Such a Confounding Book
Sometimes I look back to the days before I got a theological education with false nostalgia. Back then I strove to read my Bible in search of the one spiritual truth I knew would be unleashed if I just read it “right”. But the problem was I never felt like I read it “right” or read it enough. The youth worker at my church when I was in high school was absolutely sure of the truths that were in plain sight on its pages. He would ask questions of us that I knew had only one right answer. When I would ask questions about what he wanted us to learn from his Bible studies, he would get frustrated with me. I learned that he didn’t want my questions, just my open heart to the word he wanted to place there. I knew I wasn’t getting it right and the last thing I ever expected was that I would become a minister some day. I didn’t have his certainty and so why would I want to do what he was doing?
Through the twists and turns of life I ended up a seminarian, just as surprised about it as my former youth leader. In seminary I read the New Testament in its original language. I was taught how these books came to be written and the male power that decided which books made it into the Bible and which ones would be rejected. The discrepancies between Biblical stories were pointed out to me and I heard that news with increasing dread. There were times I thought my professors were a bit sadistic…taking pleasure in stealing the Bible from me.
But the deeper truth is that theological education gave me the Bible in a much more profound way. I was overwhelmed with the realization that my relationship with God wasn’t contingent on my reading the Bible the “right way.” When I stopped worshiping the Bible, I was able to truly worship the Living God, which opened me up to a deeper and more authentic relationship with what I found in the pages of my Bible. By having an adult conversation with the Bible I discovered that there was more than just one truth for me in its pages. When I stopped trying to be good enough to climb the spiritual ladder in order to have an encounter with God I met the God who is as close to me as my own breathing. I now live in the joy of knowing that God makes the journey to me every day and in every circumstance.
Because I sat in classrooms discussing this confounding book with my fellow students who had different life experiences and different perspectives, I got a larger understanding of the life of the early Christian community. After class we would get coffee together and talk about what we had been taught that day. We argued. We contemplated the future of the church. We told our stories and shared our life lessons. We got angry at each other. Then we got up and went to chapel, where we worshiped, sang and prayed together. Life is messy. The church is filled with frustrating theological diversity. And the Bible has room for all of it.
I no longer approach the Bible as an idol but as a friend. I ask it questions and it usually responds with more questions …questions like “Why do you think the writer said it like that? What was he trying to convey to the readers of his time?” Then the questions become more personal “What do you need to hear from this story today, Susan?” I am no longer content with understanding the Bible as a rulebook for a life in Christ. I am driven to find a more costly discipleship than just Jesus died for my sins. The Bible is a sacred book that is flawed, worn, tested and profoundly beautiful. It calls me to live a life of love and sacrifice and that journey so far has been filled with pain and joy. My nostalgia for an earlier time only comes when I wish I too could have all the answers with none of the personal questions…when I could say, “It’s simple. It is all there in black and white.”….when I could rest in my certainty and condemn all others. But the vast majority of the time I am grateful that I now get to drink from the Bible’s living water and let it lead me to a deeper relationship with the holy.