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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Listening to Scripture

Listening is an essential discipline when it comes to Scripture. Eugene Peterson writes: "Listening is an interpersonal act; it involves two or more people in fairly close proximity. Reading involves one person with a book written by someone who can be miles away or centuries dead, or both. The listener is required to be attentive to the speaker and is more or less at the speaker’s mercy….When I listen to a person the person knows very well whether I am paying attention or not. In listening, another initiates the process".

The most basic way to train ourselves to listen in Scripture is by hearing it in the context of a worship service. At the church I previously worked at, our pastor memorized the text he preached on and would recite it each week. Instead of following along in the worship folder, I would watch him and listen to the text pour out of him after internalizing it for a week. However, since beginning to attend an Episcopal church, my listening has become less attentive. I easily zone out during the Old and New Testament lessons and even during the Gospel reading. Yet I had not noticed this until this past week when, as part of my devotions, I read these words from Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury: "The Church’s public use of the Bible represents the Church as defined in some important way by listening: the community when it comes together doesn’t only break bread and reflect together and intercede, it silences itself to hear something. It represents itself in that moment as a community existing in response to a word of summons or invitation, to an act of communication that requires to be heard and answered. So the Church in reading Scripture publicly says both that it is not a self-generated reality, created simply out of human reflection and ideals, and that what is read needs to be read as a communicative act-that is, not as information, not as just instruction, but as a summons to assemble together as a certain sort of community, one that understands itself as called and created 'out of nothing'".

As I sat in Church this past week, I made an extra effort to listen to the Scripture readings. I was surprised to again notice the struggle required to keep my attention focused on the reader and to hear God’s Word being spoken. Even the Gospel reading, which is prepared with the declaration: “The Gospel of the Lord, glory to you, Lord Christ!” and preparing ourselves to hear by crossing our minds, lips, and hearts, was a struggle. I find it strange that a musician has to work so hard to be attentive with his ears. Yet our society habituates us to see rather than hear, to look at spectacle rather than hear a quiet Word from God. We are distracted if we aren’t being distracted and it is difficult to be attentive.

In private, I find it difficult to surrender reading and interpreting the text to listen to it through lectio divina. I often match Peterson’s description: “The pastor is so good at it, knows so much, so much enjoys explaining the origin of this story, the significance of this custom, the root meaning of this verb. But the fact is that the patient is dead”. It is easier to sit at a desk with exegetical tools dissecting a passage of Scripture than it is to sit with a journal and read out loud, expecting God to speak to you. In strict exegesis, I can maintain a semblance of control, but I cannot control the voice of God speaking out of the text. Such surrender and vulnerability before Scripture terrifies me, as I reflected on last week. This is a key area I would like to work on. However, it is easy to make excuses. It takes energy and practice to get into the discipline of lectio divina, energy and time I do not seem to have during a school year of teaching full-time and taking my own classes. I want to commit time this summer to weekly practicing lectio divina in order to have a stronger rhythm in it that I can sustain during the next school year. Until then, public worship and the Scripture readings in the Daily Office provide opportunities to grow more attentive to what God is saying in Scripture.

[1] Peterson, Eugene H. Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001, p. 88.

[2] Williams, Rowan. Holy Living: The Christian Tradition for Today. London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 31.

[3] Peterson, p. 109.

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