When we’re really familiar with the Bible, it can seem a bit dry, or overly familiar. We miss out on a chance to encounter God.
Two practices can help us: slowing down, and digging deeper.
I’ve got a guest article running today on a new site that I just love, PracticingFaith.com, created by my friend Dale Hanson Bourke, a writer, theologian, and activist. She asked me to write something super practical, something that people can do to practice their faith.
The article offers some tools for studying the Bible, some very practical ways to dig deeper. I write a lot about meditating on Scripture, listening to the text. But here’s the truth: we can reflect and meditate and listen to Scripture all day, but if we haven’t built on a foundation of clear understanding, we’re going to be confused and maybe even misunderstand what God is trying to tell us.
Once we’ve laid a foundation with knowledge we get from digging deeper–finding out, for example, what the cultural context of a certain letter was, or the meaning of various words in the text that might be slightly different from their English translation, we can slow down enough to let God speak through the word to us.
So: true confession, I don’t read my Bible every day. I love Scripture, which might seem weird, but I do. But I tend to read it, then spend a few days (or longer) sort of mulling over what I’ve read, thinking about it, meditating on it. I chew on each passage for a while, going back to it several times during a week.
For example, I’ve been camped out lately in the first half of Matthew 8, which tells about healings: of a leper, a centurion’s slave, and Peter’s mother-in-law, of an anonymous crowd of infirm people (and later in the chapter, two demon possessed men).
The leper asks if Jesus is willing, and Jesus not only replies that he is, but reaches out and touches the leper, a man who in that society was untouchable. The word translated “touch” means to embrace, to clasp. Our Sunday School images of Jesus sort of poking people to heal them are off, at least in this case. Jesus hugged someone who, because of his disease, hadn’t felt human touch in who knows how long. Reading on, we realize that Jesus was fully capable of healing without touching, but he knew this man needed the emotional healing that comes from being embraced when he’d been denied that for so long.
(Here’s how the Visual Bible renders it, which I think it pretty accurate and fun.)
Reading on, the centurion demonstrates faith that Jesus finds remarkable. He asks Jesus to heal not with a poke or a hug, but with a word, from a distance. If you are willing, just say the word, Jesus, says this man who is not a part of a religion at all, and I believe that’s all that’s needed. And Jesus again says he’s willing, not just to heal but even to go to the centurion’s house–which by the way most Jewish rabbi’s would not do, because the centurion was a Roman, a Gentile, an enemy. Jesus’ willingness is again remarkable.
Peter’s mother-in-law doesn’t even ask. She’s sick in bed with a fever, and the text says that “Jesus saw” her. He noticed. He healed not with an embrace or a word, but by touching her hand. He holds her hand, and you next thing you know, she’s up and making matzo soup in the kitchen. There’s no mention even of a conversation between the two of them–although I want to believe that it simply wasn’t recorded. Jesus was so willing to heal her that she didn’t even have to ask. There’s an intimacy in it.
The chapter goes on to talk about people coming by and bringing their sick and demon-possessed, and Jesus continues to heal and touch and restore.
I spend some time digging deeper, looking up keywords, reading some background.
Then, I take some time to slow down, to ask the questions that require a bit of time and reflection: where do I need healing in my life? Where is there pain or brokenness? What aches?
And do I believe Jesus is willing to heal. Not as in “oh, alright, if you can’t fix yourself I’ll do it.” Not that kind of healing. Which I confess, I tend to sometimes put on him. I project my own impatience with myself and my weaknesses, and assume Jesus is rolling his eyes at me. But Jesus, the text keeps saying, and showing, is willing. Joyfully willing. There’s a run up and hug, an “I can’t wait to do this for you,” kind of feel to Jesus’ willingness.
The phrase “I am willing” becomes Jesus’ word to me as I bring him some long-ignored broken bits, as I uncover some wounds I’ve ignored.
The realization that Jesus is so enthusiastically willing brought a moment of intimacy, not just as I read, but as I reflected on the passage over several days. He wants to restore, to bring wholeness, to replace pain with joy. I’m reminded again that listening to me, and even healing what’s broken, is something Jesus is wildly willing to do. He’s eager to engage.
It may seem paradoxical, but building the strong foundation of study is what brings life to our reflections. For example, the only way I can know that the word for “touch” in Matthew 8 means to clasp or embrace is because I used some Bible study tools to discover that. Understanding the text with our minds will allow truth to touch our hearts–and eventually, to transform them.
(Here’s another article that offers a bit more detail on how to study).