I had read, more than once, the story about the Israelites in bondage in Egypt. It was a good story, but it was a good story about them, then, there. That all changed the day I went to my priest and said, “I’m stuck. Trapped in my own life. And I keep doing the same things over and over and getting no where. I don’t know how to get out of this.” Then it was no longer just a good story about them, then, there. It was my story and their story was about me, here, now. My Egypt was different from their’s but I was just as much a captive.
What about you? You also could probably tell a story about when you were stuck and in bondage. Maybe it was a job, a relationship, a feeling, a grief, an addiction. We’ve all been to Egypt. And we’ve all wandered in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place in life when what was is no longer and what will be is not yet clear. We might feel lost, angry, scared, frustrated, maybe even ready to go back to the old place despite not liking it or really wanting to be there. It often feels like we’re going in circles, wasting time. There should be a more direct route, the map says there is, but the wilderness is a place of working out life and a gateway to the promised land.
And how about those times when we finally arrive? We’re in the zone, life has come together in a beautiful way, and we feel we’ve arrived in our promised land, often after much time and hard work. We could each tell stories about that as well.
It’s one thing to read the biblical stories, it’s another to live them. Or to borrow a phrase coined by Alfred Korzybski, “A map is not the territory.”
It’s one thing to read and understand the map. It’s another to walk the territory, get lost in it, stumble or fall down, discover unexpected beauty, or find one’s self in the process of finding one’s way across the land. None of those things can happen when we stay home and read the map or a travelogue of someone else’s adventures. I wonder if we sometimes do that with the holy scriptures; treat them as someone else’s stories and experiences of wandering in the wilderness, getting lost, falling down, experiencing mountain top beauty, finding a new life in places never expected. I wonder if we sometimes let the particularities of the stories, whether it is time, place, people, or circumstances, distance us from that story in our lives.
I do not want to deny the historical meaning or value of our scriptures but neither do I want to relegate them to a past apart from and outside of ourselves. I do not want to deny the particularities of our sacred stories but neither do no I want to deny the universal that is contained in the particular.
After all, what good is it to us if Mary is full of grace and we are not? What good is it to us if Mary gave birth to the Son of God and we do not also give birth to God’s child in our time and place? What good is it to us if Jesus is born in a stable in Bethlehem if he not also born in us?*
The idea expressed in those questions could easily be asked of all the scriptural stories. What good is it to us if Simeon sees salvation and can depart in peace and we do not also see salvation in our own times and lives? What good is it to us if the blind man’s eyes were opened if our eyes are not also opened to a new vision, new insights, a new way of seeing? What good is it to us if Jesus is resurrected and we are not also resurrected? What good is it to us if…?
So here’s what I wonder.
- What if we started with and read our lives as scripture, holy stories of God’s presence in this world, and the Bible as a map or travel guide for our lives? Rather than just reading the Bible we let it read us.
- What if instead of analyzing and questioning the stories in the Bible we let them analyze and question the stories of our life? Rather than just knowing the Bible, we let the Bible help us to know ourselves.
- What if instead of trying to discover meaning and relevance in the scriptures we let them reveal meaning and relevance in our lives? Rather than trying to fit God’s story into our lives we fit our lives into God’s story.
Yes, we start with hearing and reading the words of scripture but that’s just the starting point. They are to be marked, learned, and inwardly digested. (Proper 28, Book of Common Prayer, 236) The words are to be interiorized, broken down, and made a part of our body. In that way the words of scripture become a part of who we are and nourish our lives.
In some way the scriptures have no meaning in and of themselves. They take on meaning and relevance, and come alive in this world, only when we embody and live them, only when they become flesh.
Think how different are the experiences of reading a Shakespeare script and watching the play. The actors embody and live the words in a way that cannot happen when we just read the script. Words on a page cannot compare to actors on a stage. During the play the script comes to life and the words become flesh. That’s what I want to experience with the scriptures, don’t you?
So, what if we let the words of scripture become flesh in us (John 1:14)? What would that look like in your life? How might you live and embody the words? It would, I think, be a process, an ongoing work of interpretation. There is no one fixed and final meaning. Meaning changes as our lives change. Each of us will “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37) in a way that is unique and reflective of our own life and circumstances.
And when we do that the Word becomes fresh and lives among us.
*Those questions, in various forms, and the thoughts they express are attributed to Meister Eckhart, a 14th century German Dominican monk, though none of his writings contain those exact questions.
This article was originally written for Reflections, a journal of spirituality published by the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas. You can read the entire Spring/Summer 2018 edition of Reflections online or in PDF format.