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Prayer as Listening to God: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture

Friday January 19 2018

Prayer as Listening to God: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture

Lectio divina, which simply means “sacred reading” in Latin, is an ancient pattern of reading the Bible and listening for God’s word to us, using four steps or movements. It was developed in the fourth century, so as we use it, we can rejoice in our connection with Christians throughout the ages. The word “sacred” is a great place to start. Just the mention of that word slows me down and makes me expectant that this way of looking at Scripture will enable me to encounter something sacred, something holy.

First movement. In lectio divina we begin by reading a passage slowly and carefully, not so slowly that we are uncomfortable, but just slowly enough to enjoy observing details in the passage. The passage may be one or two verses, or it may be an entire chapter. As we read, we watch for a word or phrase that jumps off the page at us, a word or phrase that shimmers. In this first step, we engage our powers of observation.

Second movement. In the second step, we think about the passage, not straining to analyze it, but peacefully thinking about what the passage means, wiht particular focus on the word of phrase that shimmered. In this second step, we engage our minds and our thinking process.

Third movement. In the third step, we respond to God in any way that feels appropriate. We may say a prayer of intercession, confession, praise, or thanks. We may simply open our heart to God, imagining our life or some insight gained from the passage held in our open hands, lifted into God’s presence. We may visualize Jesus nailed to the cross while we place at his feet the concerns raised by the passage. In this step we engage our hearts, and we bring our emotions into God’s presence as we respond to the passage.

Fourth movement. In the fourth step, we sit and wait. We may return to the word or phrase that shimmered, asking God to speak to us through that word. In this step, we may receive an image, picture, or metaphor from God that seals the significance of the text for us. We may receive a word of love from God. We may just rest for a few moments in the sacredness of God’s holiness and love and his presence with us in the world.

We may repeat these four steps over and over in a single passage, stopping in the middle of the first step as soon as we find a word or phrase that shimmers, and moving on to the next three steps, then beginning with the first step again as we continue to read the passage.     

The four movements are fluid, not rigid. We may find ourselves jumping from the first step to the third or fourth.

Lectio divina can be done alone or in groups. Many Christian leaders have adapted the four movements as they lead groups, and in my book, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation, I describe numerous ways this reflective way of engaging with the Bible can be done in groups.

People who are accustomed to rigorous Bible study often describe their pattern of study as “asking questions of the text.” In lectio divina, we allow the scriptures to ask questions of us. We are not regarding the text with questions in our minds; instead we are allowing the passage to gaze upon us and address us.

Lectio divina is a lovely way to interact with God’s Word because it engages our whole beings: our mind and our hearts, our ability to notice details and our propensity to think in images and metaphors. Lectio divina enables us to be receptive, encouraging us to believe that God wants to speak to us and that we can receive from God. Inlectio divina, Bible study and prayer merge together in a wonderfully peaceful way, helping us hear God’s voice, giving us strength and insight for our daily lives.

(Next week: Imagining yourself in a Bible story. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “Subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is adapted from my book A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife.)

Lenten Devotional - downloadable

Lent begins on Valentine’s Day this year. If you’d like an unusual devotional for Lent, check out the one I wrote a couple of years ago with reflection questions on a psalm for each day of Lent. I've had good feedback from people who have used it on their own and also from others who used it in a small group. My husband Dave’s beautiful paintings provide illustrations for it. Available here.

Prayer as Listening to God: Key Questions

Saturday January 13 2018

Prayer as Listening to God: Key Questions

Last week I wrote about the importance of letting passages from the Bible dwell in our hearts and minds, so that we can allow God to speak to us through the scriptures. In the next three weeks, I’ll write posts on practical ways to do that, but before I do, I want to address an important question someone posed on Facebook last week as a response to my post from last week.

Here’s the question: “How does one check that what one ‘receives’ through bedtime meditation on, say, the Lord’s Prayer, as its meaning is really what Jesus intended the meaning of the Prayer to be rather than eisegesis of it?”

Eisegesis means a reader imposing his or her meaning on the text.

The original meaning and intent of a passage of scripture matters. I would never recommend that meditative approaches to the Bible should replace deep, serious study of the Bible. We must study carefully, and rely on others who do it.

Careful, deep, serious study of the Bible includes looking at the original languages, Hebrew and Greek, along with examination of the historical setting, consideration of what we know about the author of each text, and observation of the way each passage fits into the whole of that biblical book and the Bible as a whole.

All of this serious study needs to be done in conversation with Christians today and from the past. Many Christians don’t know Greek or Hebrew or the details about the history of Israel, but we can rely on those who do.

However, even if we got the intent of the author correct, even if we knew exactly what Jesus intended when he said something to his followers, how would we be sure that we had heard what God intended for us to hear today, in our cultural setting and in the specifics of our lives?

The Christian church has a long history of careful and deep study of the Bible, coupled with pondering and reflection on biblical passages. I am advocating rediscovery of the latter without abandoning the former.

Let me zero in on the first few works of the question posed on Facebook: “How do I check . . .?”

Let’s imagine I am meditating on Ephesians 5:21-33, the passage about husbands and wives. As a wife, maybe I am struck by Paul’s instruction to respect my husband, and maybe I come up with several ideas of how to do that better. My sense of how God is guiding me parallels the love passage in I Corinthians 13. So, I can “check” my own application of the passage against other parts of the Bible.

I can also talk to my own husband along these lines: “I’ve been pondering Ephesians 5, and I think God is telling me to work harder at respecting you in these ways. What do you think?”

I might talk with other wives about what I am hearing God say.

Let me give you two extreme examples that show why checking matters. Imagine that as I am pondering the passage, I come to believe that my husband isn’t loving me in a way that’s consistent with Paul’s instructions in verses 25 to 29. Suppose I start thinking that because he’s not living up to the Bible, God is calling me to kill him. (For the record, my husband is one of the most loving individuals I know, so this scenario is totally imaginary.)

A second extreme example comes from the true story in Under the Banner of Heaven, a book by Jon Krakauer. He describes two brothers who believed that God was calling them to murder a woman and baby. I found  it one of the most upsetting books I had ever read, because it portrayed so vividly the certainty of the men that they had heard God’s voice.

These are extreme examples of eisegesis. If I – or the men in Krakauer’s book – checked our interpretation against the rest of the Bible (which prohibits murder) and Christian history (which also prohibits murder), and if we talked with others about our interpretation, we would (hopefully) not receive any encouragement or confirmation that God was speaking to us in that way.  

The purpose of meditating on the Bible is to hear God speak to us. Most often, God’s voice speaks of love for others and for ourselves, a voice calling us to rest in God’s love and peace, and to work hard at extending love to those near and far, even those who hate us or with whom we are angry. We can miss that that call to love when we focus solely on intellectual approaches to the Bible, despite their value.

We can also hear God’s voice inaccurately, which is why we especially need to check what we are hearing. When God’s voice contradicts the overall message of the Bible, Christian history, and the voices of people we respect, we need to move very slowly in new directions. However, God does still speak in new ways, so we need to remain open to that as well.

(Next week: lectio divina, one way to approach scripture with an intent to listen. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Lenten Devotional - downloadable

Lent begins on Valentine’s Day this year. If you’d like an unusual devotional for Lent, check out the one I wrote a couple of years ago with reflection questions on a psalm for each day of Lent. I've had good feedback from people who have used it on their own and also from others who used it in a small group. My husband Dave’s beautiful paintings provide illustrations for it. Available here.

Listening to God in Prayer: A New Approach to the Bible

Saturday January 6 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: A New Approach to the Bible

When we think of reading the Bible, many of us think about how we wish we could take more time for serious Bible study. Many of us were nurtured in our Christian faith through intensive Bible study. In Bible study groups, we analyzed Biblical passages and thought hard about how to apply the passages in our lives. We expected God to speak to us through our study and analysis. Maybe we also memorized verses of Scripture, trying to store God’s word in our heart.

All of this is good, and all of this has been a major part of my Christian journey. The contemplative approach to the Bible takes these patterns of Bible study a step further. We embrace disciplines that can help us to hear God’s voice through the Scriptures.

First and foremost, the contemplative pattern of interacting with the Scriptures is a pattern of meditation on a biblical passage: spending time allowing the Word to sink deep into our souls, letting the Truth penetrate our whole being. The groundwork laid by intensive Bible study and Scripture memory can be very helpful, but we are invited to go a step further, to spend time quietly living with a passage of Scripture.

Meditation on the Scriptures has a long history in both Jewish and Christian tradition. In recent centuries, with our emphasis on science and objective truth, we have neglected meditation in favor of analysis and cognitive understanding.

Midlife is an excellent time to return to the ancient pattern of meditation upon Scripture. Receptive, quiet reflection on a Biblical passage can help us address many of the issues of midlife: enabling us to hear God’s voice of guidance and acceptance, helping us let go of the illusion of control, giving us the opportunity to slow down and quiet the many voices that surround us.

The writer of Psalm 1 was well acquainted with this slow, quiet absorption with the Scriptures. Here is a description of those who obey God: “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2).

Best-selling writer Richard Foster writes that examples of the contemplative tradition abound in the Bible: “From the Psalmist, who meditated upon God’s character, law, and creation, to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who pondered all things in her heart; from Elijah, who kept a lonely vigil over earthquake, wind and fire, to Mary of Bethany, who chose to sit at Jesus’ feet.” [1] 

When we spend time with a passage from the Bible, pondering in our hearts the way God works and asking God to speak to us, we are entering into this long Christian tradition of contemplation and meditation. When we sit at Jesus’ feet by reading about him in one of the Gospels and living with that story for a while, expecting Jesus to be present in our thoughts and prayers, we are entering into contemplation and meditation. When we walk through our neighborhood, thinking about a Scripture we know by heart or weighing the issues discussed in a recent Bible study, we are engaging in Christian meditation.

All these activities require a commitment to slow down and allow space to ponder the work of God and to listen for God’s word to us this day. In our busy and rushed world, making time for reflection will probably be the greatest challenge facing us if we want to move towards contemplative prayer and meditation.

In addition, we may experience the challenge of not knowing how to start. Three long-standing patterns of engagement with the Scriptures can provide a structure for a meditative approach to the Bible: lectio divina (sacred reading), Ignatian prayer, and praying the psalms. In the next three posts, I’ll write about each of these three.

If you’d like to make a start, pick something from the Bible that you know by heart, perhaps all or part of Psalm 23 or the Lord’s Prayer. This week, as you lay in bed at night, wait at stop lights, stand in line at the grocery store, or wait for someone to show up, go back over and over to those words. Ponder them, and let God speak to you through them.

(Next week: the ancient prayer form lectio divina. Illustration: Princess Di Garden, Cambridge, UK, by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “Subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is adapted from my book A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife.)

Some past Christmas and New Year’s posts you might enjoy:

[1] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1998), page 49.

Prayer as listening to God: Looking back at 2017

Saturday December 30 2017

Prayer as listening to God: Looking back at 2017

A year is ending. A new year begins in a few days. Newspapers and magazines are full of ideas for New Year’s resolutions, and how to keep them.

I wish more people wrote and talked about how to look back on the past year in a way that is fruitful and helpful. As a way to do that, I want to propose a prayer of examen for the whole year.

I wrote last week about Examen, an ancient prayer form that focuses on identifying where God was present and where we resisted God. The prayer has four movements, which I’ll describe and illustrate below. In many monastic settings, monks and nuns prayed the prayer of examen every night, looking back over the day.

The person who taught me examen called it “a gentle, unforced noticing.” I’m going to suggest numerous questions to reflect on, so you can look back at a whole year. Please engage with these questions in an gentle, unforced way. Let the questions help you see God’s hand in your life and your response to God.

1.Examen of Consciousness. Begin by thinking back over your year. What good things happened? Where did you see God’s hand in the good things? What aspects of the good things were clearly gifts from God?

What hard things happened? In what ways did God help you in the hard things? What good outcomes can you identify from the hard things?

Think back on the early months of the year. What were you praying for in those months? What answers did you see later in the year?

Use the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23 to look back at the year. In what moments did you experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control in yourself or in those who you love?

2. Response to the Examen of Consciousness. In whatever way works for you, spend some time responding to God’s presence in your life in 2017. You may want to thank God verbally for the ways God was present in the year. You may want to imagine yourself turning to Jesus and smiling at him. You may want to sing a song or hymn.

3.Examen of Conscience. Listen to your conscience to help identify the ways you resisted God this past year. Do you have clear instances when you know God was calling you to do something and you didn’t do it? Can you see times when you did something you know didn’t please God?

Go back to the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control – and ponder instances when the Holy Spirit may have been nudging you in the direction of one of those fruits, and you chose to do things your way.

Imagine that Jesus was walking beside you all year. What moments during the year would you have felt embarrassed or ashamed to have Jesus close by?

4. Response to the Examen of Conscience. In whatever feels comfortable to you, bring those moments of resistance to God. You may want to ask God for forgiveness for the times you did not respond in obedience or love. You may want to read one of the penitential psalms as a way to bring these thoughts to God. Try Psalm 32, 51 or 130. You may want to say to yourself: “Whenever we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us” (based on 1 John 1:9).

Examen is a lovely prayer to do on our own or with others. If you have a spiritual partner – a friend, spouse, prayer partner – or a small group with whom you share honestly, consider working through the questions above with that person or group.

Noticing God's presence is part of learning to hear God's voice. We rob ourselves of his voice of joy and peace when we forget to look back at the past and identify the places God was present. We rob ourselves of joy and peace when we neglect to confess our shortcomings and hear God's voice of forgiveness.

(Next week: A new approach to the Bible. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “Subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Some past Christmas and New Year’s posts you might enjoy:

Listening to God in Prayer: Noticing God’s Presence

Thursday December 21 2017

Listening to God in Prayer: Noticing God’s Presence

Have you noticed all the emphasis these days on mindfulness? Pay attention, people are saying and writing, to what’s going on right now in your life. Breathe. Be present and notice.

Christians have emphasized a form of noticing for centuries. In the ancient prayer of examen, we take time to look back and try to see the hand of God in our lives. Examen, like all contemplative prayer forms, is most effective when it is unforced, when we try to let our awareness of God float into our minds rather than forcing ourselves to review every event in an analytical fashion to see if we can detect the presence of God.

First, select a period of time to focus on. It’s best to look at one day, although you could also choose to look at a period of a few days or even a week. Focus your thoughts and your heart on the time period you have selected. Ask God to bring to mind one or two times when God was present in your life.

Don’t analyze. Don’t try to go sequentially through all the events in that time period. Just try to gently notice. In the prayer of examen, to notice is to pay attention, to turn your gaze from worries about the future and absorption in present tasks to events that took place, the meaning you placed on them, and the possibility that God was working in and through what happened.

When you are able to identify one or two times when God was present to you, respond to God in the light of your noticing. You may want to imagine yourself holding in your hand that moment of God’s presence, offering it back to God in thanks. You may want to picture yourself smiling at God. You may want to thank God for that moment using words.

Continue in an atmosphere of noticing. This time, ask God to bring to mind one or two moments when you resisted God’s presence. Again, don’t try to analyze or examine your life’s events sequentially. Try to let a memory of resistance to God float into your conscious mind.

When you are able to identify one or more moments when you resisted God, spend some time responding to God. You may want to pray, “Lord have mercy.” You may want to offer that moment to God and ask him to heal and transform you. You may want to move into a time of confession of sin.

We so often forget to take the time to notice the patterns of our lives. Examen is a lovely discipline because it gives a structure to pay attention to God’s working. Often God is present in our lives and we fleetingly experience that presence, but we rush on to the next event and we neglect to ponder the patterns of his presence and to thank God for the gift of our awareness of him. Examen gives us the opportunity to notice the hand of God, something many midlife folks are longing for.

Examen also gives us the opportunity to notice the patterns of our resistance to God’s work in our lives. Sometimes we can change those patterns by conscious discipline. More often all we can do is offer our patterns of resistance to God and ask for his help and mercy. Either way, simply noticing our resistance makes us more likely to notice God’s presence next time.

My husband and I have found that the prayer of examen has impacted the way we talk to each other at the end of the day. Often my husband will ask me at bedtime, “When did you feel closest to God today?” or “When did you experience God’s hand in your life today?” I am always grateful for that question, because it makes me stop and notice.

Examen is a wonderful discipline for midlife. The speed of our lives and the necessity to focus on the future keeps us from recognizing when God has been at work in us. So many of us long for meaning and the assurance that life has value. What better way to find meaning and value than to take the time to notice what God is already doing?

(Next week: looking back on 2017 in preparation for the new year. Illustration: Golden Gardens in Seattle by Dave Baab. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column. This post adapted from my book A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife.)

*** If Advent isn’t feeling real to you, even though Christmas is rapidly approaching, I encourage you to download my Advent Devotional, which links psalms with the themes of Advent. Even if you work through only one set of questions, pondering relevant psalm may help you be more ready for Christmas. ***

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