by Teresa Donati
Reading the scriptures is reading stories that are forever now.
We call books “classics” when they deal with themes that speak across the ages. In school we read Socrates and his perhaps most famous statement: that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ If we are intrigued by that statement, some of the most compelling tools to examine our lives are the stories in the scriptures, telling of human deeds and passions, good and bad.
I came to realize this – as with so many other realizations – by happenstance, by the kind of revelatory accidents that happen unexpectedly, as I was sitting with a friend in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. I was in the city for weekend academic meetings, and decided to opt out of the Sunday morning presentations in order to go to church, and the nearest church was the Cathedral. One of my colleagues, who is also a friend, and who happens also to be Episcopalian, saw me rising to leave the meeting. He asked if I was all right, and was I leaving for the day. When I told him where I was going, he hesitated only a minute, and then to my surprise he said, “Okay, I’m coming with you.” So off we went, getting there early enough to peruse the program, and prepare for the glorious music that the church was known for.
Waiting for the service to begin, we read the program inserts with the day’s scripture readings. There was St. Paul, writing about how much difficulty he had experienced, how hard he had worked, and how he did not expect others to support his labors. No, he supported himself, despite all the travails he had experienced.
I read the passage and turned to my friend, who was still reading.
“Paul can be such a whiner,” I whispered. “His words about faith can be heart-stopping, but he also seems to spend so much time feeling sorry for himself. Whine, whine.”
I had used a mock-exasperated voice, and thought my friend would find my reaction amusing. But he was very serious and thoughtful as he looked at me.
“What?” I asked, wondering if he had found my comments too abrupt.
My friend was shaking his head.
“What?” I asked again.
“It’s all so present to you,” he said. “You make it sound as though Paul is speaking now.”
His comment surprised me.
I started to answer, ‘yes, he is speaking now,’ but I stopped. Obviously this was not the way my friend had been reading these passages. And I realized that the scriptures are read, so often, with the same mental distance we often have when we read school assignments in history, or biography. It happened then, in the past, and was done.
But by some grace, the scriptures always seem to be now stories. And I sense that it had happened because there was a teacher or preacher who had somehow transformed the stories for me. Perhaps it was someone whose faith ‘is known to God alone,’ as said in the Book of Common Prayer. C.S. Lewis would call such individuals the hidden saints among us. People are channels of grace to each other. And that grace is often unseen as it is happening, but it can quietly imprint itself on our hearts.
So, hearing my friend’s take on what I thought was an amusing comment, I felt humbled by realizing what a gift had been given to me. I can only pray that that gift is now his, as well. Reading the scriptures can be an event of grace. We read them as stories that tell us, yes, what happened then, but they are also lessons for what is happening now. They hold the forever truths we encounter in our lives every day.
We have the whiners among us, the complainers, who yet have such loving aspects to their characters that we love them and just growl a bit at the whining. Such for me is St. Paul. We may shake our heads over stories in the news, of traitors unmasked, of bad faith, and murder, only to find that the Bible makes today’s news, in a sense, ‘old news.’ Betrayal and wickedness in the Bible seems as frequent as stories of virtue, victory, and God’s love.
There was Samson, betrayed by Delilah, a woman he loved despite warnings and objections about her loyalty. The warnings came true: she told his enemies the secret of his power, and they captured him, and blinded him. His recovery of God’s favor would cost him his life. Haven’t we seen women and men who betrayed each other’s love? Didn’t King David have his brave soldier, Uriah, sent into danger so that he would be killed, and David could have Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba? Have any of us escaped seeing betrayals, perhaps done to us, or, to our shame, done by us? Have we never grieved with friends over betrayal? Or felt the shame and guilt of having betrayed another?
A friend once told me that while she was delivering her first baby, the hospital sought her husband in vain. She found out later that he was making love to another woman as she was giving birth to their son. There are no words for such pain. I could only share her sorrow silently, by hearing her story with sadness and love. And the truth is, there are temptations to betrayal for many people, for all of us, for gain and for advancement. It happens to people every day, at work, in social events, in the forever now.
Jesus was betrayed by a friend who claimed to love him. Have we really all escaped Judas, not only in being betrayed, but perhaps finding ourselves betraying a friend or a secret? Have we escaped Peter’s fear-filled betrayal, denying that he knew and followed Jesus? Some people indignantly assert that they never would betray anyone or any secret, yet there is only one way in which that assertion can be totally true: that is, if it is true until the moment of our death. Until then, being loyal, being faithful, being true to our friends and clear in our hearts, may cause deep struggles within us, may cost us promotions or popularity.
It is easier to gossip than to be silent. It is easier to ‘share a secret’ than to keep one. Knowing a secret, and telling it, may give a sense of power, of importance, knowing something the other person does not know. Our conscience can be dulled by the glow we feel when others exclaim over the secrets we have told. The moment of exhilaration over being admired for what we ‘know’ about others, can be addictive. We can come to want more and more of those moments.
So, yes, Paul is present to all of us, his whining, his sufferings, his disappointments, and his determination to keep the faith. The scriptures, by their stories, are telling us what humans contend with. Jesus is present to us, a man abandoned by his friends when their fear prevailed over their love. And these do not even begin to touch the stories of the brave, suffering, conflicted women of the Bible, Sarah, Rachel and Leah, Dinah, Tamar, Judith, Deborah, Esther. If those names are not recognized, if their lives and deeds are unknown, I can simply say they collectively represent Everywoman, and every woman should read about them. I can only promise that the stories will resonate with their own life experiences.
All those stories also tell us what brings peace. And all those stories tell us what a heavy price we may have to pay, to keep to the truth, and to be faithful to what is good and loving in our lives.
I am so glad for that day in the Cathedral. The incidental lesson to me was a reminder, that churches are communities of believers, connecting our individual faith to the world. What happened that day, in church, was unlikely to have happened in any other place. In church or out, reading and hearing the scriptures as stories of the forever now, becomes a road to understanding, a heart’s ally in the struggle for justice and peace.
And may it begin with me.
Teresa Donati is Professor of Sociology (Emeritus) at Fairleigh Dickinson University, now engaged in full-time writing, including church issues, and Christian fiction.
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