What’s this about - a fireside chat? I call my presentation “a chat” out of pity for my compulsion to turn any topic into a major thesis and drive myself nuts trying to be exhaustive. It’s the frustrated academic in me that turns all I touch into a Society for Biblical Literature paper. The leadership team’s request for a chat reminded me to chill out, “you are not an academic, we are not graduate students. And besides, given your decrepitude, you don’t want to stress yourself.” I guess they don’t call these woodland gatherings Retreats for nothing.
We all know that our patterns are stubborn, they sneak up biting our backsides even when we are running away from them full speed. It happens to me. Here is a recent personal journal entry, and confession, that illustrates the “bite-marks”:
September 5, 2011
I’ve got about a week and a half before I give my little fireside chat at Falcon Trails Resort. I sense I am falling into a familiar pattern. When I first think of a topic I am going to teach or write, I am totally psyched out; I love the inspiration of reading and researching. Then there comes the time when I have to write my own reflections. I don’t necessarily or always write notes but I do read in order to get an unconscious rhizome (underground root system) prepared for my talk. I've got fourteen books under my belt and yet I am slowing down, feeling a tad reluctant to write. Why?
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. (Jeremiah 20:9 ESV)
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 ESV)
There is something like a fire within us when we try to speak about God’s revelation. A sense of inadequacy comes as we realize what we’ve signed up for. When we get the right take on the task, we feel like Moses before a burning bush – a holy place.
I went from initially thinking that my chat was supposed to help us gain an approach to the Scriptures, I misunderstood our goal as learning to think about the Bible. I felt somewhat confident that I know enough Bible background, criticism and history to do that.
That’s the problem. The topic twisted out of my hands and became, “How to read the Bible as Scripture?” or more personally, “How I’ve listened to and lived Scripture?” Do I experience God’s word in Scripture like the prophets, as a burning or a burden? Or, on the other hand, as the Psalmist describes it, as honey in the honeycomb?
Pondering these questions over the last few weeks I discovered that I have approached Scriptures in a way that Jesus warned people not to. I began to feel the sting of his words directed at the religious authorities… thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”(Mark 7:13 ESV). Those words fit too snugly on my reading practice. I have filtered the Bible, maybe even filleted it, through use of critical methods and commentaries.
That is not to say that it’s unimportant to read the Scripture critically, especially for those of us who need a boost into the rational range, but for those of us who know about the Bible more than they experience its life-changing message, there comes a time to move on to another road. Calvin, who read the Bible both critically and as Scripture, nailed it when he taught that, Faithful reading is believing reading, and it can only happen in the economy of grace. It is not like reading other books or receiving other authorities. (Christian Theologies of Scripture. p. 88.) This other way of reading is where the texts of this great library called the Bible transform into one book, one story - the Scripture, a strange book that comes in apparent weaknesses. Paul describes his own gospel as coming in powerful weakness,
And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:3–5 ESV)
The Scripture, like Paul’s good news, speaks in human language, with a lisp as Calvin once said. Its purpose is not to be eloquent but to form, guide and accompany us. It asks us to look for effects, spiritual fruit, and generative power. Isaiah assures us about the efficacy of God’s Word
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:9–11 ESV)
Why I am speaking about Reading the Bible as Scripture just as we are about to plunge into a ten-week course concentrating on historical, critical and literary questions? Won’t this approach make us more reliant on the latest scholarship and commentaries, as I confessed earlier? Not if we study the Bible critically, in order to read it as Scripture. It's a matter of doing one thing without neglecting the other - more crucial goal. I compared the Pharisee’s approach to Torah to my own over-reliance on critical studies. Jesus solution for them was to continue in obedience but don’t neglect the spiritual heart of things:
You Pharisees and teachers are showoffs, and you’re in for trouble! You give God a tenth of the spices from your garden, such as mint, dill, and cumin. Yet you neglect the more important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These are the important things you should have done, though you should not have left the others undone either. (Matthew 23:23 CEV)
A paraphrase of this might read:
You modern Christians, watch out! You struggle to comprehend ancient cultures, to reconstruct the Bible’s message historically and grammatically outline each text. Yet you don’t apply the word to your lives or attempt live like your faithful spiritual ancestors in unity, humility, love and mercy. This is where you ought to have focused, though you should not neglect fresh interpretations and new understandings either. (Matthew 23:23 for modern interpreters)
Were this fireside chat the whole retreat, which it isn’t, I could entitle at least one session: An Evolution of Reading Scripture Throughout my Life. I’d testify about how my reading the Bible critically dances with reading it as Scripture. Instead of hauling out the whole metaphorical snapshot album of my Scripture reading, tonight I will finish up with one picture that may inspire you.
First experiences often set the tone for what is to come; this saying can apply to our life long reading of the Bible. I entitle this experiential snapshot: Gideon, Gull Lake and Me. If there was a caption beneath this picture it might read.
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6 ESV)
Point your kids in the right direction— when they’re old they won’t be lost. (Proverbs 22:6 MESSAGE)
Years ago most Canadian kids were introduced to the Bible in elementary school. Scripture reading was part of opening exercises along with the singing of “O Canada”, “God Save the Queen” and the recitation of the “Lord’s Prayer.” I used to wonder about, or at least feel sorry for, those kids who had to go out in the hall during this collective, civic-sacred gathering. I learned later that they hadn’t done anything wrong, were not being punished and were hall-wanderers by choice, or the choice of their parents.
We had a more individual and conscious intro to the Bible at the end of grade five. At the end of term just, before going on Summer vacation, an elderly man with a lantern-shaped pin on his grey suit’s lapel came to each class and gave every student, whose parents allowed them to receive it, a red imitation leather Gideon Bible; King James version of course. For some odd reason, I remember thumbing its index and smelling the newly printed pages. The experience of smelling this little red Bible must have imprinted itself on me because, to this day, I always sniff the edges of the Bibles I buy.
My personal awareness of the Gideon Bible took place at our summer cottage on the north shore of Gull Lake, MB. Waking earlier than usual, I took Tammy my cocker spaniel, my five horsepower Viking motorboat – and my burgundy red-letter gift from the Gideon's into the middle of the 5 a.m. mist hovering at the end of our small circular lake. I was permitted to do this as long as I agreed to swaddle myself in the orange fabric life preserver, instead of just using it as a seat cushion. I could never have felt safer than with this orange restraint, my warm-eared quite friend Tammy, and Gideon.
We must have looked funny in that boat, my nose in the pages of the Gideon, Tammy's nose on my lap – and both of us convinced that smell has a truth of its own. The water gently rocked drifting us to a near sleep. Between half-shut, half-praying, half-sleeping eyes, I read, Thy word have I hid in mine heart that I might not sin against thee. (Psalm 119:11) The daily schedule at the back of Gideon suggested reading a Psalm along with another selection from the newer portion of the book that was in the front and marked with red and black ink. I tended to like the black inked Psalm-Proverb section best.
Anyway… about Gideon’s words to me that morning, I didn't sense that I had sinned lately. Maybe I had stepped over a few boundary lines, gone to a places I shouldn’t have. The day before, my mom caught me digging up the lawn in the front of the cabin, excavating for dinosaur bones; maybe I sinned against her? Well I broke the rules anyway. Reading the gift of Gideon’s seemed to float me above that guilt, like the boat above the water of Gull Lake. The word did settled in my heart that morning it made me feel as if my fears were chased away, and yet my wonder remained.
How would the Bible’s words make a difference? Would its verses and chapters and books make me more aware of God, my sins, my world and myself? It wasn’t until I actually read the Bible and tried to interpret it that I changed from sleepily overhearing it at school or church, to befriending it in my regular life.
That day at the lake I pulled the recoil of the Viking's 5hp. engine, placed the Gideon in top shirt pocket and with my hand under the warm ears of my spaniel, drove home in the sunshine. The Bible started out as a grade five gift from the Gideon’s but ended up a mysterious friend, who I have spent most of my life trying to know and relate to.
I am grateful for the little red Bible and this experience; it set a tone of intimate friendship between the Bible and myself. I guess I might say I started out reading the Bible as Scripture devotionally, contemplatively, not as a textbook or even a catechism, definitely pre-critically but seriously. Desirable as the sweet honey in the honeycomb as the Psalmist sung.