I’ve been spending most afternoons at the gym this week trying to work off the extra ten pounds I gained while traveling in England. I don’t know about you but I never seem to eat right when I’m on the road. Usually that’s because I choose the meal options that are most convenient and least expensive. Like I heard a friend say once, “If it’s true that you are what you eat, then I’m fast, cheap, and easy.”
In England, though, I generally had to eat what was put in front of me and after a couple of days I discovered that everything that was put in front of me had some kind of brown gravy on it. I heard, for example, that we were having Yorkshire pudding for dinner one evening and I thought, “Wow, a dessert for dinner?” No…Yorkshire pudding is basically a bread shell with meat on it smothered in thick brown gravy. I had duck with gravy, beef with gravy, pork with gravy, salmon with gravy, vegetables with gravy, I think I even had gravy with gravy once. I began to have dreams at night of floating on rivers of gravy.
Now I loved England, don’t get me wrong, and the people were wonderful. But you’d think that a country that once ruled a world-wide empire would have more variety in its cuisine. They apparently haven’t caught on to the whole idea of things like, say, salad for example. Order a salad with your hamburger in a pub and what comes out is simply lettuce on the burger…that’s salad. I got fish and chips one day and asked for ketchup and the server brought me one packet of ketchup. When I asked for a second she seemed annoyed. When I paid the bill, there was a line item charging me for said ketchup at about 30 cents U.S. for each scrawny packet. Apparently, ketchup—being made from tomatoes—is akin to something like precious metals in a gravy obsessed country.
Needless to say, I was anxious to get home and get back on a normal diet!
I did, however, discover some new dietary habits of a different kind—the spiritual kind–while in England. Twice a day I was able to feast on worship and scripture. From the prayers, scriptures and songs in the Iona Abbey in Scotland, to morning communion and afternoon evensong at Salisbury Cathedral, to the morning and evening prayers and scriptures in the little chapel at Sarum College, I was fed daily with the scriptures. While my stomach was expanding with saturated fats, my spirit was being nourished in a very new way—one diet that I have tried to stay on since coming home.
One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor is to see reading the Bible as simply a means to an end. After all, you have to read the Bible to prepare a sermon to present to a congregation or you’re teaching a class or wanting to help that person in your office who is struggling with a personal issue. It is easy to read, parse, analyze, pick apart, expound upon the scriptures as a tool for work. But as I spent time immersed in the scriptures in England with no agenda other than to listen and respond, I began to realize that much of the reading of scripture we do in our churches and in our homes is the equivalent of wolfing down a bunch of spiritual McNuggets—a bunch of little parts compressed into easily digestible pieces of wisdom that can be quickly dispensed to the masses. The result is a kind of fast food faith where convenience and quick consumption win out over nutrition and substance. People critique the Bible without ever having read it. I love it when I have a conversation with people who say things like, “Well, the Bible contradicts itself” and wave their hands dismissively as if to say the whole thing isn’t worth their time. “Interesting observation,” I say, “can you name some of those contradictions? I’d be happy to talk about them.” Ninety-nine percent of the time, the person will admit that they haven’t really read the Bible enough to come up with specific examples; they just “read it somewhere.” The reality is that more people would rather read a short book about the Bible and its themes than read the Bible itself, or quickly consume sound bites from some scholar on Good Morning America. I think that the apostle Paul was being prophetic when he wrote in 2 Timothy 4:3 – “The time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with reading books that illuminate the scriptures—I read a lot of them myself. The problem is that while many of these books and things may be good, they’re still no substitute for reading the real thing.
My wife Jennifer, who is the other writer in our family, recently published an article about school lunches in Park City Parent, and what she says about fruit in the article may apply to scripture as well. If you substitute the word “Bible” for “fruit” it reads like this: “The closer a food is to its natural state, the better its nutritional value…Beware of [Bible] wannabes: Bible snacks and Bible drinks and Bible roll-ups are all basically junk with a bit of [biblical] redemption (10% Bible should not impress us)." We need the real thing.
That’s really the message of this morning’s scriptures. In John’s Revelation, he sees a vision of a gigantic angel with one foot planted in the sea and one on land preaching from a scroll or book in a voice as loud as “seven thunders.” I like the way Eugene Peterson in his recent book titled (provocatively) Eat This Book, describes the scene: “John was impressed, grabbed his notebook and pencil, and started to write down what he had just heard. A voice from heaven told him not to write down what he had just heard, but to take the book and eat it. The words in the book had just been re-voiced, taken off the page and set in motion in the air where they could enter ears. When John started to take the message he had heard, the rolling thunder of those sentences reverberating through land and sea, and write it down, he was stopped short—why that would be like taking the wind out of the words and flattening them soundless on paper. The preaching angel had just gotten them off the printed page and now John was going to put them back again. No, says the heavenly voice. I want those words out there, creating sound waves, entering ears, entering lives. I want those words preached, sung, taught, prayed, lived. The voice tells John to take the book from the angel. He takes it and the angel tells him, “Eat this book”: Get this book into your gut; get the words of the book moving through your bloodstream; chew on these words and swallow them so they can be turned into muscle and gristle and bone. And he did it; he ate the book.”
Six hundred years earlier, the prophet Ezekiel received a similar vision in his call to ministry. A figure that represents the glory and likeness of God gave him a scroll and told him to eat it, “then go and speak to the house of Israel” (3:1-3) The prophet Jeremiah expressed a similar image of scripture: “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight” (Jeremiah 15:16). In Psalm 19, God’s word is described as being as “sweet as honey.” This is no scholarly metaphor where a person is locked in a room memorizing a text…it’s a feast.
Perhaps the reason more people, especially people in churches, don’t read the Bible is that they have been taught to see it as another book that requires academic disciplines in order to read and understand. People look at the Bible, it’s small print, austere black binding and many pages and see it as a literary work to be tackled and analyzed like a ponderous piece of literature. In a culture where schools now have to bribe children to read with prizes and incentives, it’s no wonder this book of books has stayed on the shelf. It’s time for a different approach—actually a biblical approach. Time to put down the pencil and paper and pick up a knife and fork!
How does one “eat” a book? Well, probably not with ketchup (after all, that costs extra in some parts of the world). Perhaps it has more to do with the way we read. Most of our reading these days is for information. Email cuts our correspondence down to shorthand. We read the crawl on the bottom of the television screen to get sports scores and news. We scan the internet for bites of information that we need each day. We are constantly bombarded with words that arrive in front us in 10 point Times New Roman font…all very much the same. We read it and delete it or discard it and move on to the next message. That’s reading for information. But there’s another kind of reading that has become a bit of a lost art. Consider this: when was the last time you got a handwritten letter from someone? Take it a step further…have you ever received a “love letter” written in a special person’s unique handwriting…maybe even with a little bit of perfume on it? What do you do with those words when they arrive in front of you in an envelope? Well, I can tell you from personal experience. As a young soldier I saved just about every letter I received at mail call (especially one from a special girl). These letters were like food to a starving man. I didn’t just read them…I savored them. Read them over and over…examined the handwriting, read between the lines, imagined her writing these words. The more I read, the more the pen and paper melted into the background and more the words became part of me, nourished me, strengthened me in hard times. Reading those letters in quiet moments was a real feast.
When Gutenberg invented the printing press he did the world a favor by making mass production of words possible, but his invention also inadvertently made words less appetizing. Notice that with the advent of personal computers we now call writing “word processing.” If processed food doesn’t have the same nutritional value as food in its natural state, then maybe processed words don’t have the same impact as those handcrafted and cooked by a loving correspondent.
Our Bibles are mass-produced and printed, bound and boxed and shipped. But when we open the pages of the Bible we have to remember that these words were not originally delivered processed and packaged. They were instead grown by God’s Spirit in the life of a writer, painstakingly nurtured by a steady hand on a field of papyrus or parchment (both being very precious and expensive in the ancient world), and then harvested by readers who opened the scrolls in faraway places, reading over and over again the words of life sent to them by someone who had a message from God just for them. The reason we have a Bible at all is that these words were saved and savored, copied and copied again by faithful people who didn’t just read these books…they consumed them, crafted communities around them, lived and died for them. In a very real sense, they ate the book.
Ezekiel, Jeremiah, the Psalmist, and John the Revelator all ate the words they were given and they tasted like sweet “honey.” God’s word is sweet, but as John tells us it can also be “sour” in the stomach…grace and judgment being two sides of the Scriptures. As the writer of Hebrews in the New Testament puts it, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” In other words, it cuts both ways. As prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and John would have known both the feast and famine of preaching God’s blessing and judgment to a “rebellious house.” These prophets weren’t called to merely dispense information…they were to invite their hearers to feast on God’s Word and words. They had eaten the book and invited others to join in.
The truth is that you can’t really read the Bible in a processed, microwaved, fast, cheap, and easy manner. It’s not just there “for your information” to do with as you will. If you’re going to a great restaurant for a meal, you don’t expect to order, consume, and pay for it in ten minutes or less. You know that good food takes time. It took time to grow it, time to prepare it, time to present it, time to savor it, and time to reflect on it afterward. Reading the scriptures spiritually, not just for information, takes a similar amount of time. Reading spiritually, eating the book, means that you don’t try to do it all at once. There are so many Bible studies and reading programs out there that want you to “read the Bible in a year” or “read a chapter a day” as if there’s a quiz at the end. That kind of reading fits with our busy lives—something you might do in the car as you wait to pick up your kids from soccer practice followed by a quick run through the McDonald’s drive-thru on the way to swim lessons. No, I want to invite you instead to do some feasting on the word of God as we begin a new school year.
You want to savor the scriptures? Well, here’s what I’ve been doing lately. I’ll read one psalm, for example, but I’ll do it every day for a week. I’m not trying to memorize it, just letting the words soak in. What’s the psalmist feeling? What words are jumping out at me? What’s the main course here? If a particular phrase strikes me, I’ll actually copy it down in my journal with my own handwriting, letting the pen and paper write the words on my soul. For thousands of years monks learned the scriptures by copying them in their own hand, learning and forming the words. We can be blessed by a similar practice. That copying might lead me to writing out a personal prayer, a love letter to God…a response to those words of his that I have been savoring. It’s a form of the ancient practice of lectio divina or “spiritual reading.” You might try starting with the psalms or one of the Gospels (Mark is what I’d recommend first) and read just one chapter every day for a week, interacting with it, savoring it, letting it become part of you. The goal here is not learning the information, though you will do that the more you eat the words. The goal is to let the Scriptures become part of your very bloodstream and the center of your life.
We come together in worship every Sunday to be nourished by God’s Word, but the temptation is to simply look at a sermon or Bible study as a weekly snack that will tide us over until next time. I have become convinced that my preaching will be greatly improved if I take more time to savor the word God wants me to bring to you each week. I’m also convinced that your hearing of that word will be improved if you take the time to be nourished by the scriptures during the week as well.
Studying the early Methodist movement during my time in England, it became even more clear to me that “scriptural Christianity” was the focus of their time and activity. John Wesley called himself a “man of one book” even though he was a prolific reader and writer. His life and ministry were firmly grounded in Scripture. When he began to train lay preachers for the movement, he required them to spend a minimum of five hours a day reading—a full course meal of scripture every day. As we approach the fall, I’d like to challenge you (and myself) to covenant together and spend more time eating this delicious book God has given us. We can do it individually, and we can do it together in worship and Bible study done in the many small groups we offer. Whatever the setting, I hope you’ll make the scriptures part of your daily diet.
Think of the Bible as the base of your spiritual food pyramid. After all, it’s calorie and gravy free…and no charge for the ketchup.