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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Public Reading of Scripture

It's the last day of the Shaw University Divinity School Ministers' Conference.  This morning was my morning on the dais.  I was scheduled to offer the Invocation.  One of our alumni was called away, so I also filled in to read the Scripture Text.

Some of you who know me realize that public reading of scripture is one of my favorite forms of worship leadership.  Having grown up in church, I have been hearing people read aloud from the Bible all my life.  In children's Sunday School classes, it was a challenge, a duty, and sometimes a competition to see who could get through some verses without stumbling over big Bible words.  We excellent readers and pronouncers felt smug toward the ones who couldn't sound out Nebuchadnezzer or Amalekite.

Eventually, it came to be the "gracious" thing to do to allow anyone to "pass" or "prefer" not to read publicly.  We learned that we should not force people to do something they were not comfortable doing, lest they feel humiliated by struggling with the words and sentences.  I never got completely comfortable with that policy, thinking that we ought to show the grace through loving one another enough to encourage everyone to continue to grow and improve in public reading.  That was a kind of internal white church conversation.

At Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, I came to see that there was another kind of conversation about public reading of scripture to which I had not been privileged.  I don't know the story as a participant, although I have had some opportunities to study in books or listen to testimony about that different world from the one in which I was raised.  What I did learn was that the social function of public reading of scripture at Mt. Level carried with it a communal memory of injustice:  the injustice of being denied the sacred text and the training to be a reader of it.

So at Mt. Level, when a person stands to read the scripture publicly, it is not the same kind of pressure to perform flawlessly to prove one's pedigree that might have fed our competitive spirits in Sunday School where I grew up.  It takes on more of a shared consciousness of liberation struggle, as people whom outsiders might not expect to read sophisticated texts join hearts of encouragement to read and hear the sacred writ.  Almost any time a young person or child reads publicly, there is an outpouring of congratulations and encouragement for achieving this important task.  Now the feeling about children's public reading is not so different than what I grew up with, but the expression is more overt through words of praise and applause.  Getting an education is not something to take for granted, and gaining the skill to handle sacred things is a reason for gratitude to God who made a way where there was no way.

As a seminarian at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, I gained another insight into public reading of scripture.  Certainly, I had experienced different styles of reading as I grew up.  Some people read in a monotone, giving little emphasis while making sure to get all the words correct.  Others put on a "church voice" or "preacher voice" and read with a different tone than conversational speech.  It may include certain efforts at emphasis, although as a whole it offers little insight into the particular text, and in a way makes all texts sound the same, each verse and sentence and paragraph adopting the same "officious" or "elevated" tone of voice.  Some readers adopt a sing-song phrasing that gets to be very predictable and at times causes the mind to relax and drift away.  A few readers show evidence of trying to read with contextual understanding, yet most such reading either takes on idiosyncratic interpretive emphasis (such as highlighting a transitional word like "but" or "therefore"), reading excessively slowly, or singling out one or two phrases in a passage for emphasis.

While in California, I was blessed to become part of a congregation that was unusually populated by people who gave serious attention to how scripture should be read publicly.  Among many with gifts, some who stood out were Jerene Broadway, Kyle Smith, and Jane Medema.  One thing I learned from these and others was to look at a text for its particularities:  conversational speech, story-telling, poetic phrasing, and musicality.  I listened as readers varied the speed of their speech cadence, stretched out particular words, raised and lowered the pitch or tone of phrases in unexpected ways rather than in the same way with each line.  I saw that scripture gives clues about the emotive character of its words, so that fear, excitement, anger, or sarcasm may need expression.  Some words may need to be shouted and others whispered.

From that point on, I came to see that worship planners should engage two concerns when calling on people to lead through public reading of scripture.  First, I retain my baptist egalitarianism that tells me everyone who wishes to have opportunity to read scripture publicly should get to do so.  Reading scripture is a practice of all of our lives in discipleship, and no one has to be a professional to share in that practice.  Whether it is read with a more mumbling monotone, a stumbling cadence, or articulated in all its detail, the people of God do the work of God by reading scripture publicly.  Second, churches should identify those with gifts to read with expression and convey the depths of the text and have them read regularly and often.  Moreover, those who understand how to study a text and draw out an oral interpretation of it should offer training to others so that more members of the congregation can offer gifted leadership in public reading of scripture.

I also learned at seminary that many traditions of Christian worship read multiple texts in worship.  I grew up hearing the scripture read as a preparation for the sermon.  Whatever text the preacher planned to use was the one we heard.  Then I found out that some churches read an Old Testament Lesson, a Psalm, a New Testament Lesson (or Epistle), and a Gospel Lesson every Sunday.  Of course, in our small-town Texas Baptist self-assurance, we were not aware of the Lectionary and such things.  I remember my fellow-seminarian Dan Ratliff saying to me that for all of our baptist talk about being Bible-based, we mostly let people say their own words in worship.  He helped me see that in this multiple-text liturgical approach, we could give God's Word a chance to speak more often, more diversely, and more extensively than our anti-liturgical pattern had led us into.

All of which leads me to say that I was overjoyed to get to read from Acts 8:26-39 today and try to make the text come alive.  I always know the English teachers and speech teachers out in the congregation because of the way their eyes light up.  One woman greeted me after the service to say, "You read that scripture just like I would have told you to read it!"  So I knew I was talking to someone who thinks about how to interpret texts orally.  If this is the text we claim can tell us the story of our lives and guide us in the way we should go, then there is a value in letting the words operate in our mouths and ears with the same liveliness of the conversations we carry on with one another.  They are sacred texts, but that does not mean they must sound like drudgery.

So anytime you want to ask me to read the scripture publicly, don't be surprised that I say, "Yes."

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