Hearing for the First Time
We gather together at the end of the day, sitting on grey plastic chairs, our open Bibles illuminated by one solar light. I look around at my sisters in Christ, women from different language groups, representing diverse cultures yet together nonetheless to share in the hearing of the Gospel.
We start with a few praise choruses accompanied by an eight-string hand-made ukulele. After a brief prayer of thanksgiving, we open our Pidgin English Bibles to The Sermon on the Mount. As I begin to read aloud, they turn toward me, attuned to the words of Christ: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. As we meditate upon and discuss the text around our circle, the words of Scripture come alive in the tropical evening.
As a missionary in the Solomon Islands, a chain of islands in the South Pacific, it is my joy to work with my husband as teachers at an Anglican Seminary. The enrolled students are all men and many of them bring their wives and families to the school for their last two years of study. Their wives are then able to join the Women’s Ministry Program, which equips them to partner with their husbands.
All but one of my women students have only a primary level education, and on average they finished formal education after the fourth grade (approx age 10). They struggle with feelings of inferiority and ineptitude when it comes to studying anything, especially the Bible, a realm that they are more than happy to leave to their soon-to-be ordained husbands.
However, it is a beautiful thing to behold these women, despite their fears and insecurities, showing up every Monday night and opening themselves up to hearing the precious word of God. Many of them are unable to read fluently, so instead they open their ears to let the Gospel in. Their attitudes represent what it means to be poor in spirit, in a place of emptiness and need at the feet of Jesus. Most of the time, they are hearing the words being read for the very first time.
In an oral culture, listening is a far more practiced art than the act of reading. Sometimes I am shocked when someone repeats back to me something I said in a context where I thought nobody was listening.
At feasts, when important guests are given a turn at the microphone for a speech, I look around at the crowds of people sitting around in the shade of fruit trees, eating roasted pig, sweet potato and fish. Most of them seem oblivious to the man talking. Many of them are even talking loudly amongst themselves, chewing and spitting betel nut, barely even looking at the speaker. But rather than not paying attention, these men, women, and children are actually tuned in and could tell you exactly what was said if you asked them afterwards.
When Jesus went up on that hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee and sat to teach the crowds, I'm guessing it was a very similar scene to the Solomon Islanders sitting around at a feast. Over the din of playing children, squabbles between siblings and chitchat, those Israelites had their ears tuned in to hear the Master’s words. They were the very first ones to hear what we as modern Christians have the privilege of reading again and again.
Poor in Spirit
Around our little circle of chairs, we read Jesus' words to those who would hear and open their hearts to the transforming power of the Gospel: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Those who are poor in spirit are those who do not think highly of themselves, but rather come to Christ ready to be filled with his Holy Spirit. Men and women who are poor in spirit will see God’s will be done here on earth, as it is in heaven. They will get a glimpse of what is yet to come.
The women in my Bible Study are hearing the Word of God in clear Pidgin English for the first time and are soaking it all in. One of my students has said to me several times, “Before, I just heard the words being read from the Bible. But now I can actually understand them!”
Reading together in a common language is making the Word alive to them. As I said farewell to a woman leaving the school yesterday, she tearfully told me that when she came to the school, she came with an “empty heart.” She continued by saying that she had learned so much, especially about the Bible through our classes and Bible Study.
These women have never had access to Bible Study guides, inspirational Christian books, topical studies or video teachings. Instead, they sit in dim light, holding an open Bible, allowing the Light of the World to shine on them and show them the path of discipleship.
What about us?
We as Western Christians can’t fake poverty. No matter how hard we try to simplify and reduce the clutter of our physical lives, the fact still remains that we are privileged to have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips. So how can we become “poor in spirit” when we are just too rich in comparison to our brothers and sisters in the 2/3 World?
When the rich young ruler comes to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark and asks how he can enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells him to sell everything he owns and give it to the poor before following him. The young man leaves downcast and bereft, knowing all to well that his heart and very life are set upon his wealth and that he is not willing to give that all up for the sake of following this Saviour.
Where do our hearts lie? For many of us, our status, education and wealth are dearer to us than the voice of Jesus. We are like the rich young ruler in this story. “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mark 10:23). While he could not make the choice to follow Christ, we can! When the disciples ask Jesus in dismay, “Who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26) Jesus lovingly responds, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” - Mark 10:27.
We can make the choice to follow Christ, to hear his voice in the Scriptures and to come to our Heavenly Father as children with empty hands and supple hearts.
Simplify for a Season
I recently met a retired missionary pastor who was reminiscing about how many books he had owned at the height of his ministry. As he prepared each Sunday Sermon, he would pore over numerous translations, commentaries and other Christian texts in an effort to get to the heart of the passage that he was going to preach to his congregation. Upon his retirement, he sold his entire library to a budding seminarian.
He thought he would dearly miss his faithful leather-bound companions, yet what he found was quite the opposite. He was delighted by the simplicity of reading a passage of scripture and allowing the words to seep into his heart, mind and spirit. He still preaches occasionally and an NIV Study Bible is his only resource. He has found freedom in dwelling deeply in the Word of God.
What if we were to set aside our books, study guides and other devotional materials for a season and simply allow the Word of God to speak to us? Take a week or month, to de-clutter your devotional library and focus solely on the Bible. Join together with millions of brothers and sisters around the world who hunger and thirst for righteousness and find real food and drink in the pages of Scripture.
Look at it as a spiritual fast. When the noise of the words and opinions of others are quieted for a while, perhaps we are able to hear afresh what God wants us to hear.
Refocused and Renewed
When you return from your time of fasting, you will have fresh eyes and ears. You will have feasted on the Word and found how it feels to be “poor in spirit.” As you reintroduce other books and materials to your reading, you will be able to better discern those resources that nurture your love for God’s voice and those that distract you. Just as you might return from a physical fast to face a plethora of tempting food choices, you will have feasted on what is good and necessary and know which things you can live without. Let’s be more interested in what the Bible says than what others say the Bible says.
Come to Jesus in his Word as beloved children, setting your gaze upon him and opening your empty hands towards him to be filled to overflowing.