Sunday, January 19, 2014

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Remembering the Story

Church Matters: Practices for the Body of Christ after Christendom: Engaging scripture
Psalm 19:7-10; Matthew 5:17-20; 2 Tim. 3:14-17

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    Article 4 of our Mennonite Confession of Faith, adopted in 1995, is on the
 topic of Scripture.  It states, in part, “We believe that all Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness.  We accept the Scriptures as the Word of God and as the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life.  We seek to understand and interpret Scripture in harmony with Jesus Christ as we are led by the Holy Spirit in the church.”
    There is more, that I won’t read, but it concludes with this paragraph, “The Bible is the essential book of the church.  Through the Bible, the Holy Spirit nurtures the obedience of faith to Jesus Christ and guides the church in shaping its teaching, witnessing and worship.  We commit ourselves to persist and delight in reading, studying, and meditating on the Scriptures.. We participate in the church’s task of interpreting the Bible and discerning what God is saying in our time by examining all things in the light of Scripture.  Insights and understanding which we bring to the interpretation of the Scripture are to be tested in the faith community.” (P. 21-22)

    If we believe this to be true, we have work to do.  More and more people are Biblically illiterate, fewer and fewer people are engaging scripture.  (in my opinion and from what I have read).  One sentence that I noted in particular, was “We commit ourselves to persist and delight in reading, studying, and meditating on the scriptures.”  Engaging scripture (our topic for today) should not be drudgery, boring, an obligation, or a ‘should’, but rather something that we delight in...a discipline and practice that, engages the mind, refreshes the soul and gives joy to the heart.!”

    Throughout the ages God has spoken to us through the written Word, the spoken Word, and the incarnate Word.  Scripture is a primary way that the Holy Spirit opens us up to the God who is beyond us.  God is still speaking and guiding us personally and intimately as we engage scripture,...as we remember to tell the story, and all of the ‘little stories’ within the context of the larger Biblical narrative.
    Long before the narratives of the Bible became ‘scripture’, (written form), they existed in oral form as stories shared in the faith community and passed down from generation to generation.  Over and over they were told.  In the early church, the experience of telling and hearing the stories of Jesus was sacred.  The one telling and the listener(s) came together as community to meet the risen Christ.  Repetition, good listening skills, Spirit-filled tellers, all were important in this oral tradition.  No one had a printed bulletin, the latest translation of the text, and iPad or any other device.
    Things changed.  The church during Christendom became powerful in society and was home to the powerful.  The church moved from the margins to the center as Christianity became the official religion of the state and empire.  As the hierarchy of the church became strong, the gap between clergy and laity widened.  The common folk heard, preached from the pulpit, selected scriptures chosen by the clergy to justify some of the changes taking place, focusing more on the Old Testament than the New, as the laity fell more and more into a passive role.
    The early reformers during the Protestant Reformation and later the Anabaptists began to stir things up in the 16th century. As scripture gradually became accessible to people and printed eventually in languages they could understand, they wanted to read and study and discover for themselves the meaning.  They became known as a ‘biblical people’, who had passion for reading, studying, memorizing, reciting, discussing the Bible.  They not only continued to hear their leaders preach and teach, but these leaders also expected and encouraged their members to engage in discussion, contributing questions and insights, discerning and discovering together in community, rather than listening passively to their leaders!

    How have we engaged scripture in the last 50 years and how will we continue to keep the scriptures alive in this post Christendom era?

Reflection on my experience...last 55 years..

Growing up in a large Mennonite Church in Blooming Glen, PA in the 50s and 60s, I engaged scripture at a young age, although I didn’t know enough to articulate it in that way.  My family went to church every Sunday.  I went to church every Sunday and Sunday school and Sunday evening and Wednesday night gatherings.  I memorized Bible verses for SS and Summer Bible School.  I heard the stories told by my teachers, and read to me by my mother before bedtime.  I learned songs, and choruses, many based on scripture, that told me Jesus loves me.  And also that Jesus loves the little children of the world..all of them.  I learned songs that helped me learn scripture and the stories of the Bible.

I attended summer camp for 3 years and youth retreats and youth conventions for 4 years while in high school... all of the time engaging scripture in various ways appropriate to my age, including stories dramatized or depicted by artists in various ways.  As I prepared for baptism, I tried to read my Bible regularly, struggling to understand what it all meant in the KJV.(the only one most of us had at that time.)  I failed miserably many times, but I was feeling this was something that I ‘should’ be doing.  I sometimes felt guilty, when I fell asleep in the middle of a chapter, not remembering what I read and not being able to check off my daily Bible reading.  I struggled off and on throughout my adult life, trying to find the time and way to engage scripture that would engage my mind, refresh my soul, and give joy to my heart.  Through college and even later in seminary, I enjoyed studying the texts most of the time, but often found that while my mind was engaged, often my heart and soul had drifted away.  I didn’t really discover how to delight in the scripture until I discovered and committed myself to Biblical Storytelling.  There!  That is my confession.  What does your story include? How did you engage scripture through childhood, youth, YAhood and beyond?  Has it changed?  What does it look like now?

I want to offer 3 ways/practices that I believe we can engage scripture in this post Christendom era that can help us keep the scriptures alive for us.  The challenge is to find the one that works best for you and practice it faithfully, but also to include the other 2, as you can, to bring some balance and stretch you.

1.)  Bible Study - the most familiar way/practice.  It is studying the scripture to see how it can equip, guide, and reveal how to live in life giving ways.   It is mostly engaging the mind and systematically studying scripture to understand the big picture.  It is digging into the texts, gathering information, reading carefully, using commentaries, learning the context of the passage with all of the rich nuances of culture and language.  It might be doing word studies and reading in the original languages, or taking a class on line or at seminary.  It includes personal study, as well as community Bible Studies. It might be study to prepare for teaching SS or preaching a sermon.  As we read in II Timothy, “every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another”.  Giving attention to the texts, doing some critical thinking, digging deep into the culture and background, helps us to understand and express our faith, as we gain new insights and open ourselves to God working in us through our studies.


2.)  Devotional reading - Lectio Divina (divine or sacred reading) - used in the first 1500  years of church history when many people were illiterate and many didn’t have Bibles.  It is a prayerful reading of scripture that requires an open, reflective, listening posture alert to the voice of God.  It is a type of reading aimed more at growing a relationship with God rather than gathering information about God.  It is reading for depth, not breadth.  You may only work with several verses, rather than read a chapter.  It is listening deeply to God’s word to you.(Ruth Haley Barton, who will be the main speaker this week at SLT has written much about this practice.  She writes in a book, Sacred Rhythms, “The study of Scripture (Bible study 1st practice above) is important, but if we stop there, we will eventually hit a wall spiritually.  Information gathering may be exhilarating and even useful at times, but in the end our soul knows that there must be something more.” p. 50 She goes on to say, “When we engage the Scriptures for spiritual transformation, we engage not only our mind but also our heart, our emotions, our body, our curiosity, our imagination and our will.”

The practice of Lectio Divina is done in 5 movements, and more of this can be found in many books, but in brief, it is:

  • Silencio - becoming quiet and offering your self to God in silence
  • Lectio - read a passage out loud, slowly, allowing the words to resonate and settle on your heart...linger on word/phrase that catches your attention - sit with the word
  • Meditatio - read the passage again and listen to where the words connect with your life right now
  • Oratio - read the passage again, listening attentively to a word from God.  How is God inviting you to respond?
  • Contemplatio -receive God’s word and rest in his presence. and love.  Take time to be still.
This kind of engagement with scripture has become helpful and transformative for many people in recent years.

3.)  Biblical storytelling/memorization - many of us memorized Bible verses and songs as children.  Words, stories, prayers learned at a young age continue to pop into our heads to comfort or amuse us as we remember them.  Memorized things usually has staying power, but the world has changed and our technology and flood of information and access to it has made memorization less important, or some would say.  In 2010, I attended the annual gathering of the Network of Biblical Storytelling in Asheville, NC and it was transformative for me.  It has become a gift. Becoming involved with NBS and our local guild has enriched my life.  Biblical storytelling has helped in my sermon preparation, energized my study and engagement with scripture and enriched my life.  It is not quite the same as simply memorizing words on a page.  It is internalizing the story, marinating in the text (Dan’s words), carrying the life shaping words of God within me at all times and in all places.  The words and stories are on my heart!

In post Christendom the oral telling of the Holy Scriptures is of critical importance as the church grows and changes. It is a spiritual discipline, rooted in prayer and scholarship. 

  As you utilize these ways to engage scripture, I hope they will engage your mind, refresh your soul and bring joy to your heart, as you remember the story.  Christine Pohl wrote in a book called, Living Into Community, that “Remembering is a communal practice and such re-telling provides the next generation with on-going opportunities to internalize community stories and values.  When we tell the biblical story as well as the stories of our traditions, congregations and communities, we are reminded of who we are and to whom we belong.”

As we engage scripture, may we delight in hearing God’s word and message to us and our communities as we read, study, meditate and tell the story of Jesus and His love.”

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