As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
It wasn’t until sometime after I graduated from college that I opened a Bible for the first time and read from it. Thanks to my twelve years of education in Christian schools and attendance at church every Sunday I was familiar with many of the stories in the Bible. I knew Jesus died for my sins and rose from the dead, but I never read for myself the stories in the gospels about the crucifixion and resurrection. I always was taking someone else’s word for what is written in Scripture and for many years I was fine with that. I was happy to let the “experts” to fill me in.
Christine, my roommate in my second year of college, read from her Bible every day. I can still picture her sitting on her bunk bed reading from Scripture. I admired her discipline and I was intrigued by the delight she took in reading from it, but I still wasn’t motivated to pick it up and read it for myself. Perhaps I thought it would be too hard to read…or more likely, too boring.
After college, I moved to New York City with a friend, who, like me, was an aspiring actress. Siri never failed to read her Bible every morning and before going to bed at night. She talked with me about her faith, answering my tentative questions, and invited me to her church. After about six months (and several more invitations to church) I went with her to Grace Church on lower Broadway. There, for the first time, I heard the good news that changed my life: For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God… (Ephesians 2:8).
Right then and there I wanted to know more about this good news of grace, how I’ve been saved through no striving or deserving of my own, so I started to read the Bible – and I couldn’t put it down. I began with the letters of Paul and I underlined everything that spoke to my heart. I still have that Bible, although the binding is shot and the pages are falling out. From time to time I’ll take it off my bookshelf and trace with my finger the ink underlining the passages that leapt out at me, some thirty years ago. I remember the joy I felt in discovering God’s word in Scripture; how I sensed he was speaking right to me in every verse I read.
Back then I also bought several pocket Bibles so that I could read from Scripture while on a subway train or waiting on-line or for a bus. I still have those, too. One is in my car, and I read from it while waiting in the carpool line to pick up my son after school; others are in various purses and beach bags. To this day I don’t want a Bible to be far from my reach.
Several years after my first encounter with the gospel of grace I went to seminary, an undertaking I had not anticipated, yet felt called by God to do. It’s probably not a surprise that my favorite courses were about the Bible. In due time I graduated and was ordained and charged with preaching the word I had come to cherish and study intensively. But sadly, not long after taking up my calling of preaching and teaching, I stopped reading the Bible.
Don’t get me wrong – I read over the passages on which I was to preach – and I studied carefully the chapters about which I had chosen to teach, but I stopped regularly reading the Bible with the joy and wonder and eagerness with which I had begun, while still a struggling actress in New York City. The Bible became something I read and studied for work, not for sustenance.
A number of years later, worn down from the demands of parish ministry, I picked up my Bible again and began to read – to read with a hunger that surprised me. I started at Genesis and read all the way through Revelation in a matter of months. I had never read it cover to cover before. And when I finished, I began all over again.
I have not stopped to this day. My daily reading has taken on a comfortable pattern: at breakfast I read a chapter from the Old Testament, a chapter from the New Testament, and a psalm – and I do the same after lunch. At bedtime I read a brief passage or psalm. When I finish each testament, and the book of Psalms, I start again at the beginning. I wouldn’t think of going a day without reading from the Bible. I know only too well what can happen to me if I forsake the word of God, described to us in the letter to the Hebrews as “living and active” (4:12). The memory of what it feels like to be dry and empty is something I hope I never forget, lest I take Scripture for granted again.
Scripture is food and drink for the spiritually hungry and thirsty. This kind of hunger and thirst is something only God can satisfy and one of the ways he does so is through his word in Scripture. By ceasing to read from the Bible daily, for my personal edification, I had cut myself off from a vital source of sustenance and from the rhythms of God’s voice. I couldn’t help but lose direction in my life because I was starving, spiritually, and I had lost the ability to understand the language God speaks.
Daily engagement with the Bible — in a variety of ways, including reading and study — trains our ears to recognize what God is saying and doing in our life. Scripture provides us with a frame of reference for how God acts, and helps us to understand God’s perspective, which is so foreign to our own. Our need to learn and relearn God’s ways is lifelong because God acts contrary to the ways of the world in which we live. Scripture tells us about a God who will stop at nothing – even death on a cross – to win back even the ungrateful and uninterested. The stream of voices we hear daily – our own and those in the media – will never help us understand such love.
The Bible knows us better than we know ourselves and when we cease to read the story of our salvation, from beginning to end – and all over again – we forget who we are and to whom we belong. This kind of amnesia will wither the soul.
Next week: What it means for us that Scripture is ‘living and active.’