O Lord, do not let my heart not be proud,
May my eyes not be haughty and look on others condescendingly
The timbre of his voice had a quiet confidence that made the words resonate in the heart as well as the ear. He spoke the opening words of Psalm 131 as a request—the tiniest of changes from the declarative sentences they normally appear in as Scripture. It was evident that this was more than a psalm he had studied and knew well—it was his prayer. He didn’t just teach his students how to exegete Scripture, he showed us how to pray God’s word. And he inhabited Scripture in such a way that it lived within him, shaping who he was and how he carried himself in the world.
Without a doubt, an inspiration for these essays on the formative nature of Scripture are experiences I had to learn about praying Scripture from this man who shepherded me through the early phases of the ordination process. In my own teaching, I’ve gravitated to lectio divina, Ignatian contemplation, and breath prayer in my class devotionals for all sorts of practical and pedagogical reasons. But, if perfectly transparent, I seek these methods because they may just provide me with what I observed in him and desire in my own prayer life: a meaningful encounter with God.
Rereading his classic, Shaped by the Word (Upper Room, 1985), Robert Mulholland reminded me that, for the Christian, Bible reading and Bible study are properly understood as a means of grace. It is a method God chooses to use and one in which persons can participate. Often though, I consider Bible reading a “spiritual discipline” or a “practice of faith.” On a certain level, the terms are interchangeable, but such use shifts the dynamic. These terms infer that the reader has agency in the matter. Bible study as a spiritual discipline becomes about us when we undertake the practice to get better at it or to gain something—perhaps preach a better sermon, write an exegetical paper, or even just impress family and friends when “The Bible” is a category on Jeopardy!
Mulholland teaches that Bible reading becomes a means of grace when we take away our agenda of knowing more, understanding more and allow the Scriptures to read us and our lives. The means of Bible reading are a method to seek God, but not a guarantee that God will be found. We can know it is a means of grace if we relinquish all claims of our own on the text and allow God to do with it in our lives as God sees fit, even—and including—if God may do absolutely nothing with our encounter of Scripture.
Let me not be concerned with great matters and things that are beyond me.
May my soul be still and quieted just as a nursed child lies content at its mother’s breast.
In his prayer, Mulholland inhabits the psalm because he approached it as the living word of God. He believed Scripture has an iconographic nature. Just as an icon invites us to set aside or release us from our linear, rational, ordered sense of the world and draws us into the mystical beauty of the symbols within them, Scripture invites us to dwell within it. This means entering it prayerfully, with the expectation that the Holy Spirit not only guides us, but that there is an invitation to experience God in new ways and enliven our lives as a result of our encounter.
Bible reading and study, when considered iconographically, is about far more than information to be grasped but a relationship to be experienced.
I find it significant that Wesley referred to Bible reading and study as “searching the Scriptures.” A search is undertaken when we want to find someone we consider important. Searching the Scriptures encompasses more than the rational, intellectual pursuits that come with reading and interpreting the Bible. It includes the affective and behavioral aspects of knowing that are part and parcel with relationship. We search the Scriptures in prayerful obedience with hopes of fulfillment in our relationship with God. We search the Scriptures because we believe God has something to teach us about growing in Christlikeness. Searching the Scriptures is a lifelong endeavor—one undertaken with humility and deference that God’s goodness might be revealed in our lives. And just as God’s grace was revealed in the life of my mentor and friend, with a power that the passing of years has not be diminished, I pray that it is illuminated within me, inspiring others to know firsthand the goodness of relationship with God.
Just as that child is, may I be as fulfilled with what you have offered and provided for me.
Oh, may we all, as children of God, put our hope, now and forevermore, in you.