I had just moved to Portland and was living on my own (with a roommate) for the first time in my life. For some reason I started thinking about starting a bible study.
At Portland Community College there was a study ministry group I got involved in as a prayer coordinator. This is one of the ironies of my life. At SPU I was the "prayer liaison" for urban ministries. At PCC I was a prayer coordinator and hosted times that students could come together to pray for the school and whatever else. When I left school for a couple years to work (as the office manager and crusade secretary for an evangelist no less!) and find a program that I actually felt like would TEACH me (thank you Gutenberg) I dove head over feet into an urban-coffee-shop-bible-study-outreach-thing that desperately needed female leadership. In addition to starting a women's bible study, I played hostest for a Thursday evening fellowship dinner and "body life" prayer meeting. The irony is that I had no idea then - and hardly now - what prayer was, and somehow I was always in a role related to it?!
But the discussion of prayer is for another blog. Here I am more interested in bible study. From my own naivete, or perhaps from the church culture around me, I had the idea that as you proceeded verse by verse through a book of the bible, each verse had at least a sermon's worth of significance, and that the best way to expand your understanding of a verse was to read and compare every cross reference available, then to find any other meaning available for words that you weren't sure what meant. This is how I taught. I didn't think I was necessarily qualified, but I had always been a very good reader and student, so I thought I could take on studying the bible for myself and sharing my conclusions.
I don't have the energy here to go into all my thoughts related to the events and blunders of that period of my life. I really am trying to get to a simple point, but, as a verbal processor - I somehow feel I have to explain all the back story for context. Ah, context...a foreshadowing of my point!
Anyhow. For example, I would latch onto verses as proof texts, or as phrases to live by (I probably still do this). One of my favorite challenges came from Philippians 4:11b "I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am" (NASB). This was a challenge for me to accept with a contented heart whatever it was that was happening to and around me.
So much of my theology has been reworked since that time, and I won't go into it here. My main point I guess is that I read (and especially the bible) significantly differently than I do now. I found verses and passages that brought me comfort, and shaped my theology around them, using them as a foundation for my understanding of who God is and what I ought to be doing with my short life here. It wasn't bad or cultish, and it didn't even produce theology that would sound all that different from the facts of what I believe now. But it was very different.
I have recently been wanting to do some research for a paper comparing the biblical conceptions of contentment and zeal to see how they complement each other because they sometimes feel at odds to me. As I began a preliminary study into the passages that stuck in my mind as a spring board (Phil 4:11 being one) I quickly realized that my question has nothing to do with Phil 4:11, because Phil 4:11 has nothing to do with the kind of contentment I was thinking it did.
As I read Philippians 4 (in context!) I realised that Paul is explicitly talking about the Philippians renewed financial support, and thanking them for it, but assuring them that he has learned to be content whether well supported or struggling. That the varying degrees of luxury in life were of no real concern for him. Now, this is of course related to contentment in life in general, but he is clearly and specifically talking about his physical financial life. He is not saying he has reached some spiritual plateau of contentedness where nothing ever shakes him.
I read other places where the word content(ment) is used, and it's all the same. Financial contentment. Contentment with income and one's standard of living.
Now, this is not to say there isn't a spiritual contentment talked about in the bible. I think it would be closer to what Jack Crabtree describes as Sophrosune. And so my desire is to really understand what it means to be okay with who God made me, my family, the things that come in and out of my life and yet to also call evil evil (prov 8:13) and strive to promote the truth into my culture.
That may all be quite confusing, but it was helpful for me to put it all out there in writing. The main thing I was marveling - aside from the question I want to study - is how differently I read since graduating from Gutenberg. It comes so naturally to seek to understand the author's intended meaning, rather than to pull out magical spiritual meanings. This allows me to actually begin to reconstruct the worldview of the apostles and writers of the Old and New Testaments.
During my time at Gutenberg I didn't have much time for personal bible study. I did some, but mainly I focused on school (and marriage and having a baby...you get the picture, not much time for personal bible study outside of church and Tuesday Night Class). So in a way, I have had a 4-year hiatus from my studies. So rather than a gradual change in the way I study the bible, I can see radically different ways that I read and thus study.
This is because of Gutenberg. Not only did they demystify the bible and remind me that it is just a book. A book through which God decided to authoritatively explain his character and his purpose for man's life on earth to us mortals, but still just a book to be read as you would read any other text you were trying to understand, not a magic text requiring magic reading rules. Then, they taught me how to read - how to REALLY read. It's hard to explain, but as I delve back into such familiar territory as the bible, I can see how drastically different my abilities are. You don't realize as you sit through classes and discussions - and especially Micro exegesis (a 1 credit class each quarter with no homework - just show up and read together) - that you are slowly, slowly, slowly being transformed into a skilled reader. I am grateful. Thank you Gutenberg.
Now that I have "verbally processed" all of that out, I realize I could probably delete everything but the previous two paragraphs and still make the same point...but I'm not going to, mainly because it took too long to write - and perhaps there was something worth reading in there somewhere, and even if not, my web address is "attempting transparency" right? Well, there you go.