Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Contemplative Preacher: Ears to Hear

The way you hear Scripture underlies most anything else you would do for the sake of your faith. I've been grateful for the ways I grew up learning to hear Scripture, as well as for some new ways I've been tuning my ears to listen.

The ears I grew up learning to use were rational ones. There are things that this kind of hearing does well:
- You pay close attention to information, hanging onto names, places, times, facts, and details.
- You place a heavy importance on discerning a singular "meaning" of the text you're reading, showing great respect for the author's intended meaning in the author's historical context.
- You keep your brain engaged, ensuring that the elements of faith to which you cling are likely to have an intellectually honest basis in your life.

Growing up in churches of Christ, we have adopted this way of reading Scripture almost exclusively. Since our central goal for reading Scripture was to discern what the early church taught and practiced, we developed a tool for applying Scripture--our hermeneutic--that is precisely aligned for this goal. I think more than any religious group, we have thought deeply about providing a simple platform for church worship and structure that anyone can agree is well within the realm of what the early church would seem comfortable practicing. I like the idea that if Paul showed up at my church this Sunday, it would mostly feel like church to him. (I grant there are several elements that probably wouldn't fit within that mold, but a lot would.)

As a minister, I went through a really dry spell with Scripture. Scripture contains some rules and directives, but not all of Scripture is intended to be a set of rules, a blueprint, or a map. Once I had all the "facts" down of what was said, and all the specific rules figured out, there wasn't much else to do with Scripture. As I've grown in a more contemplative direction, I've come to love some aspects of Scripture that do not fit well within the rational mold of hearing the text. Specifically, Scripture does some wonderful things with mystery, joy, and imagination.

Here are some passages to consider:
- Ephesians 3. Paul is noticeably infatuated with the "unsearchable riches" of Christ. He can't get over his excitement of this "mystery" of who Jesus turned out to be. This has been shared with us, though generations of holy people were never privileged to see God the way we've seen God through Jesus. Later in this passage, Paul prays that the Ephesians can gain in knowledge of a certain type. Not just that they would memorize lists of kings and judges, but that they could know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Think about know what goes beyond knowing. Scripture invites us to understandings of God that go deeper than the purely rational. This also leads us to wonder what God might be up to in our congregation, and in our time so that we, too, can experience knowledge of God that cannot be transmitted purely as a set of instructions.
- Jude 24-25. This passage is a doxology; an expression of praise. Sometimes God's overwhelming goodness moves us to praise him. (And if we didn't, the hills and rocks might anyway.) Joy doesn't need to instruct; only to proclaim heartfelt truth.
- Revelation 12. This is the story of the Gospel told in the literary form of myth. Talk of women with crowns of stars running from dragons just doesn't fit well into a rational reading; specifically one that is preoccupied with what rules are being given in any text. It is possible to analyze this text to death, but I think Revelation 12 is meant to be read much the way we would enjoy C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. You see the story of Aslan being put to death on the stone table, and it has the power to move you to tears. It isn't a historical story, but it's an absolutely true story, understood through the eyes of faith. Some things are so true and so powerful that they are best expressed with stories and metaphors, rather than explanations. This must be part of why Jesus preferred to teach in parables.

I could add things to the list like the Psalms and much of the prophetic poetry. Scripture engages our minds, but it also invites our emotions and imaginations to the table, because God is bigger than any of them can contain.

Here are some ways I've been trying to approach Scripture with ears tuned a little differently.
- In addition to reading for instruction, I read for formation. 
I used to be rigorous about daily Bible reading plans that were very goal oriented. My goal was to complete reading tasks, which for me took on its own form of mild idolatry: achievement. I often forgot what I read, but at least I checked it off the list.

I now tend to select smaller portions of Scripture, and read them repeatedly. Sometimes I spread this over multiple days. Think about the description of Jacob wrestling with God when Jacob said, "I won't let you go until you bless me." I continue to hang on to the passage, trusting that God's spirit-inspired Word is a well that won't run dry, no matter how many times I return to the same text. Amazingly, that's been true.

To start hearing Scripture differently, don't allow yourself to keep moving too quickly. Be willing to dwell with a smaller passage for more time. Read and re-read. Listen for a word or phrase that seems intended just for you, and be open to how God might be working on you through it. Sometimes it helps me to print off a Scripture on a single page so I can't give into the temptation to keep moving past it.

A great question to ask is, "If this is what God wants the world to be like, what will I have to do differently?" or "What is God calling me to through this text?"

I now don't begin textual or historical-critical research on any passage until I have first experienced it contemplatively. Listen to the text first as if it's God talking to you, then after that, enhance your understanding through good techniques of study and application.

I have started trying to experience Scripture communally, rather than privately.
Most Scripture started off as documents intended for a faithful community to hear together. I have been working the last couple of years at inviting other Christians to join me in contemplative listening. Rather than starting off with dates and historical backgrounds, we spend a minute or two praying silently. It's helpful to make space in your heart for God before you listen to God's word. I will have a couple of readings out loud of the same text while everyone listens. After we've heard the text, we will ask some questions like, "As you have been listening, what spoke to you from this passage?" "What is God helping us to imagine our world could be like?" Before we listen for instruction, we listen for what resonates with our hearts and our present places in life.

I've been doing this with my elders as we start our meetings, and it has been helpful to create a more spiritual approach to the things we talk about. When you let your imagination get caught up in God's imagination before you move on to the nuts and bolts of congregational life, you tend to see things with a better perspective.

We spent the last two months in the elder meetings, beginning each meeting with a reflection on the very same few verses from John 10:1-9. Amazingly, every single time our observations went in different directions, and fresh insights continued to surface from the same passage over multiple exposures. It's a passage about Jesus as a shepherd, and might be the most helpful study on shepherding I've ever done. There were no external sources brought in to the conversation; just committed Christians, listening intently to the word, and sharing together what we're hearing. The more we get in the habit of seeking God together, listening together, the more we become a true community of believers, and not just a set of private thinkers.

Scripture isn't just mine or yours; it's ours.

In a future post I'll share some ways that I'm dwelling with texts more contemplatively in preparation to preach and teach. Are there any ways you've refined how you listen to Scripture?

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