Read an Excerpt
Writing in the Margins
Connecting with God on the Pages of Your Bible
By Lisa NICHOLS HICKMAN
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Lisa Nichols Hickman
All rights reserved.
TO LIVE -Sacred- LIVES ...
To live sacred lives requires that we live at the edge of what we do not know.
The invitation of this book is, at its simplest, to pick up a pen and write in the blank spaces of your Bible.
It is an invitation to look at the blank spaces of your biblical text and see in the margin around its border an opportunity for a life-giving, chaos-breaking, transforming, creative conversation between you and the eternal God.
To have a conversation in the blank spaces holds a particular challenge. You must be comfortable with the wide-open space—not just of the margin on the page but also of the invitation to sit still for an extended period of time, thereby creating the space for a real conversation.
Or maybe you do not need to be comfortable with the blank spaces. Maybe you just need to be willing to become comfortable with the stillness. Or you need to be willing to brave the discomfort; I keep finding that some of the most fruitful spiritual experiences of my life come when I am willing to brave the discomfort.
God's best work occurs in the margins. If we have the courage to step into that wide-open space, God will meet us there.
Perhaps, like me, you have hoped to connect to God by reading straight through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation—every chapter, every verse, every levitical law and psalm, every parable and proverb. With great resolve, you have laid out a chart and set to reading. Genesis unfolds in its praise of creation and prose of family life. We are drawn into the joy of childbirth, the drama of jealousy, and the crazy grace of providence. In Exodus, we are amazed by the salvation story of slaves escaping from Egypt led by the everyman Moses. Even the building of the tabernacle, as detailed as the story gets, creates awe and wonder as a place for worship is dedicated and great offerings of each person's skill and craft and resources culminate in its beautiful design. This is the dwelling place of God, and at this point in our journey to connect with God, we are completely connected and even awed.
And then we get to the book of Leviticus.
Have you done this? Made it through Genesis and Exodus, then turned the page to Leviticus and those burnt offerings and lists of laws and been completely done. All resolve goes up in ashes with those pigeons and turtledoves. So much for the chart and the good intentions. When the daily discipline of Bible reading is already slighted by the sleepy eyes for the evening devotion, or the ruse of busy days for the morning reading, and then those Leviticus chapters unfold, we can't help but get interrupted. In my head, I know that Leviticus is the story of how God met God's people, of how Israel engaged with and danced with and lived with the living God. But sometimes my eyes glaze over, nonetheless.
This is precisely where the margins matter. The very place in scripture where we so often stop reading is precisely the place we need to deeply listen. God cares about the margins, and that message resounds in Leviticus 23:22: "When you harvest your land's produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don't gather every remaining bit of your harvest. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God."
Here, God says very clearly, the edges matter.
God is referring to the fields for the harvest, but this same principle matters for the margins of our Bibles as well. For the fields, setting aside the edge created a sacred space, an offering of sorts, for the poor and the widowed, the migrant and the immigrant, to glean and gather a portion of the harvest for their nourishment.
When I read these words, I can't help but wonder about the connections and conversations that occurred around those edges as strangers met, shared in the bounty, exchanged words of wisdom, offered encouragement for the journey. This edge became a place of new connections, an intersection wherein those who might not cross paths in daily life made acquaintance and found strength from one another.
Is it possible that our Bibles are just like these fields? Perhaps this might seem contradictory at first. If God says save the edges, then why would we go and fill the margins of our Bibles?
But I wonder if there is an invitation in this text from Leviticus for us to think about how we look at the margins of our Bibles. Could this border be a sacred edge? A place for offering? A place for firstfruits? A place to invite in the outside world we might otherwise keep at bay? A place to engage in new conversations with the poor, the widowed, the migrant, the orphaned child? Perhaps those conversations are sometimes with a stranger we hear about in the comings and goings of our daily life and then bring to God in prayer on the page. Or perhaps those conversations are with whatever part of ourselves is poor, widowed, a stranger in a new land, an orphaned child who has lost something precious. What if the Bible were our first field? A place to practice this discipline—of making sacred the edge—that we then take and practice in the other portions and fields of our lives?
Ironically, maybe, it is precisely in Leviticus that we learn how important connecting with God on the pages of our Bibles really is. The list of instructions in the text of Leviticus could be read as ho-hum and humdrum, or they can be seen as a lifeline—a whispered secret to living. Leviticus 23 is all about the spiritual discipline of margins—that is, keeping the edges of our fields, our days, our weeks, our hearts, our minds, our lives open and available to the surprising work of God.
Wouldn't it be amazing to see what could happen if we could keep such a practice? My hope and prayer, in the pages of this particular book, is that praying in the edges of our Bibles becomes a witness and a way into keeping those margins open in other parts of our lives. Then, in that sacred edge, new crops might be cultivated.
Writing in the margins is about cultivation—finding that blank space that frames all of life, and creating an atmosphere inside that precious one-inch rim of breathing room. Writing in the margins is about finding a new way in the midst of confusion. It is the back and forth that comes from spending time with an old friend who knows you better than you know yourself.
Writing in the margins is about making sacred connections between ancient text and present day—an arc spanning time and space—that intersects the now and the real and the sometimes overwhelming, and finds wisdom and depth from those connections.
Writing in the margins is about bridging the distance from word to world and finding a new horizon as those two connect. Writing in the margins is a way of finding spaciousness—a spacious yes, a gracious no, and a ripe and pregnant maybe for the varying conversations and decisions of your life.
It's creating a space, having a conversation, making connections, and venturing forth from that place to a holy and changed life—transformed.
Mostly, writing in the margins is an offering—an act of making sacred the borders of our days and the edges of our prayer—as we connect and converse in new ways at this sacred intersection.
In this book you will find an invitation to cultivate, converse, connect, and change as you engage the breadth around the page by connecting the depth of scripture to the depth of your soulful experience in living.
This is a place to doodle, a place to write with your nondominant hand, a place to scribble, a place to pray, a place to write things that surprise you, a place to be honest. It is a place to think hard but not to overthink. It is a place to pray your heart out, but not piously. It is a place for you alone—in conversation with God.
In an article on marginalia in The New York Times, Dirk Johnson captures just what kind of conversation writing in the margins can be:
Studs Terkel, the oral historian, was known to admonish friends who would read his books but leave them free of markings. He told them that reading a book should not be a passive exercise, but rather a raucous conversation.
Writing in the margins of your Bible is, simply, a way of having an ongoing, raucous conversation with God.
Growing up in south Louisiana, my dad and I would venture to the local public library on Saturday afternoons and check out stacks of books. There were no better days than these. We would get home and collapse on the sofa with the piles beside us, and more days than not, listen to the afternoon thunderstorm roll through. I remember sitting with those books knowing that the border around the edges kept the world at bay. The margins created a sacred space where a whole new world could be explored.
Now, as an adult, I crave that time when the world stopped and all that existed was the comfort of my dad and the space those margins checked out from the library created. All was well with the world, for a moment, those afternoons. Sometimes I find that peace again when I work in the edges of my Bible. That wide-open space, that work in the edge of the margins, creates wide-open spaces for me to breathe, but even more to serve as I reach out to others in justice, humility, and mercy having been strengthened by my time in the margins.
In this book, we'll learn about all sorts of margin-writers who had raucous conversations in their margins: musicians from Elvis to Bach, writers from Melville to Mary Karr, artists and doodlers, sinners and saints. We'll learn from ordinary folks like you and me who unearthed lives of meaning in the depths of their margins. And we'll learn how margins recovered the lost language of the Wampanoag Indians. We'll learn how the margins nurtured someone's love. And we'll see how the margins of a young girl, McKenzie, led to the building of orphanages halfway around the world.
Our invitation to write, and in so doing to set things right, comes from our creator God—the one who writes creation into existence. Because we have a God who writes, we have an invitation to write. And, because we have a God who sets things right, we might just be made right in our practice of writing.
Virginia Woolf says, "The beauty of the world ... has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish." I wonder if our Bibles meet those two edges of laughter and anguish every time we open the pages.
In my life, I've known a lot of laughter, and just a bit of anguish. In my ministry, I've seen both through and through. I go to the margins to remember the laughter and lament the anguish. These are the sacred edges of our world, our lives, and of this amazing text.
We meet this sacred edge with the Bible in one hand and a pen in the other.
Connecting with God
Renee Aukeman Prymus
It has been a long time since I have picked up a Bible to read it, and when I do, it's a newer Bible without a lot of marginalia.
Today I picked up my duct-taped Bible and riffled through it. When I got this small, hand-sized Bible, at age fifteen, it had a maroon hardcover on it. Inside the front cover was a sticker with the approximate years of various ages and which Bible characters likely lived when. The Bible was with me on a hiking trip through Israel for two weeks when I was a teenager.
I carried this Bible everywhere between the ages of fifteen and twenty- one. At some point in college, the maroon cover fell off and I reupholstered the Bible with duct tape, taking care to create a tab for a pen and a pocket for my index cards at the back of the Bible. Since the Bible was so well used, the pages should be frail and pliable, but the Bible fell in the pool one summer while I was lifeguarding at a Christian camp, and the pages were never the same after that. All my purple-ink marginalia has faded to bright pink.
I flip through the pages of this Bible, and it's similar to walking through the pages of my journals. Matthew contains big scrawls of my high school handwriting in Israel about the spice trade helping to fund Jesus' ministry. Smudges from flowers cover the pages of 2 Kings 16:9-17:41, where I've now tucked encouraging quotes from former students, rewritten Psalms, and notes from sermons. Colossians and 1 Corinthians, both books that helped me through college, are filled with underlining.
When I look at these notes, at my very early, very evident devotion to God, my mind flips through pages of thoughts.
First, a twinge of guilt. Where did my avid Bible-reading days go? As I look through those pages, I stand in awe at my younger self. I was dedicated, devoted, and diligent in my studies, my prayers, and my relationship with God. I know that person is still inside me, still dedicated and devoted. Maybe I can discover her again.
Next to Exodus 14:13-14, where Moses tells the people not to be afraid in the face of the Egyptians, I wrote "prescription for unexpected life." Somehow, moving back into the margins might help me live into that adventure.
On the Pages of Your Bible
Open your Bible to Psalm 1 and read this prayer, which asks that we might become rooted in the word of God, just like "a tree replanted by streams of water, which bears fruit at just the right time" (Psalm 1:3). Around the margins of this page, muse about the fruits that might come from planting yourself ever more deeply in the Scriptures—how do you hope your commitment to engage God's word on the pages of your Bible bring will bring growth to your life?
Take several deep breaths. As you breathe in, think the words "wide open," and as you breathe out, think the word "space." As you breathe in and out this breath prayer, allow God to create wide-open space within you. Simply look at the margins of your Bible to see that wide-open space and imagine what possibilities God might have for you there.
Just as we often want our margins "justified" against the right edge of the page, we look to God for justification. Through the work of Christ, God makes things "right" in our lives and invites us to live holy lives. Galatians 2:16 is a key verse in the Bible that proclaims that truth. Turn to Galatians, and read 2:11-21. Take notes in the margin in three ways. First, write down the words, images, or line that stands out to you in bold. Second, write down any questions you have. Third, choose one phrase from the passage that you especially want to hold onto and paraphrase it—write it down in your own words.
What if your Bible was a field? Consider it a crop waiting to be harvested. Open the Bible and look at the layout of the land. Then, linger on the invitation of Leviticus 23. What might grow and be cultivated in this sacred edge? What might be offered? What crop is growing there now? What do you hope will be collected in the next harvest?
Virginia Woolf speaks to anguish and laughter as the two edges of life. Read any of the following texts and reflect in the margins on the relationship between joy and pain in God's world:
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 Matthew 5:1-12
I contend, quite bluntly, that marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love.
Writing in the margins caused quite a scandal in Scotland.
At the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow two artists in residence, Anthony Schrag and David Malone, invited gallery-goers to scribble in the scriptures. The invitation was made in particular to anyone who felt excluded from the Bible and resulted in marginalia unprintable here. The Times of London criticized the exhibit as desecration.
The difference between writing into the Bible at the museum and writing into the margins of your own Bible is important. Margin writing is devotion, not exhibition. Margin writing is consecration, not desecration.
Andrea Minichiello Williams responded to the exhibit by saying, "The Bible stands for everything this art does not: creation, beauty, hope and regeneration."
For us, the question is this: Is marginalia desecration or a sacred conversation? Is writing in the margins an act of graffiti, or an offering of gratitude?
William Mwizerwa, director of the Legacy Mission Village for African refugees in Nashville, Tennessee, is a survivor from Rwanda. He shares that struggle:
When I was little we did not have many Bibles in my country for many reasons. During my young age Bibles were printed out of the country and distributed on a little number. One Bible was used by a big group. That means we didn't have individual Bibles as kids. Everyone had a great respect for the Bible, so taking notes in the margin was going to be a problem. Instead of writing in the Bible they encouraged people to memorize verses. I got my individual Bible in high school. It was mandatory. And my parents did not let me write in it because I was supposed to pass it to my brother. But today the new generation writes in the margins, which looks like a kind of disrespect to the Bible for the old people.
For William, margin writing goes against everything he has been taught about the Bible. The Bible is precious, for a whole community and not just for an individual person.
Nudging ourselves into the margins, to mark up a sacred text, can feel disrespectful.
But there is another way to think of scribbling: the scribbles are, perhaps, an act of deep internalization. Perhaps it is exactly these scribbles that lead to creation, beauty, hope, and even resurrection. Maybe these scribbles are less lawless desecration, and much more an act of consecration.
Marking the biblical text is something like beginning a love letter. As Mortimer Adler says, I contend, quite bluntly, that marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love.
Excerpted from Writing in the Margins by Lisa NICHOLS HICKMAN. Copyright © 2013 Lisa Nichols Hickman. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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