Odyssey: Scripture Engagement

The following article by Scott Gunn is from the Spring 2018 issue of Odyssey. You can find the whole issue here.

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)

God takes scripture seriously. After giving the heart of the Law (“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”), God tells the people of Israel to keep the words in their hearts. But that’s not all. God wants the people of Israel not just to know the scriptures, but to teach them to their children. If we understand ourselves as the heirs of Israel, then we too should place ourselves in this story. We are meant to know the scriptures and to talk about them at home and to teach them to our children. We might not literally fix the scriptures on our foreheads, and most of us don’t have gates. But there is no mistaking the intent of the command: we are meant to display and honor the scriptures publicly.

As I’ve traveled across the Episcopal Church, I’ve noticed a very welcome trend: more and more congregations are diving into the scriptures, inviting people to encounter the Bible and its glorious story of God’s great love for us. The importance of scripture engagement as a catalyst for spiritual growth cannot be overstated. We have data from RenewalWorks which tell us that scripture engagement is a catalyst that works for people at all stages of spiritual growth. Reading God’s word forms us as followers of Jesus.

We Episcopalians have a bad habit, I’ve observed, of keeping our distance from the Bible. We talk about it, rather than finding our place in its narrative. I’ve heard more sermons than I can count which discount the stories of the Bible or explain them away rather than entering into them with awe and wonder. To be clear: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t engage in critical reading or gain historical knowledge. But in the church, our primary encounter with the scriptures should be proclamation and learning. To coin a phrase, we should hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the scriptures.

And though we claim to be the “church where you don’t have to check your brain at the door” or the “AP class of Christianity” (don’t get me started), we are a church of people who, by and large, have not opened our scriptures to learn what they might teach us. Again, RenewalWorks data bear out the fact that most of us simply haven’t read the scriptures.

Here’s the good news. In my experience — and from what I’ve heard, I’m not alone — it’s easy to invite people into the scriptures so that we might have a rich encounter together. Lots of folks are eager to read the Bible, but are intimidated by it or feel that they lack the knowledge to read the scriptures. We have, ironically, gone back to a moment before the Reformation(s), when the scriptures were limited to professionals. So let’s fix that. Let’s give the Bible back to the whole church.

I’m pretty passionate about this, because I know what a difference it made in my life when I read the scriptures with a congregation. I’ve seen and heard story after story of transformation. As I travel, I’ll tell anyone who will listen to be how important it is to get people reading the Bible. It’s important, and getting it done is a bit of work, but it’s not complicated. And, wow, it brings a joy that passes understanding.

Why should we read the scriptures? Not just because God commands it — though that is a compelling reason in itself — but because the scriptures will open and change our hearts as we encounter the wondrous story of God’s great love for us. To get a congregation reading the scriptures will surely lead to transformation of individual lives and of the church itself. To learn the language of scripture is to find new ways to praise and to thank God, and that helps us live out our purpose, to glorify God. Not long ago, I was visiting a church that has experienced some growth. I asked a few of the members why they thought their church was growing. “Our priest got us reading the Bible, and that gave us the language to talk about our faith, to invite others to join us as followers of Jesus.” Engaging with the scriptures changes us, changes our church, and just might change the world.

This article originally appeared on Scott’s blog, sevenwholedays.org.