For the first time in my life, a rooster woke me up this morning.
Before I go any further, let me say that I was none too pleased by this event. Everything I know about roosters comes from cartoons and various other early childhood media, and the aggregate sum of that knowledge boils down to two facts: (1) roosters are boy chickens and (2) roosters crow at sunrise. Now, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department, sunrise was at 7:09 this morning at longitude W80.0, latitude N38.7 where I happen to be on retreat. So, either the cartoons lied or the rooster was jet-lagged because that darn bird woke me up at 5:30.
As an aside, I’ve always thought clock-radios to be rather neutral devices, but the one in my room mocked me with its diabolical red numbers.
At first, I didn’t know what was making the noise. It was guttural, gravelly — like the rooster version of Tom Waits. Then, as sleep traitorously fled from me, I took stock of my position as it related to the unknown sound. I was in bed. I was in the middle of farm country. I was awake before I should be. The sound was not my alarm. Taking these four items into account, I deduced the encroaching noise was the call of a rooster — an overzealous rooster fiend — but a rooster, nonetheless.
So, what’s all this have to do with the Bible? Well, not much, in truth. I needed to vent. However, as I am writing this post, I realize that taking stock of my position helped me identify the rooster’s crow. In much the same way, taking stock of my position in relation to the various texts of the Bible facilitates a more authentic encounter with those texts.
Why does that one story make you angry? or sad? or joyful? or indifferent? What memories does that other story stir in your heart and mind? Maybe your grandmother recited the twenty-third Psalm to you every night as you fell asleep. Maybe that gesticulating street preacher quoted a verse at you while explaining that your bare legs condemned you to hell. Maybe you were on the verge of mental collapse and you threw your Bible to the ground and it flopped open to Romans and you read and you were filled. Maybe you cannot read Paul because the slave owners justified their action with his words.*
Simply put, our positions, our baggage influence our readings of the text. None of us can achieve a state of Tabula Rasa when we open our Bibles; nor should we try. I don’t believe God wants blank slates to write words on. God wants us — in all our history and tragedy and comedy — wants to rearrange our baggage into those words of life. We bring ourselves to the texts of the Bible. All those positive and negative memories and emotions bubble up. Quelling them for the sake of “scholarship” or “study” makes no sense. The Bible should be too much a part of our lives to keep our lives from being a part of the Bible.
When you pick up the Bible, acknowledge that your position and your baggage do, in fact, influence your reading. Ironically, this acknowledgment will make you less biased in the long run because you will begin to see why a story strikes you a certain way and not just that it does. Chronicling your past associations with a particular text offers one way to chart your growth in your life of faith. The text does not change, but you do. What changes happened? How does the constancy of the text bring those changes to light?
Take stock of your position when you open the Bible. Let the text encounter you — not the person you think you should be in order to be worthy of the Bible’s holiness nor the unobtainable Tabula Rasa, but the person you are in all your human particularity and messiness. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the text will speak to this honest, baggage-ridden person. Where the text and your baggage intersect, you will have found your story in the Bible. You will know you aren’t alone in your experience for there are no new stories. There are just new people telling them, new combinations of baggage which add depth and innovation, new ways to proclaim that old, old story.
Who knows? Maybe the next time I read the Passion narrative and come to Peter’s denial of Jesus, I’ll think of that overzealous rooster fiend at longitude W80.0, latitude N38.7.
* In his wonderful and provoking book Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman speaks of this in his own family.
** In the 4th study in this series, I spoke of a dual reading of the text — once with your context and the historical context and once in the light of a “holy naivete.” I think this holy naivete is different from the blank slate mentality. In the former, you let go of your baggage in order to set it into sharper relief in your reading. In the latter, you delude yourself into thinking you have nothing to offer the encounter.
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Jesus sets us free