I really like my church. I go out of my way to say this because there is a sense in which I am not a great fit for it. If you were to sit me down and ask me to map out my ideal Sunday worship service, for example, I probably would not create something all that similar to the service in which I participate every Sunday. The general differences would involve what is often called liturgy–those scripted or formal elements of a service that are repeated or structured in a particular pattern. I’d utilize more of a formal liturgy than my church does, creating in all likelihood a service more similar to a Presbyterian or Anglican service than my Baptist church would ever desire.
This discrepancy between my ideal and my real church experience is okay, I am convinced, and I refuse to entertain thoughts of changing churches. My wife had ties to our church before I moved here and when I arrived to marry her I was quickly enveloped into the social fabric–or, more accurately and appropriately, into the fellowship–of what is our church. Once in that fellowship, I was part of the church, all preferences aside. These were people I had considered and been stirred by to love and good works, people from whom I had received and to whom I had given encouragement. Whether I particularly liked the service or not struck me as a lesser concern, so I held that preference at bay in favor of loyalty and fidelity to a particular group of people.
But like many preferences, this one lingers. Christmas is one time I tend to note my divergent views, as my church has never emphasized Advent all that much. I like Advent, with its weekly theme and Old Testament readings; I like the way the Advent journey reminds me about our world’s need for justice and judgment, about my need and longing for a Savior, before announcing the news of Christ’s arrival. Anyone can remember that Christmas is about Christ, but with an Advent focus I can better remember why I want to give back the song which now the angels sing.
I should note, however, that my love for liturgy is not a love built from long experience. I did not grow up using the Book of Common Prayer, for example, and cannot navigate it competently; neither could I answer questions about morning vespers or other such exercises of corporate devotion. What this means is that when occasions like Advent come along I tend to strike out on my own to recreate a liturgical devotional structure–and what I create is a strange and inadequate amalgamation. Metaphorically, I would hope for the experience to be like my hopping out of a ship and independently exploring the waters nearby in a kayak, later to return to the ship in which I have committed to riding. Instead, my attempts are much closer to jumping out of the boat with no kayak or life vest and flopping around for a few minutes. After climbing back to the deck, wet and sputtering, I am forced to admit I am more a product of the boat in which I ride than I might think.
Thus, this Advent I thought I’d at least read Isaiah, which seemed like a good way to remember the anticipation of the Messiah.Things started out well, I think, as God’s words in Isaiah recalled to my mind how powerful and encompassing is the peace which the Messiah brings:
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)
Later I shared with my children what I’d been reading in Isaiah 11 about the same radical peace of God, which, with the coming of the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” would bring about the impossible. Their favorite images of the impossible were these:
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. (v. 8)
But then my wife and I began staying up later and later getting ready for Christmas–cleaning the house for company, putting the lights on the tree, addressing Christmas cards–and I found reading Isaiah a bit more difficult. The words kept spinning on the page, sending my eyes rolling into the back of my head and me closer to the edge of sleep. I’d work with what energy I had and focus on particular images, like the imagery of God’s criticism of Assyria, that country that boasted of its accomplishments as if God had not been involved:
Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? (Isaiah 10:15)
Thinking on such an image was feasible, because I could hold it in mind and connect it to other scripture without having to focus my eyes, which in my exhaustion were close to useless. I recalled how I’d seen so often in Psalms that the Psalmist would praise God by telling others what God had done for him, and I realized that Assyria’s sin was essentially the absence of this praise. What a good reminder for myself, I thought, to speak clearly and gratefully about the ways God has blessed me. The devotional potential of reading Isaiah remained strong, as it always does in any book of the Bible when I read earnestly.
Yet the problem with such reading, Advent-wise, was that I certainly would not progress through Isaiah by Christmas. I’d be lucky to get half-way there, and the closer I got to Christmas, the slower my pace became; instead of reading four chapters a night, I was reading one, and some nights my reading was so useless and confused that I’d have to re-read it the next night. I read chapter 22 about the valley of vision three nights in a row and finally moved on with an embarrassingly low handle of the imagery. It was not overly surprising, then, that I found myself the night after Christmas slogging through just the 28th of the 66 chapters in the book and becoming increasingly discouraged by my efforts.
At age 17 I began reading the Bible just about every day, and I am comfortable with the basic outline of the history it relates regarding Israel and Judah. I’ve read the entire Bible a number of times and studied it formally in a few contexts, including college. Yet my insight regarding Isaiah was laughable and my comprehension was dismal. What was going on in this text? I didn’t know.
This is probably how my literature students feel much of the time, particularly when we read poetry. I put Ezra Pound in front of them and they look at me as if to say, “I’m sorry, did you want me to know what this poem is about? Because I understand zero of it.” When I was their age I was determined to overcome that phenomenon. I wanted to pick up a poem or a book and “get it.” I wanted to not need a teacher to explain to me what it meant; I wanted to figure it out myself.
Thus I made a vow not to read the introductions to books. I’d just read the book and experience it myself and over time I figured I’d become capable of getting it. Plus, reading what other people said the book meant felt like cheating; it felt like reading Cliff’s Notes, and I had steadfastly resisted any hint of such a strategy. To read what other people wrote before writing my own interpretation for the ubiquitous essay smacked of scandal. To put a spiritual spin on it, I later heard some well-meaning Christians say they thought one should read the Bible without any commentary, that you should read the Bible and pray and find out for yourself what it means, and perhaps because this echoed with my other convictions about literature, I gave the idea more credence than it deserved.
Life is strange. Why I assembled these various tidbits of influence the way I did is a mystery to me, and why I followed them as advice the few times I did is also a mystery. What I do know is that I have become about as convinced as I can be that I was completely wrong about consulting outside sources. While reaching for commentary as a substitute for reflective reading is certainly objectionable, interacting with commentary is quite often essential for understanding.
For my students with those quizzical poems and stories, the reality is that they can understand them, and while sometimes all they need is a bit of prodding to read more carefully, oftentimes it really requires that I give them some background information. Mark Twain’s satirical focus in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, becomes clearer when we read an article about the honor code of the South. We don’t want to limit all Twain’s criticisms to the honor code, but knowing what the honor code was and how much it bothered Twain gives us access to his text; it helps us to orient ourselves and realize what spurred a few quizzical but emphatic scenes. Essentially, it gave us a clue.
A clue is exactly what I needed as I read Isaiah 28. Putting down my copy of the Bible, which is a basic English Standard Version with no commentary (I like it for most reading as it is thin and easy to hold), I borrowed one of my children’s study Bibles. A quick reference keyed me in to the nature of the chapter–Isaiah’s criticism was of Jerusalem’s confident reliance upon Egypt for protection and part of the chapter I could not understand was a parody or mockery of Israel’s gleeful reporting of their alliance. The next part of the section, I learned, described the Assyrian army coming upon Jerusalem. That knowledge and a further note helped me to understand seven verses at the end of the chapter that, to that point, had struck me as completely random; now they made sure sense.
Consulting the outside source takes time, of course. Reading in this way is more what we label studying than what we label reading. Yet to read well, and particularly to read challenging texts well, we have to do more than breeze over the words once. We have to study them.
Perhaps this is part of what I find beautiful about Advent and liturgy. There is a sense in which the liturgy and traditional, recurring structures are guides that give pilgrims like me a clue about what we are supposed to focus upon as we travel this road. Not that a clearer liturgy would have helped me to comprehend the 28th chapter of Isaiah; but perhaps my own foray into interpreting Isaiah is a bit of a metaphor for my own liturgy-less experience: I plowed through it on my own a few times and came up clueless, but a short consult with a trustworthy source transformed the text to a meaningful prophecy. In this sense, a liturgy strikes me as one way to place a framework upon our devotional life, a framework that can keep us from being quite so clueless. I have full confidence, of course, that my non-liturgical fellowship and I are traveling down the narrow road that leads to the small gate; sometimes I wonder, however, if we allow the journey to become more confusing than it needs to be.
Thanks for reading.
- Penn, Leah. “Advent Candles.” Flickr. Yahoo!, 30 Jan. 2008. Web. 28 Dec. 2012.