Keep these words in your heart: scripture engagement, part 1
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)
God takes scripture seriously. After giving the heart of the Law (“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”), God tells the people of Israel to keep the words in their hearts. But that’s not all. God wants the people of Israel not just to know the scriptures, but to teach them to their children. If we understand ourselves as the heirs of Israel, then we too should place ourselves in this story. We are meant to know the scriptures and to talk about them at home and to teach them to our children. We might not literally fix the scriptures on our foreheads, and most of us don’t have gates. But there is no mistaking the intent of the command: we are meant to display and honor the scriptures publicly.
As I’ve traveled across the Episcopal Church, I’ve noticed a very welcome trend: more and more congregations are diving into the scriptures, inviting people to encounter the Bible and its glorious story of God’s great love for us. The importance of scripture engagement as a catalyst for spiritual growth cannot be overstated. We have data from RenewalWorks which tell us that scripture engagement is a catalyst that works for people at all stages of spiritual growth. Reading God’s word forms us as followers of Jesus.
We Episcopalians have a bad habit, I’ve observed, of keeping our distance from the Bible. We talk about it, rather than finding our place in its narrative. I’ve heard more sermons than I can count which discount the stories of the Bible or explain them away rather than entering into them with awe and wonder. To be clear: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t engage in critical reading or gain historical knowledge. But in the church, our primary encounter with the scriptures should be proclamation and learning. To coin a phrase, we should hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the scriptures.
And though we claim to be the church where you “don’t have to check your brain at the door” or the “AP class of Christianity” (don’t get me started), we are a church of people who, by and large, have not opened our scriptures to learn what they might teach us. Again, RenewalWorks data bear out the fact that most of us simply haven’t read the scriptures.
Here’s the good news. In my experience — and from what I’ve heard, I’m not alone — it’s easy to invite people into the scriptures so that we might have a rich encounter together. Lots of folks are eager to read the Bible, but are intimidated by it or feel that they lack the knowledge to read the scriptures. We have, ironically, gone back to a moment before the Reformation(s), when the scriptures were limited to professionals. So let’s fix that. Let’s give the Bible back to the whole church.
I’m pretty passionate about this, because I know what a difference it made in my life when I read the scriptures with a congregation. I’ve seen and heard story after story of transformation. As I travel, I’ll tell anyone who will listen to be how important it is to get people reading the Bible. It’s important, and getting it done is a bit of work, but it’s not complicated. And, wow, it brings a joy that passes understanding.
In this blog post and in the next two, I want to share some of my own experience as a parish priest in encouraging people to read the scriptures. I’ll also share some things I’ve learned from others. This post is the why and the how to get started. Next post, we’ll look at some ways to structure Christian formation programs for all ages around scripture engagement. Finally, in the third post, I’ll share some ways to embed scripture in congregational life and some ways we can take scripture more seriously in our liturgies.
Why should we read the scriptures? Not just because God commands it — though that is a compelling reason in itself — but because the scriptures will open and change our hearts as we encounter the wondrous story of God’s great love for us. To get a congregation reading the scriptures will surely lead to transformation of individual lives and of the church itself. To learn the language of scripture is to find new ways to praise and to thank God, and that helps us live out our purpose, to glorify God.
Not long ago, I was visiting a church that has experienced some growth. I asked a few of the members why they thought their church was growing. “Our priest got us reading the Bible, and that gave us the language to talk about our faith, to invite others to join us as followers of Jesus.” Wow.
There are a few proven ways to get people moving, to get people to enter the scriptures. I’ll share some of those ways of inviting scripture engagement in the next two posts.
What I want to do is spend a little time sharing what I learned when the church I was serving in Rhode Island decided to go “all in” on the Bible. We did some things right — a little of our own thinking, and plenty of idea-borrowing from other places — and we made a few blunders. But it was a glorious experience. I couldn’t have done this on my own. In addition to God’s grace, I was blessed to serve with an astonishingly gifted priest, Melody Shobe. Her name will come up in the next two posts. I was also blessed to serve with lay leaders who were faithful disciples ready for a great adventure. So do not hear any of this as me being clever. In some ways, I just spun up the machine and then basked in the glow of miraculous grace and brilliant co-laborers in the vineyard.
We started our year of the Bible at the beginning of the program year, and I’ll say more about that in part 2. For now, I want to offer some of things we did before our year with the Bible.
This all started a few months before that summer, when I was at Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, IL, for some meetings. The rector at the time, Jay Sidebotham, was doing amazing work making disciples. I looked out from the meeting on a Tuesday morning and noticed the parking lot was filling up. What’s going on that your parking lot is packed on a Tuesday morning, I asked Jay. Oh, that’s our Tuesday morning Bible study. I was, shall we say, intrigued! Jay went on to talk about how they were spending a year reading the Bible together. All ages, all the time. They were seeing amazing results. People were asking to start home Bible study groups. Transformation was in the air.
The church I was serving had a rough history and was in a tenuous place, so I figured all that Bible-reading might do us some good. So I rang up Jay and his formation staff, and they kindly shard with me their materials. We decided to go all in. This was in the spring.
I shared plans with the vestry. We’d been reading some scripture ourselves, so there was no problem convincing them that this was the right thing to do. There were some audible laughs at a couple of the ideas (“What do you mean, you’re going to get us to read the whole Bible out loud?”). They signed on with enthusiasm.
Over the summer, we staff started talking up the whole thing. We preached and taught about the importance of scripture. We talked up the programs, non-stop.
We encouraged everyone to make sure they had a Bible they loved. As I used to say, “Maybe that dusty old Bible you received as a confirmation gift is just the thing, but maybe not. Find a Bible you love!” We made a little booklet to help people pick out a Bible that would work for them. We set up a little showroom in our office so people could take different versions for a test drive. I used to keep a pile of Oxford Annotated Study Bibles (NRSV) and The Message on my desk. I gave them away to anyone who showed the faintest glimmer of interest.
Melody and I offered to be personal shopping assistants, to meet folks at bookstores to help them choose the Bible. You can rock a hot pink leather Bible! You can get gold-leaf King James! If you don’t want to read, get an audio Bible. Buy an app! I told everyone that having a Bible they loved was so important that I’d buy one for anyone who didn’t want to pay for it. Pushing Bibles is one of the most satisfying things I did as a parish priest. And it worked. I think most of our active members got themselves a Bible that they loved.
So we were ready to dive in. It’s Labor Day weekend. To find out what happened next, read on for Part 2.
Image from Free Methodist Preacher.