How to Read the Bible without Dealing with God

If you want to live well and to share wisdom with your children and your neighbors about how they can also live well, the Bible will chart a sound course.

If you are looking for inspiration or comfort or if you are preparing a speech, you will certainly want to lift some of the soaring phrases from the Psalms or a stirring descriptive passage from Isaiah to adorn your thinking.

If you are curious about the future or have strong ideas about politics, you’ll find gasoline-words in the Bible to support your position and to throw on any conversation to keep the flames dancing high.

It’s clear that we can add the Bible to our rhetorical tool-belt and never once be singed by its fiery truth. However, this is not the reason the Word has been given, and in Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, Eugene Peterson has written a practical guide for those who want to approach Scripture in the manner suggested to the Apostle John in his Revelation:

The voice out of Heaven spoke to me again: “Go, take the book held open in the hand of the Angel astride sea and earth.” I went up to the Angel and said, “Give me the little book.” He said, “Take it, then eat it.”

Ingesting the Truth

John was not the first man in history to eat a book. Apparently, Jeremiah and Ezekiel also ingested truth, and like John, their words reveal the metabolized essence of having been in the presence of God.

In an era in which English-speaking people can select from a menu of Scripture texts, the challenge is for us to begin reading them–and then, to take the next step and begin “reading the Scriptures formatively, reading in order to live.” (xi) To illustrate the kind of reading he’s advocating, Peterson employs the delightful imagery of a dog working with fortitude on a bone superimposed upon an image from the book of Isaiah of a “lion growling over its prey.” Apparently, that Hebrew word for “growling” is usually rendered as “meditate,” as in Psalm 1 where the righteous meditate on the Law of the Lord “day and night.”

As readers of Truth, we are called to take the Word into our being in a way that changes us. In John’s case, we can see from the text that eating the Bible was not an entirely pleasant experience. His stomachache is an important reminder that we may not find everything to our liking as we try to digest the hard truths of Scripture or the parts that seem strange to us.

Scripture in Service to My Needs, Wants, and Feelings

This full-bodied entering into a text, essentially chewing on it, is the kind of reading that takes time and a lot more thought and focused attention than most of us are currently investing in our spiritual reading, and yet it is the words of Scripture, the sentences and paragraphs and trains of thought through which God has chosen to communicate His holiness, His wisdom, and His love to mankind.

Peterson floats a very plausible theory that readers of Scripture have replaced the inspired text with a new text of “the sovereign self.” Rather than taking the Truth of God’s Word into our jaws, and ultimately into “the tissues of our lives,” (20) we have replaced Father, Son, and Spirit with a new Holy Trinity.

The New Holy Trinity, Eugene Peterson, Eat This BookIf my needs become non-negotiable, if my wants have taken on the weight and urgency of a need, and if my feelings have become the sum total of who I am, then the Real Trinity and their communication to me through the Bible become nothing more than a tool in “service of [those] needs, wants, and feelings.” (33)

Rather than “privatizing” (46) Scripture by controlling and fragmenting its message, the believer is called to personalize its words and then to submit to their revelation of God’s character and will. The truth is that we are gathered into the narrative of Scripture; our story is enfolded into the overarching story of God’s people; and the “stories” that we share to illustrate a point are best seen as elements of one huge and coherent narrative.

Approaching the Bible with this in mind effects the way we read, teach, and apply its truth. I appreciated the clarity Peterson brought to five specific topics:

1.  The Reader as Exegete

Exegesis is a pretty intense term for “the discipline of attending to the text and listening to it rightly and well.” (50) In her role as exegete, the reader will pay rigorous attention to the words and their intent, proceeding with caution in order to get it right.

“Exegesis is loving God enough to stop and listen carefully to what He says.” (55)

2.  The Obedient Reader

Peterson compares his reading of Scripture to his reading of a running magazine. When he was actively involved in running as a habit, he never tired of reading about it. However, when a pulled muscle interrupted his running routine, he noticed that his reading came to a halt. In the same way, spiritual reading is “participatory reading.” If we are not participating in the reality of the Bible, we will not have as much interest in reading.  Our reading should be formed around this question:  “What can I obey?” (71)

“All right knowledge of God is born of obedience.”    ~John Calvin (69)

3.  Let the Reader Beware!

As the residents of Narnia warned that Aslan is “not like a tame lion,” Peterson warns that the Word of God will not be tamed by the reader. It is a living Word, and it was first spoken into a particular context, a specific time and place and language. It was not given to make our lives more convenient or more manageable.

“We want to get in on the great invisibles of the Trinity, the soaring adorations of the angels, the quirky cragginess of the prophets, and . . . Jesus.”  (87)

4.  Reading as a Way of Living

Peterson’s thoughts about lectio divina with its four components (reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating) rescue the concept from the ethereal and impractical by acknowledging that “they are not four discrete items that we engage in one after another in stair-step fashion. Rather than linear, the process is more like a looping spiral in which all four elements are repeated, but in various sequences and configurations.”  Tying all our spiritual disciplines back to the Truth of Scripture grounds us in a true living out of their essence rather than a self-conscious performance mentality.

5.  Reading in the Company of Translators

The story behind Eugene Peterson’s translation of The Message Bible links every teacher, preacher, and student of the Word to the role of translator. Against the backdrop of historical translations from Hebrew into Aramaic, Greek, and all the various English translations, Peterson found himself having to translate again, from the pulpit, into “American English.” The formal process that resulted in The Message Bible took ten years and formed his thinking about the importance of remembering the humble origins of the Bible in its original writing. Since the days of Tyndale’s translation which was intended for “the boy that driveth the plough,” many traditional and more modern translations left Tyndale’s plow boy in a cloud of dust with a kind of language that obscured the Spirit-given perspicuity of the text.

Dealing with God is Not Optional

God intends to speak with clarity to His people through a written Word. Therefore, in reading His Word in the way He intends, dealing with God is not optional. Participatory reading, reading that is formative, hands over all preconceived ideas about God and eats, chews, gnaws and receives, with humble delight the wild and untamed words of Scripture so that reading and living become one offering and one way of being with God in this world.

Many thanks to William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Thank you for taking part in this conversation in the art of spiritual reading,

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Everyday Habits of Holiness

The insistent tone of my cell phone’s timer carried through floorboards to our basement schoolroom–another call to prayer unanswered.

I sighed, turned the page, and continued with my sixth-grader in a lesson on fractions.

I had been reading about the historical practice of praying the hours, setting aside intentional moments throughout the day at specific times to stop everything and pray.

Believers long ago listened to the sounding of bells to remind them to pray.

My solution?

Setting a cell phone timer.

It seemed like the perfect solution for a more intentional prayer life..

Why, then, did my timer always seem to sound when I was in the middle of an un-interruptible task?

  • Dinner preparation on a ball game night.
  • A fervent untangling of numerators and denominators.
  • An intense disciplinary moment.

The reminder was impractical for that season, but it was an important step on my journey toward a more mindful use of my minutes in building my relationship with God.

Today I’m joining Sarah Koontz over at Living By Design to share 5 ways I’ve learned to invite holiness into my every day habits. Click on over to join me there, and let’s pause together to consider how these simple strategies may encourage your faith and help you to grow.

Everyday Habits of Holiness

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I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

The Power of a Single Word

Receive . . . Enjoy . . . Let go

Freighted with meanings and memories, associations and reflections far beyond their official definitions, words can be an invitation to pay attention.

Watch . . . Accept . . . Resist

Marilyn McEntyre has chosen fifteen words as the basis for fifteen weeks of daily meditations, as Word by Word, she challenges readers to let the word of the week become a focus for prayer and for biblical meditation.

Allow . . . Be still . . .Follow

There is a delight to discovering that “words may become little fountains of grace,” and Marilyn’s brief daily musings amplify the voice of the Spirit, sending me back to the Source.

Rejoice . . . Ask . . . Dare

For those who believingly follow Jesus Christ, meditation begins, not with an empty brain or a blank slate, but with revealed Truth.  Our use of language is a mark of the image of God, and the words we use are the basis of our communion with ourselves, with one another, and with God in prayer.

Leave . . . Welcome . . . and my favorite:  Listen

Word by Word reminded me again (I’m a slow learner) of the need to listen with humility and openness, to “notice what I notice,” which is sound advice indeed, especially in the pursuit of Spirit-breathed wisdom.

Throughout Scripture, the faithful found that the voice of God often emerged from the silence.  In this season of Advent, I find myself listening in to the four- hundred-year silence between the testaments, the pause that was broken by startling birth announcements and accompanied by angels.  John’s first epistle identifies this “manifestation” as The Word of life, a reminder that God’s ultimate self-expression and His message are so inextricably linked that they have been identified by a single term:  The Word.

Of course, it should be clearly understood that listening is a risky business, because the listener may be required to act upon what she hears.

Those who dare to engage in the counter-cultural practices of listening, pondering, and praying will find that it turns down the volume on this kingdom of noise and clears the deck for a habit of stillness and a continuing practice of listening — really listening — as we read Scripture in the manner in which it was given:  word by word.

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This book was provided by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

An Announcement for January

Most of us have a favorite C.S. Lewis book, whether it’s the incisive practical theology of Mere Christianity or the glorious story-telling found in The Chronicles of Narnia.  It turns out that C.S. Lewis’s favorite of all his books was Till We Have Faces.  One Lewis scholar calls it his “most subtle treatment of the relation between good and evil.”

Till We Have Faces is a novel, based on the mythical tale of Cupid and Psyche, and in it, Lewis explores themes such as the selfishness of human love, the limits of reason, the corrupting effects of self-will, and in Lewis’s own words, “the havoc a vocation or even a faith works on human life.”   I’m planning to lead a discussion group about the book starting in January, and am hoping that many of you will join me, so here’s a quick overview of the plan:

  1.  The pace will be leisurely at three chapters per week (about 30-ish pages), which will take us into the beginning of March.
  2. I will be posting weekly starting January 5 (Thursdays) with introductory material and a detailed reading schedule.  My hope is that the comments section here at Living Our Days will become a comfy living room where we can discuss our thoughts on the book.  If you blog, PLEASE plan to include a link to your post about the week’s reading so that we can all benefit from one another’s impressions with more detail than is possible in the comments.  If you don’t blog, no worries.  Just share your thoughts in connection with the weekly reading here, and be sure to visit and respond to others.

More details to follow!

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Sacred Reading – Hands On

Lectio divina, the practice of “sacred reading,” brings to mind images of flickering candles and meditative silences broken only by the turn of a page or the scratch of a pen on paper.  The flickering candle I can manage, but my dining room table “command post” is where just about any kind of reading happens at my house, making it no less sacred, of course, but incorporating more interruptions, perhaps, than would be ideal.  Maybe this is why I found the framework provided in Jan Johnson’s Meeting God in Scripture to be so helpful.  She refers to her guidance as “training wheels” to help readers move toward meaningful meditation upon the truths of Scripture.

Since at least the 5th century, Christians have referred to four traditional steps in lectio divina:  

  1.  Read (lectio)
  2. Reflect (meditatio)
  3. Respond (oratio)
  4. Rest (contemplatio)

Jan has added Relax and Refocus (silencio) to the beginning and appended Trying it On (incarnatio) to the end, and I found her wording to be extremely helpful in clarifying the intention behind the traditional Latin steps.

For serious students of the Bible, these six steps are likely already happening in some form, however haphazardly.  The point of lectio divina is NOT to add another check list to my life, but, rather, to gently invite me to wonder if my reading of Scripture is grounded in careful thinking about the text.

In Jan Johnson’s forty guided meditations based on brief Scripture passages, she demonstrates not only a method of study, but also a manner of questioning and a leisurely and yet purposeful approach to reading with the intent of changing and deepening the way Christians approach the written Word independently:

Relax and Refocus (Silencio) — Often, Jan poses a question to focus the thoughts on the day’s passage.  Distractions are offered, palms up, to the God who is present and who stands ready to speak to the believer through His inspired Word.  This purposeful pause reinforces the conversational aspect of reading a Living Word.

Read (Lectio) — Here is where we so often go wrong (if we’re not careful).  God’s Word is not for skimming, so reading aloud, reading passages repetitively, and reading with a question in mind are all important slow-me-down safeguards. The goal is for the words to “fall on our ear” in such a way that we perceive what is being said.  Text for all forty passages that Jan examines are included in the book along with helpful explanatory notes.

Reflect (Meditatio) — The questions and cues provided invite the use of sanctified imagination in the reading of a narrative passage and also encourage readers to approach discourse passages on a quest for the particular truth that “shimmers” for them.  God’s invitation, whenever we come to His Word, is to enlarge our understanding of Him through careful reflection on the Truth presented.  Jan teaches her readers how to be a “fly on the wall,” observing, for example, likely facial expressions, the probable responses of gathered crowds, and even the physical details of the setting and the clothing that would have been worn.

Respond (Oratio) — This step brings the spiritual disciplines of Bible study and prayer into one truly God-centered interaction in which we respond to God according to what we believe that we have learned from our careful reading of Scripture.  This response may be verbal, musical, or it may take written form as a journal entry or a drawing.  It may involve questioning God about His ways or thanking Him for some aspect of His character that has been revealed.  The underlying question that drives oratio is:  “What do you most need to say to God at this moment?”

Rest (Comtemplatio) — Here in North America, we have already slammed shut the cover of our Bible and bustled off to our next task long before reaching step five, but Jan emphasizes the importance of simply being present to God, absorbing the truth that has been uncovered, and then responding in worship.  It is helpful to ask at this point, “What was God up to in this passage?” or “Based on what you have read, what is God like?”

Try It On (Incarnatio) — Incarnational faith involves action that arises out of truth.  Jan’s suggestions prime the pump for readers to come up with their own ways to express their living out the truth of a passage.

Integrated throughout Meeting God in Scripture are essays that tackle important questions in the practice of lectio divina.  Having taught the Bible for years, I spent a considerable amount of time reading the essay that compares and contrasts meditation and application.  Both ask, “How does this passage intersect with my life?”  However, meditation is an ongoing conversation with God and results in deep and abiding change in character from the inside out.  Application can tend to be more analytical, left-brained, and temporary unless it is supported by solid Scriptural underpinnings.

Among the other important topics that Jan sorts out and ponders are the sanctified imagination, the role of study in lectio divina, and distinguishing the voice of God from my own mental wool-gathering.

A.W. Tozer said it well:

“[The Bible] is not only a book which was once spoken, but a book which is now speaking . . . If you would follow on to know the Lord, come at once to the open Bible expecting it to speak to you.”

For those who affirm the truth of this, but find that it is just beyond their present experience,  Meeting God in Scripture is a jumping off point — with a little spring in it — to help students of Scripture become airborne, arcing into a passage, slicing past the surface, and then soaking in the depths of its Truth.

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This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of Intervarsity Press, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Grant Us Grace to Ask

Five and a half years ago our family piled into a mini-van and drove cross country — Maine to Seattle, south to Arizona, and then in a zig-zagging joy ride back to Maine.  Four boys, two parents, one tent, six sleeping bags, and five weeks of freedom on the road.  It becomes a better memory every year, and one of the sweetest recollections for me is the memory of falling asleep every night with the words of the Lord’s prayer as an outline for my quiet, day’s-end meeting with God.  Although I had feared that lack of solitude and our crazy schedule would wreak havoc with my prayer life, it led to the gift and surprise of a deeper experience.

Praying Scripture is only one of the twenty-one strategies Kathryn Shirey introduces in Pray Deep, but it’s definitely my favorite.  Many of her suggestions will be familiar to her readers:  praying a song, lectio divina, the ACTS template.  What makes this collection unique is Kathryn’s conviction that prayer is a priority and, since there is no scripturally specified “methodology” for prayer, we are free to view our communication with God as a living and fluid dialogue.  For some, journaling written prayers will serve as a means of recording requests and answers and of being intentional in meeting with God.  For others, drawing and doodling while praying is a way of remaining focused.

I appreciated Kathryn’s inclusion of an excerpt from The Book of Common Prayer in each chapter. I’m hooked, so I downloaded the free version onto my Kindle as a launch pad for deep and meaningful prayer.  Pray Deep encouraged me to try different approaches to prayer, and now they are in my arsenal, not only for myself, but also as a suggestion for people who are seeking advice for revitalizing their prayer life.

By emphasizing the importance of communication with God, Pray Deep has encouraged me in the discipline of making prayer a regular part of every day.  The point is to connect with God, to be intentional in building that most important relationship, and to enjoy the glory of God’s unwavering attention.


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Return to the Garden

Proximity to the land, awareness of seasonal patterns of frost and heat, rain and shine:  these are among the chief benefits of a garden, and in my ongoing cultivation of the beautiful mess where my veggies grow, I am continually renewed and inspired by the metaphors that spring forth from every aspect of life in the garden.  Susan S. Phillips has captured this peaceful fruition for those who are committed to following Jesus.  In The Cultivated Life, the garden as a metaphor for the life of spirituality is contrasted with the life of the circus where our souls “ceaselessly strive,” and we are pressured into assuming the role of “spectator” or “performer” in our three-ring world of anesthetized frenzy.

In garden-living, spiritual disciplines shed their associations with the guilt of toxic do-lists and become row markers, holding space in which our desire for God “can be kindled and in which we might notice God.”  The cultivated life is both free and rooted.  As Paul instructed believers in Colossae, we “walk in Him, rooted,” (Colossians 2:6,7), a journey that is firmly planted in truth and yet proceeds forward through steady seasons of prayer, listening, sacred reading, and spiritual friendships.  The author draws on her interactions as a spiritual director and her mentoring relationships with students to breathe life into her words, drawing her readers into intimacy with the radical stop of Sabbath keeping; the healthy effort of listening and of cultivating attachment; and the mindful bending forward of ordered attention.  In the embedded memoir of Susan’s experience of grieving her parents’ deaths (within three months of each other) and her celebration of their fruitful lives, there is heart-stretching truth to enhance genuine worship and holy love for a God who enriches our soil through the harsh realities as well as through the times of flourishing.

Personally, I was left breathless reading Susan’s gorgeous prose, and I frequently stopped in my tracks to ponder and apply her images:

  • ” . . . we would slam on the brakes as we came upon the stop sign, [and] all our kids’ sports gear catapult[ed] forward from nether regions of the car.  When we stop for Sabbath or in fallowness, we discover our baggage.”
  • “In prayer, as in Sabbath keeping, we turn from so that we might turn toward.”
  • “Countering strong forces in our culture, spiritual disciplines increase our capacity to choose ordered attention and attachment.  Attention helps us notice what’s real, while attachment connects us to all that matters . . . It’s a circular truth:  attention (for instance, noticing hints of grace) begets attachment (love), which aids attention (knowing God, the other and ourselves better), and the spiral continues.”

I read these words and then delight anew in my sunflowers, still in their leaf-forming prelude to days of attentive leaning toward the sun.  With my bare hands, I pile up the rich garden humus around the bean plants and recall that I, too, am sustained by significant soil with its buried nutrients.  With thanksgiving, I uproot the volunteer radishes, a pastel palette of offspring from last year’s long-forgotten root gone to seed, and I pray for my grandson, for his parents and his uncles, and for all his future siblings and cousins.  They are my dear “cathedral of redwoods,”  (Susan’s rich metaphor for generativity), and through reading The Cultivated Life, I am encouraged to trust for grace to enrich their lives; to pray that they will find Life in the living of it; and to believe that they, too, will choose “garden living.”

This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of Intervarsity Press in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link up with these communities on a regular basis:  Soli Deo Gloria Connections, Inspire Me Mondays, Good Morning Mondays, Soul Survival, Testimony Tuesday, Titus 2 Tuesday, Tell His Story, Coffee for Your Heart, Live Free Thursdays, Faith-Filled Fridays, Grace and Truth, Fellowship Friday, Still Saturday, The Weekend Brew, Sunday Stillness, Faith and Fellowship, Blessing Counters, Women with Intention, Sharing His Beauty, Monday Musings, Motivate and Rejuvenate Monday, Thought Provoking Thursday, Small Wonder, A Little R & R, Beloved Brews, SusanBMead, Faith Along the Way, Cozy Reading Spot