by Karen G. Bockelman—
Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, which you have given us in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen. (Source: “A prayer for grace to receive the word,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 72)
I was a seminary student when I overheard a woman in the registrar’s office asking for information.
“I think my son should be a pastor,” she said, “and I want to know just what a seminary education is all about.”
A staffer gave her a quick summary—three years of class work and a year of internship—and a school catalog.
“What kind of classes?” the mother asked.
“Church history, theology, pastoral care, and of course, Bible.”
“Oh, he won’t need to take the Bible classes,” she interrupted. “He has read it from beginning to end multiple times.” She took the catalog and left, and I silently chuckled at the idea that classes in Bible could be optional at any seminary, let alone a Lutheran one.
The more I thought about that long-ago conversation, the more I recognized two other responses. I must admit I was impressed with anyone who read the Bible from beginning to end several times. (Whenever I had tried that kind of structured Bible reading, I’d tended to bog down somewhere in Leviticus.) But I also found myself saddened that anyone might think the best or only way to read the Bible is by yourself.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for personal Bible reading; times of private devotion, study and reflection establish a spiritual discipline that bears much fruit. But I knew even then that reading the Bible (no matter how often) on one’s own was never going to be enough. My most vivid memories of Bible reading are of family devotions (I can still picture the illustrations in our family picture Bible), Sunday School classes, late night dorm room discussions, circle meetings, text study groups and yes, seminary classes.
I have learned that, no matter how mindfully I approach times of individual Bible study, there are all too many times when my mind wanders and the words lie flat on the page—anything but nourishing. I am most fed when I “hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” Scripture in community.
David J. Lose, in Making Sense of Scripture (Augsburg Fortress 2009), reminds us that the Bible “was written by lots of different people, usually with a community in mind. It’s been collected, handed down, and interpreted by communities, and it tells a communal story, the story of what it means to be part of the family of God. When you read it with others you come closer … to realizing its intention—to build a community of faith around its confession of the God who is out to be in relationship with a community, the community we call ‘humanity’” (p. 113).
Of course, group Bible study can have its own challenges. Just as the Bible was written by different people, a study group is made up of different people with different backgrounds, interests, challenges, opinions, experiences. Even if the group seems pretty homogenous on the surface, greater or lesser differences are bound to surface. As we discuss in this issue’s Bible study (see p. 20), how do we respect other interpretations and learn from the perspectives of others, even if these conflict with our own? Do we have to come to agreement, or can we live with a multiplicity of views? What do we do with the person who seems to want to dominate the discussion? Or the person who never says a word? How do we honor confidences while being supportive?
Some of you reading this article may have long experience in group Bible study—it’s one of the great gifts of Lutheran women’s organizations. Others may be coming to group study for the first time. I hope the following suggestions can be helpful, no matter what your experience.
BEGIN AND END PRAYER
Group Bible study is not just another book club (although there may be some similarities), so ground your time together in prayer. You may want to use the prayer at the beginning of this article or the prayers of Thanksgiving for the Word (ELW, p.220). Prayers can be simple, calling on the Spirit’s presence or speaking to the group’s need. For example: “May the word of God dwell in us richly in this time together.” “May we hear your voice today, Lord, as we read the Scriptures and listen to one another.”
READ THE BIBLE
The ELCA Book of Faith initiative used a tag line (or motto) that began, “Open the book.” That may seem pretty obvious, but sometimes people can be so nervous about reading the Bible “correctly” that they zero in on ideas from someone perceived as an expert—the pastor or someone who has had some theological training. Study notes, commentaries, academic articles and theological books can be helpful, but start with reading the Bible itself.
Listen attentively to the words. What word or words stick in your mind? Read out loud. Perhaps have different members of your group read the same passage and listen for different emphases. Read different translations and listen for the differences. Share your insights—making sure everyone has the chance both to share or to pass.
Reading the Bible is never a one-and-done thing; there is no one, fixed reading for all time. There is always something more to learn. The same Scripture passage can be read or heard in a new or different way as time and place and life circumstance changes. If you are part of a group that includes people of different ages, life situations, personal and family history and faith journeys, your understanding of a particular passage can be deeply enriched by what you share with one another.
A LITTLE HUMILITY NEVER HURTS
One of my father’s favorite quotations is attributed to Oliver Cromwell, the 17th century English political and military leader, “I beseech you, think it possible you may be mistaken.” My father was never shy about sharing his opinion, but he was always open to hearing differing points of view and willing to change or at least expand his mind on a subject. Not a bad attitude to bring to Bible study.
I KNOW, LET’S SHARE
When my nephews were very young, they struggled, as young children do, with the concept of sharing. It always seemed to mean giving up something. When they discovered that sharing meant getting something—a chance to play with a new toy or to have a turn riding on the tractor—suddenly “sharing” seemed like a really good idea.
Sharing thoughts, insights and even leadership in a Bible study group is a really good idea too. It’s not just about giving up the familiar but gaining the joy of new direction and new insight.
ASK DIFFERENT QUESTIONS
As important as it is to ask who, what, where, when and why questions, try asking different questions like:
- Do you have a personal or family history with this Bible passage or story?
- What don’t you like about it? What puzzles you, angers you or frustrates you about it?
- Do you find this biblical passage challenging or comforting? Confusing or obvious?
Sharing responses to these questions is a good reminder that not everyone thinks alike. And wouldn’t it be boring if they did?
NOT A TEST
A group Bible study is not a test in which there are clearly right and wrong answers, where the “teacher” knows best or at least has the answer book. As we emerge from a year-long commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it’s good to be reminded of how important God’s Word was to Martin Luther—so important that everyone should be able not only to read it, but to engage with its life-giving, life-changing power.
I never heard the end of the story that started with a mother’s questions about a son who read the Bible. I don’t know if he ever enrolled in a seminary or became a pastor. I hope he continued to read the Bible, but I hope even more that he found others with whom to share a love of Scripture and build a community of faith. May it be so with you.
Karen G. Bockelman is a retired ELCA pastor living in Duluth, Minnesota. She is called as a wife, mother, preacher, writer, church volunteer and workshop presenter.
This article is from the January/February 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.