For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.Hebrews 4:12
Sing them over again to me,
Wonderful words of life.
Let me more of their beauty see,
Wonderful words of life.
About a year ago, I packed up my blue Volvo station wagon and drove across the United States to serve as an intern with RUF (Reformed University Fellowship) at the University of California, Berkeley. I grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, right in the heart of the Southeast’s substantial Bible Belt. My time in Berkeley has been wonderful, and I love both the city and the university, but it couldn’t be more different from Birmingham.
If I’ve learned anything from a year of full-time ministry, it’s that the Bible bridges cultural gaps, answers our deepest questions, and gives us language to speak our joys, sorrows, and everything in-between back to God in prayer. The best words I’ll ever say to a student are lines of scripture.
A Modern-Day Athenian Areopagus
There are those for whom Berkeley represents the worst of the Gen Z’s activist spirit, a modern-day Athenian Areopagus rife with altars to unknown gods. While I will always defend Berkeley against this claim of God-forsakenness (luckily for all of us, the inhabitants of a city can’t vote or protest their way out of God’s love), the nay-sayers have something of a point: Berkeley is eclectic.
Sproul Plaza, a main thoroughfare of campus, is lined with London Plane trees that have their knobby fists raised in defiance. The sounds of a street preacher screaming damnation into his microphone echoes off buildings, while the students passing by ignore him or nonchalantly flip him off.
The Campanile clock tower bongs the hour, and at 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. a student plays a tune on the carillon. Sometimes it’s Bach, sometimes it’s the theme from Zelda. On clear days the Bay glitters, and the sunset outlines the Golden Gate Bridge in hues of soft orange. Other days you might think the sky is a mere twenty feet above your head, opaque with fog weighed down by the heavy marine layer.
Berkeley is weird, edgy, and progressive by self-proclamation. It is full of contradictions, and it is probably the last place an ancient text like the Bible should be relevant. Yet, this strange book keeps proving itself to be alive.
Static on the Line
I was leaving campus when I got a call from one of our students. I answered and initially thought she had called me accidentally since I could only hear what I thought was static on the line. Then I realized it was sniffling. She was crying.
She told me her mom had just called her in the middle of class to tell her that her grandfather, who had been in the ICU, had just passed away. I turned around and went to find her on campus. We sat and talked and cried together for a few minutes, but she was having a hard time talking about it.
I was frankly at a loss for words for how to comfort her in any meaningful way. I happened to have my Bible in my backpack with me and remembered something I had been taught as a college student: that the Psalms are prayers we can pray back to God when we don’t have words of our own.
Right in the middle of Berkeley’s campus, in front of the iconic Campanile clock tower, we sat on a bench, and I started reading the Psalms out loud. (Full disclosure lest the reader think I am some seasoned minster—I also offered to just watch funny videos on my phone together. I’ll count it as evidence of this student’s sanctification that she chose the “read the Bible in public” option.)
As I began reading, phrases began jumping out to me.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
“The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses.”
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
“My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me.”
“From the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.”
I understood why the writer of Hebrews says that scripture is “living and active”—it was less like I was reading the words and more like the words were being given to us in real time. Perhaps that is precisely what was happening.
Finally, we read John 11 where Jesus raises Lazarus: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.’” Words of comfort, words of resurrection, words of life. It was one of the most profound interactions with scripture I’ve ever had.
I was supposed to be comforting this student, but Jesus, the Man of Sorrows and Incarnate Word, offered a balm to both of us instead. These words, written thousands of years ago in a language I do not know, were in that moment spoken by and for and to me.
Even in a place like Berkeley, a place so many have written off as a lost cause to rampant liberalism, scripture finds a way into wounded hearts. I don’t know what the other students passing by thought when they saw two people huddled over a small book reading strange poetry, but I hope they caught a phrase or two. I hope they were confused enough to look it up later. I trust that the Spirit will bring any seeds planted to fruition.
A pastor friend of mine says that in order to truly read the Bible, you must let it read you. This little leather-bound book is a double-edged Sword of the Spirit that does indeed pierce to the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It has discerned the thoughts and intentions of my heart. I believe it will do the same for you.
Let us do as St. Augustine did and “take up and read.” The Words of Life are always enough.