Read, Mark, Learn & Digest

Collects are short prayers that set a theme for reflection and direction.  In the Episcopal Church there are collects for each Sunday, and one used at this time of year asks us to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest holy scripture because it was written for our benefit.

It’s good advice.  To read, mark, learn and inwardly digest is a process of heavy work that never ends.  It is far away from memorizing verses by rote, along with their unambiguous and immutable meanings.

There’s an old rule of thumb about reading scripture.  My somewhat shaky memory recalls that it has rabbinic origins: read once to know what the words are; read twice to understand what they mean; read a third time to hear what God is saying through them.  What’s curious is that every three part reading,  no matter how often repeated, will never produce the same result.  It’s especially true when reading in the company of others doing the same thing. 

To mark scripture is to underline or circle particular words or phrases that seem to stand out, begging for more attention.  They’re not always the same words or phrases.  We do the same in other studies when using a highlighter, or “posit tabs.”  My study bibles are littered with underlines and handwritten notes that have helped me mark scripture.  It’s not the same thing as a man I met at an evangelical prayer meeting.  The preacher told the congregation to open their bibles to a certain verse and underline it.  The man opened his, and there was not a word on the page that had not been highlighted; he obediently underlined an already highlighted verse, then sat back to hear what the preacher told him it meant for the umpteenth time.  That’s not marking scripture.  It’s not very much different than a well trained dog knowing when to sit or stay to get a treat.

To learn is not to memorize, it is to be open to instruction, but instruction about what?  It can’t be about the singularly definitive meaning of the text because all instruction is interpretation.  To learn has to be about  how to interpret text for one’s self, how ancient and modern authorities have interpreted it, and how friends and colleagues interpret it.   The what and why of interpretation is as important as how.  Reading scripture always occurs in the context of the socio-political world in which one lives.  It’s always affected by local customs, beliefs and attitudes.  Learning to read scripture, and learning its meaning, requires attention to the what and why of social and cultural forces influencing so called ordinary, plain meanings of the text. 

To inwardly digest scripture is to rest and reflect .  Give the mind time and space to ruminate as it will.  Give the Holy Spirit time and space to enter into the rumination.  

To read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture is a long term process that requires some time under the tutelage of qualified teachers, some time in conversation with friends and colleagues, and a life time of private contemplation.

It’s a work that has little patience with fill in the blanks workbooks or fundamentalists who think scripture inerrantly tells one truth known with certainty. 

All scripture was written for our learning, it was divinely inspired, but God did not dictate it, and it isn’t inerrant.  It reliably and truthfully reveals God’s word.  It illuminates God’s word.  God is still speaking through scripture with new words and new meanings ever guiding those who read, mark, learn and inwardly digest  in new more godly ways.  Reading scripture is holy conversation not only with God, but with thousands of years of God’s faithful who, in their own times and places, have read, marked, learned and inwardly digested.

I’ll close with an anecdote.  Twenty-five years ago a parishioner in my weekly bible study demanded to know what the ”law of liberty” is (James 1.25, 2.12). We spent an hour exploring it. I’m still exploring it twenty-five years later. 

2 thoughts on “Read, Mark, Learn & Digest”

  1. Oh I think this is the “heart” of this Blog:

    “ To read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture is a long term process that requires some time under the tutelage of qualified teachers, some time in conversation with friends and colleagues, and a life time of private contemplation.”

    Herein to a lifetime of understanding Scripture and making the stories w/in one’s own!
    H+

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