Last week, this week, and next week, we’re previewing my new Bible study, which is available now on Amazon.com. I will be using it this fall with the wonderful people who attend the adult forum hour at my church. If you’re looking for a similar offering for your church or Bible study group, I hope you will give P.E.A.C.H. an audition. Last week we previewed the preface, today comes session one, and next Monday we will preview session 2 of the five week study.
“P” stands for “Prayer.” We begin here, where every endeavor should begin. Before opening your Bible, say a prayer aloud or breathe in and breathe out the wordless prayer of your heart. You can write one of your own or let the words come as the Holy Spirit moves you or sit in silence.
Here’s a sample:
“Dear God, thank you for prompting me to read the Bible today: please help me to be surprised by the generosity of your Word; patient in the face of everything I still don’t understand; enfolded by your grace as I read; and courageous as I bring your love with me from these pages out into the world; In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.”
We begin with prayer because prayer opens us to the encounter that will come. We ready our hearts and minds to interact with the holy in our midst, as reflected in the pages of the Bible. Each prayer is a response to God who is already active in our lives; thus, prayer is an acknowledgment that God is present, and indeed, God prompted us to engage the scriptures. We presume that God will encounter us in the sacred text because God has already encountered us in the desire to study. While not every minute of study will be met with deep revelation, God is still present simply in the acts of reading and wondering.
They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. (Luke 24:19b-23; full story 13-35)
In our prayer, we open ourselves to surprise. While the contents of the Bible do not change from reading to reading, we do. We are different every time we pick up the thick tome of our sacred texts. A story that never meant anything to you in years past might strike you with new depth. A story that had always been a favorite might now have lost its ability to captivate you. New circumstances in your life might push you to identify with a particular passage in a new way. New relationships, especially with people unlike you in one way or another, might reveal unfair assumptions you had made about the text.
The Holy Spirit infuses the words of the Bible with new vitality each time we open the book. Such newness leads to surprises. The worst way to read the Bible is to think you already know what it says. A prayer of surprise mitigates this tendency and allows us to encounter the same text again and again, expecting something new.
On the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion had no idea they were talking with Jesus. Earlier that day, the women come fresh from the tomb had astounded them, but they took little heed of their words. And yet, when he broke bread with them that night, they realized that their hearts had been telling them something on the road. They were too deep in their grief to be surprised by the Risen Christ until he revealed himself in the breaking of the bread. In your own study, pay attention to the moments when you feel your heart beat just a little bit faster, when you realize God is hiding in plain sight. This may be nonsensical, but it’s good advice just the same: prepare to be surprised.
Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:7-9; full story 1:1–2:25)
In our prayer, we open ourselves to generosity. We trust that God’s abundant grace is available in the moment of study, and we read with that abundance in mind. We make our reading expansive instead of restrictive, allowing for not just one but many possible interpretations.
Ours is a both/and kind of God, not an either/or one. We have four accounts of the Gospel because one isn’t sufficient to tell Jesus’ story. Where they differ, we have the opportunity to put them in conversation with one another and discover a deeper truth than any one of them can reach on their own. Likewise, we have two creation stories in the book of Genesis because each relates a different aspect of God’s character. They do not compete with each; rather, they complement each other.
In the first creation story, God is imagined as the cosmic Creator, the birther of stars, the shaper of land and sea, the designer of birds and fish and animals and last of all, human beings. In this first story, God is so big and so beyond that knowledge of, let alone relationship with God, is nigh on impossible. And that’s why we also have the second creation story. In it, God bends down in the midst of the garden and molds the dirt and breathes life in through the nostrils of the first human being. Here God is the intimate companion, the potter to our clay. We need both conceptions of God to have a clearer picture of who God is. This calls for generous engagement with the Bible, especially when stories seem to contradict, and prayer helps us hold the tension lightly.
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)
In our prayer, we open ourselves to patience. We live in a world bent on instant gratification, so patience has somehow become countercultural. But patience is necessary when it comes to studying the Bible. We do not skim or scan or speed read sacred texts. We dwell in them. We allow them to be incomprehensible or mysterious. We suspect that the surface meaning is only one of many layers that we could excavate.
But this takes practicing patience and developing a high capacity for ambiguity. The mystery of the Bible cannot be grasped, but it can be embraced. We do not usually hug someone the first time we meet. The same is true with reading the Bible. But over time, the text will become a friend – one who often comforts and sometimes exasperates – and the embrace of mystery will happen.
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,” Isaiah tells us. Sometimes understanding progresses slowly, if at all. We enter dry periods in our spiritual lives and in our study. We feel like giving up. But those times are precisely when the Lord is there, renewing our stamina, and giving us wings to fly.
[Jesus said,] “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37)
In our prayer, we open ourselves, which means we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. The stories, poetry, and letters of the Bible reach deep to the very core of human experience and human interaction with that which is beyond us. When we allow ourselves to participate in such depth and contact, we can touch the places of our darkest pain and deepest joy. Indeed, the same psalm can touch both in the same breath.
The image of the hen seems an oddly comical choice for Jesus to use in a speech filled with so much pathos. Why not something bigger? Something with teeth and claws. Something worthy of his fearlessness. Why a defenseless hen? A chicken?
Think about his crucifixion. Hear the dull thud of the hammer striking the nails. He was raised up on the cross, chest bared, arms spread wide – just like that mother hen, defenseless, spreading her wings wide to protect her brood, giving her life for theirs.
As Jesus demonstrated in his Passion, vulnerability takes much courage, as does living a life of openness. And so we pray before reading the Bible. We pray to be open to surprise, generosity, patience, and vulnerability. We pray as a reminder that God is already present in our desire to study our sacred texts, for God activated our longing in the first place.
1. Tell a story about at time you were surprised by what the Bible said. Why were you surprised? What did you expect? What did you receive instead?
2. When is the Bible internally inconsistent? What about its construction makes this a feature of the scriptures and not a bug?
3. What is that one piece of scripture that has never, ever meant anything to you? How would praying for patience chance your outlook on it?
4. What about reading the Bible requires vulnerability?
5. Write a prayer to use before you engage in reading scripture. What elements of your study do you want to make sure you remember? How will you invite God into your study?
Next Monday we’ll preview the second session, “E” is for “Encounter.” The final three sessions, Atmosphere, Charge, and Humility can be found in the Bible study book available for purchase on Amazon.com.