Anyone who grew up in church is familiar with what we like to call "Sunday School answers". They are the Christian cliches. We joke about them now. When someone asks a hard question, such as "How does God guide us?", we fumble around for an answer and finally say, "Jeeezus!" It is our Sunday School answer. Even if it is the right answer, its significance tends to be lost because it comes off the tongue without even pausing for a moment in the heart or the brain.
This isn't Sunday School's fault necessarily, it is just human nature. We have just as many cliches outside the church as in. They became cliches for a reason: they are likely true. But they sound like trite platitudes to us, and so give way to newer ideas, fresher language, hipper thoughts.
One Sunday School answer I got particularly tired of in my day is seen in the following scenario. To the question "How do we experience a relationship with God?" we answer, "Read the Bible and pray". Oh my, if there ever was a Sunday School answer, that is it.
But the great thing about cliches is that if you think about it long enough, often you come back to them in a fresh way. This is what is happening to me on this one. The more I think about it and the less I stick to it, the Sunday School answer is ringing truer and truer.
I have a confession to make. Blogs aren't good places for confession, but then again, why should I only share what I'm learning when I'm learning it the easy way? Why not share what I've been learning the hard way too? Let's be honest here. But let me add a disclaimer. What I'm about to tell you? Don't try this at home. Don't imitate me.
I used to read the One Year Bible. Seven years in a row I think. Then last June I stalled out. It is almost June again and whenever I go back to it I'm still in June. So, clearly, I haven't been doing very well. Of course, I'm in seminary, so I'm reading the Bible. But there is nothing like soaking in it like a bath, day after day. You don't really notice it every day but over time you notice that your story and The Story are intersecting in very good ways. You are challenged, encouraged, provoked, formed, and brought to questioning and wonder before God by His own Word.
Believe me, I know. Partly because of those seven years. But now because of this last bad one. Regarding Bible reading I have to say one thing: I miss it. I say this with all sincerity, as one yelling from the bottom of a pit for others to watch out that they don't fall in as well. I also share it with those in the pit with me: "We've got to get out of here."
Yes, the Bible is hard to understand sometimes. You think you get it all overnight? In one lifetime? In 2000 years of church history? Of course not. But you can get the jist of it and you can get it and get it and get it over again and most of all as you read it it reads you back and its Story shapes your own. The Sunday School answer is right.
And prayer. What can I say about prayer? Those who know me well know that my prayer life is about as good as my sense of smell (I have bad sinus problems. My brother thinks I have an extra set of teeth in my nasal cavity). I often admit that "I don't smell so good" and I also must confess that "I don't pray so good" either. Again, don't try this at home.
I just find it so hard to ask for stuff. I pray every day in natural and embarassingly down to earth ways, saying things in all sincerity like "God help me" and "God have mercy on us all" but I have a hard time interceding. Most of my prayers are submissions. Submitting to God. But even this I do with embarassing irregularity. The last ten years or so I'd pray while journalling, and God would speak to me. Not every day in clear ways, of course. Not in audible words, of course. But over time I could tell, as I submitted, God spoke. God directed. You see this looking back. It is pretty awesome.
And again, I miss it.
At seminary I have become more and more convinced that the secret (if there is one) to Christianity is living by Word and Spirit. One without the other is bad news. You can't make an idol of the written word (because it ends up being an idol of your own interpretation of it) and you can't just go willy-nilly thinking that you have a monopoly on listening to the Spirit (because it becomes hard to convince people like me that it isn't just bad pizza talking). The Spirit speaks with the Word and the Word speaks with the Spirit.
The amazing thing is, God speaks. Amazing.
How do we hear?
Read the Bible and pray. Sorry. That's just the way it is. Of course it has to be real. You really have to enter into it. It isn't some magic ritual. But it is how God does his relationship with us.
But the Sunday School answer is true. And that speaks of the third thing we need. We need the church. We need a place which keeps bringing us back to Word and Spirit, because in years like the one I'm having, we know we won't come on our own.
We need the Sunday School answers. They are true. Let 'em sit in your brain and on your heart for awhile. Better yet, try 'em. Try them for a year, but not as rote. Enter into them with God for real. You'll see. He is living and active. Present to us in Word and Spirit and active in the Church.