I don’t lead worship services very often these days. That’s probably a good thing, because I have a difficult time with language. When I’m speaking, I won’t utter pious platitudes that I no longer believe. And I don’t want to sing those platitudes either.
I can’t ask people to sing about being washed in blood, or sacrificing the innocent to the sake of the guilty, or expecting a distant deity to set everything right.
So I’m tempted, sometimes, to amend someone else’s words. I’m a writer, aren’t I?
But also because I’m a writer, I know how I feel when someone fiddles with my words. It’s too easy for even a minor change to totally change the meaning. Just insert a “not,” for example. Or change “love” to “like,” or “tolerate.”
So how should we treat words that no longer fit our reality? I suggest that we need to change them, and keep them. Yes, both.
I remember some advice given to me by my friend and former minister, Don Johns. I was, at the time, going through a vocational crisis. I had lost a job that I thought God had been preparing me for; I didn’t know where I should be going next.
“Write out a prayer,” Don told me. “Write it out very carefully, so that it says exactly what you want. Put it up somewhere you can see it as you work. Then pray it every day.”
So I did. I laboured for days, getting the wording exactly right. I explained to God my hopes, my fears, my struggles. I pinned the prayer up on my bulletin board, and I prayed it every morning and every evening.
But an answer didn’t come.
After about a month, I revised a few words in the prayer, so that I could seek more precisely the guidance I wanted. I typed it out again. I pinned the new version up on top of the old one.
The guidance still didn’t come.
After about six months, and several more revisions, I got fed up with Don’s process, and pulled the little stack of sheets off the bulletin board.
Out of curiosity I compared the latest version with the first version. And I realized I had received the answers I was looking for. Because the changes in the text—tiny changes, cumulative changes—had all moved in the same direction.
That’s why it’s important to keep the original around, so that you can see where you’re moving.
The Bible was hand-copied by thousands of people, over the 15 centuries before printing. Each one probably made changes. Perhaps as marginal notes. Perhaps substituting a simpler word for a difficult word. Perhaps by mistake. And then other people copied those changes, and added their own.
That’s why biblical scholars keep trying to get back as close as possible to the original manuscripts. Not because the original is necessarily better. Just because a writer lived 2,000 years ago doesn’t make that person smarter or wiser.
But it helps us see the direction that changes have taken us. Only when we can see where we’ve come from, can we decide whether the direction we have come is the direction we want to go.