Mark Ralls is a pastor of a United Methodist church in North Carolina, as well as a contributor to a series of essays written to honor Eugene Peterson (Pastoral Work, ed. by Byassee and Owens). In his “Wanderers Between Two Worlds”, he describes the role both Karl Barth and Peterson have played in helping us “attend to the ‘lived quality’ of the Bible”. It’s a way of saying that the Scripture is living and breathing. Because of this, we can approach each morning knowing that there is the potential the living God will speak. Listen and we might hear a word that is fresh, that is timely, that penetrates the soul and speaks. However, be prepared for a word that comes in a whisper. To catch His voice, we must lean forward; we must occasionally escape to bathe in the quiet pool of no sound, escaping to the wilderness or the monastery so that we can hear.
This is our necessary work as we wander between these two worlds. This requires a “relearning” of our approach to Scripture. Here is what Ralls suggests:
1-Read not as a means but read as an end
2-Read not to chart but read to explore
3-Read not to grasp but read to be grasped
4-Read not for our purposes but read for His purposes
5-Read not for personal reasons but read to participate in an infinite world far bigger than our personal concerns
6-Read not to add to who I am but read to be broken apart and put back together
7-Read not for information but read for transformation
8-Read not acquisitively but read receptively
9-Read not to live up to but read to live into
10-Read not because we choose but read because we must
This relearning is necessary to unlearning bad habits. Over time, we can settle into reading as a means to receiving His blessing. We can read to chart (everything from prophetic time lines to genealogies). Theologians are good at this. We can read to simply say we have read. Like hikers fixed on a destination, we might arrive only to realize we had missed the beauty that was all around us. We can read for information and miss God’s intent to transform us. We can prepare sermons for others and miss the sermon God has for us. As Peterson puts it in Working the Angles, we can easily turn the practice of hearing God’s voice into analyzing moral memos. We can read rather than listen and we do because reading is far less demanding and can be arranged to suit our convenience.
Ralls’ list reminds us that there is this tendency to read to grasp, to puff up our knowledge, impress people with our handle on passages. We can read to accomplish our purposes, prove our points, and verify our preconceived notions. We can read the Bible and go away still full of ourselves.
One of our bad habits is reading that keeps a safe distance. As noted, the distancing eye is far less demanding than a listening ear. In the same way, we can come only to be warmed. But lean forward, attend to the lived quality of the Word, and we discover that where God is concerned, there is no such thing as a warm, safe fire. “Safe fire is our own invention, It is what we preach to people who, like us, would rather be bored than scared” (Taylor, When God is Silent).