John’s sweet and sour lunch 

One of the weekly rationed meals in my Scottish wartime childhood was known as ‘links and tatties’, called ‘sausages and mash’ by my English descendants. And only as an adult would I learn that rice was not just a pudding course to be served with fruit and lots of sweet syrup. Also, curry spices were still foreign ingredients yet to be discovered in my adult life, as was ‘sweet and sour sauce’ – all served with savoury rice. Such culinary enjoyment I would only find later during ministry trips to locations in the Far East.

These memories came to mind recently while reading of John’s experience on the isle of Patmos as recorded in Revelation 10:8-11. When ‘the voice from heaven spoke to me again,’ John tells us, he was instructed to ‘”Go and take the scroll from the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” So I went to the angel and told him to give me the small scroll. “Yes, take it and eat it,” he said. “It will be sweet as honey in your mouth, but it will turn sour in your stomach.” So I took the small scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet in my mouth, but when I swallowed it, it turned sour in my stomach. Then I was told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings”‘ (New Living Translation).

The uncongenial Bible

That phrase was used by Eugene Peterson in ‘Eat This Book’ that he subtitled ‘The Art of Spiritual Reading’. ‘Eating the book gave John a stomachache!’ is how he introduced his experience in a bookstore:

‘As I was paying for my purchase, I saw a stack of books on the counter. I knew about this book. We had discussed its plot and characters in our years at college and seminary. I said at the till, “This book was written by a good friend of mine; I didn’t know it had been published.” She said, “Well, you’d better buy it, you might find yourself in it.” I did buy it, and I did find myself in it. But not in the way I expected. We had been close friends; he had given every indication of liking me, even affirming me. But in the book I was not at all likeable, and certainly not admirable. It was me – but not the me of my fantasies.’

He concludes that, although the Bible ‘is a most comforting book; it is also the most discomfiting book. You cannot reduce this book to what you can handle. . .  You can’t make it your toy poodle, trained to respond to your commands.’

A manual for runners

Giving Psalm 119:32 – ‘I will run in the way of your commandments – as his text, Peterson illustrated it from his experience of road running. At the age of 35 he resumed his student habit of running. With his discovery of Addidas trainers, he not only enjoyed the new smooth rhythms of long-distance running, but also the joy of meditative, prayerful solitude, whatever the weather.

He also indulged in three magazines and many library books on running and runners, despite the limits to any fresh insights in these publications – often poorly written. But when he pulled a muscle and couldn’t run for a couple of months he lost interest in this literature. It began to dawn on him that: ‘I didn’t decide not to read them, they were still all over the house, but I wasn’t reading them’. But ‘the moment I started running again I started reading again!’

Of course, he concluded that: ‘Obedience is the issue, living in active response to the living God.’ And he, naturally, offers this advice: ‘The most important question we ask of [a] text is not, “What does this mean?” but “What can I obey?” A simple act of obedience will open up our lives to the text far more quickly than any number of Bible studies and dictionaries and concordances.’

A 35-year-old truck driver in Peterson’s congregation worded it in hill-billy-type counsel to a woman who just couldn’t get the point of biblical parables. ‘Mary,’ he interrupted, ‘you gotta live ’em; then you’ll understand ’em; you can’t figger ’em out from outside, you got to git inside ’em, – or let them git inside you.’

‘How do you read . . .?’ asked Jesus in Luke 10:26. And Ludwig Wittgenstein put it so wisely when he wrote: ‘You can’t hear God speaking to someone else, you can only hear if you are being addressed.’

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