Have you ever noticed that the reading of the Scripture lesson often reaches a low point in listener attention? This happens in Sunday school classes, women’s and men’s meetings, and other gatherings as well as in formal public worship. The Word of God is a sharp two-edged sword capable of penetrating to our spiritual-intellectual-emotional marrow and joints. But ministers and laymen alike often handle it as if it were a putty knife.
No matter how great its inherent force, a passage can become dull and spiritless if read in public casually and without preparation. “Ho, every one that thirst-eth; come ye to the waters …” (Isa. 55:1) can be droned in ho-hum fashion as if the reader had never known spiritual thirst—or the boundless joy of receiving “wine and milk without money and without price.”
There is a widespread assumption that anyone with average education and competence can read Scripture in public with little or no effort. And the next step is to conclude: “I have to spend my time on my lesson, my talk, my devotional, or my sermon.” The result is that many persons read Scripture in public without any previous preparation.
I should like to propose a rather radical idea. No matter what the occasion, the public reading of Scripture is of crucial importance. Therefore it requires careful preparation. The following five suggestions can help one wield the two-edged sword so that it achieves high listener attention and lasting results.
1. Write out the Scripture lesson—on the typewriter or by hand—and read from the manuscript rather than from a printed page. There are good reasons for suggesting this. One is that printers arrange their type so that the margins are straight. Therefore words must often be divided at the ends of the lines, and the reader’s eyes must jump from the right margin all the way back to the left in order to see the whole words. Equally important, the arrangement of material in lines of equal length tends to interrupt the natural flow of meaning. When one is reading from a printed page, it is easy to pause at places that ought to flow on and to skip by other points where the listeners need a brief stop.
Preparing a copy of the Scripture lesson will also foster union between you and the Word. As you copy, you will find meanings leaping toward you that would be overlooked in a casual reading. You will, in a sense, be made a captive of the Word. When that happens, your public reading becomes a pouring out of something that has become part of you. You are merely a channel through which the vital, living Word flows out to others.
2. Read the lesson in its larger context at least once. This will reinforce its grip upon your mind. At the same time, the lesson seen in its whole setting will “come alive” for you. It does not exist in isolation; nerves and arteries and sinews connect it with the whole body of Scripture of which it is a part.
Failure to take account of the larger context is, of course, a prime source of doubtful or even erroneous exposition. Treated as if it were an independent entity, a passage may lend itself to gross distortion. Such distortion is not limited to the sermon or lesson based upon a segment of Scripture. It can take place in the public reading by, for example, emphasis upon some word or phrase that deserves no such emphasis when the larger context is considered.
3. Try to imagine yourself in the situation with which the lesson deals. If action is involved, as it is in most Scripture other than the Psalms and the letters of Paul, try to take part in that action through the lives of the men and women involved. Try to be for a moment a hot and thirsty traveler, fresh from the desert, eagerly looking for a street vendor who will sell a drink of water from his goatskin bag—and in that mood hear the invitation to come without money. Once you have done this, your reading of Isaiah 55:1 will be transformed, and those who listen will catch the note of reality.
Even the accounts of the stirring events in our Lord’s last week on earth, and of what took place at Calvary, can be read in such a distant way that listeners automatically reject the words. But when a speaker begins to tell them about something that he almost seems to have witnessed, they will listen. The reverent use of your imagination will help the narrative portions of Scripture come alive for you and your hearers.
4. With your manuscript prepared so that its physical appearance aids the natural flow of meaning, go back over it and underline and mark for emphasis and shades of meaning. This will make it easier to preserve the very important eye-contact with listeners, while yielding yourself as a channel through which the meaning of the lesson can surge.
In making this suggestion, I am not recommending “theatrical” reading of Scripture. This hollow, phony procedure is the very opposite of what I have been trying to suggest. As someone has well said, “Scripture reading is not a performance but rather communication of the Word.” To the degree that a teacher or preacher or devotional leader becomes concerned with the impression he himself is making upon his listeners, he loses the ability to be a channel for the Word. A Scripture lesson is not a vehicle for showing off the reader’s skill as an actor, or his fine voice, or his power of visualization. To use it this way is to pervert the role of the witness-communicator. But when this ever-present danger is recognized as one subtle way in which the devil appeals to pride, a marked manuscript can help give power to public reading.
5. Finally, I strongly urge that you read your lesson aloud as many times as necessary in order to master it. Many slovenly readings, to say nothing of slips of speech and outright blunders, result from assuming that visual and oral reading are the same. That is far from true; the two forms are really quite different kinds of communication. Word combinations that give the eye no trouble may hopelessly twist the tongue. And in oral reading the voice must do for the listener what punctuation marks and capital letters do for the reader.
By following some of these practices and adapting others to fit your own personality and experience, you may well find that the reading of the Scripture lesson becomes the high point rather than the low point of any period in which you seek to be an intermediary between God and your fellow men.
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