Contending with Scripture

Memory verses, deconstruction, and God’s good work

For many raised in Mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic traditions, the Bible was just something “professional Christians” talked about. Or as Jacobson, Jacobson, and Wiersma write in their delightful and Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Biblical Terms“a book that Christians believe is so holy and inspired that they almost never read it for fear that it might draw them closer to God and neighbor or change their lives in some other inconvenient way.” 

The Bible was the family heirloom on the coffee table that grandma told you never to touch. Or it was the book that the priest (or pastor) hauled out into the middle of church with reverence and pomp and circumstance. I didn’t grow up with this understanding of Scripture. 

For me, and perhaps for you if you were raised in a more evangelical world, the Bible was a constant  companion. It was the rule by which we were judged. It was a manual for morality. It was a script to be rehearsed and memorized over a lifetime.  

I attended a conservative parochial (church-based) elementary and middle school. I loved this school. The teachers knew me and loved me, prayed for me and my classmates, corrected me gently when I would get disrespectful (sometimes with lines to write, old-school), and taught me the state capitals, the times tables, and the classics of literature. But as I grew up, I realized that some of this upbringing was unique.  

For example, at the beginning of eighth grade I received a full sheet of paper printed on both sides with three columns of all of the scripture verses that I would be expected to memorize by the time the year was finished. We had a verse for each day, a set for each week, a section for each month, and a cumulative test at the end of the year with every single verse on it. My kids will certainly call this my “walking to school uphill both ways in the snow” story. 

Not quite the dusty tome on grandma’s coffee table …

At times this long list of Scripture verses has felt like baggage to me, hauling around the bumps and  bruises from the constant reminder that “the wages of sin is death” or certain strange and disquieting  stories from the Old Testament. In eighth grade, it was hard work, and though I frequently rose to the challenge and achieved an “A” in religion or in memory-work (what a strange thing to ace!), I just as often resented it.

As my faith evolved and I began to question many of the traditions I was raised with, the memory verses sometimes stung like fresh cuts or ached like purple bruises. I vividly remember Paul’s edicts against “homosexuality” (a word that a new documentary suggests never occurs in the New Testament, at least in any semblance of our contemporary understanding). I can remember highlighting portions of my leather-bound Bible like, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you.” While it wasn’t only the words of judgment that were marked with orange highlighter, those are the ones that still seem to sting. 

But as I have walked a little further down the road that many are calling “deconstruction” these days, I am starting to understand how generous this inheritance can be. Some of those edicts of judgment call me out of apathy toward the ache of justice: “What does the Lord require of you, O mortal? But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Or the words from the story of Cain and Abel, painted on Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, the summer of 2020 after George Floyd was murdered. 

Scripture still has something to teach and is still speaking to me, even though I have often tried to outrun it.  

I’ve come up with my own definition of Scripture so that I can be clear with people I teach how I  understand its role in my life and the world: “Scripture is our witness to the living voice of God.”  Not quite as witty as Jacobson, Jacobson, and Wiersma, but it helps me stay focused on listening for  God amidst these ancient verses that indict, dream, haunt, surprise, and prod me. 

When I bump into things in my life, seemingly out of nowhere a passage will bubble up, mid- conversation, mid-thought, mid-dish-washing. (Ask my spouse, it can be annoying!) Here’s an example.

We bought this hibiscus tree at Costco last summer, watered it diligently, rotated it for sun exposure, and eventually brought it inside for our cold, Minnesota winter. At that point, I completely forgot about it for more than a month. It’s a miracle anything can live close to my gardening incompetence. After all the leaves fell and the tree looked all but dead, I decided to try watering it for once. With a little attention and love, the leaves started to sprout, and the first bloom came, just like the prophet Isaiah, dreaming of the lineage that was all but chopped down, “A shoot shall come up from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

How many places in our lives do we leave behind? Lifeless, devoid of meaning, just chopped off stumps? Places that could blossom with a little bit of warmth, love, and attention. God gardens in the lifeless places in our lives and in the world, bringing forth possibility where there was no hope for tomorrow. 

My mother-in-law is obsessive about road conditions in the upper-midwest where we live. Dissatisfied with the Department of Transportation’s classifications of pink, blue, and green, she is wont to say, “They say blue, but these roads are definitely pink!” Every Friday, she sends a family text message with a little encouragement, some thoughts on the weather, and often, a verse or two from Scripture. Just before Christmastime, she sent this one: 

“It’s almost Friday. This weather drove Grandpa Jim absolutely bonkers. He’d be yelling, ‘Just stay  home.’ And he loved his whole family together more than any gift. I have no advice for this kind of winter driving because I’m in the passenger seat with my eyes closed. But I’m praying for your wisdom and safety and your travel ahead whenever, wherever you go. If grandpa were here, he’d do the same. He might also share with you how as a child they’d hook up the horse and sleigh, wrap up in blankets and ride the four miles to Emanuel Lutheran Church. It was here that the live trees were decorated with lit candles. (Sounds dangerous!) Amidst all the planning, changing, unpacking, and stressing, let’s not lose sight of the amazingness of the birth of Jesus and all that has brought us (hope, love, peace). You are loved. You are blessed.”

That text message isn’t a dusty family heirloom sitting untouched on a coffee table. It isn’t a list of to-do’s or a manual for morality. It isn’t the pomp and circumstance of a beautiful volume floating out into the assembly.  

It’s alive. It’s a living, breathing, active word.  

Active in the absolute mundane moments of deciding whether or not to drive in a snowstorm; alive in the haunted hallways of a new diagnosis; moving in the daring dreams of a child who wants more for this world; singing in the final breaths of a matriarch who looks back on a life well-lived and greets death with the smile of an old friend. 

These passages knit my stories together as much as they stitch my sinews. They’ve rattled around in my bones long enough that they seem to spring out when I least expect them and perhaps when I need them the most. But they only crawl out of my body because I’ve dusted off that volume, spent time wrestling, and walked away, like Jacob did in Genesis, with a bit of a limp. 

Contending with Scripture is a bit countercultural these days. But, in my estimation, it’s worth it. It’s worth it to have hope on the tip of my tongue. It’s worth it to see a story that stretches long before I’m here and will be around long after I’m gone. It’s worth it to dance with the generations of witnesses who have written, wrestled, dreamed, and dared to speak of God.

It’s worth it because it’s how we can hear this living voice of God, still speaking to us today.

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