Scribing (Part 1 of 3)

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By Joel Shenk

Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.
— Jesus, Matthew 13:52

I recently adopted the discipline of scribing scripture, and it has become an important spiritual practice for me. Scribing simply means writing the scripture by hand. In a digital age, there is something good about actually putting pen to paper. In an age of distraction, there is something good about slowing down for a time to engage and contemplate scripture at a pace that is different from how the rest of the world moves. In a microwave culture, scribing is a slow-cooker discipline that can help us savor all the flavors of scripture and allow it to nourish us into Christ-like maturity.

In this three-part series, I will unpack what scribing has looked like for me as an individual disciple as well as for my congregation. In this first post I’ll introduce the concept and how I discovered it. In future posts I’ll describe how I do it and then also the fruit that it has born.

I’ve been scribing for about a year now. It wasn’t something I thought of on my own, but that God brought forth in me from three different streams.

One stream goes back about five years. A group of seminary friends and other Mennonite pastors from around the country began to meet on Skype to read and discuss books together. The first book we read was The Word Militant by Brueggeman. In chapter three of this text on preaching, Brueggeman uses the image of a scribe to describe the pastoral task of prophetic preaching in congregations.

Brueggemann says, “I suggest that ‘just preaching’ may well be done by scribes who attend to prophetic texts, for what scribes characteristically do is to preserve, value, and interpret old scrolls… A scribal notion may suggest that the prophetic chance is to help the listening community discern differently through the lens of the old tradition of oracles presented in treasured scrolls.”

This image resonated with me. Despite my own self-criticism and feelings of lack in leading a congregation into prophetic and missional engagement with our community, despite the busyness of people and the slowness of congregations to embrace change, I could still be a scribe. I could still attend faithfully to ancient texts and allow those ancient texts to do their full work in me and in the life of my congregation. At times when I felt (and still feel) that things aren’t going as I’d like or as quickly as I’d like, I simply return to the image of a scribe and trust that Spirit of God works through ancient texts among real-life, flesh-and-blood people.

Another stream goes back to when I first became a pastor. The previous pastor at my congregation left a small shelf of books, and on that shelf were several titles by Eugene Peterson. I was particularly drawn to Working the Angles. In this book, Peterson names scripture, prayer, and spiritual direction as the primary work of pastors. Coupled with The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson shaped my imagination for my pastoral vocation.

Fresh out of seminary and a bit over my head, I took Peterson’s wisdom to heart. If I was going to survive in pastoral ministry, I needed to carve out and guard routines that allowed me to engage scripture deeply. I also needed contemplative space and time with spiritual mentors who would prayerfully walk with me in ministry. As a result of reading those books, I began a regular rhythm of contemplative prayer as well as meeting with a spiritual director.

Last year, when my spiritual director informed me that he was retiring and moving out of the area, I knew that I needed to find some way to keep that practice going. Eventually, this led me to a new encounter and the third stream that brought me finally to the practice of scribing.

I began meeting regularly with fellow Toledo-area pastor Don Schwiever. Don is the pastor at Dust Church in Toledo and co-host of the Evangebros Podcast. The name “Dust” comes from the ancient saying that disciples would follow so closely to their rabbi that they would be covered by the dust from his feet.

This image of dust has given direction to Don’s work as a church planter and discipler. It connects him to the notion that if you plant a church you don’t necessarily get discipleship, but if you start with discipleship you will also get a church.

Don and I began to meet regularly about the time my first spiritual director retired, and I asked him about how he views discipleship and how he does discipleship in his congregation. I said I would be interested if he would do some discipling work with me because I value relationships that provide spiritual guidance.

He said one of the first things he asks of all his disciples is that they scribe scripture; either the 5 books of Torah, or the 5 books of the New Testament Torah (i.e. Matthew - Acts). That’s a big ask. It usually takes several years.

I decided I would test it out before I would fully commit. At that time I was preparing a series on the book of Revelation, so I decided to scribe that first. I found I connected with the discipline of scribing. I found I noticed things in the text that I would normally rush over - even at times when I was deliberately trying to read the text slowly. I found I remembered the scripture better. I also just found it enjoyable, with a sense of satisfaction at completing a worthy, faithful task.

I decided I would take the plunge. Since then I have scribed all of Matthew and am in chapter 13 of Mark. 

Three streams have come together; Working the Angles, Word Militant and Dust. Three tributaries that have brought me closer in touch to the spring of abundant life. They have helped me to drink deeply from the wells of scripture.

As you can see, not only is the practice of scribing itself a slow discipline, but also the process by which God brought me to the practice of scribing was a long, slow development going back several years. This is slow-cooker formation, but in a microwave culture we all could benefit from that.

In my next post I’ll outline what scribing looks like in practice. Then I’ll conclude with the fruit that it has born.

Joel Shenk has been serving as pastor at Toledo Mennonite Church since October 2010.  He lives with his wife and two daughters in Toledo. You will often find them as regulars at the Toledo Farmer’s Market, SIP Coffee, and any number of our wonderful local library branches. 

Pastor Joel graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary. He loves reading and talking about the church and mission (both local and global) and is inspired by the good news of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached.  Lately, he also has been exploring the practice of contemplative prayer.