Bishop Paul talks about reading
Called to pray, read and learn; sent to tell, serve and give. Our Rule of Life is easy to say and easy to remember, but as we practice it we can expect our lives to be transformed. The first step on the road is to pray the Lord’s Prayer, to pray it just as you normally do, but deliberately to remember that you are doing so as a disciple you join us all in saying the prayer that Jesus gave us all. And the next step in transformation is to read. To read what? To read scripture
Hundreds of years ago Augustine of Hippo was a bright young man, and a bit of a wild child. As he studied philosophy, and as he met significant Christian leaders, and as he became aware of his mother’s prayers for him, he began to question his riotous youth. While working as an academic, he spent time in reflection, and philosophising, and repenting, and exploring.
And then, at the age of 31, in turmoil of heart, he experienced a deep Christian conversion, and eventually became one of the very greatest Christian leaders of any age. He did so because he read. He read what? He read scripture. In his “Confessions” he wrote about what happened. Let him pick up the story himself:
“So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, "Take up and read; Take up and read." Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book...”
A child’s voice, calling him to open the book. I think this wonderful image is for all of us. Holy scripture is a gift for anyone who wishes, as Jesus says, to turn their lives around and become as a little child (Matthew 18:3), and take, and read.
The study of scripture is fathomlessly deep. We will always be able to discover more, as we read and learn together, and in the next weeks and months I shall be sharing many resources and ways of studying and deepening our knowledge, for you to use if it helps.
But here at the beginning of our Rule of Life I wanted to remember Augustine with you - Augustine to whom God spoke in the voice of a child, and simply said - “take and read”.
The scriptures themselves tell us that they are inspired by God and are useful (2 Timothy 3:16). Christians differ about the interpretation and meaning of the words of the Bible, and this too is a gift from God, as we learn together how to deepen our love and our understanding.
We do this together, as I shall be saying next week. Bishop Rowan Williams has said: “When you are reading the Bible you need all the help you can get, so invite a lot of people in...Invite in the people who have read it before you, invite in the people who are reading it now in different environments – get them into the room with you.”
But just as I think we should begin our prayer-journey together very simply, so also I believe we should begin our corporate journey as Bible readers very simply too.
Some of you will have regular patterns of Bible reading, perhaps through the saying of the offices of the Church, or through a regular quiet time, or in other ways. If so, don’t read any additional passages, unless you want to! But as you read, say to yourself at the beginning, “As a disciple in the Diocese of Liverpool, I am open to God’s inspired word”. And read expecting God to speak to you, just as God spoke to Augustine; and read with the heart of a child.
If you don’t have a regular pattern of Bible reading, don’t worry. There are lots of patterns to choose from. It’s not necessarily helpful just to open the Bible at the beginning and read through to the end. So if you’re online, why not look at this page, choose one of the options, and read one (or both) of the Bible passages included there: https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/join-us-in-daily-prayer.
Or if you prefer to read from your printed Bible, why not begin with one of the gospels? St Mark’s is the shortest, and in many ways the most direct. Read a short passage each day. But look out - reading this book can be dynamite. The great Orthodox leader Metropolitan Anthony used to tell the story of his own meeting with Jesus in the Bible, in words not too far from Augustine’s. As a young man Anthony was sure Christianity was rubbish. He wanted to look at one of the gospels because he was sure he could disprove everything in it. He continues the story:
“... I counted the chapters of the Gospels because as I expected no good from the reading I thought that the shortest would be the best and so I was landed with St. Mark’s Gospel, a Gospel written for young ruffians like me, the youth of pre-Christian Rome.
And then something happened to me which you may interpret either as a hallucination or as a gift of God – between the beginning of the first and the end of the second chapter of his Gospel, of St. Mark’s Gospel, I suddenly became aware with total, absolute certainty that on the other side of the desk the Lord Jesus Christ was standing alive. There was no hallucination of the senses – I heard nothing, saw nothing, smelt nothing, I looked and my certainty remained as total and as totally convincing. And then I thought that if Christ is alive, if I am in his presence, then the man who died on Calvary was truly what is purported him to be, the man who died on Calvary was God come to us as a Saviour.”
The Bible is a wonderful and profound gift, that can change lives. God has given us that gift, and has given us in the Church of England the freedom to open and unfold the gift each day.