Reading aloud

Yesterday I was reading aloud to our youngest granddaughter. It was a book that she had received as a gift from her maternal grandmother and was new to her. I had not previously read the book, but I’m pretty sure that others had read it to her before because she was familiar with the story. Nonetheless, as I read, I noticed that her siblings were paying attention to the story, even though they had previously been engaged in other activities. As I read, I was reminded how much I like to read aloud.

Reading is a big deal in our family. Our home has always been filled with books. Our son is a librarian. Even though our community library is not yet open to in-person browsing, we have learned to browse the online catalog and use the library’s curbside service to check out books. We go to the library every week. This week we made two trips. Most evenings at our house end with both of us reading. When Susan was recovering from a serious illness, I read aloud to her every night.

When our children were little and brought the same book to be read over and over again, I used it as an opportunity to practice using different voices and different phrasing. I also memorized some of the books I read multiple times. One pre-reading exercise I would do with our children was to have them turn the pages. They quickly learned which page was connected with which ideas and could have the book opened to the correct page even though they could not yet read the words.

In Luke’s telling of the Gospel of Jesus, right after the report of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness and a couple of sentences about the beginning of his Galilean ministry, is the report of Jesus going to the Synagogue in his home town of Nazareth where “He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.” (Luke 4:16-17) The tradition of reading scripture out loud goes back to the very beginnings of the Christian Church, and we inherited it from thousands of years of Jewish practice.

One of my teachers spoke to us about reading scripture in public. He said, “When you read, pick up the book. Feel its weight in your hands. Practice every word so that it comes out clearly.” That same teacher, on another occasion, advised a classmate, “If you must mispronounce, do so boldly, with authority.” He understood that no human is capable of perfection. The process of reading out loud carries with it the possibility of mistakes. It is likely that we make more mistakes when reading out loud than were made in the days of a completely oral tradition, without written words. In those days, the stories were retained through a process of group memorization, where if a mistake was made, the other members of the community could correct the mistake. From that tradition, I adopted the practice of inviting those who wished to do so to read along when I read from scripture in public. This limited my use of different translations and versions of the bible, because I felt an obligation to read from the version that was present in the pews when I led worship. I did not so restrain the lay readers who volunteered to read scripture in our congregation. I invited them to read from whatever version they chose. Most, however, did read from the version that was in the pews. I hope that it was a sign that the version was familiar to them.

Educators tell us that learning is a multi-sensory experience. When we connect with information through more than one of our senses, we are more likely to retain that information. It makes sense, then, that listening to a text while looking at the words on the paper results in more effective reading than looking or listening in isolation. Stories, of course, invoke emotion and engage other senses as well.

One of the things that engages the story from Luke 4 is that we are given the opportunity to read out loud in public the story of Jesus reading out loud in public. We read the text that reports that Jesus read the text. The actual quote from Isaiah is in the text of the Luke narrative. We read words that our people have been reading for thousands of years.

I understand that when we read from our English language bibles, we are reading a translation of the text that Jesus read in Hebrew. I also know that the story reports controversy in Jesus’ interpretation of the text. Not all who heard him read, agreed with how he interpreted the text. It is a challenge for every preacher. Once we depart from the actual text and begin to speak of its meaning, we are injecting ourselves into the text and humbly must recognize that there are others who might see it in a different way.

Despite all of the potential problems, it is an honor to be asked to read aloud. I has been an honor to have lived decades of a vocation that regularly gave me the opportunity to read aloud. It is a blessing to live in a time when optometrists can craft lenses that allow me to read despite the limitations of imperfect eyesight.

Our oldest grandson is less likely to bring books to me to read aloud these days. At ten, his reading comprehension is high and he loves to read to himself. On occasion, however, I get to listen as he reads to his sisters and sometimes he will read to me. Hearing him read a story that I read to his father and his father read to him gives me a feeling of deep joy and contentment. We have passed down not only the story but the joy of reading from one generation to the next. It is something our people have been doing for a very long time. May we continue to be blessed with the joy of reading aloud.