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No, said the director: the whole book, every day.
And so he did — coming home from work, getting a cup of tea, sitting down and reading Romans one more time. He said it was a life-changing month.
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What an impoverishment. If the church is open and people are invited in to hear, well of course that makes sense and you never know what will come as a result, as people are suddenly struck by this or that passage or indeed by the larger sense of narrative flowing through it all. And whatever we do down these lines we ought also to have proper follow-up in terms of seminars or discussion groups, to enable people to catch the fleeting impressions and, not least, to pray them in, to turn curiosity into learning, learning into prayer, and prayer into the fabric of our lives.
I would love to see Isaiah 40 to 55 done like that, or the book of Revelation. What a challenge. My second creative proposal is for actual performance of individual books or long passages. This can be spectacular. I once saw a New Testament scholar who was also an actor doing Galatians, at a conference of Bible Scholars, and when the scholars came back to a seminar-style discussion of the letter immediately afterwards we had a whole different angle on the entire text.
Most congregations have one or two or more actors who would probably love to be asked to do that, perhaps on a Sunday evening as part of an alternative worship service. But the important thing is for people to experience whole books of the Bible as wholes, to be shaped by them so that when they come back to read particular parts they will be returning to an old friend for a particular conversation. There is a particular variation on this kind of performance which can be very powerful. In my tradition some churches and cathedrals on Palm Sunday sing the entire Passion Narrative from one of the gospels.
This takes the place of both the gospel reading and the sermon. This is more powerful than any sermon. We are now part of the story. That is what music can do. My third creative proposal is quite simply for Lectio Divina. This is the practice, whether individually or in smallish groups, for spending prayerful time with a particular passage.
There are many ways of doing it but one simple one is that, in the course of morning or evening prayer, one should pause for several minutes — say, five or ten — after each reading; then perhaps go round the group and each person say one short thing that has struck them; then read it again, and again a time of silence and again a short comment from everyone; then read it again and it might help if the different readings were from different translations , and this time have a free-for-all about what you as a group are hearing.
When I was Bishop of Durham we did this every month as we began an all-day staff meeting; and again and again we found that our sitting silently, and then sharing what we were hearing, shaped our discussions on all sorts of matters during the rest of the day. There are many ways of inhabiting that ancient tradition of Lectio Divina; I have described one, but there are others, and of course there are no strict rules, only good practice, and each group will find that out by trial and error.
The important thing is that symbolically and practically what this says is that we are trying to be still before the word of God, to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church and to ourselves, and not least to listen for what the Spirit may be saying through one another. And in all this we are embodying and celebrating in advance the new creation to which scripture points and which the Spirit brings into reality.
My fourth creative proposal comes from an enterprising church in Durham. In we had a Lenten project, ecumenically, across the whole of the north-east of England. We called it the Big Read, where churches and small groups right across the region got together to read Luke, which was the gospel in the lectionary that year.
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One church had the brilliant idea that instead of inserting long passages of Luke into the liturgy at the weekly Eucharist they would insert the weekly Eucharist into Luke. The first Sunday in Lent they began the service by reading the opening of Luke, then singing the first hymn, then reading the next passage, then doing the confession and absolution, and so on. They worked it all out so that it covered Lent and arrived at Holy Week as Luke arrived at the cross — and then of course did Easter with Luke 24 as the framework.
Their testimony was that it worked like a charm — that all sorts of things fitted together helpfully, with great resonances this way and that from the text into the liturgy and vice versa. I suspect that all those who worshipped through those services will never forget it, and that whenever they read Luke they will have been permanently transformed in their reading by that experience. Now imagine extrapolating from that up into other possibilities. My fourth creative proposal concerns the sermon. Once you realise that the readings in the liturgy are a small window on the larger biblical story, it ought to be natural to draw that out in the sermon.
Faced with any biblical passage, a careful preacher will often go looking for particular points of theological detail or pastoral application. Commentaries will often steer you in that direction.
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But again and again the passages we read are themselves opening up and pointing to larger themes. Obviously if you preach about the larger themes all the time the congregation might get tired of hearing the same big picture week after week — though to be honest the big picture has so many fascinating details, so many twists and turns, that it would be quite a few weeks before you were in any danger of repeating yourself.
They will need constant reinforcement of the larger scriptural story if that is to become the new default mode. We need to be soaked in the story if we are to become wise worshipping Christians for the next generation and beyond; if, in particular, we are to worship in a way which is both sign and means of new creation.
Six Classic Examples I choose my examples almost at random and there could have been literally dozens of others. I begin with Psalm 2. You know it well, I hope: the nations rage and threaten, but God laughs and declares that he has established his king on Zion. The king will establish his rule over the whole world, and the nations will be humbled and have to learn wisdom by submitting to his rule. But it might be all too easy to focus simply on the Christological application — what it means to say that these words were spoken to Jesus himself.
A high Christology — there we are, job done, sermon complete. Or one could imagine a pastoral homily in which these words are spoken to each of us at our baptism: you are my beloved child, and I have a glorious inheritance for you. Great sermon in its way; but the Psalm looks so much wider.
In this Psalm, as we press our noses up against it, we see the story of Genesis: here are the nations raging and eventually building the tower of Babel, but God laughs and calls Abraham and promises him a worldwide inheritance.
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Or we look through this window in the other direction and we see Israel in exile, clinging to hope despite the oppression of the nations. Plenty there to occupy several sermons, to help people worship by reading or singing that Psalm and looking through it at the larger biblical picture, and so celebrating that larger picture and the God of whom it speaks.
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My second example is another Psalm, or rather a pair of Psalms: and These Psalms tell the story of Israel. Actually it was two movies, and you had to go on successive nights to the two showings. Then the second movie covered the whole of the same plot but from the angle of the hero. Some of the scenes were identical but then we were taken back with the hero to see what was happening to him at the same time. It was a wonderfully bifocal experience. Psalm tells the story of Israel as a success: God calls Israel, rescues her from Egypt, takes her home to the Promised Land so she can obey his laws.
But Psalm tells the same story from the other point of view.
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