When I was a girl, I didn’t know how to read the Bible. The truth is: sometimes I still don’t know.
What kind of book is it anyway? Is it a rulebook? A history book? Is it a book filled with interesting stories with moral lessons? Or a collection of fantastic stories that don’t seem to have much connection to our modern day world? Was the Bible written or dictated by God and then given to the church as something to be revered? Did the Spirit speak so clearly to holy men of God that they wrote down everything perfectly, just they were instructed, whether they understood what they were writing or not? Lots of people over lots of years have asked lots of questions about the nature of this beautiful, odd, comforting, disturbing book the church calls its “Holy Scripture.”
In my own journey with the Bible, it was only when I finally did the hard work of asking hard questions and even arguing with the texts that Scripture was transformed for me into a symphony of polyphonic voices; into a masterpiece work of art that painted an alternative vision of the world; into a complex novel-like story unavoidably embedded in its own culture and time – and yet, somehow, in some mystery – able to give witness to the God beyond history who has acted (and continues to act) within history.
Sometimes when I deal with Scripture, I feel like I’m sailing a vast ocean; the wideness of it makes me suck in my breath. Then I put on my snorkel gear and I plunge beneath the surface; its immense, colorful world opens up before me and I am astounded. Then I put on my scuba gear and dive even deeper; its mystery goes on forever.
Sometimes I think of Scripture as a conversation with a dear friend where I am invited to listen to the story of another. I listen respectfully to a point of view that may be different from mine. I listen carefully because we come from quite different places. I listen to more than just the words because often we need to listen beneath the words, beyond the words; to listen not just to what this one is saying, but listening for what it means. And sometimes in this conversation, I argue. (Respectfully, of course. This is a friend, after all!) But I know I don’t have to absolutely agree with every single thing I read here.
When I’m in this kind of conversation with Scripture, I find everything works better when I begin with trust. When I am able to place myself into a listening space and open my ears to hear whatever it may want to say to me; when I can open my eyes to see what it needs to show me. Whenever we read the Bible, trusting that somehow God is in this event of Scripture, trusting that this really does matter, trusting that, in these ancient words, a true and eternal Word is still being spoken – then we begin with faith. We begin as the church has always begun: trusting that “in the reading of Scripture, the Creator is at work, something is made out of nothing, the church takes form around the words of the Word” (William Willimon, 198).
Centuries ago, the great saint Anselm said: credo ut intellegam – “I believe so that I may understand.” Contrary to our modern conventional wisdom that “seeing is believing,” the church has long recognized that understanding, knowing, comprehending the presence of God can never be a matter of evidences or proofs. Knowing God has always been a matter of the heart. It is only in that knowing in the heart, trusting in the spirit, opening ourselves up to the listening space, the waiting place that we can ever hope to understand the least little thing about God and God’s way. We begin with faith. We begin by opening ourselves to the possibility that – even in these often odd, time-bound, culture-bound words – the Living Word of the Living God just may show up. It is our faith – and the faith of the church across the ages – that moves us to suspend our disbelief and to let ourselves trust that the eternal God just may meet us here.
When I say “we begin with faith,” I don’t mean we have to believe that every history-like story can be fact checked or that every miracle story has some relationship with our modern day scientific method. When I say “we begin with faith,” I don’t mean we have to believe that God himself is the author of this book we call the Bible. But what I do mean when I say “we begin with faith” is that we begin by entrusting ourselves to the One whom we confess to be the author of THE Story; the story of the cosmos, the only story that matters. And we trust that this One has written US into That Story so that, consequently, our lives matter. Our lives matter a great deal! We begin with faith that this inscribed text can translate into human lives. We begin with faith that this story is now written, not with ink but with the Holy Spirit; not on stone tablets, but now on the vast multitude of pages that are our very human hearts. (2 Corinthians 3:3).
As William Willimon says:
Scripture does not just want to recreate some world of the past, but rather wants to form a new world in the present – to recreate US. We call the Bible ‘inspired’ because the Bible keeps reaching out to us, keeps striking us with its strange truth, keeps truthfully depicting God … We trust the Bible because on enough days we discover that God’s Word has the power to produce the readers that it requires. When the authority of the Bible is challenged with: ‘Is the Bible true?’ we are not to trot out our little arguments but rather [we are expected to trot out] our little lives. The truthfulness of Scripture is in the lives it is able to produce.
When we stand with Israel on the banks of the Promised Land, we stand in the faith that we too are living in This Same Story. As they were liberated from slavery in Egypt, as they were saved from Exile in Babylon – so we too recognize our own exile and our own salvation. We come to understand how we too – and too many others all around us – desperately need liberation from all the Pharoahs and all the powers that alienate and estrange and oppress. And when we understand that need, when we name our own helplessness, we hear again the call to shape our lives around the one God who is to be our only God. We hear again the one core commandment to love this God with all that we are and with all that we have: “with heart and soul and might” (Deuteronomy 6).
When we sing the Great Psalm with the ancient Psalmist, we learn how to name our passion, how to speak boldly our yearning for God’s way, for God’s life (Psalm 119).
When we sit at the feet of Paul and Timothy, we remember the wisdom of submitting ourselves to these sacred writings, to this holy Scripture that is inspired to teach and reprove, to correct and train, to equip and prepare God’s people to do good works; to do God’s work in our world (2 Timothy 3).
When we stand with the Pharisees in John 5 and acknowledge all the ways we too, misuse and abuse Scripture to prove our little points, to serve our petty agendas, to endorse the visions of our own imaginations, then we are confronted with the Word of the living Christ. And when we stand before this Word made flesh, when we are honest and bold to open ourselves to really hear and truly see – then we will find life. Real life, true life, eternal life here and now.
“Bending our lives toward the text that is ever reaching out to us, the church is forever formed and reformed…”
Will Willimon reminds us. (126)
I invite you to join me, to Live in The Story. Let’s move out of the shallows and dive deeper into the vast ocean of the Word and marvel at the wonders hidden there for us. Let us “gather around the words of Scripture with the expectation that these words will become for us the Word of God Incarnate.” (Willimon)
And as we read, may we be created and recreated, formed and reformed and ever transformed into the image of the Christ whose Word dwells richly within us and among us.
Living in The Story reflections for Week 1: We Begin with Faith
Deuteronomy 6-8, Psalms 119, 2 Timothy 3, John 5
William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).