One way I use to help me understand a text is to look at the text writer-to-writer.
- What assignment did this writer receive or give to herself?
- How might I understand the same task in terms of my present time, place, and culture?
For example, in teaching English composition, I have often distributed blank index cards, 10 per student, with these instructions: "Do not put your name on the cards, but on each card put the same 5-digit code, preferably with alphabetical and numeric digits. That will help me get all of your cards back to you even without knowing the identify of the writer.
"Next, on each card, write quickly, and without much reflection, the first 10 things that come to the top of your head when asked to list something you would feel guilty doing. Put a different one of these behaviors on each of your cards."
Once they have completed that part, I ask them to stack their cards in descending order of which behavior would make them feel most guilty, next most guilty.....least guilty. Once they have stacked them in this order, I ask them to assign '1' to the 'most guilty' card, '2' to the "next most guilty..." and '10' to the 'least guilty' card, putting these numbers in the top left corner of each card.
Once they have completed that part, I ask them to stack their cards in descending order of which behavior they find "most tempting" ...."to least tempting".... to "not tempting at all." For example, some might have said they would feel most guilty if they murdered someone but might want to say "not tempting as all" for this and several of their other behaviors.
Once they have stacked the cards in this order, in the top right-hand corner of each card they assign "A" to the "most tempting" card, "B" to the "next most tempting"..... I tell them to use "X" for each card they designate as "not tempting at all."
Then I ask them to put their gender as M or F circled at the bottom of all 10 cards.
Then I ask them to put within a circle at the bottom right-hand corner of each card the number of times they have attended a religious service within the last 30 days.
That done, I collect the cards, shuffling cards from all students together as I gather them.
Only then do I tell them that they have just re-written the Ten Commandments.
Once we sort the class' cards, we can discern the ten commandments they most held in common and compare their list with Moses' (or God's) list.
You will notice that they have given other variables (gender, participation in formal religious worship) that could lead to further revelations for the group, as would study of the number of "X" cards.
Had I begun saying, "Rewrite The Ten Commandments" the results would have been quite different. Behaviors reported through the assignment I give rarely have many matches with Moses. Most do not even think of Moses, yet they are taking the same assignment that Moses undertook.
Once I take them to Moses' list, they are ready to be actively engaged by it. That's one of the great benefits of giving ourselves the same assignment the writers of scripture gave themselves.
Assignments parallel to the writing assignments the authors of today's lections undertook:
Today commemorates the original appearance of the Holy Spirit. Write a prayer for a group or an individual to pray that either talks directly to the Holy Spirit or talks to God about the Holy Spirit and what you want God to make possible through the Holy Spirit and you. What are your top priorities? What is your major wish-list of gifts you want from the Holy Spirit? Do you want to compliment God with some verbal bowing, or do you want to talk to God as your friend?
Write as if you are competing to write a prayer that of all prayers produced by the class will be only one to be published in a prayer book. What will make your prayer stand out?
How specific can you become before your prayer works only for you but not for others who might want to use the prayer?
How general can you become before you are so bland and imprecise that the prayer says nothing of substance?
Only after you have written your collect, look at the collect assigned for this day and compare.
Do not be to quick to give top score to the collect in the Prayer Book. What in your collect would make the collect in the BCP better? What in the BCP version might make yours better?
O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Humorist Mark Twain was asked "Do you believe in infant baptism?" Twain responded, "I not only believe in it; I have seen it happen!"
Obviously Twain was fudging, entertaining both those who practice infant baptism and those who eschew infant baptism. By "believe in" the questioner means, "Do you hold a theological position that supports infant baptism?"; but Twain answers taking a different and equally valid meaning of "believe in," namely "does it ever happen?"
Today we are celebrating the Holy Spirit. Maybe it's too easy for us to say, as we will in the Creed just after the sermon, "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life....."
Show what is at stake if we believe in the Holy Spirit. Show the Holy Spirit happen.
We are not Luke, the author of Acts, and we were not present at the original Day of Pentecost, so our details will not seem initially to bear much resemblance to Luke's narrative.
In 150 words or less write a narrative about human beings that coherently leads up to the otherwise surprise final sentence: "I not only believe in the Holy Spirit; I have seen the Holy Spirit happen."
In other words, use that as your last sentence and make sure that it is a convincing conclusion to your narrative.
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Do not look at this text until you have written your own psalm.
Your psalm will have at least 6 verses. The first and the last of your verses should be these from today's reading:
O LORD, how manifold are your works! * in wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
[in this second verse and in all the other verses that you add, illustrate God's creativity by describing several specific creatures that God has made. Freely show how God interacts with the creatures. Have some fun here. God is having some fun with them.]
[This one word is to be your last verse. Obviously the verses you create should lead up to this word as a fitting conclusion.]
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Obviously we are not all alike, nor does God expect us to be.
Don't read Paul's text until you have written your own, giving yourself the same assignment:
In a passage about as long at Paul's (207 words) describe in detail the different spiritual gifts of 4-8 friends of yours, especially as those different gifts enrich not only you but also others within the group. End your text with Paul's phrase "All these are activated by one and the same Spirit."
Take a peek this time. Unlike the earlier exercises, this time read the text before you write your own. It's shorter than most readings:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
Your assignment is to write a narrative about this same length (121 words) in which you describe how you or someone else literally breathed on someone else in a transforming way.
You might have been administering or receiving artificial respiration. Or it might have been the first time you kissed someone with your mouths open. Or it might have been heavy breathing after a rescue mission.....
If you have never had such an experience, make one up. If an experience you had holds no power for you or for others, add convincing details that will give it power.
Use your imagination. Seek to give a deeper truth than mere factual accuracy. That's what the writers of the Bible did as well.
Your narrative does not need an explicit relationship to John's. Although his text is your prompt, no reader of yours needs to know that.