for the Holy Spirit to enlighten us and teach us. So say a prayer for the Spirit to transform, and go deep.

Now, what to read? Don’t start with one of these read through the Bible in a year programs. They can be helpful to see the Scriptures in context, and as a whole, but they are so tough. Round about the middle of Leviticus, your eyes are glazing over and so you decide to skip a day. But you have to read so much in a day, that the next day you have to read 7 chapters to catch up. And so you skip another day. And then, before long you are in a situation where you have to read 38 chapters about the curtains in the tabernacle and what to do when you get a rash on your nevermind. You get so hopelessly behind that you get frustrated and give up. So pick a book and go deep. One of the Gospels or one of the letters of Paul. Genesis is good. Give the time to reading through, slowly enough that you can make sense of what is happening.

If you want to look through the window, and not just at it, you have to go deep.

 

Two, read together.

Some of you have avoided reading the Bible because all of us introverts use words like “solitude” and “quiet time,” and words that convince you extroverts that you would rather gnaw your arm off than read the Bible. Instead, for many of us, the Bible really comes alive when we read it together with someone else. It may be as simple as finding someone else for whom the words “quiet time” give them an eye twitch, and taking turns reading out loud to each other. Or you may want to read it together in a group, specifically designed to use the wisdom of various voices to grow in your understanding of Scripture. Or find a Sunday School class that studies Scripture in a way that makes it easier for you to understand. But read together.

Molly Marshall adds another layer to the cherished Baptist freedom of individual interpretation. She upholds that individuals indeed are able – in line with the principles of soul freedom and priesthood of all believers – to read and interpret the Bible as individuals. Yet, she says that reading in community, in which individual interpretation is shared and compared, is the most faithful to a Baptist reading. She says:

It is the challenge of the larger hermeneutical circle to hear the terror and prophetic fire that careful private engagement of the Bible can elicit. It is the challenge of the worshipping community to allow the troubling, neglected texts of Scripture to provide interpretive leaven for those less disturbing texts. It is the unavoidable responsibility of the church to wrestle with the “strange world of the Bible” in order to understand their own world more clearly.

Read together.

 

Three, try lectio divina.

Lectio Divina, literally Holy Reading, is a method by which a passage is read again and again with the purpose of listening to both the Scripture and our lives. There are several ways to do lectio, but one of the ways is the simple method of “What? So What? Now What?” I works like this: pick a passage, perhaps one from the Gospels or a Psalm or a passage from the prophets like Amos or Isaiah. They work better than one of those passages in Leviticus about the tabernacle curtains. And read it three times. Slowly. Out loud. Alone or in a group. And after each time, ask another question. Read it through and first ask, “what?” What word or phrase stuck out to you after the first time you read it. Pause and listen and reflect. Allow yourself to be curious. Then read the passage again and ask “So what?” How does the passage – or maybe one phrase or word – apply to my life? My story? And finally, read it again and ask “now what?” Is the passage inviting you to take action? Do something? Say something to someone? Forgive or confront? The passage I read earlier from Matthew is a perfect example of a great lectio passage. But be careful. Because inviting Scripture to transform you is not always easy. Transformation is hard work.

But it is worthy work. You can skim through a hundred Facebook posts about what your friends ate today or a hundred angry letters to the editor or a hundred romance novels about being loved by a Highlander and still not have really read anything that changes you. Transforms you. But you can read a hundred words through the window of the Scripture, and you may well find a new joy. A new hope. A new challenge. A new dawning of grace. And once you do, you may just have a hard time putting it down.

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