A Quiet Time

Journal 2005. Until we entered junior high, our boarding school devotions were conducted nightly in a group setting, led by one of the aunties. But there came a time when they wanted to instill in us the discipline of meeting with the Lord on our own, and they woke us half an hour early with the instructions to read our Bible and pray. I loved this quiet time of reflection that set the tone for my day, and I continued this daily habit long after it was a requirement. Many days, however, it was sheer discipline and will power and perhaps a little self-righteousness that kept me from quitting. Eventually that changed. Duty became delight. When you love someone, it’s not a chore to be in their presence. When I wake, the first thought on my mind is I get to spend some alone time with my Lord.

I’m starting a new journal today that has a prescribed format for a Quiet Time, but I never was one to follow the rules and outlines of a devotional. Some days I only read; other times I only pray; still others I take time to process emotions and memories to renew my mind.

Not everyone has the same upbringing, training, drive, or temperament as I, and I hear many friends lament that they can’t seem to be consistent in their Bible reading and prayer time, even if they desire it. Young mothers in survival mode, especially, struggle with carving time out of a busy, sleep-deprived day to spend extensive time with the Lord. Unlike some teaching from the pulpit, I know God doesn’t punish or berate me if I skip a day. Let’s lay aside once and for all the guilt and shame of not meeting someone else’s standards or spiritual disciplines. Having a daily QT doesn’t make a person holier or more righteous, but it does help to create space for God to speak, and I think that’s a good thing.

How Not to Study the Bible

Journal 2005

I’ve heard numerous sermons, sat through many classes, and read several books on how to study the Bible, and I’ve tried various techniques. I’m currently reading through a famous preacher’s study Bible, and I’m in awe of the massive amount of work and time he put into it. I’m grateful for those who have the gift of teaching, including a passion for research.

One pastor suggested we might want to diagram the sentences in the epistle we were studying. The exercise appealed to me as an English teacher, but I gave up in frustration. Sentence diagrams work well for the English language, but Hebrew and Greek don’t follow English rules of grammar. It’s like a two-dimensional object when you try to make sense of syllables and letters strung together. We would have to immerse ourselves in the original languages in order to truly understand the depth of the teaching.

The Western mind loves books like Romans and Hebrews because they fit neatly into an outline, but most Scripture does not. The African or Eastern reader would never think to box in a story using an outline. He would see it in three dimensions or four. The Bible has depth, layer on layer of meaning. Paul’s letters are not meant to be categorized and outlined, but to be read as emotional thoughts that randomly entered his head.

Obviously, there’s a need for scholarly textual analysis, but all the study in the world won’t replace the need for devotional reading. What good does it do to dissect a book into outlines, verb usage, sentence structure—if you don’t apply the words? Maybe our goal, instead, should be “how to live the Bible.” Now there’s a novel thought.

A 2021 Update. I’m in the middle of listening to a 204-episode podcast called Bema Discipleship by Marty Solomon, who teaches Scripture through the lens of a historical, Jewish perspective; and I’m slogging my way through the notes in the Jewish Study Bible. I’m excitedly learning a ton of new information, but in the end, the only benefit to me is when I live out the text.

What’s your favorite method of study?

The Blue Parakeet

Blue parakeetFrom my 2009 Journal. I just finished reading a thought-provoking book The Blue Parakeet—Rethinking How You Study the Bible by Scot McKnight. The author sets up two traditional ways of interpreting the Bible. The first is what he terms the “return and retrieve” approach: we return to what is literally taught in the context of the history in which it was written, and we try to obey it. This puts me in mind of another book I just finished—The Year of Living Biblically in which A. J. Jacobs humorously attempts to adhere legalistically to every command in the Law. The second approach is to “fossilize past interpretations into traditionalism.”

Why the title? Parakeets make wonderful pets, so we tame them, cage them, or clip their wings to keep them where we want them. McKnight contends that many of us attempt to do the same thing with the Bible. Instead, he proposes three better ways to read the Bible: Story, Listening, and Discerning.

With Story he suggests that we read the Bible like peering at Magic Eye photos  (take the flat, two-dimensional words off the page and see its three-dimensional depth) or like stepping into a picture on the wall and entering into it as an alive scene. He then suggests that we often try to do this with five ineffective shortcuts.

  • Morsels of Law (the dos and don’ts of Scripture). i.e. legalism—which results in our own superiority, being more concerned with being right than being good, and becoming judgmental. [I’m relating big time to this one.]
  • Morsels of blessings and promises (e.g. daily promise calendars). Dividing the Bible into chapters and verses contributes to this. “These people become optimistic and upbeat and wear big smiles . . . until something bad happens . . .” (p. 47).
  • Mirrors and inkblots. “Reading the Bible as an inkblot is projecting onto the Bible our ideas and our desires . . . it’s finding our story in the Bible instead of finding the Bible’s story to be our story” (p. 49).
  • Puzzling together the pieces to map God’s mind (systematic theology).
  • Maestros—following one “master” whether it be Moses, Jesus, or Paul. “One-chapter Bible readers develop one-chapter Christian lives.”

If we frame our relationship to God or the Bible as “authority,” then our response is going to be “submission.” But if we frame it as “love,” then our response is one of “love.” We’ve spent a lifetime being told to obey God—a term we use for a child (obey Mommy). But when we mature, our relationship to a parent grows to one of friendship, mutual respect, appreciation and love. I had to learn to obey my heavenly Father and to trust Him that He only wanted the best for me; and once I learned that, I could enter into the delights of getting to know Him better. He’s done everything for me, so relationally, I respond back to Him. I crave His attention; I crave spending time with Him—not just being subservient to Him.

If we read the Scriptures as a dialogue, a story, each author weighing in on a conversation, we get the bigger picture. For example, Paul says justification is by faith whereas James emphasizes works. This shows us that “James is in conversation with Paul or someone like Paul, or with someone who is distorting Paul.” Let’s say we had four theologians sitting around my dining room table chatting about their favorite subject. There would be banter back and forth between them, some saying one thing, another one correcting or honing in or asking questions. If we took just one statement off the table and wrote it down, out of the context of the conversation, all we’d have is a quote. We’d miss the larger picture, and we certainly wouldn’t experience the relationship that produced this quote. So . . . what’s our relationship to the Word? Love THE Word. I remember being jolted awake when I first heard the term “idolatry of the Bible”—where we worship God’s words instead of Himself.

McKnight says, “Words on a page are not just little squiggles of information on paper. Written words are personal exchanges, personal deposits of a person. Our words come from the depth of our heart and soul, and they extend who we are. That is why we care what others think of what we say . . . If you are doing good works, you are reading the Bible alright. If you are not doing good works, you are not reading the Bible alright” (p. 112). If you’re in the first group, keep it up; if you’re in the second group, make some changes!

And further: “We don’t follow Jesus literally; we  . . . pick and choose what we want to apply to our lives today, and I want to know what methods, ideas, and principles are at work among us for picking what we pick and choosing what we choose” (p. 122). The answer? Discernment.

If I were in a book club, I’d recommend this book for a conversation starter.