Many years ago–over twenty years ago–I discovered my own way into the spiritual life. I felt called by God to something . . . I just couldn’t name what it was yet. And so, I decided to “start a prayer life,” whatever that meant. I had heard about people reading devotional books and praying every day during their “quiet time.” While I was never quite disciplined enough to do something every day like clockwork, I wanted to try to do this with prayer and Bible study. I bought a devotional book and could not have picked a better one for me. I did not buy the book because others I admired liked it, or because I had heard of this author. I bought the book because I liked the picture on the cover. And, I figured, if I was going to be reading from this book every day, I had better like looking at it! The book was Listening to Your Life by Frederick Buechner. To say it changed my life is an understatement. It named for me the things I had been thinking, the issues I had been wrestling with, and affirmed my best instincts at a very difficult time. In his wonderful book (and repeated in many of his others as well), one entry talks about how to read the Bible, making suggestions like reading different translations, reading it in different languages (if you know any other languages), reading various high points, asking questions of it as you read, getting a good commentary to help you understand the parts of the Bible that are perplexing. He said, “If you look at a window, you see fly-specks, dust, the crack where Junior’s Frisbie hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond.” He recommended looking through the Bible, rather than at it–that as you read the Bible, it is most unhelpful to look at it as a mere rule book with lists to follow to the letter. The true blessing of Bible study is to look through it to the world beyond. You see yourself, maybe, in a story from scripture and your reaction there on the face of David or Mary or Judas. You ask the questions that leap out from Psalms or Ecclesiastes. You realize that, whatever you’re going through, someone has been there before. And, right in the middle of every messy life, there is God.
I’ve been helping a few people prepare for baptism in the near future. It is a joy, and it is a challenge–because we don’t know as much about the Bible, the stories of the faith, the stories of Jesus, the basics, as we used to know as a people. I spend time with new believers explaining the difference between the Old and New Testaments. For example, none of the Gospel stories of Jesus will be in the Old Testament. The Old Testament was written down well before Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. It is the Bible he knew, when he spoke to people about “the Law and the Prophets.” We talk about the notations like “Luke 11:1-13.” This may seem elementary to some and news to others, how the first part of the notation is the name of the book in the Bible, the number 11 is the chapter (before the colon), and the 1-13 are the verses (after the colon). The way you find the chapter when you open the pages of one of the books of the Bible is to look for the big numbers. The verses are the little numbers. And then, once a person understands this stuff and can look up verses and stories on his/her own, her/his next step is to actually read it–a difficult task, because sometimes reading the Bible is almost like learning a new language, a new vocabulary.
In a meeting the other day, I gave someone some questions to ask when he reads a Bible passage. I felt that, perhaps, these questions might help others, too. So, in your own study, after you’ve read a verse or a story, it may help to consider questions like these:
What was this scripture about?
Have I heard this before? When? Where?
Do I like what it says? Why or why not?
Is this scripture challenging to me? If so, how?
Am I similar or different from the people in this scripture reading? (Would I have done what they did / said what they said?)
What doesn’t make sense to me? What do I have to know better before I can understand this?
Nowadays, you can look up just about anything you want about the Bible. Someone is online writing about all of it from Genesis to Revelation. They have their opinions on what one part or another means and they have the research to prove this or that. Bookstores and libraries all have their religion sections, where you can look stuff up from all perspectives. Those ideas of others and the scholarship available to you can be quite helpful as you attempt to study on your own. However, what those online writers don’t have is your relationship with God and your experience and your wonderful mind. That mind of yours, that experience, that relationship with God that is yours is missing from the conversation, from any materials you might find written by someone else.
So, friends, please try this out. Read the Bible–start small, if you’re just beginning–maybe read some familiar passages like the 23rd Psalm, the stories Jesus told in Luke 15, the beautiful poetry of 1 Corinthians 13. Ask questions of what you’ve read. Write down/pray about/share with trusted friends the answers that come to you. Wrestle with where the truth is in what is before you. Grow in your faith.
Long ago, I discovered someone who could help me put voice to the questions that would ultimately lead me to seek God with my whole life. It was only a first step, but it was the most important one. May your next step lead you toward the heart of God.