“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” — Collect for Proper 28, The Book of Common Prayer
“…The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” — Hebrews 4:12.
In December 2002, I attended my first CREDO conference in southwest Florida. CREDO is a program devised by the Church Pension Fund of the Episcopal Church to address Clergy Wellness. At week-long conferences, participants examine four areas of their lives, Vocation, Spirituality, Health, and Finances, and come up with a personalized CREDO plan to implement when they return home. It is the hope of the Church Pension Fund that every ordained person in the Episcopal Church will be invited to attend a CREDO conference at least every ten years during their active ministry. In 2008, I was invited to a second CREDO conference in Asheville, North Carolina area, and last fall attended my third CREDO conference in Fairhope, Alabama.
At most every CREDO I have attended, we gathered for worship twice each day, met in large plenary sessions, in small groups, and had personal consultations in each of the four areas. We got up for breakfast at 7:15AM and worked until 9PM for the first three days and then the pace slackened a bit, giving us some private time to work and prepare our own CREDO plans. Each time I went, I looked forward to the time of personal reflection, prayer, and fellowship with other clergy from dioceses all over the country. CREDO is not a “retreat” in the usual sense of the word, because we were quite busy, but it was a “retreat” from the familiar world of everyday life in the parish. Here was a place where we clergy could go to worship and not be responsible for making sure that everything went according to plan — a place where we could relax and hear the words of Scripture and take in the reflections of the staff members on those readings.
On the second day of my second CREDO conference–at least that is how I remember it — at morning worship, we read a portion of Psalm 107 together. I knew at once that these were words that would set the tone for me for the week ahead.
- Some wandered in desert wastes; * they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
- They were hungry and thirsty; * their spirits languished within them.
- Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, * and he delivered them from their distress.
- He put their feet on a straight path * to go to a city where they might dwell.
- Let them give thanks to the LORD for his mercy * and the wonders he does for his children.
- For he satisfies the thirsty * and fills the hungry with good things.
It would be unusual, I think, if you felt the kind of response I felt when I read these words aloud and simultaneously heard these words read in unison. They were words that spoke to me at that moment and perhaps to no one else in quite the same way. It is difficult and a bit awkward to try to explain it. I knew that I had arrived there hungry and thirsty for revival and renewal. These words hit me as if they were a promise to me of something greater that was yet to happen. My feet would once again be set upon a straight path and God would satisfy my spiritual thirst and hunger. It sounds rather prosaic to write about, but it was something else to experience the power that these words of scripture had for me at that moment. It was as if I could close the book at that moment with no need to read any further. Perhaps this kind of experience is best described in the book of Hebrews, when it says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12).
The history of the church is full of stories of people whose lives were changed by a single verse of scripture. St. Augustine picked up a manuscript of Paul’s letter to the Romans and knew at once with absolute certainty that the words “let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” were meant for him. When St. Francis heard the words “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” read in church it gnawed at him until he responded to the word he knew the Lord had spoken directly to him. When Martin Luther’s encountered the words of St. Paul in Romans 1:17, who in turn was citing the book of the prophet Habakkuk— “the righteous shall live through faith,” it made him feel “as if I had been born again and passed through the open doors of paradise itself.” And when John Wesley heard a reading from the Preface of Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans at a church meeting, he felt “as if his heart had been strangely warmed.”
These are only a few of the well-known stories in which a passage of scripture spoke directly to a person. When a passage of scripture speaks to us like that it cuts like a two-edged sword so that we cannot ignore what we have heard or read. This is not the sort of thing that happens only once in a lifetime. If you learn to be attentive to the words of scripture, either when you read them or hear them read in church or in your daily devotions, God will speak to you. Sometimes it takes a retreat or a place apart for us to find the space within ourselves to truly listen to what God wants to say, or already is saying to us, but because we have been so preoccupied with other things that we have not been able to hear. When you encounter the living God in the “living and active” word of scripture you will know it. When that happens to you, stop. Read, and re-read what you have just heard. Listen to what it says to your heart. When you revisit it in a few days, it may not have the effect that it had at first, but that is fine. If it is something that is meant for you it will have some lasting effect on you, whether it challenges you and calls you to repentance or nourishes and refreshes you in the face of difficulties and trials. If you share your experience with someone else, do not be surprised if they don’t get it. The words were not meant for them but for you. If you are really puzzled you might want to speak with a trained spiritual director or a member of the clergy.
I am sharing this story with you in the hope that you will be attentive to the word of God as it is revealed to you in Holy Scripture. Remember to take to heart the words of the famous collect from the Book of Common Prayer that remind us to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the words of Holy Scripture. These are words that can satisfy the thirsty and fill the hungry with good things.