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Playing with Scripture

Make the Bible come alive to transform worship

“Play!” a theatre director once instructed me. “That’s why it’s called a play!” I can’t remember in which play I was told to play, but I was given freedom to play, and for me that was enough. I don’t know about you, but I love playing.

In Jaco Hamman’s book Becoming a Pastor: Forming Self and Soul for Ministry, he writes about the importance of developing the capacity to play, “the ability to move effortlessly between illusion and reality and to lose oneself in spontaneous or purposive activity. This in-between play space, the only space where ministry can take place, is a welcoming, forgiving, and nurturing space.” For Hamman this playfulness even carries over to Scripture.

But I wonder if this playfulness is lost when Scripture is presented in worship as A Book to Be Revered or A Book Few Can Truly Understand. Sometimes presented without rehearsal, many Scripture readings are demoted to the “static” portion of the service (as opposed to the “dynamic” parts that include congregational singing and narrative preaching). I’ve heard some worship leaders express caution about including longer or multiple passages as an example of “too much talking” in worship. “People don’t listen when there’s too much talking.”

Of course they don’t. Of course they don’t listen when the Bible is proclaimed as something we can’t understand. Of course people don’t listen when the Bible is read in a monotone with too many pauses and too little humor. Of course people don’t listen when they have no conceptual dynamic equivalences to grasp. Of course people don’t listen when the reader doesn’t understand what she is reading.

The way to heal this deafness is not by reducing the amount of Scripture in worship. That’s already been done. According to Dr. Constance Cherry, who studied the amount of time devoted to each aspect of congregational worship in a variety of traditions and reported on her findings in “My House Shall be Called a House of…Announcements,” Scripture reading took between 2 percent (for “contemporary” worship styles) and 9 percent (for “liturgical” worship styles) of the entire time allocated to worship. (To put this in perspective, congregations in the study spent between 4 percent and 11 percent of the worship time listening to announcements.) John Witvliet, Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, worshiped with more than 40 congregations during his sabbatical in 2011-2012 and lamented the way the Bible was presented and read in many of those congregations: “Happily, every church we visited featured a Bible reading. However, in some places the reading consisted of a single verse sandwiched between the pastor’s first two stories…Many congregations unwittingly reinforce a perception that the Bible is really hard to understand, unable to speak on its own, and slightly less important than the pastor’s own insights—exactly the opposite message of the sixteenth-century Reformers.”

I wonder what would happen if we approached Scripture presentation in worship as an opportunity for God’s people to play. What might this look like? Here is just one example. Imagine: it is time for the pre-sermon Scripture reading. A woman approaches the chancel, opens a book, and says, “Remember this story Jesus told in Luke’s gospel.” A man in a formal suit (this is a more casual congregation) and a teenage girl step onto the chancel. He steps up on top of a large drama block. She sits further upstage, perches on a stool, and pulls her knees up under her chin. The woman begins the Scripture reading from Luke 18:9. When she begins to describe the words of the Pharisee, the man in the suit joins her and they speak in tandem. “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector!” When the Pharisee is finished praying, he pulls a phone out of his pocket and snaps a picture of himself praying. The picture appears on the screen. The congregation laughs. The screen goes blank.

Then the tax collector prays. She murmurs the Jesus prayer, almost inaudibly. Then the narrator looks up at the Pharisee and nudges him with her elbow to get off the block, “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled,” and she gestures with her head toward the stool. Then she approaches the young woman and guides her to the block. “And those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The characters have reversed places.

Now in Jesus’ story, did the Pharisee have a mobile phone? Is this a “literal” depiction of the text? Of course not. What this technique did was create dynamic equivalence. It’s perfectly normal for people to take pride in their own work (be it prayer, miles run, or a new job) and post it on social media. It was perfectly normal for Pharisees to pray in the way Jesus described. But when we see these images juxtaposed, we recognize our own tendency to display our work and compare ourselves to others.

The above scenario is not fictional; three people joined me to enact this story for my congregation recently. (When asked how I got the idea for this particular enacted Scripture piece, I truthfully answered that I saw a photo on social media that someone had posted of herself being slain in the Spirit.)

In Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry,” he invites students to “hold [the poem] up to the light” and to “waterski across the surface of a poem.” But they don’t know how to play. Instead they “tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.” Sometimes we’ve done the same with God’s story in worship. Let’s untie it and see what happens…

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence (MCS, Regent College) is an M.Div. student at Calvin Theological Seminary, a writer, a speaker, and a biblical storyteller. Find her at www.pathlightstories.com.

July23, 2015 at 8:00 AM

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