Thursday, November 7, 2013
Where Did the Episcopalians Hide All the Bibles?
(Reflections on Scripture, Perception, and Prayer)
Last night, the conversation at St. Francis House began with my attempt at humor: "It's crazy how much of the Book of Common Prayer ended up in the Bible," I said. Heads nodded. I playfully reminded the group I was joking.
We proceeded to talk about Episcopalians and our notorious insecurity about our supposed biblical illiteracy. This despite the fact that 80% of the BCP is quoted from Scripture, much of which, in the prayer book's context, our students have memorized. The group noted both that 1) Episcopalians, in fact, read a larger portion of Scripture in worship than some of the traditions most vocal about the centrality of Scripture, and 2) the Lectionary that gives us this breadth of exposure also makes it difficult for Episcopalians to develop a strong sense of scriptural context. Liturgical context, yes. Scriptural context, not so much.
One student pointed out that the normative context for the reading of Scripture is the Church, which led another student to wonder why Episcopal churches, on the whole, have so few bibles in them. Which led her in turn to temporarily abandon the discussion while she gathered up the bibles in our lounge and distributed them throughout the chapel pews.
Some students observed that the prayer book is easier to get around than the Bible. Because I spent the better part of my youth despairing of ever being able to maneuver the many charts and page turns of Morning Prayer, I suspect this claim has more to do with use and familiarity in Sunday worship than superior tables of content.
One of the things we spent considerable time talking about is the idea that the Prayer Book is a concrete claim and creation expression about what Scripture is for. Scripture is God's self-revelation of God's self, and, by showing us more of God, Scripture is meant to help us pray.
We visited the 4-part structure of the collects:(1)
1) An address that names God
2) A descriptive attribute or action of God, rooted in Scripture
3) A petition
4) An ending in Jesus' name, often with a Trinitarian flourish
So the structure and rhythm of our prayers constantly ask us to consider (and reconsider) what God has shown us about God's self in Scripture. We noted that, in practice, we commonly pray this formula backwards, as in, "I want to pray for X. What scriptures can be put to God in order to validate my petition?" And I would stop short of saying this is a bad practice, though I do think the Psalms give us all the warrant we need for being brutally honest in our prayers, without feeling compelled to attribute something to God that doesn't quite fit. But I would also say that there is a tremendous opportunity in coming to Scripture with the question, "How might I pray in response to the revelation of God in these words?" That is, we have the opportunity to begin with God's revelation in Scripture, even before we know what we want from God.
As an exercise in beginning with Scripture, we took sheets of paper on which, at the beginning, the students had written two of their favorite stories from Scripture. "Take one," I said, "preferably not your own, and think about how the action of God in it might shape your petition."
As a group, we pulled the story of Lazarus and the rich man. For a descriptor, we settled on "whose Son became poor for us." How does this revelation teach us to pray? As the poor, to trust in God's provision, said one. As the rich, to seek and serve the poor, said another. What about our honest inclination, said another - even though we sometimes distrust the very rich - to believe that ultimately they got it right? That they are the winners worthy of our admiration? But this story says that God would teach us through those we are tempted, for whatever reasons, to despise. Shane Claiborne has suggested, I noted, that Christians consider the practice of attending a Bible study led by someone less learned than themselves, for exactly this reason. And should the Church ask to be poor? Why don't we pray for the rich with equal frequency?
For what do followers of the One who became poor for us pray?
You have noticed by now that this post is a more or less descriptive record of a free-flowing, only loosely structured conversation. That is, there's no brilliant conclusion coming. Just reflections the day after a conversation about Scripture and prayer books, and what they are for, which turns about to be a conversation about what we are for. And there are many answers, I am sure, to that question, but one at the heart of us: Prayer. For praise of the God who shows us God's self, and waits in loving patience as we prepare our response.
(1) For a fabulous explanation of collects, check out Fr. Matthew Moretz's excellent video blog.
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