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As lay readers, we have a unique opportunity to experience the Bible.

We generally think in terms of Bible study and “lessons” from the Bible. But as lay readers we read scripture aloud and so, I tend to focus on the experience of reading scripture aloud more than interpretation or meaning. The latter are better left to experts.

When we read scripture aloud in church, we experience the Bible directly on at least three different levels.

Engagement with the physical text

The first and most basic level of engagement is our experience of the physical text.  This the most obvious and immediate experience that is available to us as readers, but it’s often overlooked.

We may hold a book. We may read from a large book open before us on a lectern or in the pulpit. The book is the Holy Bible. It has physical presence.

I don’t believe that the Bible is a sacred object. I believe it’s what’s in the Bible that is sacred. But I revere the book itself and believe its importance to the reader should not be ignored.  So, begin by picking up a Bible.

 

The whole story

We’ve become so dependent upon technology that many of us would feel lost without our different mobile devices.  Today, the temptation to search for and read scripture aloud right from a phone or tablet is real. I don’t choose to do this unless there’s no alternative.

When we read a verse from the Bible off of a smart phone or tablet, all we see is a single passage or verse displayed on the screen. The rest of the Bible is temporarily obscured in RAM or off in the amorphous cloud. We can’t see or experience the Bible in its entirety. We are offered no sense of its completeness.  All we see is an orphan chapter or couple of verses.

Imagine if you could only see the world looking through the end of a thin cardboard tube. Imagine if you had never seen the night sky except through a 2.5” telescope.  Imagine how limited and potentially misleading that experience would be.

When we hold the printed Bible in our hands, or have the book open before us, we can see and feel the Bible in its fullness.  We have a sense of where we are – physically — in the narrative. We can see that what we are reading is only a tiny part of a much greater whole.

I believe it’s important to encounter and embrace the Bible in its entirety and not just those passages we select or are comfortable with.  Accessing the Bible one verse, or short passage at a time, atomizes the Bible and makes it easier to cherry pick only those verses that suit your immediate purposes. It narrows our focus on a verse in isolation and allows us to easily disregard the rest. Holding the book reminds us there is much more.

 

With book in hand

Bibles come in all shapes, sizes, and editions. Some are inexpensive paperbacks. Some are costly leather bound or hard copy editions, beautifully illuminated, and printed in majestic fonts. Some are old have been handed down for generations. We can feel the weight of the book. We feel the quality of the paper. Sometimes the book even has a familiar smell. The important thing is that we hold something real in our hands.

I like to think that what we are holding in our hands is the first Wiki; the first aggregation of thousands of years of wisdom and experience. Not a collection of laws and pithy aphorisms. but a complete narrative of the human experience in its infinite complexity. All in relation to the divine.

Bearing witness to the human experience 

On a second level, when we read scripture out loud, we share in the experience of the people and events captured in the text. We lend them our voices.  We bear witness to the extraordinary; their struggles and encounters with the divine.

As readers, we share their experiences with the listening audience.

Experiencing the audience

And finally, when we read scripture aloud, we experience the collective response of the listening audience.  While sitting quietly and respectfully, it may seem that the audience is not responding in any way. But think about it for a minute. An audience is listening to you, quietly, respectfully. To what you have to say. What more can you ask? When does that ever happening to you anywhere else in your life?

Look in their eyes. They are listening for God’s word.  You have the power to share it with them. It is a privilege and experience that is not soon forgotten.

Trust the text

Trust the text: the text will get you through.

The Bible with you, in and of itself, should be a comfort. The fact that we are speaking words that are from the mouths of Kings, prophets, disciples, angels and those who have walked with God, and that have been spoken by others like us for over thousands of years, should give us confidence. What we are saying is important to hear. Reading scripture aloud. What an experience.

Baby Jesus

 

Merry Christmas everyone.  What a comfort it is to celebrate Christmas this year.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to see so many opinion pieces about Christmas and Christianity in prominent media outlets online over the past few days – tis the season — but the number and the tone has surprised me.

These articles seem to fall into two camps:

  1. Earnest apologia
  2. Grievance

I think Christmas needs no apology. Rank commercialism — particularly the runaway commercialization of the pagan aspects of the Christmas season: the winter solstice, Christmas tree, yule logs, Santa, the north pole, eggnog, etc. — can do with a big apology.  I love it in moderate doses, but the spirit of Christmas as it is understood by modest Christians requires no apology. You can take it or leave it. I urge all to take it. Begin with Luke 2, verses 1-20. Then, like Mary, treasure these words and ponder them in your heart.

Still, some writers feel compelled to issue vigorous defenses of the precepts of the Christian faith as represented in the narrative of the nativity at this time. A surge in apologia may be the result of a wave of grievances also published at this time of year.

 

A Christmas grievance

So many writers – maybe it’s a function of some of the blogs I follow – seem to have hearts filled with grievance against the church and religion in general. They love to provide witness and evidence in the form of lists of reasons why the Bible is NOT TRUE.  These articles make me sad.

I realize that many have had bad experiences with organized religion. Not just bad experiences.  Many have been the victims of criminal behavior and actual crimes. They have been betrayed by the vilest pretenders. These writers have legitimate grievances and I would not deny their right to be heard.

Others in this camp are — for the most part — apostles of the scientific method.  They have placed their faith in science and in holding their limited understanding of Christianity in particular and religion in general up to an often similarly limited understanding of the first principles of modern science, they find religion grievously wanting. They write with the zeal of the Grand Inquisitor and would excise religion – as painfully and shamefully as possible — entirely from the human experience.

For the most part, they have my sympathy. I love science – you should my bookshelf of cosmology, quantum physics, and biology books — but I believe that science is only part of the story – the part most obviously accessible to us — not the entire story. I would hate to miss the rest of the story by restricting myself to only that which can be proved by science as we understand it, like an ascetic.

 

A Christmas apology

Ross Douthat wrote an interesting article on Sunday in the NYTs.  Staying Catholic at Christmas.

Full disclosure, I’m not Catholic. But I enjoyed and appreciated his article.

He begins with the problem of the Gospel of Matthew opening with a list of 39 progenitors.  How are we to read and interpret this long (and perceived to be tedious) list of persons who we, for the most part, are not familiar with (Abraham, Isaac, David and Solomon, maybe…)  Most of us would rather “skip the begats.”

He goes right to meaning, in true apologist fashion, relying on the work of Rev. Herbert McCabe, a 20th-century Dominican priest. He proposes that the list is not to claim/prove relationship to royalty like a dispossessed Romanov, but to demonstrate Jesus’ humanness.  That is, he enters the world “through this line” that includes reprobate sinners (who also happen to be patriarchs and royalty) as well as “a few decent men.”

But for us as lay readers this requires too much scholarship: to separate Abraham and Solomon from Judah is awkward; and then there’s David.

And Jesus doesn’t enter the world “through this line”. This is not the genealogy of Jesus. His father is the father in heaven, none of these men. This earthly lineage is the lineage of Joseph, not Mary. But none of this really matters.

 

The Bible blockchain

Here’s what matters most to me as a reader. And read this passage we should.

First, what this passage illustrates to me is the Bible blockchain. This blockchain links Jesus to Abraham – the original covenant with God – and validates Jesus’ relationship to God and addition to the chain. The blockchain can’t be hacked. The order of transactions is inviolate.  Matthew invokes the blockchain to legitimize what he is about to tell us. That this is important and uncorrupted.

The second, is the richness and evocative nature of the names. We don’t need to know who they are, we just need to know that they are real – legitimate — people with names; not just some nameless guy who road in on a camel and then disappeared into the desert. Eleazar and Zerubbabel. You have to love it. Every name is critical in the chain and the order is locked.

The fact that we can then extend a similar chain from Jesus through Peter and all the Popes (and anti-Popes) who followed over the last 2,000 years creates a similar blockchain.  It makes it possible for us living today (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) to conceive of actual degrees of separation from Jesus.  There is a man living today, who actually knew a man, who knew a man…. who knew Peter, who walked and broke bread with Jesus of Nazareth.

It’s not what it means that’s important.  It’s what it does.  The blockchain makes the transaction/covenant possible.

 

Decoding the chain

It’s important not to read this passage from Matthew in a dry and dutiful way; as a slow march through time.  The chain is strong and vigorous. We can break it up into the two groups of 14 generations. Each group can be broken into triads of three names each, with the last triad of each group composed of two names and an event: “the deportation to Babylon” and “who is called the Messiah”.  Each triad is spoken quickly with a slight pause between each one.  The momentum builds with each link added to the chain. Each name is a proof and must be fully articulated.  Once the chain has been invoked, we can get on to the real business at hand: “Now, the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” Adding the next link in the chain.

This is not what it means to be Christian. It’s what it’s like to be a Christian. To be part of something much bigger than any one of us alone.  Merry Christmas.

Visually arresting

Visually arresting

Reading scripture aloud in public is a shared experience. When lay readers reads aloud in church, they are engaging the congregation in the public reading of scripture. The reading is a live event. It happens in real time and space. It’s a shared experience between the reader, the congregation and scripture.

There was another good article in the Sunday New York Times yesterday morning:  Internet Church Isn’t Really Church, by Laura Turner.

The article addresses the importance of the live in-person worship experience. There are an increasing number of innovative live-streaming, and app-based worship supplements and alternatives available online. They may offer relief to many from the struggle to get to church on Sunday morning. Ms. Turner presents the case for making every effort to get to church. She’s come to the conclusion that worshiping together, in person, is essential to the Christian experience. As she puts it, “…being together is the whole point.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Why we need to be together

Ms. Turner presents good reasons for the need to be together.

She references the Gospel of Mathew and a letter from Paul in support of the idea of community. The church offers a sustaining community. As we are discovering, the community offered by social media and the virtual reality of online is a different kind of community. It has it uses and benefits, but it can ultimately be isolating and constantly remind us of that isolation.

There are apps that promote daily (hourly?) quotes from the Bible. We can access nearly any version of the Bible (fully annotated) and a tsunami of video church services, sermons and commentary online. Those can be wonderful resources but we shouldn’t think of them as a perfect substitute or sufficient alternatives to gathering together in church. A diet limited to online Bible quotes can reduce the experience of the Bible to a random collection of memes and aphorisms. All true, but all wanting for context and the sweeping power of the narrative voice.

According to the article, people who regularly attend church services also enjoy health benefits, including lower blood pressure among the elderly, better sleep and a reduced risk of suicide.

All good.

To this, I would add a benefit: the ability to hear the Gospel read aloud. The church service allows you to focus on scripture and the experience of hearing scripture read aloud without distraction. In enables those in attendance to fulfill the role of the listening audience; to experience the Gospel as a member of an actual community, not a virtual community.

What we miss when we are online

When we participate as individuals in an online experience, either synchronous or asynchronous, we are separated and removed from the rest of the audience. We can’t see, hear and feel the reaction of other members of the audience. We miss participating in the collective response. The online audience has all of the personality of a TV laugh track.

When our participation is limited to the online experience, we are likely to be more passive members of the audience. We’re likely to internalize what we see and hear more quickly and impose our own narrative, our own interpretation, or own agenda on what we hear via a recording or live stream.

The environment in which we consume online media is noisy, less focused than the church sanctuary. We miss the opportunity to greet our neighbor, the smells of church, the tactile, the feel of seat cushions, the faces  in the choir, the whispers of patient parents quieting their children and the physical engagement of standing to sing hymns and bowing heads in prayer.

Online, the personal identities of the worship leaders are amplified by tight video shots and a screen dominance that far exceeds what is available to them in most church sanctuaries (except those that are specifically equipped for outsized multi-media production experiences.) Our goal as readers is to lose ourselves. The camera and mic tend to accentuate US.  In a live reading, the space, the presence of the audience, the role we play as reader, all function together to reduce the person of the reader and place the emphasis on the encounter with scripture, where it belongs.

 We need one another

Ms. Turner concludes that we need one another. Indeed, we do. The reader needs a listening audience. Not just clicks or “views.” The audience needs an engaged reader and other members of the listening audience to be present. One of the most uncomfortable experiences I ever had was to discover that I was the only person in the theater watching the 10PM screening of a film in a deserted downtown movie theater. We need one another.

 

 

Whoever believes...

Whoever believes…

Reading the Gospel of John 6: 35, 41-51

‘Whoever eats of this bread will live forever’

This passage from John 6: 35, 41-51 is included in the revised common lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. The text is from the NRSV.

Hear a recording of this passage here

Reading the Gospel aloud invites the audience to experience human encounters with the divine as revealed in the Bible. We can leave interpretation and meaning to members of the clergy and other scholars. What we are most interested in as lay readers is the human experience found in the narrative.

 First Impressions:

What impresses me most about this reading is how hard it is to talk about these things.  Jesus is trying to explain and the audience is trying to understand but they are both struggling. They seem to be talking past each other. How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?

Jesus speaks in metaphor. Bread is a metaphor.  The metaphor is intended to provide deeper understanding – so that the listening audience may not just understand but experience what Jesus is talking about. Hunger. The insight Jesus is trying to communicate is that we all have a hunger and there is only one way to feed it.  We all hunger for life and Jesus is the bread of life. But is the metaphor working here?

The crowd seems confused. They are trying reason among themselves to sort through facts as they understand them. Jesus is the son of Mary and Joseph; how can he come down from heaven? God provided bread, manna from heaven, to Moses and his people. Where is the bread here?

What we have is somewhere between a lesson, a dialogue and a debate. And an apparent failure to communicate.

What the crowed has wanted up until now is signs and proofs.  Actions. What Jesus knows they NEED is faith, to believe. Jesus is asking them not to complain, or argue or to try to reason it out.  He wants them to understand that they must be drawn by the father… listen first to God… and they will be drawn to Jesus.

For Jesus this is a matter of life and death.  We are talking about eternal life and the mortality of human flesh. The audience does not seem to grasp this.

By the end we seem to be at a communication impasse. You can almost see and hear the audience dumbfounded by the end of the passage.  How will they respond to what Jesus is telling them?

Text Analysis

Here we are looking for are words or actions that give us clues as to what Jesus and the audience are experiencing at this moment.

This passage is all dialogue. There is virtually no meaningful action taking place.

The words are largely metaphor. Jesus is bread that has come down from heaven?  How can that be?  He talks of hunger and thirst.

Life. Jesus is not just talking about life. He is talking about what it means to never be hungry and to never die.

 “Very truly, I tell you…”  Jesus is patiently trying repeatedly to get through to them.

“Everyone who has HEARD and learned from the father…”  I love the idea reinforced here of HEARING the word of God.

But it seems like the crowd is not really hearing what Jesus is saying.  The words aren’t resonating.

 Reading this passage aloud

What experiences do you encounter in this reading?

Confusion. Your audience needs to hear the people trying to work out what Jesus is telling them, in their heads…  Trying to make sense of this.

There are clear pauses as Jesus waits to see if they get it.

“Very truly, I tell you….”  Jesus makes repeat attempts to get through to them.  Be patient. Explain slowly and clearly.  Give the words time to sink in.

We are not rushed in this passage.

It seems to me that Jesus has never been more vulnerable than in this passage. He is putting it all out there. Like setting a table before the crowd and inviting them to come to eat… but they are rejecting FOOD.  He is saying, come. This is really good food.  I want you to take it and eat.  Please come…

He is not being pursued here for miracles and healing. He is offering the greatest gift of all: eternal life.

So, set the table for your listeners and see how they react.

 What do you hear in this passage?