This past week an old high school buddy posted a photo on his Facebook page of what he found in the drawer of his hotel nightstand. A Bible is not that uncommon, but in this case the Gideon donation was accompanied by a copy of the Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu scriptures) and another book titled “The Teaching of Buddha”.
The photo elicited a range of positive, and less so, comments including my own about my surprise at there not having been a copy of the Quran as well, and how odd it is that hotel rooms have turned into libraries of religion. Alex, my friend, assured us that the nightstand on the other side of the bed contained only the local Yellow Pages.
In a box marked “Howie, Memories” that I have stored in the back bedroom and which contains an odd assortment of personal memorabilia, some of which has managed to travel with me through some forty house moves across four continents and as many decades, there is another copy of the scriptures which holds special meaning for me. It is a hard-bound copy of the New Testament in the Baniua language and the inside cover contains a hand-written inscription by the printer himself, my father, in his characteristic penmanship: “Upper Amazon, Baniua Language, 2000 People, Printed 1964, Puraquequara Brasil”.
What is it about holy scriptures that gives them such precedence in our lives? Why do we accept as normal the placement of these books in millions of hotel rooms across the world? Why would my father give up his secure and promising career as a printer in Seattle and move his family to the middle of the Amazon jungle – burning his offset plates in by the light of the sun, hand stitching the binding on his books, risking health, wealth and reputation – so that he could print Bibles in the native languages of sometimes minute groups of aboriginal peoples?
As I survey the Anglican Church of Canada’s prescribed readings for worship services this Sunday, it seems a rather run-of-the-mill offering. From the Old Testament we hear a presumably 3000 year old story of how King David wants to build a temple for the Lord, but the Lord is all like “What? You kidding? How ’bout I build YOU a place first.” (My paraphrase.) The Gospel reading has Jesus wanting his friends to get a rest from the crowd, but when they arrive at their retreat centre, low and behold the crowd has already moved in; they sigh, and get back to work. And finally, in the other New Testament reading, Paul tells his first century mixed Jewish / non-Jewish readership in the region of what is now southern Turkey that their future lies in moving beyond the barriers of their ethnic identities and together becoming a new community.
Ho, hum, what’s to preach about?
Or at least, that’s how I often feel when I first read these ancient stories, and I’m sure that is how many in my congregation feel too, if they are paying the least bit of attention at all. (I always find it interesting how people in the pew don’t realize that I can see and hear them as well as they can see and hear me…)
On the surface these stories, and the many like them in the Quran or Bhagavad Gita, or the like, are nothing more than the random annotations of ancient authors, altered and edited throughout history, with us today by having survived the lottery of preservation. At this level they are variously gently entertaining or bewildering, and sometimes not just a little bit boring (the other reason they are in hotel nightstands?).
But, of course, this is where the marvel of holy writ begins. One ancient commentator put it this way: “Every part of Scripture is God-inspired and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to make right choices.” He happened to be talking about the Jewish scriptures, but the application is broader than that. Once we start to dig under the surface, discovering the context of the stories, why they were written and to what audience they were directed, we uncover a mirror for our own lives, we find our own circumstances reflected in their plots.
The ancient Jewish scribes suffering in exile in a foreign land, the ones who recorded the tales of King David, found solace in the thought that God would preserve their people and be an everlasting home for them, that they could raise their children in hope. When we feel forlorn and exiled too, we can share their hope: our interests are not lost on God. And in Jesus’ failed retreat with his disciples, don’t we all recognize ourselves? When our well deserved and anticipated rest is unexpectedly snatched from us, how will we respond? Our response reflects the quality of our character. And those folk in and around Ephesus, to whom Paul writes? Surely they teach us the wisdom of every community making stronger the things that unite, rather than giving in to the things that divide.