Monday, July 11, 2011

Refreshing your personal Bible study practices, part 2

This is part two; read part one here.

Strategies for Bible Reading

If you’re stuck in a Bible-reading rut and need some un-sticking, here are some things to consider.

All Study Is Devotional
The odds are good that even in your last year of seminary, you have one or two exegetical and/or theology classes left. These may be the key to jumpstarting your devotional Bible reading.
“Wait,” you say. “Those classes are part of the reason I feel so stuck!” It’s understandable that, when studying the Bible for a class, your devotional approach to the Bible might seem to dry up. That can be true especially when you’re asked to do things like making an analysis of the keywords in the original language or consider the text-critical differences of the early manuscripts. What do you do about the very technical and academic approach to the Bible that you are asked to regularly assume in seminary?

You must learn to embrace the spiritual value of those things, and you must learn that a division of the academic from the devotional— of the head from the heart, so to speak— is a false dichotomy. Everything that a seminary asks of you has devotional value, no matter how academic.1 Remember, what you are doing in those classes is learning how to more closely and accurately determine the meaning and intention of the text— which means that, through the most minute details, you will learn more of what the Bible says and how it says it.

Seminary is an opportunity to learn how to connect head and heart more fully in Bible study. Like so many aspects of seminary, this is vital preparation for real ministry. You will be faced with the same kind of work on a weekly basis, if not daily, and whatever difficulty you have with this now will carry over then; it won’t get easier, it will get harder. What is more, if you cannot connect the study you are doing for sermon and lesson preparation with the devotional, heart and soul-oriented application, you will rob your congregation of the truths the Bible has for them.

Start learning how to approach your academic study devotionally. As you work through the assignments and exercises, ask yourself what application each assignment draws out for you. Consider how the information you gather through the exercise may aid in explaining the meaning of the text to others, and how it helps you understand the text on a personal level. Think about how this new knowledge might affect the way that you would preach or teach that passage. Determine whether the conclusions you draw lend clarity to the meaning, and decide if those conclusions are necessary and/or useful in a devotional sense.

Finding Time
Approaching your academic work with a devotional spirit is helpful, not only because it re-shapes the way you do your assignments, but also because it means that you’ve done some devotional reading already that day!

But you don’t have those assignments every day, and there are times when you may have trouble finding time to do the devotional reading you want to do. It can be a lot easier to find time than you might think.

You probably own more than one copy of the Bible. Try keeping copies in different places all over your house. A Bible in the kitchen, another in the bathroom, one in the living room, and a copy by your bed— suddenly, anytime you have a few spare moments, you can grab a Bible and read it. Keep one in your car, too; how many times are you waiting in a drive-through line and could read a verse or two?

Remember that we must be careful not to be legalistic in how much time we must spend reading the Bible to consider it “devotional” reading. Is 15 minutes enough? How about five? How about just one minute, reading just one verse two or three times through? The length of time is not as important as how much God’s Word is hidden in our hearts where we might meditate upon it. If you use a calendar to organize your day, look over it for occasions when you have small windows of time spent waiting. Maybe in the moments between when you get to class and when the lecture begins, the few minutes after you’re ready but before your carpool picks you up, or the time in the grocery store line as you await checkout, you could grab some quick devotional reading.

Routines (Good & Bad)
Sometimes we can find help in routines for our devotionals. At other times, they can become a prison.

Perhaps, like me, you have struggled over the years with the warring desires of rising early for a lengthy and satisfying time spent reading God’s Word, and the lure of a comfortable bed during the sleepy moments of waking. I have tried time and again to develop this discipline, to no avail.

I want to be careful not to fall into a mystical or legalistic concept of morning devotionals. I don’t believe that rising early for devotional time is inherently any more special or powerful than Bible reading at other times during the day. But I love the thought of rising early and spending the waking moments in God’s Word and in prayer.

Your routines, or desires for them, may be different. I had a friend in college who didn’t feel like her devotionals were complete if she didn’t have a cup of coffee with them, sitting in a certain place, and with absolute silence in her apartment. I knew someone else who felt like their time had been violated if they had an interruption— and he would bark at his wife or children if they spoke to them, “I’m having my Quiet Time!” How contrary!

Familiarity can be good, and the routines you establish for devotionals may be a great aid to you for their regularity. But they might also become enslaving, preventing you from any sense of having communed with God in His Word unless things were “just right.” Or they could become mystical, where the very practice of certain activities (like nestling into a favorite chair with a cup of coffee at your side) take on voodoo-like ritual qualities. Use routines well; be careful that they don’t begin to use you instead.

If you have fallen out of the habit of reading the Bible, all you have to do is start again. I once had a member in a congregation I served who came to talk to me about feel- ing distant from God. I asked her if she prayed regularly; she replied that she did, but that her prayers felt repetitive and dull. Then I asked her if she read her Bible. “Oh, yes,” she said. “I try to read all the way through my Bible every year!” “That’s wonderful,” I said. “How is your progress lately? How far have you gotten?” She thought about it, and she couldn’t remember. I asked her if she had read it that week, and she said no. I asked if she could remember the last time she read it, and she thought for a moment before replying that she couldn’t. After a few more minutes of interrogation, it turned out that she had begun her reading plan in January, but had gotten bogged down in Leviticus sometime around early February and had stopped reading then. (It was June when we spoke.) After a few weeks of unfulfilled good intentions, she never started back up again, because she was so far behind she knew she would never finish her reading plan within the year. She figured she would just wait and start again next year.

I believe her problem is an all too common one: when we think about our aspirations for Bible reading, we often aim too high. We set a goal that we cannot reach, and therefore we are always discouraged. As I told my congregant, I think that reading through the whole Bible in year is a wonderful goal; but I also think that abandoning Bible reading altogether when it becomes clear that the goal won’t be attained is a tragic consequence of too-lofty ambitions.

When you haven’t read the Bible for a while, just pick it up and read. Open to a Psalm and read just one, or if you’re ready for more then read two. Or go to one of the smaller epistles toward the back of the New Testament and have the satisfaction of reading all the way through a letter in one sitting! (Nevermind that it was only 15 verses.) Try the same with one of the Minor Prophets. Or just read the opening chapter of Genesis, John, or Acts.

In other words, ease back into Bible reading; don’t approach it with a level of ambition you won’t yet have the stamina to sustain. Work up to those larger goals.

1 I acknowledge that this is true more often in evangelical seminaries than in others; nevertheless, even in a theologically-liberal seminary where the authority and integrity of the Bible is highly challenged, there can be devotional aspects to the most critical exercises. Those men I know who came through a more liberal theological education with their faith intact did so because they saw every note of criticism and every challenge to biblical accuracy to be an opportunity for them to strengthen their own understanding and belief in Bible truths.

Adapted from From M.Div. to Rev.: making an effective transition from seminary into pastoral ministry by J.E. Eubanks, Jr. (Oakland, TN: Doulos Resources, 2011).

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