Saturday, November 14, 2009

More on Spiritual Discipline, or "What Have You"

I wrote the previous entry on backsliding rather rapidly and need to do more thinking about that. One of the ways in which I wimped out was in saying, "But of course you need spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study," when the truth is my primary spiritual disciplines are Facebook, Twitter, and blogging, mentioned in the entry under the wimpy phrase, "or what have you."

I'm not kidding about that, by the way. I do think of these things as spiritual practices that help connect me to others and to God. Which is what any good spiritual practice does.

One of the essays in Jesus Girls that resonated most powerfully with me was about the sometimes obsessive devotion to daily Bible reading churchy people often feel we must do all the time. In Quick and Powerful, Hannah Faith Notess (who also edited the collection) writes about Bible memorization, the read-the-Bible-in-a-year systems, the highlighted and underlined passages.

Oh, it was all so familiar. In high school we had a special group that met after church to practice our memory verses (which came in this nifty little packet so we could carry them around and practice). I read the whole Bible through at around that same time, starting with the Old Testament since I thought the New Testament, upon which our preacher would expound using the original Greek, would be too hard. Somewhere I still have the red binder in which I painstakingly went through all of the Pauline epistles verse by verse, giving my personal, teen-aged commentary. My Good News Bible is full of highlights and underlines.

In college in InterVarsity, I was introduced to the concept of the Daily Quiet Time. There was much praise at our noon prayer group for a good daily quiet time and requests for God's help in the face of bad ones.

This devotion to devotions has taken different forms in the Episcopal Church. There's the Daily Offices, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, which treat the pray-er to great swaths of Scripture.

Then there's my bete noire: Lectio Divina which seems to be what all the really spiritual people do. Can't stand it. I've tried numerous times. Can't do it. Just can't. It's not for me.

My Bible reading these days is mostly in sermon prep. One poll of pastors reported in shock that "Seven hundred fifty-six (756 or 72%) of the pastors we surveyed stated that they only studied the Bible when they were preparing for sermons or lessons. This left only 38% who read the Bible for devotions and personal study." I fail to see the problem with that--and what makes you think that I'm not reading the Sunday lections for my personal devotions? Those passages do their work on me just the same as any other parts of the Bible.

I am very glad I did get such a strong background in Scripture, but it has been very hard to let go of the guilt that I'm not as devoted as I used to be. But Notess' essay hit it on the head--at least on my head--when she wrote, "If I was going to read the Bible in any meaningful way, I had to give all those seeds I'd crammed into my mind a little time to sprout. So at eighteen, I put the Bible on the shelf for a while. I took a step back from it, just to see what would happen."

The collect for this Sunday is one of my favorites:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The "inwardly digest" part is always the best; it makes me happy every time. Finally I get that the happiness comes not only because the image amuses me, but because it's a very freeing thought. I'm still trying to let go of the guilt of not always reading, marking and learning, but to know in my heart and not just my head that inwardly digesting is part of the process too. I am reassured by the thought that perhaps I am not refusing the nourishment that comes from Scripture but savoring the food I've already been given.

I said earlier that "I'm not as devoted as I used to be," but I don't think that's true. I think I'm just as devoted to Scriptures, but finding my way into the practices that best stir me up to love. Certainly that's my hope.

Long one today! Whew! Thanks for reading!


it's margaret said...

Yeppa. And, then there are the days I just wish we could burn all the bibles.... but, then, I'm such a sacramentalist!

Anonymous said...

I have thought of so many different stories since reading this post ... no easy answers, but lots and lots of questions. I'm going to put each story in a different post in case it makes it easier for anyone else to think about them.

The first time I read this post, it reminded me vividly of a dinner I once went to at a Renaissance conference in Chicago. As it happened, my table included people of all different ages. When we somehow started talking about the sixties, then, we had at least one person who had been a senior professor in the sixties, one who had been a junior professor, one who had been a graduate student, perhaps one who had been a college student, and definitely one who been a baby (that would be me). The part of the conversation I still remember is when one of participants said essentially, "We fought so hard to get our professors to put Marx on our required reading lists, and now my students think he's just as boring and uninteresting as everything else I ask them to read."

It can be hard to make required reading into interesting and entertaining reading. But if we only read what's fun, when do we ever get to what's important?

I have always loved to read, but even a love of reading and religion so strong that it took me to Augustine in high school and Kierkegaard in college has never been enough to get me through the Bible from beginning to end.

When I can make myself follow the discipline of morning and evening prayer, I learn more about the Bible and more about myself.

Anonymous said...

Second story in response to this post.

Unlike Laura, I did not have much Bible at all in my childhood. Although my grandparents gave us children an illustrated children's Bible, I was much more interested in the pictures than the words. While I can still remember my early fascination with the building materials in the Ark of the Covenant and the array of gemstones on Aaron's breastplate, I can not honestly say that either of these images has ever been important to me in my adult practice of the Christian faith.

Ironically, the first place I really had to read the Bible was neither at church nor in confirmation class but rather at college and again in graduate school - both times as part of the required curriculum in the history of Western Civilization. Even though my college humanities teachers often relied on me to tell the class the Bible stories that served as the background for the books we were reading, I was far less impressed by what I knew already than by how much there was in the Bible that I had never heard anything about before!

What difference does it make whether we encounter the Bible in a religious context or a secular one? Whether we read it at our grandparents', parents', priests', pastors', or professors' behest?

If no one had ever given me a Bible, I don't know if I would have been as comfortable when I started taking church seriously in junior high school. If no one had ever asked me to read the Bible, I don't know if I ever would have sought it out for myself.

By now I have read more Bible than many of the people that I know, but I will never feel I have read enough until I have read the whole thing. Because it is the central text of my faith, I feel a responsibility to know what it says from beginning to end - a responsibility that I am currently very far from fulfilling.

Anonymous said...

Third, and perhaps last, story in response to this post.

I observe that I keep coming back to the question of whether or not people will read the Bible if no one tells them that they have to read the Bible.

This reminds me of an interview that I heard on the radio the other day. The interviewer asked a variety of musicians how parents would be able to tell whether or not to enroll their children in music lessons. Many of these musicians were themselves teachers of music, and they all laughed about the question before settling in to answer it.

On the one hand, no one wants to be the stage father who runs his son's life or the stage mother who lives vicariously through her daughter's success. On the other hand, no one wants to be the philistine father who refuses to let his son explore the arts or the marrying mother who wants her daughter to focus on attracting a husband instead of exploring a profession of her own.

In the case of music, the musicians agreed that it was a difficult balance. On the one hand, they preferred to see students with a genuine love of music. On the other hand, they agreed that even the most musical child might sometimes need a reminder to practice instead of going out to play in the street with the other kids on the block.

Music, of course, is optional. Depending on the kind, some people love it, some people hate it. Some people want to spend their lives playing, others are content to listen, and still others might prefer some other art form altogether.

I don't think the Bible can be optional in the same way, at least not for faithful Christians. Whether we read literally or critically, constantly or occasionally, how are we supposed to know the roots of our tradition if we do not know the content and context of our earliest sacred texts? And whether we want to live liberally or conservatively, how are we supposed to ground our lives in faith if we do not at least consider what the Bible has to say to us about them?

When I started attending evening prayer, I heard more Bible read than I had ever heard on Sunday morning. I discovered that the 2-year lectionary cycle for the daily office was far more extensive than the 3-year cycle for Sunday services. Sometimes the new Bible passages that I discovered were surpassingly beautiful; other times the stories that I heard were scarier than anything I had ever imagined. I am still finding my way, still trying to figure out how to make sense of it all.

Last questions, then. What can we do to make the Bible as interesting to read as all the other reading that we do all the time on the page or on-line? And in those times or on those occasions when the Bible just isn't as interesting as all of the other stuff, when and how can we decide that it is time to let someone else tell us that we have to read it anyway because it is important?