We Begin with Faith

Readings for Living in The Story Week 1

Deuteronomy 6-8

Psalm 119

2 Timothy 3

John 5

As You Read in Overview

What is your basic understanding of where the Bible comes from and how it functions? How were you taught or what did you absorb as you were growing up? How have you changed your views over the years? What questions have shifted your thinking? Our first week of reading the Bible with Living in The Story begins by considering the nature of Scripture. Together we will ponder the question, “what kind of book is the Bible?” as we read this week.

A popular aphorism says: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” I absolutely believe this. We all interpret. We all interpret everything. There is no such thing as un-interpreted awareness. We all have some lens or another through which we see the world. We all have a framework with which we make meaning. This was as true of the biblical writers as it is true of us Bible readers.

The authors of these ancient texts began with faith. They started with a confidence that God was somehow in their story and as they collected and recollected the stories of their life together as God’s people, they sought to understand its meaning. The biblical writers are not, for the most part, apologists, arguing for their faith in a way that was designed to convince nonbelievers. Rather their writings were intended to confess and explore their faith within a community of faith.

As You Read the Old Testament

This week’s readings from Deuteronomy are key for the self-understanding of God’s ancient people, Israel. Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Torah, traditionally and poetically called “the books of Moses.” The stage of the Deuteronomy drama is set at the River Jordan as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob recalled their liberation from bondage in Egypt and their forty years in the wilderness. Moses is the revered leader, calling them to remember God’s past faithfulness and urging them to entrust themselves to God’s ongoing fidelity.

But consider that the actual historical setting of the story in Deuteronomy probably is juxtaposed within the setting of Israel’s dilemma many years later, ca. 597 BCE. Most likely, during the time the book of Deuteronomy was composed, the nation once more was displaced from their homeland. God’s people were seeing their past history through the lens of their current captivity in Babylon, and they recognized they were standing on a precipice. Either they will learn from this experience. Or they will be lost.

So Moses’ ancient challenge to their ancestors to “hear”—to remember, recall, take heed, obey—is also a word for Israel centuries later: love God, the one God, God alone; this is everything. All the rules of the Law, all the codes and commandments and ethics and devotion, everything that is written is designed and intended to shape God’s people into a community of love.

As You Read the Psalms

The ancient Hebrew tradition says God spoke to Moses in fire and cloud on the mountaintop and wrote “the ten words,” the Ten Commandments, with the Divine Finger.Psalm 119 celebrates the Law of the Lord handed down from Mount Sinai and revered as God’s definitive word for God’s chosen people.

As you are reading this week’s psalm, consider its form as well as its message. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible and it is written as a poetic Hebrew acrostic. This hymn is shaped according to the Hebrew alphabet, the several lines of the first stanza beginning with the Hebrew letter, aleph, then all the lines of the second stanza starting with the second letter bet and so on through the alphabet.

The poets of Israel believed that in all of life—from “A” to “Z”—the Way of God is ordered and trustworthy, that creation is “good,” that light and darkness exist as they were created to exist, in perfect harmony. The teachers of Israel taught that the whole of life is founded upon trust in the Law of the Lord. They believed that every challenge of life can be overcome by faithful obedience to God’s Word; that true life, right life, good life comes not through simple obedience to rules, but rather through the grace and mercy of Yahweh who sustains all creation. In this methodical, disciplined form of acrostic, the singer/psalmist is able to wax eloquent about God’s Law in a poetic, alphabetical cadence.

Notice how the psalmist uses several different words to describe God’s way: Torah, Law, Word of the Lord, ordinances, statutes, precepts.

I would add another: the Tao. 600 years before Christ, the philosophy of the Tao developed in China. This “tao” literally means “way, path, and road” and it teaches that there is a way within the cosmos, a way of perfect balance that is the natural order of things, a way that flows from the unity of all things, a way that exists in harmony with all creation, and coincides with the core Truth that binds the universe together.

Father Richard Rohr describes this reality when he, too, speaks of The Story in which “the patterns are always true.” Each of us has a personal story, most of us are a part of a group story, but transcending and including all the smaller stories of our humanity is The Story.

The biblical tradition takes all three levels seriously: My Story, Our Story, and The Story. Biblical revelation is saying that the only way you dare move up to The Story and understand it with any depth is that you must walk through and take personal responsibility for your personal story and also for your group story . . .

We are neither trapped inside of our little culture and group identity, or our private pain and hurts. We are people of the Big Picture . . . full of meaning, where nothing is eliminated and all is used to bring us to life.[1]

The psalmist begins with the faith that this kind of Law, Truth, Word, and Way is the foundation upon which all other just laws are founded. Think of Torah/Law/Word within this framework of The Great Way, The Story of Creator’s way for all creation.

As You Read the New Testament

We know from Acts and Paul’s undisputed letters that Timothy was a student and colleague of the apostle Paul. Probably these two letters addressed to Timothy were written in Paul’s name by second-generation disciples nearly one hundred years post-Jesus as the Church mushroomed across the Roman Empire. The original Christians were all Jews, but as the movement spread, many Gentiles (non-Jews) came to claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

“All scripture is inspired by God,” Second Timothy asserts. But consider there were no New Testament scriptures during this time; there was only the Old Testament, the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. So the exhortation for Timothy to continue in the “sacred writings” has to mean the ancient Scriptures of the Hebrew people. “All scripture is inspired by God” has to mean that God’s Breath, Life, Presence, Word—somehow, in some mystery—can be encountered within very imperfect, incomplete (and even ancient) human words.

Within the Christian tradition that followed from Paul, John, and Timothy, we continue to acknowledge the wisdom of Scripture that can and does “instruct, teach, reprove, correct, train, equip.” Now we Christians have the NT, our own sacred writings that have made their own journey of writing, editing, and compiling over a hundred years or so. But even as Christians revere and respect the Holy Scriptures, Christians will only worship and follow the God who is Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer, the one to whom our Bible gives witness.

As You Read the Gospel

As we read chapter five of the Gospel of John, we see John’s Jesus countering religious leaders who seem to have lost the sense of this overarching way and have limited themselves to the smaller ways of codes and rituals. It appears as if they are literalist followers of the Law of Moses: toeing lines, dotting i’s, crossing t’s, scoring points. Jesus, however, challenges this lesser way of reading Scripture.

Writing at the close of the first century, maybe seventy years after Jesus, John offers an intriguing interpretation of God made known in Jesus Christ. In John’s gospel: [BL1-3]

  • Jesus is “the Word made flesh” (1:14).
  • Jesus is the holy Temple where God’s glory resides (2:18–22).
  • Jesus is God’s Way/Truth/Life embodied (14:6). [/BL1-3]

John and the other theologians who authored the NT make an astounding claim: it is not a book, a Bible, a Scripture (no matter how holy) that is God’s eternal Truth. It is a person, one particular person in history who has come into existence to perfectly embody God’s Eternal Way.

Reflection: We Begin with Faith

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 maybe a collection of fantastic stories that don’t seem to have much connection to our modern day world?

Was the Bible somehow dictated directly by God and given to the people of God as something to be revered? Did the Spirit speak so clearly to holy men of God that they wrote down everything perfectly whether they understood what they were writing or not? Did they write for their time? For future times? For all times? 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 crucial 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 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 stretches endlessly before me.

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 different places and cultures. I listen to more than just the words because often we need to listen beneath the words, beyond the words, to listen not only to what this one is saying, but to listen 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 agree absolutely 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 within a proper hearing distance 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. When we read the Bible this way—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.”[2]

Centuries ago, the wise saint Anselm said: credo ut intelligam—”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 faith. It is by knowing from the heart, trusting within the spirit, placing ourselves into a listening space, and then waiting to be addressed 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 in—and beyond—the pages of Scripture.

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 take every word at face value and believe that God is the literal, personal author of this book we call the Bible. When I say: “we begin with faith,” I don’t mean we can’t disagree.

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 overarching story of the cosmos. 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 ancient text can be translated into contemporary human lives. We begin with faith that this story is now written not with ink but by the Holy Spirit, not on stone tablets, but now on the vast multitude of pages that are all of our very human hearts (2 Cor 3:3).

“Scripture does not just want to recreate some world of the past” (William Willimon says), “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 demonstrated in the true and authentic lives it is able to produce.[3]

When we stand with Israel on the banks of the Promised Land, we stand in 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 too we acknowledge all our own exiles and recognize all our salvations. We come to understand how we too desperately need liberation from earthly pharaohs and worldly powers that alienate, estrange, and oppress. And when we finally 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 that the one core commandment is to love this God with all that we are and with all that we have, “with heart and soul and might” (Deut 6).

When we sing the Psalms with the passionate psalmists, we learn how to name our own passion and how to speak boldly our yearning for God’s way, for God’s life (Ps 119).

When we sit at the feet of Paul, Timothy, or Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, 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 Tim 3).

When we stand with the Pharisees arguing with John’s Jesus, we begin to see 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 small imaginations. The living Word of the living Christ confronts us along with those Pharisees when we stand before this Word made flesh. When we are honest and bold to open ourselves to really hear and truly see, then (and only then) do we find life—real life, true life, eternal life that begins here and now.

“Bending our lives toward the text that is ever reaching out to us . . . the church is forever formed and reformed . . .” Willimon reminds us.[4]

During this year as we read and live in The Story, let us move out of the shallows and dive deeper into the vast ocean of the Word so we can 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.”[5]

And as we read, may we be created and recreated: formed, reformed, and ever transformed into the image of the Christ whose Word dwells richly within us and among us.

[1] Rohr, Things Hidden, 23–24 italics in the original. Find a summary of “The Three Domes” at the Center for Action and Contemplation website https://cac.org/the-three-domes-2021-01-24.

[2] Willimon, Pastor, 128.

[3] Willimon, Pastor, 128–130.

[4] Willimon, Pastor, 126

[5] Willimon, Pastor, 125.

Author: Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte lives and blogs in Paris TX. She is ordained within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and developed Living in The Story while doing doctoral work at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth. Charlotte also blogs about intersections of faith, politics, and culture at CharlotteVaughanCoyle.com.

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