I like to read in different places. Reading a book while waiting in an airport or while sitting in a coffee shop is invigorating for me. Perhaps it is the surprising connection that can happen between the words on the page and the places I find myself in. I have some memorable moments doing this, where the place becomes part of the learning. I have often found that changing my reading space can yield good results. I will never forget the experience of reading the letter of James with students in the Ukraine. It was the spring of 1994. That country had just newly opened to the west after years of political suppression. I had diligently prepared myself to teach what are often called the “general letters” of the New Testament, James though Jude. I thought I knew my material, and maybe in one sense I did know my material. But it was in this new context where my understanding was pushed into a different place. Reading James with those Ukrainian students forever changed the way I now see those words.
Context literally means “that which goes with the text”. When we speak of context we usually mean the words which surround the words we are focusing on: what comes before and what follows after. Context can also mean the historical or culture setting, or the circumstances of the author. But consider for a moment how the reader is also situated in a time, place, culture, and personal circumstance, and how much the context of the reader matters to what is heard and understood.
My preparation for teaching those students only considered one part of the equation: what the text said. And while I take what James’ meant to say as primary, what I failed to see before hand was how much the place itself would impact our understanding. Instead of reading these ancient words in a prosperous and self-satisfied culture, I was reading with people who lived in difficult politics and uncertain economics. I was reading the Scripture with people who were sustained by spiritual hope, who were passionate and prayerful, and who were willing to serve with little tangible reward. Reading James with those people, in that time and place, made everything I saw there on the page look different.
What is needed is to be intentional about this practice. I realize more and more that to be a reader of the Scriptures requires a continual movement of my body, mind and soul. I need to be a person in motion, seeing the world through the mixed reality of the human condition. I need to listen to different voices and perspectives, especially those voices that move me off my comfortable assumptions. And I need, finally, to be willing to look again at what I thought I already knew. I need to see and hear the “more” that I had previously missed.
As we enter the summer reading season, maybe this is time for you to set out on a Scriptural reading journey. What could you discover if you intently set out to re-read portions and passages that you thought you already knew? What might you see again, as if for the first time?
See you this Sunday at 9:29 or 11:11.
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