JAN MONSMA cannot remember a time when the Bible was not a part of her life. During her childhood on a farm in Iowa, her parents read passages from the Bible three times a day - at each meal."I often used to daydream while that was going on, but it was still a positive experience for me because ... this time of reading the Bible was associated with love and protection and rest and good food," she reflects in the condominium she shares with her husband in the Back Bay section of Boston. "I understood at a very young age that all of that Christian faith which was so important to my family was based on the Bible." The seeds that were planted then kept growing; Mrs. Monsma says the Bible has continued to play an important role in her life. Both she and her husband are members of Boston's Old South Church, one of the oldest Congregational churches in the country and affiliated with the United Church of Christ. While their three children were growing up, the family often had a worship service before dinner. For many years she taught church school.
Devotional preparation Now as a nurse working the 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. shift, Monsma says the Bible helps her relate to other people: "I have a devotional time every day before going to work. [The Bible] certainly challenges me to attempt to be loving and caring to all people, even those who are not very lovable. And that's a real precept in my life." One of her favorite passages is Psalm 90:1: "Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations a verse she relied on when her family was moving from the Midwest to the East Coast. "When you're not sure where home is in a geographic sense, it's a wonderful comfort to have a spiritual sense of home," she says. Monsma believes society's interest in the Bible hasn't waned as much as the discipline to read the book has. Yet she says she is encouraged by the number of young people in her church who are concerned about faith issues and meet often for study and discussion groups. "There certainly is a kernel of young people who are dedicated and interested. How much they have to do with the Bible I can't tell you, but I have a sense that they are extremely concerned about trying to live a Christian life and trying to be honest about it, trying to create a just and more-loving world. In that sense I feel very hopeful about those young people whom I see and know."
Making the scriptures relevant A couple of miles to the southwest, in a brown and gray stone church in Roxbury, a district of Boston, the Rev. Mickarl Thomas says one of his challenges is making the Bible meaningful to his congregation and exciting to the young people in the Sunday school. Since 1981, Mr. Thomas has been pastor of the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, an ethnically diverse, but predominantly black, church that has about 850 members. As a singer on the radio croons a jazz tune in the church office, Thomas explains that he tries to make the Scriptures relevant to contemporary issues. "We talk about the lion's den or the three Hebrew boys in the fiery furnace," he says, leaning back in his chair. "None of us has known anyone who's been tossed into a lion's den or fiery furnace, but when you look at some of the conditions in society today, it's almost like actually being in a lion's den. When you're afraid to walk the streets because you can be mugged, when you have domestic violence - that's a fiery furnace ... and you've got to believe, even in the midst of those adversities, that th ere's a presence of the divine." Thomas grew up in a religious family: Both his paternal and maternal grandfathers were preachers. His mother reads the Bible every morning. Once, when he was preparing a sermon but didn't have a Bible concordance handy, Thomas called his mother for a specific reference. "Within two minutes," he laughs, "she told me where it was located. My mother does not even own a concordance except for the one that may be found in the back of her old Bible, but she really knows the Word - and that's after my seminary education, too." Thomas says the Sunday school at his church is very active, and many people attend Bible classes. He emphasizes the importance of making the Bible exciting and fun. He is thinking of starting "Bible bingo." Instead of playing for money, however, kids would ask questions and match the answers on their cards. "Bible Jeopardy" is another game the Sunday school has tried. "You've got to make it real," Thomas says. "I mean, what do the Scriptures mean to the prostitute? To the junkie? To the alcoholic? To that individual who's had a nervous breakdown? What is in there that can help him? There are many passages."
Dealing with challenges Still, Thomas believes the Bible has lost some of its relevance in society because it has been misused and misrepresented. Some evangelists, he says, have given clergymen and religion a bad name because they've exploited people, become millionaires, "then find themselves being incarcerated." Thomas says he is dealing with a challenge now: the death of his father-in-law. In helping his wife's family cope with the loss, he has turned to one of the Beatitudes: "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted." Other challenges sometimes require a deeper look into the Bible, he says. "I went to the home of a nine-year-old boy who had been killed by an automobile; what do you say to the family? My father and the ministry taught me whenever you're stuck just read [about Jesus'] life. Jesus suffered. There were illnesses all around him. "I do not have all of the answers; none of us do. My faith, however, dictates to me that God is still in control and that somehow, as we walk through all our crises and problems, we become stronger."