I often study a bible that I have not actually read yet. It is a large KJV Study Bible that is so worn it looks like it has been to Hell and back. I found it on a small shelf in the corner of St. John’s chapel.
Its leather cover is cracked and flaking, the pages are dog-eared and frequently folded upon themselves, and it is littered with notes, dates, underlines, names and phone numbers written helter-skelter in every conceivable blank spot with red, green, and blue ink. It has swollen with use to the size of a throw pillow.
It brings to mind the title of a book of memoirs by the Japanese poet Basho: “The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel”. In the opening lines he says,
“In this mortal frame of mine…there is something, and this something is called a wind-swept spirit, for lack of a better term…”
Holding this bible in my hands is a delight. It is indeed a travel-worn satchel, as much as Basho, and like Basho there is something of a wind-swept spirit in its mortal bindings. I can feel it as I hold it and turn its crackling pages.
It was much carried and much studied by its owner, whose identity cannot be determined by any name written on the pages, as there are so many names and phone numbers scribbled throughout the flyleaves that the owner’s identity is lost. I wonder who owned and treasured this bible. Where is she now? How could she part with a bible this read and treasured? Did she lose it? Did she die? And why am I convinced its former owner is a “she”? It is all a mystery, which adds to the mystique of the book.
The Holy Bible has a special place in my life like no other book, I love it so. There is a galaxy of ideas about what the Bible “really” is and what it “really” says, but I have little interest in going into all that here. At this point in my life, it is enough for me to see it much as Marcus Borg once described it – it is foundational and central to my faith, it was written by the faith community based on their Transcendent Experiences, and I consider it sacred. I have no doubt that God speaks to us through it, though I have no idea how that happens except to say that it is by the Holy Spirit. I am satisfied with the description “it is God-breathed”, from 2 Timothy. I gave up the need to be scrupulously certain about many things some time ago. I rest comfortably in the insight from Thomas a’ Kempis, who said, “All Sacred Scripture ought to be read with the same spirit with which it was made.”
I bought my first bible in high school and I still have it. I have purchased several others since then and not parted with any of them save one, which I gave away as a gift. I have been reading and studying Sacred Scriptures my entire adult life and still find them fascinating, as well as challenging. If one approaches the Bible with the process of “context-text-action”, it only can be fascinating and challenging: the context of our lives illumines the text, with forms our actions, which reforms our context when we return to the Bible again. It is a never-ending cycle. I read it anew every day.
The Bible is a major aspect of my ministry as a deacon, appearing prominently in our ordination vows: “As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them.” BCP, page 543. Immediately after being ordained and vested as a deacon, your bishop gives you a bible and says “Receive this Bible as a sign of your authority to proclaim God’s Word and to assist in the ministry of his holy Sacrament.” BCP, page 545.
Several of my bibles are covered with my own notes and comments, much like the travel-worn bible in the chapel, but in a much more orderly fashion. Where her notes are exuberant and wild, mine are neatly printed and small – her spray-paint graffiti to my monkish calligraphy. Instead of her flood of names and phone numbers, I have a collection of slogans and spiritual queries – her phone book to my Rule of Life.
Of the number of ways I was taught to read the Bible, one has kept me in good stead for many years, which is in the form of one, single question: “What is God trying to tell me, just for now?” It is simple, very much to the point, and the qualifier “just for now” keeps me from overreaching in my reading. There is nothing worse than over-reaching in exegesis, and thinking that I have discovered the Grand Unifying Theory of the Cosmos in my reading of scripture. “Just for now” reins in my ego, and recognizes that God is not finished talking.
I smile as I consider that the next time I pick up the travel-worn bible I will ask, “What is God trying to tell me, just for now?”, despite the fact I have yet to read it like I read my own bibles. All I do is hold it and turn the pages. So far, what I have learned in holding it and examining it is one woman’s love and fidelity to Sacred Scriptures, probably being marinated in it until it seeps from every pore. I wonder what else I might learn the next time I hold it? Maybe I might even read it.
To talk casually
About an iris flower
Is one of the pleasures
Of the wandering journey.