Becoming: Guidebook— Searching the Scriptures
October 11, 2015
Rev. James Kjorlaug
“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render account.
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the thrown of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Stories have power. Having spent an inordinate amount of time living within the space of the printed page, I say with some sense of confidence that stories have an incredible power. Their power is bound up in the way that they are shaped and formed by words that speak into being entire worlds of possibility. They have power because stories and the characters brought to life in their words so often shape our understanding of compassion, of courage, of hope, of faith, of loss, of sorrow, of joy, and countless other characteristics. The written word bears the incredible burden of shaping vast parts of who we are as people. Myself, I stand before you shaped by the courage of Tolkien’s characters; the possibilities of Bradbury’s science fiction; the profound honesty and imaginations of Rushdie, Alexie, Hurston, Butler, Vonnegut; and lest you think I’m crazy, a little bit of J.K. Rowling among numerous more. Even in this moment I bear the impact of Leslie Marmon Silko’s book Ceremony and the significance it places upon the power of stories and the words that they consist of.
In the middle of a great narrative regarding a young Native American man returned from World War II suffering from PTSD, Silko weaves another narrative. They intertwine beautifully; however, at one point in the second narrative Silko tells about a group of witches that get together and a contest begins where each tries to out gross the other. Sparing the descriptions, they take turns showing what they have in their bags or pots, lifting lids and opening them up revealing disgusting or disturbing items. Then one simply shares a story and by the end of the story the others plead that it be taken back. They beg that the words be called back that the story not become real. The only response given is that “It’s already turned lose. It’s already coming. It can’t be called back.”
We all know this on a small scale at least. We have been present when our tongues with or without our consent let fly some diabolical words that we instantly reach out futilely trying to grab them so that they won’t be heard. We have heard ourselves say and been party to other people speaking terrible things either meaning to or not and we have experienced that tangibility of the moment where the only desire is to rewind time so that the words could be taken back. The foolish lie of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” perhaps is proven wrong in most, if not all, of our lives. Unfortunately, words, for all of their usefulness, are used carelessly all too often. When we consider words, more often than not we think of a tool that we use to communicate with one another. Their power is only bound up in how they inform us, teach us, or entertain us.
Our use of words has informed how we encounter them, not only in conversation but when they are written words as well. Our approach to any written word bears with it our unavoidable compulsion to enter into the act of reading, trying to extract whatever it is that we are supposed to. We read trying to simply find answers without ever pondering the possibilities of what lies before us. A book for entertainment, we draw from it the sense of enjoyment or we put it down. I confess that I know very well the way of reading a book for a class and taking from it the appropriate information to pass the test or write a paper and then being done with it. And reading like this makes some sense. But then there is Scripture.
Scripture encountered as any other text is a dangerous set of words. To read scripture as a guidebook, seeking to search out specific answers creates a dangerous temptation. It is a temptation to impose our own voice. It transforms a living and constantly moving word of God into something that we believe we can control. We can pick and choose the particular verses that agree with our own particular stances. In this way scripture has been violently reshaped as a weapon to show someone else how they are wrong and we, we are right. This makes Scripture no more than a tool. This mutilates it so that we can accomplish whatever paltry goal that would drive us to dissect Scripture, assuming that we know more than anyone else how it should be divided up, read, or interpreted. But the word of God is so much more than the trifling trivialities we impose on it for it to speak to us.
The word of God carries an incredible and profound multiplicity. Even to say that phrase, “word of God,” brings to mind the beginning verse of the Gospel of John that reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.” It speaks to us in no small part of Jesus. Jesus the incarnate Word of God. The great joy of reflecting upon the word of God that so reveals us for who we are is that the word of God is not solely bound between two covers. The Word of God is, as this passage from Hebrews reminds us, living and active. It is not frozen in the words printed on a page. It is incarnate in Christ. It is constantly being illumined by the Holy Spirit. Most importantly, it has not stopped.
You know how to know when a book is really really good? It is both an incredibly easy thing to know and terribly illusive. Do you know when a book is really really good? A book, a story, is particularly good when the words on the page come to life. When they burst forth tearing into your heart and mind searching out the places where your spirit is willing to listen. A story is really really good when those words speak to your spirit, to your soul, and they shape you. Those are the stories that stick, the ones that really matter. They are the ones where the story remains what it is but you, you are not the same. And with such a story how could you be?
But the reality is that we like control. That to open ourselves to the terrifying possibilities of what could potentially be asked of us can be horrifying. The thought that we could encounter something that could create within us a incredibly uncomfortable tension seems unthinkable. It would mean that we, we would have to be vulnerable. That the word would have to be allowed to sink into the depths of our being an d that we could be changed. If we search Scripture then we still face the temptation to cling to control. Rather, if we see scripture as part of a larger word of God, the Word that is still speaking amidst all the chaos, pain, joy, sorrow, happiness, and fear of the world we enter into the opportunity to have the word of God search us. We enter into the possibility of being consistently transformed by the Holy Spirit. In this moment Scripture becomes more than a guidebook, it becomes one of the many spaces where we can encounter the active and living word of God. It searches our being and exposes us, it brings to bear all that is good and makes us aware of our brokenness. Best of all, if we consider the totality of the ongoing story, if we remember the wider understanding of the Word of God, then we are reminded as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, that Jesus sympathizes with our brokenness and beckons us on towards the throne of Grace. In this, Scripture becomes a space of transformation and life, not a weapon or a tool all because it searches us.
Our series is on spiritual disciplines. As we dive deeply into Scripture may we remember the whole word of God. May we be transformed and reshaped by the word of God that would search us. May we open ourselves up to that beautiful scrutiny of the word of God that speaks of life, of hope, of faith, in the midst of all of our brokenness.