(Re-)Reading the Bible

Via compfight.com, courtesy of moriza.

Over the course of a year I preach between 25-35 sermons.  That means I’m required to read brief passages of Scripture very closely, listening for God’s message to his people through the Word.  I wish that reading Scripture well could be a simply task, but it’s not for me.  It’s not only books such as Leviticus, seemingly endless genealogies in Numbers, or the strange apocalyptic world of Revelation.  Give me the Beatitudes or Paul’s majestic chapter on love (1 Corinthians 13) and I still feel like I’m walking through a forest of redwoods.

Some might say I’m missing the forest for the trees, that the Gospel is marvelous in its simplicity.  A child can understand the Gospel message, so why do I struggle everyday in my own reading of the Scriptures?  Why does sermon preparation often feel like tilling Tennessee clay?

Because the Word of God is a mystery, it is both simple and inexhaustible in meaning.  Its beauty resists my attempts at mastery.  Instead I’m invited to inhabit the mystery of the Word.  Scripture passages always have a surplus of meaning awaiting those who enter the world of the Word.

I take great consolation in the aging priest’s words in Bernanos’ novel, Diary of a Country Priest, who counseled a younger priest about preaching the Gospel: “Truth is meant to save you first and the comfort comes afterward…The Word of God is a red-hot iron…When the Lord has drawn from me some word for the good of souls, I know, because of the pain of it.”

I no longer hope or expect that reading the Bible will be easy every time I open the Scriptures.  The writer of Hebrews tells us we are not meant to remain childish readers of the Word: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5.12-14).

Now there are a few verses that don’t take great effort to understand.  The message is simple: grow up.  If you come to Thanksgiving dinner and ask for goldfish crackers and a juice box, it’s going to be weird.  You weren’t brought into this family to behave as a child for the rest of your life.  You were brought into this family to become an elder one day.

Here’s what mature adults in our family do with the Word:  they train themselves by constant practice.  Reading is a learned skill that requires constant practice.  As Madeleine L’Engle says, “Don’t expect to play Bach’s Fugues if you aren’t practicing your scales everyday.”

Over the summer, I’ll be blogging from time to time about reading the Scriptures well.  I’ve been walking this path for several years now, searching for good ways of reading Scripture.  I’m still a beginner.  I’ve found some dead ends, but I’ve also discovered several backroads that help me see the landscape of Scripture in completely new ways.  Photographers are teaching me how to see anew, training my eyes to see the stories of Jesus interacting with the stories of human lives.  Music helps me hear Old Testament prophets and the book of Revelation in new ways.  Most importantly, Scripture interprets Scripture in ways I never thought possible.  Connections abound in the Word.

As I begin exploring new ways to read the Bible, honesty is important.  Any ‘new way’ of reading Scripture is only new-to-me.  I expect to write nothing original.  I only hope to recover some treasures that have been lost in the weeds of our culture.

Until the next post, here’s the best counsel I can give for a new beginning when reading the Bible:  read slowly.  Reading is like chewing, breaking down solid meat so that rich food can enter your system and nourish your body.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Just try it.  Just read.  And re-read.  Constant practice is the key to growing up in the Word.