On Scripture

Today we celebrate the end of the year. Today marks the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday in our Biblical Cycle. Next week we will begin with the first Sunday of Advent, a new year. Today as we wrap up our cycle of scripture, I want to consider our relationship with the Bible. Many Christians boldly claim the title “Literalist” in their approach to scripture. Most of you know,  I am not one of their number.

For example: I don’t believe that the writers of the Hebrew Bible were attempting to give a counter-argument to evolution. The Book of Genesis was never meant to give a geological date for the Earth. The questions of our scientific world are not the questions held by the people who developed the Scriptures. It is fruitless to try to argue against science with the Bible.

But that doesn’t mean means we should lay the Bible aside. The writers of Scripture held important questions, theological questions. The writers of the first chapter of Genesis included a refrain to their creation account. We read that “In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and God created light and “saw that the light was good.” God separated the waters from the sky, the dry land from the sea, and “God saw that it was good.” God put forth vegetation, “And God saw that it was good.” God created the sun and the stars and “saw that it was good.” God created living creatures, “And saw that it was good.” God finally created humankind in God’s own image, and God looked on all that was created and saw, “indeed, it was very good.” Good, Good, very good.

Most scholars now believe that this story was written during the Babylonian exile. The people of Israel were living in a strange land, and hearing strange stories about the creation. Babylonians believed that life on earth was an accident, caused by warring and capricious Gods. Human beings were a side-show to the more interesting melodramas of the heavens. The gods liked to mess with people by sending floods and famines. The refugee people of God begged to differ. “No, God intended our creation,” they said. God saw that we were good, even us refugees. The earth is good. The sky is good. The people are very good. God intends us, delights in us, we are made in the image and likeness of God. Today, when the world can still seem a little capricious, especially to refugees. Famines and floods are still commonplace, and still today the Scripture tells us that God created us on purpose, and cares for us. That is very very good.

The Bible wasn’t written to contend with today’s science, but there are deep truths in Scripture. The Bible also wasn’t written in for our so-called culture war. We have to face that gender inequality, homophobia, and slavery are commonplace in our Scripture. That doesn’t mean they should be commonplace in our world today. One of the best guidelines I have heard for Scripture comes from a bumper sticker: The Bible is not a book of directions (plural), but a Book of Direction (singular).

We may not find exact data for our modern quandaries, but if we read the overall arc of the Bible, we can hear the deep rhythm of Scripture that still rings true: God creates us, God loves us, God yearns for us to be free to love God and one another.

You all know, I read a lot of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s writings. Tutu likes to tell a joke about the missionaries who converted his people to Christianity:

“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

But, he says, don’t underestimate the power of the Bible. He said, it is impossible to imagine what it would have been like for the black community during apartheid without the Bible. The Bible was the story they returned to for hope, for direction. Using the Bible, they came to the governing regime again and again and said, “let my people go.” Don’t underestimate the power of Scripture.

Today, as we come to the end of our cycle of readings, I invite you to consider your own relationship with Scripture. Maybe you’re like me, and you’re not a literalist. Maybe for you parts of the Bible aren’t asking the same question as science or history textbooks. Maybe you need some footnotes to explain the Biblical moral code. But can you still hold scripture with reverence? Can you still let these ancient stories inspire you, breathe life into you, as you work for justice? I have a sense in the years ahead, we’re going to need this Bible.

Practicing Lent: Scripture

A conversation about faith practices for Lent with my good friend Jason Evans.

Mike: Today I want to lay aside arguments about scholarship and talk about reading Scripture as a Spiritual practice. Christians disagree about how to read the Bible, but surely we can agree that studying Scripture is a basic important Christian practice. Whether you are engaged in erudite academic commentary or “sword drill” memorizing and looking up snippets, regularly engaging with Scripture is an important practice.

I was at the clergy retreat for the Diocese of Missouri yesterday with The Rev. Brian Taylor. Brian says that clergy people and lay ministry leaders tend to engage scripture in two ways that may not be spiritually helpful. If we are preparing to preach or teach based on a passage, we can tend to a very academic/cerebral approach to scripture. We are planning, “what can I say about this passage?” If we encounter Scripture in our daily prayers, we can be moving quickly on to the next thing, on to the Canticle in Morning Prayer or on to the next reading, not meditating and digesting.

Jason: Scripture reading is vital. I couldn’t agree more, Mike! A few years ago a survey of more than 1,000 congregations found personal Scripture reading to have an impact on the overall health of a congregation. That said, how to read the Bible is a challenge for many. What is a practice that you have found helpful in reading the Bible, Mike?

Mike: The ancient practice of “Lectio Divina” is a method for ruminating on Scripture. There is a great post by the Benedictine priest Luke Dysigner explaining, in detail, a method of Lectio. This ancient way of reading scripture has many approaches, they all ask us to do roughly the same thing: read the passage multiple times. Don’t just engage your mind. Listen to the passage; read it out loud. See the images conjured by the words. Feel the sun or the mist in the clouds. Engage the text with your body. Pay attention to the words you hear. Often this kind of engagement described as “ruminating.” To ruminate is to think something over and over again, the way a cow chews on its food over and over again. For Scripture study to be spiritual, I think we need to slow ourselves way down.

Jason: It’s also helpful to get a version that is easier to read. I would recommend The Message for ease of reading and personal reflection. I’ve started listening to the Bible read aloud using the YouVersion app on my phone. It’s been helpful for “rumination” as you said, or if I might paraphrase Eugene Peterson, letting the Bible read me more than me read the Bible.

Mike: In a Presbyterian service I once visited, they introduced the Readings from Scripture this way: “A reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Listen for the Word among the words.” This captured my sense of Scripture well. Scripture is inspired, not because every word was written by God, but because as a whole the Bible points us to God. Scripture relates the ways God has interacted with God’s people. Though written by people, we can catch the Word among the words. The God that inspired the writers can also inspire the readers.

Jason: Please share with us what Bible versions, techniques and tools you’ve found helpful for reading Scripture. We’d love to hear from you!

How do you hold the Bible?

In the second book of Samuel, the 23rd chapter, we hear the last words of King David. “The Spirit of the LORD speaks through me, [God’s] word is upon my tongue.” David speaks of leadership with justice. I confess, I am caught by David’s proclamation: “God’s word is upon my tongue.”

That’s a bold claim. David is the purported author of what today’s scholars consider the oldest pieces of scripture, the Psalms. David can be seen as the human originator of our Biblical tradition. How do we relate to David’s words? “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me, God’s word is upon my tongue?”

Today we celebrate the end of the year. Today marks the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday in our Biblical Cycle. Next week we will begin with the first Sunday of Advent, a new year. Today as we wrap up our cycle of scripture, I want to consider our relationship with the Bible. Many Christians boldly claim the title “Literalist” in their approach to scripture. I have to tell you I am not one of their number.

I don’t believe that the people who followed King David and put together the Hebrew Bible were attempting to give a counter-argument to evolution. The Book of Genesis was never meant to give a geological date for the Earth. The questions of our scientific world are not the questions held by the people who developed the Scriptures. I believe it is fruitless to try to argue against science with the Bible.

But that doesn’t mean means we should lay the Bible aside. The writers of Scripture held important questions, theological questions. The writers of the first chapter of Genesis included a refrain to their creation account. We read that “In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and God created light and “saw that the light was good.” God separated the waters from the sky, the dry land from the sea, and “God saw that it was good.” God put forth vegetation, “And God saw that it was good.” God created the sun and the stars and “saw that it was good.” God created living creatures, “And saw that it was good.” God finally created humankind in God’s own image, and God looked on all that was created and saw, “indeed, it was very good.” Good, Good, very good.

Some scholars now believe that this story was written during the Babylonian exile. The people of Israel were living in a strange land, and hearing strange stories about the creation. Babylonians believed that life on earth was an accident, caused by warring and capricious Gods. Human beings were a side-show to the more interesting melodramas of the heavens. The gods liked to mess with people by sending floods and famines. The refugee people of God begged to differ. “No, God intended our creation,” they said. God saw that we were good, even us refugees. The earth is good. The sky is good. The people are very good. God intends us, delights in us, we are made in the image and likeness of God. Today, when the world can still seem a little capricious, especially to refugees. Famines and floods are still commonplace, and still today the Scripture tells us that God created us on purpose, and cares for us. That is very very good.

The Bible wasn’t written to contend with today’s science, but there are deep truths at stake in Scripture. The Bible also wasn’t written in for our so-called culture war. We have to face that gender inequality, homophobia, and slavery are commonplace in our Scripture. That doesn’t mean they should be commonplace in our world today. One of the best guidelines I have heard for Scripture comes from a bumper sticker: The Bible is not a book of directions (plural), but a Book of Direction (singular).

We may not find exact data for our modern quandaries, but if we read the overall arc of the Bible, we can hear the deep rhythm of Scripture that still rings true: God creates us, God loves us, God yearns for us to be free to love God and one another.

Just last month, our Jewish sisters and brothers celebrated the end of their own cycle of readings. Each year in the synagogue, the service of Simchat Torah marks the end of the scroll. Literally, because the Jewish Torah is hand-written on a lambskin scroll. You know you’ve come to the end of the cycle because all of the skin is wrapped around one of the spools. It needs to be re-wound.

When I was in seminary, I had the privilege of attending a Simchat Torah celebration at the congregation Aggudis Achim in Alexandria, Virginia. The rabbi Jack Moline had crafted the celebration. Any adults in the congregation who wished to participate were given white gloves at the start of the service. After some dancing and singing, the participants stood in a big circle and the torah scroll that had been on the lectern was completely unravelled. Each of us with gloved hands held the skin carefully between our fingers.

The torah scroll wrapped around the congregation. We were literally surrounded by Scripture, literally holding the words of the Bible. As the adults held the torah teenagers who had recently been through their bar or bat mitzvah stood around the room near a section of scroll and chanted aloud a story of God’s people. As these young voices sang in Hebrew, I looked around the room.

Torah scrolls are works of art. The calligraphy is masterful. There are moments where you can literally see what is happening in the text. I could see across the room in big Hebrew letters LO, LO, LO, (NO, NO, NO) standing out in the text of the ten commandments. Earlier on the scroll, as the Israelites cross though the Red Sea on dry land, the calligraphy takes on the shape of wild waves. God rescues the people from bondage. Holding the Torah, we were surrounded by stories of God’s relationship with God’s people.

That night, standing in the synagogue, I came to a new appreciation of our ancient shared texts. I was invited, literally, to hold Scripture with care and with reverence. I admit, when the rabbi told me that each individual scroll costs something like $80 thousand, I held that scripture with fear and trembling. Still, the reverence with which the Jewish community held the text inspired me. These stories told of God’s action among God’s people. They surrounded a community that had, in the words of our Collect, “inwardly digested” Scripture. The story of God’s loving action wasn’t just the story of centuries ago. God was active loving this community in the present.

Today, as we come to the end of our own cycle of readings, I invite you to consider your own relationship with Scripture. Maybe you’re like me, and you’re not a literalist. Maybe for you parts of the Bible aren’t asking the same question as science or history textbooks. Maybe you need some footnotes to explain the Biblical moral code. But can you still hold scripture with reverence for the deeper truths it contains?

I invite you not to let go of Scripture. Hold on to the Bible. These stories can still speak to our complicated postmodern world. Though they may have to speak over some cultural dissonance, the message of Scripture is still powerful.

Today we celebrate another round of hearing God’s word. From the Beginning, God has loved you. God created you. God yearns for you to be free to love God and your neighbor. Inwardly digest.