ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JULY 28, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Psalm 1; Philippians 4: 4 – 9; Matthew 5: 17 – 20
As a high school student, our health class was decorated with posters encouraging us to eat well. The main premise was: “you are what you eat” because “a healthy outside starts from the inside”. There were many witty, poetic slogans to discourage us from eating in cafeteria food. And a few I didn’t get, like “diet cures more than doctors”. I suppose it cures teachers and salespeople too. Basically, they gave us the message that “the food you eat can either be the safest, most powerful medicine or the slowest form of poison.” Physical health depends on what we feed our bodies. In the same way spiritual health depends on what we feed our minds. People today are very careful about what we feed our pets, how we fuel our cars and how we nourish our grass, but when it comes to our minds, we allow a smorgasbord of sights, sounds and sayings to invade our beings. In our world we’re bombarded by the books we read, the movies we watch, the music we listen to, the conversations we have, the news, the radio, flyers, posters, electronic signs and even our own thoughts and ideas. Satan feeds us self-doubt and depression for breakfast, temptation for lunch, worry for supper and resentment for snacks. Our minds are shaped by what we feed them and our minds shape our souls. So, we need to ask, “With what can I feed my mind so that my spirit will flourish?”
God has many ways of feeding our spirits. Paul wrote, “fill your minds and meditate on whatever is true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse” (Philippians 4: 8) We are instructed to fill our minds with nourishing thoughts whatever they may be. Think of something noble – a sacrificial act, faithfulness in the face of persecution, speaking the truth in love. What do you find lovely? The face of a loved one; a sunset; a chirping bird, music. What is gracious? An act of kindness, a word of encouragement, a moment of forgiveness. Think of something compelling – the desire to learn something new, the joy of going to the beach, holding a grandchild. How do those things measure up against watching Criminal Minds? I’ve been learning languages on Duolingo. One of their motivators is “15 minutes on Duolingo will teach you a new language, what does 15 minutes on social media do for you?” We are what we eat. “Whatever” is good, strengthens our spirits.
The broccoli of soul food is the Bible. Psalm 1 begins, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” (vs. 1 & 2) or as The Message puts it, “Instead you thrill to God’s Word, you chew on Scripture day and night.” You may be thinking, how much time can I spend reading the Bible? Meditate day and night? Really? I can’t just read the book of Jeremiah all day. Thrill to it? Chew on it? What am I a spiritual cow? Ok, how many minutes a day are required to keep God from getting mad at me?” If that’s you, you’re asking the wrong questions. Scripture isn’t a test of piety, it’s one of God’s greatest gifts given to keep our spirits healthy. We’re not required to read the Bible. God won’t love you more for doing it or less for not. Thrilling to God’s word is more than forcing yourself to get excited about a bunch of rules. It starts with a vision of being loved. Years ago, I visited an elderly couple. When the man stepped out of the room, the wife said, “I love that man. Not only that, but I’m in love with him.” After 60 years of marriage, when she brought her husband to the forefront of her awareness – she still thrilled at the thought of him. Not only are we loved, but we’re loved by someone who is way out of our league. The God of all the universe, who is free to choose anyone, has chosen you as the object of his affection. God loves you. If we grasped that, we’d be pretty thrilled! We wouldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s meditation.
The Bible is like a window. We can look at a window seeing the dust and cobwebs. We can look through a window at the world beyond. We can also look into a window at the life of those behind it. In the same way we can look at scripture to study it. We can look through scripture to see what it tells us about the world and our place in it. And we can use it to peer into our own inner psyche to see what God’s Word tells us about our soul. Eugene Peterson writes, “Christians feed on scripture. We don’t simple use or study or learn it; we assimilate it. We take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love.” We may assume with so much potential to enrich our lives, we’d all be eagerly reading our Bibles. The reality is many Christians don’t. There are two main reasons for that. One is we don’t understand it. The second is we’re bored by it. To counter the first barrier, you need to go out and buy the Bible translation you find most readable. Some people love the poetic language of the KJV, but just as we don’t all enjoy Shakespeare, many people find the KJV to be incomprehensible. It’s too much work and so we give up on it. If you find the KJV meaningful, that’s great. If not, look for something else. The NRSV or The Message are both good options. Better to have a Bible that is less than literal and read it, than one that’s a scholarly masterpiece but sits on your shelf. Secondly, without the help and insight of the Holy Spirit the Bible can be like reading a code book. We need the Spirit’s flow to reveal the meaning of scripture to us. Never open the Scriptures without asking for the Spirit’s help.
Often, we find scripture boring because we don’t relate to it. Reading long lists of genealogies is dull for us; but all those “begats” were the Ancestory.com of their time. They told people who they were and how they fit into the world. This was their family tree. It gave them identity. They weren’t just wandering nomads, they had familial and tribal roots. Likewise, reading long lists of Jewish Laws, such as we find in Leviticus is tedious to us; but to the Jews, this was the legal and moral code by which they lived. To us they’re just rules, but to the Jewish people over many centuries they were the source of great debate and discussion. The deliberations of the most famous Rabbis make up the Talmud, a collection of recorded reflections and commentaries, consisting of 63 books with 517 chapters, discussing what these laws mean and how best to keep them. Even today Jewish scholars spend their lives studying these laws and writings. The Bible doesn’t need to be tedious. There are ways of approaching Scripture which bring it to life. So, here are a few suggestions:
Read with expectancy: We can’t make ourselves be excited about Scripture, but we can approach Scripture with anticipation. Come to it like a child at Christmas, eager to discover what the Spirit will reveal to you.
Read with curiosity: Not knowing isn’t as detrimental as having nothing to learn. In approaching a passage ask questions. Who wrote this? Who was the audience? What type of literature is this – a parable, history, instruction, a letter, poetry, words of wisdom? How would the people of the time have understood them?
Read with fresh eyes: It is amazing how many times one can read a passage and think you’ve noted everything in it only to have an Ah-hah moment, where you discover something you’ve never noticed before, or you read it without assumptions and discover something you took as a fact isn’t even there.
Read with imagination: When you approach a passage bring all your senses with you. Put yourself in the scene. What do you see, hear, smell, taste, touch? How would it feel to be a character in this story? If you were present in that moment what would you be doing? What would be said to you? How would you react?
Read with integrity: If you’re doubtful about something you read, or you question it, don’t deny it or force yourself to believe it. Some stories will disturb your faith. These are opportunities for growth. Let your questions linger. Remain open.
Read with an active mind: when we engage our minds, things take order. They become available to us. We internalize them. An Indian woman was sold into marriage at age 12. By 15 her husband had abandoned her and their children. A few years later she attended a literacy class. She learned the alphabet. She learned to spell and read her name, which had been mispronounced her whole life. She received a new identity. In her excitement, she couldn’t stop reading and learning. She got a job. Her hope grew. Her dignity grew. When we engage in God’s word, we too learn our true name, our identity. As we continue to study, we find dignity.
Read as you would watch a movie: No one “tries harder” to watch a movie. We just open ourselves to the story and allow us to take it where it will. When we talk to others who have seen the same film, the conversation comes to life as people discuss their favorite part and give their opinions and insights. One of the best things about a Bible Study group is that people aren’t there to give the right answer, they’re there to muse together, to bounce things off each other, to disagree and to delight, and yes, even to shock one another. The Bible is very down to earth and our reading of it is richer if we honour not only it’s divine message, but it’s human framework.
Finally, don’t just read – act. A ruthless, arrogant, religious man told Mark Twain he intended to visit the Holy Land, so he could read the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Twain suggested, “Why don’t you stay here in Boston and keep them instead.” It’s easy to talk. People love to debate. When discussion replaces action, we become inert. It’s easier to talk about love than to love, to read about forgiveness than to forgive, to think about repentance than to repent. James encourages, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only (James 1:22). Or as Nike puts it, ‘Just do it’.
You are what you eat. Junk food for the mind is easy, fast and readily available. God offers us brain food that’s full of soul nurturing goodness. Eating well makes us spiritually strong. What will you choose? When we fill our minds with whatever is praiseworthy – Jesus on the cross, a passage of Scripture, the smile of a loving friend, a boat ride, a work of art – we place ourselves in the flow of the Spirit and the water of life nourishes our minds expanding our parched and weary souls, and transforming us into the people God wants us to be.