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“Eat this book”

I GREW UP IN THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH. The liturgies of the “Book of Common Prayer” planted good seeds and grew deep roots for the conscious faith that blossomed later. Even after centuries, Thomas Cranmer’s work of genius nourishes life with the theological richness and beauty of its language. I recommend it often as a resource for prayer.

One of my favorite prayers in the “Book of Common Prayer” puts words on my longing for all members of the PC(USA):

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Cranmer and I pray that all would “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures. It is an image of a full and well-rounded diet, a feast of Bible, like the divine messenger’s repeated instruction to the prophet: “Eat this scroll” (Ezekiel 2:8-3:4).

A few years back, our denomination’s research arm gave us the bad news: Most Presbyterians encounter the Bible primarily when hearing a Sunday sermon. So maybe we get a point for “hearing” the Scriptures. But that is not a feast; one plate per week is starvation. (Teaching elders fared only a little better: They also spent time preparing that same sermon.) But you and I can go to the banquet, whether anyone else joins us or not.

READ. MARK. LEARN. DIGEST. What would happen if you took up the regular practice of simply “reading” Scripture? Genesis to Revelation, a chapter a day. Then back to the beginning. Never stopping. Eventually the stories would become your stories. The characters would become your role models and your cautionary tales. You would absorb perspectives and priorities.

What would happen if you took one small step further by reading with a pen and “marking” the passages that speak to you or confuse you? Leave a date in the margin for each mark and your Bible will become a kind of journal. Next time through, you’ll see the marks and remember and give thanks for earlier chapters of your journey with God.

What would happen if you planned to spend just a little extra effort, maybe once a week or so, “learning” the Scriptures through study? You don’t need to take a seminary class — though maybe you’ll find you want to. Pick a topic and explore it. Unfamiliar words? Check a Bible dictionary. Or figure out the outline of one of Paul’s epistles. With free websites like the Oremus Bible Browser you can pull up every instance of an interesting word (like “grace” or “justice”) without even dragging out a concordance.

And then there is “digesting.” You can take a page from the medieval playbook and try classic Christian meditation: They used to teach that meditating was like “ruminating” — like a cow chewing her cud. Take a verse from what you read today and repeat it over and over. Start by writing it on a card or sticky note. Keep repeating it. See how soon you can do it from memory. Keep at it until you get all the goodness. Then it’s in your heart and mind, shaping you, ready when you need it.

If all four sound like too much, pick one. But come to the feast.

Gary Neal HansenGARY NEAL HANSEN is the award-winning author of “Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers.” He is associate professor of church history at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. Get a free ebook copy of his book on classic lectio divina at GaryNealHansen.com.

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