Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you, O Lord. For you are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
A pastor once told a story of someone needing to find comfort from the Word of God but uncertain how to begin or how to study Scripture. The person closed their eyes, fanned the pages’ edges with their thumb. Then, allowing the Bible to fall open, the person, with their eyes still closed, moved their finger around and plunged it down onto a verse. When the person opened their eyes, they were dismayed as they read, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” So, the person, determined to hear a word of comfort from God through Scripture, repeated this same process. Again, they thumbed the pages of the Bible, allowed the Bible to fall open, moved their finger over the open pages of the Bible, and plunged their finger onto another random verse. Even sadder than the first time, the person read, “Go and do likewise.”
I share this story because, too often, we find ourselves in the situation of this person. We long for a word of comfort, a word of affirmation, a word of hope, a word of healing, but like the person above, we don’t always know how or where in Scripture to begin. Unlike my husband who has been reading the Bible since he was old enough to read, I did not start reading Scripture for myself until my late teens/early adulthood, and when I did, it was when I was in crisis. Even after serving in ministry for eleven years, I still, on occasion, ask Nick his thoughts on what Scripture speaks most to a given topic.
In the Methodist Church, John Wesley taught we do not read (study or search Scripture) for the sole purpose of reading/studying Scripture. We read Scripture in order to hear what God may be saying to us. We read, search, and study Scripture so that we might recognize how God may be asking us to go and to do something other than what we had planned or though for ourselves.
Early in the Methodist movement, pastors were called circuit riders because they rode their horses in a specific geographic area in which they preached from week to week. In each one’s saddle bag, a circuit rider carried a Bible, a Book of Discipline (which by the way was about the size of the palm of my hand), and Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Old and New Testaments. Wesley did not provide explanatory notes for the well-educated, well-read folks but rather for “plain un-lettered men [people], who understand only their mother tongue, and yet have reverence and love for the word of God, and have a desire to save their souls.” Searching Scripture has always been, for Methodists, a means of grace—an action available to any person so that they may grow deeper in their understanding of God and live in response to the life given to them through a gained sense of understanding.
Among churches there is a variety of understandings of how Scripture functions. Some churches believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. I have worshiped in churches where the number of Bibles brought to church are counted and recorded, and where the only Bibles counted and recorded are the King James Version translation. Now, hear me. There is nothing wrong with the King James Version, but John Wesley, Martin Luther, John Calvin and others believed that Scripture should be made available to each person in his or her own native tongue. The translation of the Bible does not matter because it is not the Bible itself that illuminates our hearts and minds, it is the Spirit of God working within us as we encounter Scripture.
For Wesley, the Bible was not the literal word of God, and the Bible was not infallible. Rather, for Wesley, Scripture was the inspired word of God that contained everything one needs to know about salvation in God through Christ. In fact, no single piece of Wesley’s writings was derived from or based completely upon Scripture. Rather, Scripture was in the mind and heart of Wesley as he taught and preached. It was through his knowledge of Scripture that Wesley viewed the world around him in order to learn to hear how God was calling him to respond.
As with the other means of grace, Wesley did both employ and offer a method for searching Scripture. First, Wesley advised that one was to set aside specific time to read Scripture. For me, I find that early mornings, before anyone wakes up works well. When I worked as a speech therapist, I would get to work 20 minutes early, and sit in my car in the school parking lot in order to find a quiet place to study Scripture. It was not until I left for seminary that I learned this practice of Scripture had impacted my co-workers. They would see me in my car studying the Bible and had become interested and began studying it, too. The point of reading Scripture is not simply to gain information, but to learn more about the will and heart of God. In order to do this, Wesley instructed praying to Holy Spirit that one would be illumined with a spiritual understanding of the text. Wesley instructed people to read the scripture slowly: to allow God’s spirit to reflect on a text so that it may bring comfort, challenge, or in some way convince the reader to change. Lastly, Wesley instructed people to put into practice what had been revealed in Scripture. As a means of grace, the end goal of searching Scripture is not for us to grow us in knowledge, but for us grow more deeply in love with God that our only response is to live out that love in word, thought, and deed with our neighbors.
Today, there are many versions and many means of studying the Bible. I have a colleague who reads 5 Psalms per day, so that he reads through all of the Psalms every month. I have other colleagues who have and who are reading through the Bible chronologically. This method intersperses books of history, poetry, and prophets in the Old Testament, and allows the reader to read the gospels and epistles in the order in which they are thought to have been written. This allows readers to experience the movement and action of God throughout history. There are many plans for how to read the entire Bible in one year. Perhaps, though, my favorite way to read Scripture is through Lectio Divina (or Sacred Reading).
The guiding principle of Lectio Divina is that God always reveals God’s self to us in Scripture through Holy Spirit. First, we are invited to pray: to quiet our own voices and open ourselves to the Spirit’s leaning. Then, we are invited to read one chapter or a small section of a book slowly two times. As we move slowly through the text there may be a word, a phrase, sentence, or idea that emerges from the text. When that happens, the reader pauses to reflect on what has emerged from the text. This is a time for searching for what God is calling you to hear in the Scripture you have just read. Finally, we commit to live what God has revealed to us through our scripture study.
There may be times when our study of Scripture feels dry, or that God does not reveal any image or concept. In those times, it is especially important to keep trust God’s presence with us and love for us, and let the reading be what it is. The important thing is not to give up the practice of regularly searching Scripture. For it is in searching Scripture that our hearts are shaped and formed by God’s words so that our lives may be guided by God’s actions. May it be so.