Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Reading the scriptures as a parishioner presents unique challenges. As a parishioner, we stand in a different place vis-a-vis the text than preachers or church professionals, because our reading is often designed and planned and interpreted for us. We read passively, receiving the text, rather than approaching it with a goal or agenda in mind.

One danger is that we can get into the habit of thinking that someone else reads the text for us, or on our behalf, rather than reading it for ourselves. Instead of asking, "What is God saying to me through this text?" we ask, "What is Pastor [Name] saying to me about this text?" This is a very dangerous habitus, because we come under the illusion that others are reading the text for us, and we aren't called to come to the text ourselves in order to be better prepared to hear the text preached or taught by others. As if God would speak to us only through others and not through our own interpretation and preparation. As if we were incapable of reading the bible because we aren't professionals.

The only way to avoid this danger is for the parishioners to read the bible outside of worship, for their own purposes, and to do it very, very regularly. So parishioners should develop what I think of as a threefold reading of Scripture. It would look like this:

1. Read the bible for personal devotions (following some plan, like a devotional guide, Moravian Daily Prayer, daily prayer office, etc.--these would be shorter meditative passages read for the life of prayer)

2. Read the bible for study and development (possibly with a companion like a commentary, or in company with others, like a small group bible study--these would be longer passages of Scripture, read for the sake of deepening in the biblical story)

3. Read the bible in order to listen well to preaching and teaching (this would be the instrumental mode, reading in preparation for our weekly work of worship and study, like classes we are teaching or sermons we are preparing)

On the third point, I'm reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said that if we go to worship and we don't understand a specific lectionary text very well when it is read out loud in worship, we shouldn't blame the reader or the worship service. The real question is, Why haven't we been reading the bible regularly enough that whatever passage is read would already be familiar and known to us? If we knew our scriptures well, no text read in worship would be so unfamiliar as to be incomprehensible. Maybe challenging or difficult to believe or follow, but not incomprehensible or unfamiliar.

These should also be prioritized in this order. The preparation for hearing preaching should have highest priority, the study second priority, and the devotional third. I know this inverts the normal mode most of us probably engage in (prayers and devotions can be the easiest and most appealing option), but we should keep this order in mind and strive for it. And again, this is important not as an abstract rule, but because the parishioner needs to live out of who they are, which is first of all a member of the body of Christ, not just an individual believer, and if we are inviting our pastors to preach rich and important and faithful sermons, we should be the first out of the gates reading the bible with them and challenging them to trust that there are hearers who know what they are talking about. Not to mention the fact that we need the second two for our own growth in faith, and we need the first two in order to do the third well in any event.

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