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Below the Surface: Scripture as Spiritual Depth Finder

By David Teel

Stock hands outstretched overlooking water

A recent trip to the Oklahoma Annual Conference brought back Kodachrome memories of visiting my dad’s family in a rural part of the state one summer in my youth. My aunt Emma and uncle Paul lived in large farmhouse in the middle of nowhere filled with the noise of my country cousins (Mary, Linda, Paula, Robert) and smells of southern comfort food (okra, squash, unreasonably large dumplings, and everything fried).

I was a “city kid” and during this magical summer I spent most days happily exiled to the surrounding wild landscape where adventures were plentiful. Climbing dangerously tall trees, outrunning the bull in the pasture, tasting sweet honeysuckle to the sound of humming cicadas that tuned up louder the hotter it got – these small rituals filled daydream days with nothing to do but fish, tan (in my case, burn), play, and nap.

In this pastoral environment I discovered a technological revolution had made its way to the large pond hidden by trees in the “back 40” (it probably wasn’t 40 acres but that’s how I remember it).

Attached to my uncle’s fishing boat at the edge of the pond was a blocky device with a dial and a gray-green screen. As I recall you could attach a roll of paper to it and it would print “memories” of what the screen soon forgot: a visual sonar map of the bottom of their deep pond with echoes of the fish below.

“Depth is the dimension of closeness and distance . . . the visceral stretch between the near and far of things – the continuum, or glide, between the known and the unknown." -David Abram, Becoming Animal, p. 84.

I was stunned that this magic box could actually “see” through the murky mud-green water and map the mysterious “more” beneath our boat. And with the right calibration the promise was any angler could see in the dark deep (and catch more fish, I suppose).

Now let me come clean: I am a recovering morning devotion hater. Blocking time to ponder and reflect on scripture goes against my grain. I’d rather get something done. And my life-inbox is always waiting with a thousand solicitations for problems to be solved, queries to be answered, work and life to be managed.

But here’s the thing: when I start the day with a short passage from say, Psalm 107 (”Give thanks to the LORD because he is good, because his faithful love lasts forever!”), and think about it at odd times during my day* I find it becomes a kind of depth finder that pulls me away from a thousand thumbnail sketch assumptions and demands back to the depths—depths that are always murky to people like me who seem to thrive on the surface.

Devotional scripture study (even one verse!) can recalibrate our spiritual depth perception. If we tend to see the world around us through inherited lenses colored by what Walter Brueggemann calls our "thin settlements," then a thoughtful phrase from scripture can resonate through the murky depths of life bringing back echoed images, fleeting, but true, of hidden soul terrains calling for our care, attention, and help.

Here, fishing means much more than increasing the size of our catch. It means recognizing and responding to what’s most important to the God we love and serve: the real flesh and blood people impacted by our proximity and work.

I’ve also discovered that my ability to see beyond surfacy presumptions and stubborn typecasting tendencies to sum-up other people is strangely enhanced by time spent praying short portions of Scripture. It’s like discovering a ‘lasting more’ in the script of Scripture helps me see and listen for the depths of God’s grace already at work in every life.

And the reverse is true, too: when I begin to see (and hear) the specific, concrete ways that love has crossed the paths of others (their story, their song), I find that my understanding of the Bible and the Savior it celebrates also deepens.

So maybe this week I’ll listen to the biblical script and other people just a little more closely, so both become depth finders for re-mapping graced life in the world God so loves. It might be one way to begin seeing that all people are deeply implicated in God’s prevenient grace. Do you believe that? I do.

*I like to set a verse like an appointment in Outlook so I get a reminder on all my digital surfaces of the deep call and promise of God during my day.

If you would like to know more about ways you can recognize the depths of God’s grace and engage your community, go to seeallthepeople.org and download the free pdf of Engaging Your Community: A Guide to Seeing All the People by Junius B. Dotson.

David C. Teel is Director of Laity and Spiritual Leadership at Discipleship Ministries and a writer, editor, and Christian educator in Nashville, Tennessee. He studied at Vanderbilt Divinity School, serving United Methodist Churches since 1997.

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