“Whereas in our daily worship together we read long, continuous texts, in our personal meditation on Scripture we stick to a brief selected text that will possibly remain unchanged for an entire week.”
“In our meditation we read the text given to us on the strength of the promise that it has something quite personal to say to us for this day…We expose ourselves to the particular sentence and word until we personally are affected by it…We are reading the Word of God as God’s Word for us.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 60.
If Bonhoeffer were here I’d ask him to describe “long, continuous texts” and “brief selected texts”. In our age of short attention spans and not understanding the context of Scripture my counsel is to work within the context of a passage – the passage in its context and the words within a passage in their context. I also think it is vital to expect that when I hear the personal Word of God spoken to me through Scripture that I know that that Word must be in harmony with His Word to the Church of Jesus Christ – so the tension, if we can call it a tension, is that while I anticipate God’s Word to me as an individual that I also expect that Word to be in harmony with the entire Bible and with the Church of the Bible.
On page 61 Bonhoeffer acknowledges that “we must first have understood the context of the text”- an important element as we encounter the Word of the living God.
Within a passage we can find ourselves meditating on particular words or verses, and those words and verses and pictures can be our focus, our food, for a day, or days, or a week or more. We can roam the passage, ponder it, read it, repeat it, and meet our Lord Jesus in His Word. The Holy Spirit will speak to us, enlightening our hearts and minds, engrafting the living Word of God in our souls. As Bonhoeffer writes (page 61), “…we are…waiting for God’s Word to us.” The Word of God is a living experience – it is anything but dead letter.
Bonhoeffer writes (page 61), “…God has come to human beings and wants to come again.” While God comes to us in many ways, and while the many ways in which He comes can inform our understanding and experience of Scripture – they inform Scripture in supporting ways as opposed to definitive ways. We can feel David’s loss of a child because we have lost a child; we can identify with his repentant pleas for we, by God’s grace, know repentance; we can know the danger of thinking ourselves exceptions to God’s commands just as David did – and we can know the terrible results of such thinking. When we ponder creation we may have a sense of what the psalmist felt when he wrote Psalm 19. We may cry with blind Bartimaeus for the Son of David to have mercy on us. We may know the desperation of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’s garment.
But while the many ways God comes can support our understanding and experience of the Bible, when God comes to us in and through Scripture the Scripture definitively informs our experience and understanding of all things, including our experience of God in all things. Scripture molds us and gives light to all of life, Scripture is that authority to which all other experience and understanding must bow the knee and humbly wait for the final Word. Scripture proclaims who God is, who we are, and what all else is – there is nothing else by which we may chart our course with absolute confidence, for Scripture is the one absolute given to us by God – the atmosphere of earth is dense, the fog is thick, the horizon we may not see, but we can always trust the Word of our God and we can expect Him to meet us throughout our lives in Scripture enlightened by the Holy Spirit. We can also anticipate that when we live life together that our experience and understanding will have the “amen” of the church – historical and contemporary. (This “amen” in the contemporary church may not always be readily found, as in Bonhoeffer’s own life when he stood against compromise with the state church and the totalitarian state apparatus, but we must nevertheless do our best to submit ourselves one to another in both the fear of God and in the fear that we may be missing the mark of discernment – hiding from the examination of others is usually a sign that we need examination).
“It is not necessary for us to get through the entire text in one period of meditation. Often we will have to stick to a single sentence or even to one word because we have been gripped and challenged by it and can no longer evade it” (page 61). When we go s-l-o-w we allow the seed to grow. When we are in a hurry we miss the intricacies of a passage, its fabric, its texture, its interplay. We do not “see” because we travel too fast. We do not “hear” because there is too much noise. When the soil of our souls is trampled upon it cannot receive the Word of God to a depth where it will germinate and grow. In devotional reading, in meditation, s-l-o-w is good, s-l-o-w is very very good.