Last year I embarked on a plan to read through all of the Bible in a year. I was sure I would reach my goal, and I even despised the smallness of the goal. Did I succeed? No, I did not read through every book of the Bible. I counted and reviewed what I did read, and I completed only half of the task. But I consider having completed only half of my goal to be a moderate success because you know what? I read more than half of the Bible! I read Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, a few chapters of 1 Kings…, Hosea, a few chapters of Job…(I do love that book, really–so did why I not finish that one??), Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Psalms, and most of the New Testament. What did I miss? the second half of 1 Kings, 2 Kings, Jonah, Philemon, Luke, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Song of Songs, the last two chapters of Ecclesiastes, 2 Corinthians (but I am sure I read that one despite what my checklist says), Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, the second half of Job, Titus, Jeremiah, Ezekiel (I think I read that…), Daniel, John, Joel, Lamentations, and the first half of Isaiah. Ah. Next time.
Clearly, if I were one to be all about finishing a goal to just check it off, then I could have crammed in those last books before the New Year over my break. But what I did do was finish off the month of December on my little plan (ignoring earlier months that I had skipped, but more about deviation later). I have some upcoming posts about those readings. But today I will share some of my obstacles and quasi-solutions to last year’s reading plan.
1) WHAT? BOREDOM?? I have read the Bible in a focused manner since adolescence, but I had never considered the prospect of reading scripture as boring until this year. Whenever friends would confess they were not interested in it, I had difficulty understanding how that could be. I have read through the Bible multiple times in the past, and I have always loved it. Still, this time, my familiarity with the text was a hindrance to the task. Boredom became a barrier to even cracking the good book open. I did not like the discipline of zooming through chapters. I like time to think about concepts rather than approaching the text as if it were a story to review. I already know the stories. However, I found that when I did open up the Bible with expectancy, I would get new insights or encouragement or some sort of tantalizing detail that would delight.
I pray for God to speak to me through his word. The word of God is living and active. Thinking about the story line is not what engages me.
Plunge in and read it. There is more to the text than I remember.
I also have found reading methods that help me engage with scripture as a powerful and beautiful encounter with God and truth instead of mundane stories. Mostly, I like to have questions. For example, I like to pretend I have not been a Christian (or evangelical or charismatic, etc) for the majority of my life, and I come to the text asking does this really communicate what I have been taught? What does Jesus say about who he is? Other times I move on to ask about theological points that I have ignored until now, like what is the role of baptism in salvation? What is this text assuming? Why? What might this law for priests reveal about God and the order of the universe? Is this law accommodating something in Israel’s context that is no longer relevant? And I also bring questions for myself. Do I believe God will provide? Do I believe that like Israel, I can cross the Jordan? Do I believe that Jesus died and rose again? Do I believe and rejoice in his coming kingdom?
Perhaps these questions do not interest you. I seek truth. For me, truth inspires, and it creates hope and faith. And sometimes even love. Even if “truth” is not your driving question, I think that you can bring the same expectation that God will speak to you with different methods:
Study of background information/knowledge base study. I am citing this a distinct way to approach scripture, but really, it is a foundation for all the other suggestions. You can read about going the extra mile without knowing the context. It is not too hard to understand that out of love we should willingly give even more than people ask. I had typically envisioned a friend asking me to take a long walk; however, I like walking, so this is not a hard request. But Jesus’s teaching becomes richer when you realize he is referring to a practice of the Romans forcing Jewish bystanders to carry their load for a mile. The Romans were occupying the promised land. Making Jews carry loads for a mile was practical for the Romans, but it was also a means of subjugation and an insult. Going the extra mile means giving more than what is demanded. Ironically, by choosing to go two miles, the person who was supposed to be humiliated and subjugated by the task of carrying the load for the Romans is empowered and becomes a giver of love.
The Bible as literature: I love this approach. This is also really important for understanding scripture. Scripture is the work of multiple literary geniuses, with the benefit of learning the secrets of the universe through a finite culture.
My apologies, this post is not really about methodical hermeneutics. I have left out some key things, like lexical studies, etc. When the point is to engage, I think there is a place for the swirl approach. Or rather, I tend to not worry about an organized method and just dive into the various ways of understanding, getting excited about the meaning of a word and how it ties into the structure of the passage and the entire message, and then going back and finding out more information about the culture. For me, the seemingly haphazard approach works.
Other ideas are…
Meditative reading: Read a passage slowly as if it were a love letter from God. Repeat words that stick out to you, and let the meaning of those words fill your heart as your think about the significance of those words.
Visualization: If what you are reading is a story, put yourself in that scene, imagining the scents, the sights, the expressions of people’s faces and what they are thinking and feeling. What do you hear? Is Jesus telling a joke? Can you see the tenderness in his eyes? Is Elisha triumphant or peaceful as he sees the army of God? If you are reading an epistle, how does Paul feel? Is he being tender? Angry? Patient? What is he suffering at that moment? Does he write the letter with bruises and sweat running down his face in a dark house? What are the people receiving the letter suffering or enjoying or doing? What picture is Paul painting with his words as he encourages the church? What would Philemon’s life look like? Or perhaps sounds or sights or more important to you. Imagine.
Visualization is transformed into a more accurate picture when you learn background knowledge, but even if you lack knowledge of what was going on (and seriously, the most well-studied academic does not really know everything), we have the advantage of shared humanity. Even if you do not know what a first-century boat looks like, I think that imagining the compassion of Jesus or him joyfully yelling to teach a crowd will be beneficial.
Worship: Instead of reading for information, read as an act of worship. I do not mean that reading the Bible is a way to obey God and is therefore an act of worship. No. The point is to bring to mind what God has done. We know. Still, we forget. Maybe you have the entire Bible memorized and are constantly praising God in your mind and heart for what he has done. Fantastic. Then, maybe reading the Bible is redundant for you. However, if you are like me, I forget. For me, reading the Bible is a deliberate remembrance. As we remember, we worship this mighty God who suffered with us and for us. We also worship as we live and put into action what we remember.
Don’t worship: In contrast, maybe you are angry with God. Maybe you do not see the goodness of God. Maybe you do not care about the possibility of a manifold God/multi-person spirit who created all that is, who is life itself. God can handle our anger. I think that if you come to scripture looking for God, you will find him, even if you are not ready to worship. When we encounter God in our anger, our twisted ideas get straightened out, and we have the opportunity to encounter his humble, good greatness.
Change the format: I like my square, faux-leather Bible. But try a computer or phone. Or listen to it.
Write it down: I enjoy recording my responses to scripture–anything from insights about its meaning to how to apply it to my life. Again, choose your format. I like a journal. But if you are more technologically advanced than me, then you know there are other options.
Pray the Bible: If you are reading the voice of God through the prophets, you can respond. It is a conversation. The living God will meet with you as you read his words.
Find a challenge: Memorize a chapter or a book or a verse. Look up all verses you can find about a topic. Read through the Bible in a year. Oh, we have circled back to the beginning.
Finally, be selective: These are just ideas. We do not have to do it all at once.
The next two obstacles will be much more brief. I promise.
2) BROKEN PLANS OR NO PLAN…
Do not be afraid to deviate from your plan. Mid-spring last year, I joined a women’s group at my church that was doing a topical study using a workbook. Suddenly, I had a competing goal. And I had already begun to be bored with the Bible-in-a-year plan, so guess what captured my attention? Not the bible reading plan. I was okay with this deviation because I was still being fed with scripture. Sometimes discipline is good. Sometimes we are free to change things up.
But, I need this advice even more: Make a plan and keep it. It is helpful to decide when and where each day you will devote time for reading the Bible (and prayer). The people I read the Bible with this last year who were the most successful were the ones who decided the time of day this exercise would take place. And it was not always at home. One person listened on a train. A couple of people read at breakfast. That was my favorite mode, too, for awhile. Personally, with some new circumstances at home, I need to find a new time and place…My space for reading was previously the kitchen table. But these days, I am sharing the kitchen table with a lot more people during breakfast time. And there is more noise at home these days. I should lovingly welcome noise. But…I really find it easier to concentrate in silence. (Yes, I do use a fan for white-noise, which is helpful.) I am easily affected by background noise. For me, it’s not very conducive to prayer or Bible reading. Seek out the environment where you can concentrate best. I feel parched. It is time to find a new place. I feel most like the psalmist in my failure to set a time and place: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Ps. 42:2). Maybe, like the issue of interest, we should pray for this time and space.
3) MORAL SUPPORT
Actually, this was not an obstacle for me. I had moral support! We met monthly as a group to discuss where we were in the plan. Even if I could not make the meeting, I was spurred on to restart by their example. I found that having a group was almost better than just one person. One person is more intimate and excellent for other kinds of accountability. Supposedly if one person falls, the other is there to pick him or her up. But what if you both fall? I found that the group warded off that potential issue and allowed for multiple failings while providing much encouragement to restart. Accountability in some form is helpful.
What is next? I don’t know. I will continue to check off the boxes from my little reading plan. I do know I want to remake room for God in my daily life. Shall I study a single book–Job? The synoptic gospels? Memorize a book–1 John?? Memorize it in another language? (Unlikely for myself, but think about it.) There are so many possibilities. Study Anglicanism and sacrament? I guess I pretty much think scripture is a sacrament because it is an encounter with the living God. Oh, I should not introduce a new topic at the end. But really, don’t you think an encounter with God through scripture is what I was kind of encouraging through this whole piece?
Love to you all.