How many words does it take to change your life? For most of us, it depends on which words we may be waiting for. “Marry me!” “I forgive you.” “You have talent, kid.” “The test results look good.” One thing is for sure: Words have power to shape our destiny. The right word—one of life, love, or hope—can make all the difference.
In fewer than a dozen words one Sunday morning, my life was jarred awake. “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.” How strange it was to be entranced by something happening in church, of all places! As a teenager, sitting still for an hour was next to martyrdom. Going to Mass was an obligation endured. My general posture in the assembly was to slump until it was gratefully over. But now I was leaning forward, attending to words that splashed like a shower of truth on my heart. More than truth, even: It was like someone was reading my diary and discerning my secret thoughts.
Duped. Could you say that to God? Could you talk to God as frankly as that, in a tone that was nowhere near as reverent sounding as the prayers I was used to? For the first time in my life, I lingered after Mass to pick up the missalette and read the passage again. “Duped” is what it said. What he said — the prophet Jeremiah. I copied the whole thing down on the back of my notebook, and for the next few weeks I sat in school and stared at the prophet’s words until they were branded into my memory.
“But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,/imprisoned in my bones;/I grow weary holding it in, /I cannot endure it.” Jeremiah was talking about the gift of prophecy and how it affected him. If he didn’t shout out God’s word when it came to him, it gave him something like spiritual heartburn.
The whole passage from that Sunday, Jeremiah 20:7-9, became the first words from the Bible to claim me. They would not be the last. Because as a teenager, I already knew what withholding the truth could cost me. Not being true to myself felt every bit as bad as Jeremiah described it. I know now that Jeremiah first received his call to be a prophet when he was a teenager himself. He complains to God that he’s “too young” to be drummed into divine service; in ancient Israel, you “counted” as an adult male at 20. The fierce passions of youth seep and seethe through Jeremiah’s prophecies and into his prayers. And if he verged on being rude occasionally, well, that goes with the territory of being young.
Of course, when I had my epiphany of identification with Jeremiah’s melodramatic outburst, I didn’t know anything about him. Like most figures in the Bible, I knew the name and could place which Testament he appeared in, and that was about it.
But Jeremiah became my port of entry into wanting to know more. Still, if someone had used those two deadly words, “Bible study,” to describe my interest, I would have gone screaming into the night from the notion. What is it those words convey that sounds so horrible? “Study” evokes memories of school, hard work, and misery to no purpose. Bible study is the spinach of the spiritual life to many Catholics in particular. Don’t we get our multivitamin of Scripture with three readings and a psalm on Sundays, and do we really have to know more than Father has to say about it all in the homily?
To which I would say yes, you do get the biblical multivitamin at Mass. But no one mistakes the multivitamin for the full pleasure and experience of a meal. To consume more than the basic nutrients of Scripture, we must engage these stories more personally and completely. Not because we have to, but because we’re missing something wonderfully good if we don’t.
I confess I’m a Bible junkie. I first tackled it cover-to-cover when I was 22. (They always tell you this is a bad approach, but I tend to be a kamikaze when I get it into my head to do something.) Afterward, I studied Scripture formally in theology school. Then it became my profession for the last 20 years as a religious educator and writer. All of this has made me acutely aware that most people think it must be just about the most boring thing you could do with your life, reading the Bible over and over again. When I tell people what I do for a living, their eyes glaze over — or worse, they become terrified that I might start talking about it. Horrors!
Admitting you’re a Bible teacher is a great way to get strangers to stop talking to you on an airplane. But when I actually want to start such a conversation, I find I have to move in slowly, circling the subject of Scripture warily even when I’m addressing a church group. Many Catholics are sure it’s going to be a deadly dull topic, and that suspicion is fueled by lots of Bible scholars and devotional writers who seem dedicated to serving up each text DOA. The scholar-to-scholar conversation can be all but incomprehensible, even to someone as invested in the subject as I am. But the devotional material can be soft, sentimental, and misleading in its use of a passage. My mission as a Bible teacher has therefore morphed into serving as a sort of universal translator between these two camps. I pledge to muddle through the scholarship so normal people don’t have to. Then I look for simpler, more accessible ways to communicate the best of scholarly insights and to knit them to how you and I live and make choices.
Like I said at the beginning, I believe that words have power. And God’s word above all has the power to create, heal, transform, and save. Just read the first story in Genesis: God brings a whole world into being on the power of words alone. “Let there be this, that, and the other,” God says — and reality takes shape, one creature at a time. But when reality gets into trouble because of the sadness of sin, God speaks into the world once more, this time as a Word-Made-Flesh to liberate us. It’s no accident either that the Church is born at the magnificent language feast of Pentecost, in which the Apostles are given words that everyone can understand no matter what tongue they speak, healing the pain of human division. Words have this kind of reconciling power because the word comes from God and unites us with God from the first hour. Can we still doubt that “God’s word is alive,” as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, or that spending more time with the source of that divine word will bring us to better, fuller life?
As I speak to church groups around the country about the power of words to define and shape our lives, participants volunteer their own stories of how the right word at the right time saved them. As we share these stories, folks become aware of how words can be “sacramental”— that is, how they are the agents of grace and transformation. If mere human words and stories can rock our world at times — think how a novel or movie can touch your heart or make you see things from a whole new perspective!— how much more can the ancient stories of the Bible told and retold for thousands of years affect us? This is why the Church is the guardian of these stories and why we tell them regularly, seasonally, and cyclically throughout the Church year. The more we hear these stories, the deeper we can pierce the layers of their meaning. In each new season of our lives, too, the stories that have the most significance for us may not be the same ones. Just as we can never enter the same river twice, we hear a new story each time because we ourselves are not the same.
So while I first awakened to the power of Scripture through the young Jeremiah’s earnest, honest words, these days I am energized more by hoary-headed Isaiah and his prophecies. I’m a little on the hoary side myself now, and so I have a greater appreciation for the guy whose prophetic career lasted the longest: through 40 years and four kingly reigns. Also, while I originally found myself magnetically drawn to Luke’s Gospel for its strong words about social justice and its generous inclusion of women, I presently find Mark’s breathless urgency more compelling.
Urgency made sense in Mark’s generation; he was the first to write down the “Good News,” and by doing so, he literally invented the Gospel format that others would imitate, moderate, and expand.
When folks are just wading into the Bible, I ask them to make lists of their favorite Bible stories; the top five Scripture personalities they’d most like to invite to dinner; the three they’d want to befriend for life. Jot those answers down on a bookmark and keep them in your Bible for just a year as you read along. I bet you’ll discover that your lists evolve, as your relationship to this living word grows in warmth and depth. When’s the best time to begin reading the Bible? To borrow one of Scripture’s favorite words, now. Far from being merely a story about long ago, the word of God is always on the brink of doing something new. CD
10 great things about Reading the Bible
At last, you can tell the difference between Shakespeare and the King James Bible when it’s quoted to you.
You can talk to Protestants about your faith without feeling like a goofball.
You’ll know whether the lector at Mass just said “Elijah” or “Elisha” by the context alone.
You’ll have the answer to that “Jeopardy!” clue: “Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.” (“What is the Pentateuch?”)
You’ll understand why “Noah’s Ark” is not a bedtime story for children!
You may finally be convinced that Mary Magdalene was never a prostitute.
You’ll know which biblical books were favorites of Jesus (Isaiah and Deuteronomy) and why.
You’ll be able to name more than 10 of the 333 women mentioned in the Bible.
You’ll learn at last why the Bible is not just the story of ancient Israelites or early Christians, but your story too.
You’ll experience for yourself that “God’s word is alive” (Hebrews 4:12) as it takes root in you.
And the award goes to…
See who in Scripture gets the prize in the following categories:
Dumbest Boyfriend: Samson, for choosing girlfriend Delilah (Judges 16:4-22)
Biggest Liar: Herod, who claims to seek the newborn king to “do him homage” (Matthew 2:8)
Most Unappetizing Dish: Herodias and her daughter, for serving a head on a platter (Mark 6:17-29)
Fattest Man: Eglon, king of Moab, whose belly swallowed a sword (Judges 3:12-25)
Worst Fisherman: Peter — when he catches something, it’s a miracle (Luke 5:1-10; John 21:3-6)
Best Traveling Companion: the Angel Raphael, who journeys with Tobias (Tobit 5:1-22)
Worst Sacristans: sons of Eli, for eating the sacrifice meant for God (1 Samuel 2:12-17)
Most Famous Ass: This is a tie: Balaam’s ass or Balaam himself? (Numbers 22:21-35)
Most Dangerous Date: Judith — men lose their heads over her (Judith 13:4-10)
Biggest Mistake: Ananias and Sapphira stiff the collection plate (Acts 5:1-10)
Lousiest Sailor: Peter again, whose boat is always on the verge of sinking (Matthew 14:24; Mark 4:35-40; Luke 8:22-26)
Who would you ad to this list?
Can reading the Bible really enrich my life?
It certainly can, if you read it not as a record of past events but as a living word meant for us today as much as for ancient people. In a brief and very readable recent book, Listening to God’s Word (Orbis Books), Alice Camille takes us into the very heart of the meaning of Scripture and outlines a biblical approach to spirituality that can help the Word come alive for us. For more, visit alicecamille.com.