I've noticed something as I've been reading the Bible on my Sabbatical. I don't think I would have discovered it had I not stepped away from preaching for a while. The thought came to mind as I talked with my wife today.
I think I put a lot of pressure on the Scripture when I read it.
Have you ever been talking to someone and you feel so much pressure you can't even be yourself? Have you ever needed something to be certain way so bad that you believe it into being? Have you ever felt so under the gun that you are forced to find a way...no matter what...at all costs?
Pressure does some crazy stuff to us. It does some weird stuff to the things we interact with as well. It's hard to tell what is actually real when pressure's part of the equation.
When I say I put pressure on the Scriptures, I mean that I need them to perform for me. I need them to be something for me in order for me to succeed. I need them to be fresh and new and novel and inspirational. When you need something bad enough, your demand can be so urgent that you twist truth and read between the lines or even color outside the lines. The Scriptures become an ingredient for your own Sculptures. It's amazing the sculptures you can form out of the scriptures. Beautiful works of art. Attractive to eye and ear. Crafty craftsmanship.
But the Scriptures are not to be tampered or trifled with as a means to my preferred end. I don't have the right to create revisionist history or theology. I can't let my pressure as a preacher to cause me to come at the text with an agenda or angle. The Word is not paint and I am not a painter...The Word is the masterpiece and I am the tour guide. This is important to distinguish these days where artistry is preferred over theology.
Let me make it a little more personal. I can't put pressure on Jacob (I was reading him and about him last week) in our relationship. When I am purusing his life, I can't make him something he's not...I have to let him be who he is. Just because I might need him to be something different than I see him being, I can't embellish his story to make up my own about him. I can't pressure the text into conforming to my sermon series. I can't pick Jacob apart so barbarically that he's hardly noticeable after I get done with him. He needs to resemble the person that the Scriptures describe him to be. He needs me to treat him fairly and let him speak for himself. He certainly would take the same offense I would if someone grabbed one thing I did or said and made a big "to do" out of it that didn't represent me in the slightest. I'd be ticked.
He deserves fair treatment just like anybody else. I don't get to underestimate or overreach. I don't get to carve out a word and make a mountain out of molehill, not do I get to dismiss a section and make a molehill out of mountain. It's either a molehill or a mountain and all I'm commissioned to do is display the masterpiece of his life that's already curated.
This isn't to say that I'm not allowed to look deeply at what the Scriptures say or dig deeply into Jacob's heart to discover something that might be hiding right there in plain sight. The best communicators are the ones who are magnifying what was there all along. They aren't the ones who have an interpretation of something no one has every thought of before. (unless they are a rare luminary) I'm not trying to rain on anybody's theological parade, but I think I've spent too much time trying to find something original that I end up making something unnatural. But this is only a part of the story.
When you're a preacher preparing a new sermon every week, there is this intrinsic and extrinsic pressure to share something no one has heard before or at least to present it in a way that no one has every thought of before. This is a dangerous premise with which to approach/attack the text. The pressure I can put on myself and then on the Scripture is unfair which can lead to content that is unfounded. I can make a silk purse out of sow's ear and no one would be the wiser. I could use my 'sanctified imagination' and create some fascinating fiction. More terrifying, I could believe that what I'm sharing is truth just because it's "based on a true story". That is the most palatable heresy to be digested by the masses...the stuff that mixes fact and fiction into a cocktail of contemporary, relevant preaching, well-meaning as it might be.
I say this because as I've read the Bible during my sabbatical without the expectation of needing to come up with something to say about it, I've become aware of how I've gotten used to reading the Scripture with pressure and presumptions. I've felt rushed and so I rush to conclusions. I've felt expectations that have led to projections. My ulterior motives force conclusions instead of letting things develop naturally, normally. In the same way a relationship cannot be healthy with this approach, my relationship with the Word of God and the God of the Word cannot be healthy under these strained conditions. Just as a prisoner of war will say anything under duress and forceful interrogations, a preacher can begin to say (and see) anything under the stress of forcible expectations.
As I've relaxed with the Scriptures without the need to produce a Sculpture, it's been refreshing to interact with the characters of the Bible. Take Jacob for example...what a guy...what a story. Or Elisha whom I've struck up a pretty good friendship with in the last couple weeks...didn't know that dude very well until last week. Or David...the narrative of his life is like a Six Flags rollercoaster that makes you nauseous when you finally finish and stagger away from his story. He's nothing like I've always thought, and just like I've sometimes wondered...which is to say, He's himself.
I'm just me reading about just him...no pretenses. I don't need him to give me anything. I don't use him for my purposes. I don't require his story to fit my series. I don't want him to be anything other than who he is...and that, my friends, is something you don't realize you're missing until you're sitting there reading your Bible without prepping for any message.
I've heard that you know you're good friends with someone when you're with them and nobody feels awkward with long stretches of silence. No one needs to entertain. No one needs to be the conversationalist. No one needs to say anything because you're friends and there's no pressure to be anything in particular.
I want to be that way with the Word. I want to be that way with God. I don't want pressure to ruin our relationship cause I think we got a good thing goin'.