the spiritual practice of study

On my best days, I get up just before five in the morning. I say morning prayers. I pour a cup of coffee. And I spend about thirty minutes studying scripture. In 2020, it was First Corinthians. This year, it’s Second Corinthians.

Believe it or not, I’m not sharing this information so I can seem like Such A Better Person Than You.

A few years ago, my friend Casey asked what part of the Bible I was studying. “Oh,” I said. “I’m doing this series on Galatians in the spring, I think, so I’ve been really getting through commentaries,” and she cut me off. “For yourself,” she said. “What are you studying for your own spirit, for your own development?”

So yes, this is kind of a pastor-specific post, but bear with me here–in all the hubbub of planning studies and prepping sermons, I’d lost track of the spiritual practice I enjoy the most–Bible study.

I formalized it in 2020–I want to be clear: I did personal Bible study prior to last year. Last year, however, I made a ridiculous goal and actually succeeded: Go through First Corinthians with three commentaries. The ones I chose were J. Paul Sempley’s from The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Richard Hays’ from the Interpretation Commentary series, and Gordon Fee’s massive tome from the New International Commentary on the New Testament. I went pericope (chunk of text) by pericope (chunk of text), usually early in the morning, with a few Saturday marathons.

That’s the First Corinthians binder.

I like yellow notepads so I took notes on those. I could have done front and back, but I didn’t–so please, hold off on telling me how impressed you are at my copious note-taking. (Though, I did average about ten pages of handwritten notes per pericope–I wanted to be thorough. Did you know there are studies that show taking notes by hand helps memory retention?)

It’s more about this: I set a goal and stuck to it. I’m a big thinker; I live in my head and the future, and I sometimes struggle with the idea of completing something and the work it takes to do so. (The idea is just as good, I believe at the onset, as actually completing it.) It’s nice to have thoroughly studied a foundational text of Christianity. I bought two more commentaries to work through as I type up my notes, after I finish 2 Corinthians. In the picture below, you can see the few notes I have–the yellow pages on top of the shelf.

Yes, there are DND supplies on the bottom shelf. No, you can’t borrow them.

If you are looking for a spiritual practice and you’re not so big on silence or stillness, I recommend the deep study of scripture. Grab a couple commentaries–they’re surprisingly cheap at used bookstores, go figure; has a few new ones, surely. Find some time, open some scripture, say a prayer, and start taking notes. I’ll even write out some steps, right here:

  1. Pick a book that’s not super long, and not remarkably complex. Don’t start with Jeremiah or Ezekiel, is what I’m saying. If your goal is to get through an entire book, choose something doable–a minor prophet, an epistle. Do you prefer narrative, or are you all right with theology?
  2. Get a couple of commentaries–at least one academic. Historical, literary, ideological, and all those other contexts matter, as do the original languages. It’s fine if you want to use “Laity Dave’s Quick Jaunt through Philippians,” it really is–but learn something. Also feel free to skip the paragraphs in which syntax is parsed and parsed and parsed.
  3. Print out the scripture double-spaced. You’ll want to take notes on some word choices and orders–translations into English are, by definition, imprecise because they’re not in Greek. What does it mean for “power” to be exousia rather than dynamis? You may think nothing right now–but you’re mistaken! Make notes on the printed out scripture, keep it with your notes.
  4. Set aside actual time to do it. Twenty minutes, once you get into the groove and become familiar with the commentators, is a productive amount of time. I can never do more than forty in a sitting. My brain has enough, and that’s okay.
  5. Invite the Holy Spirit to guide your study. Because this is feeding your Spirit and deepening your faith. Why wouldn’t you want the presence of the Divine invoked and blessed for it?
  6. Make good mistakes, don’t get caught up in form. In the picture below, you’ll see I have a picture of my notes from Hays Chapter 11:17-34, which was broken up in the commentaries as vv. 17-22, 23-26 and 29-34. Because of how I formatted the printouts, I put the third page of the notes, and only the third page of the notes, in the new section with the printed out scripture. If you’re thinking, “This has no bearing on anything I care about, Arthur,” you’re absolutely right! That right there is the point: these are your notes. Throw them away when you’re done, if you want. But again, why would you do that?

And, as with exercising, as with journaling, as with anything that matters in the work of transformation–if you miss a day, or a couple days, or a week, or two weeks: just come back to it. Turn the page and start up again. Because if it–whatever it is–is about doing something flawlessly and effortlessly the first time, you probably should not be reading this blog nor doing anything suggested herein.

Are you going to study scripture this year? What are you thinking about? Need recommendations? Want to tell me why I’m wrong about everything? Leave me a comment, drop me a line!