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Listening to God in Prayer: Imagining yourself in a Bible story

Thursday January 25 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Imagining yourself in a Bible story

In Ignatian Bible contemplation, we place ourselves in a Biblical scene and try to become a part of it by using our imagination. We might picture ourselves as one of the main characters in a Bible story, maybe Peter or John in one of the Gospel stories. Or we might imagine ourselves as a bystander in a crowd around Jesus as he heals the leper or talks with the woman who had been bleeding for many years.

Ignatian Bible contemplation is another discipline in which prayer and Bible study merge together in a helpful and insightful way. In fact, some might consider Ignatian prayer to be more focused on Bible study than on prayer.

Ignatius of Loyola, who lived in the sixteenth century and founded the Jesuit movement, was the great proponent of this method of prayer. It is important to note, however, that this method stands in the long Jewish and Christian tradition of remembering the significance of God’s acts in history. The great Jewish holidays, Passover, Hannukah, Purim, the Festival of Booths, are all firmly rooted in historical events in which God acted. Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter likewise help us remember what God has done. When we engage in Ignatian prayer, we are affirming God’s acts in history and we are remembering and honoring them.

Ignatius suggests that as we place ourselves in a Biblical story, we try to imagine what we might see, smell, feel, and hear, and what the other persons in the scene might be doing. Always, Ignatius says, at each point in this contemplative exercise, we must “try to draw some practical fruit from the reflection for our own life today." [1] We need to ask ourselves what difference it makes in our everyday lives that we have encountered God through this Scripture passage. One way to do this is to focus on the words of Jesus and consider the ways our lives would be changed if we heard Jesus say those words to us.

I have returned over and over to the story of the woman at the well in John 4, using Ignatian prayer. I imagine myself as a girl of 8 or 10, playing hide and seek with my brother. I’m hiding in the bushes near the well when Jesus comes to talk with the woman. I listen carefully to his words, and as I grow into my teens, his words continue to come back to me. I feel called to grow in worshipping God in spirit and in truth, as Jesus talked about. I am in awe that Jesus knew all about that woman without her telling him, and I ponder what it’s like to be known so thoroughly by Jesus. There is something special about that man talking to that woman beside the well, and I ponder in my heart his person and his wisdom.

You can read a passage like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and imagine yourself as the person who was attacked, as the person walking by on the other side, and then also as the Good Samaritan. As you imagine yourself as each person, what would you feel, see, taste, touch, smell? What would God want to teach you through your connection with each of these characters?

You can imagine yourself as the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50). Why are you weeping? How did you become convinced that Jesus would offer you mercy? Imagine your reaction when you hear him say, “Your sins are forgiven.” Perhaps you would like to imagine yourself as one of the other people at the table, watching these events happening.

You can imagine yourself as a shepherd who visits the manger or as a person in the crowd on Palm Sunday or at the crucifixion. All of these exercises help us remember who God is and his faithfulness to us, and help us hear his voice through the stories and words of the Bible.

This is the 11th post in a series on growing in listening to God in prayer. The previous posts are:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture
          

(Next week: Praying the Psalms. 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 excerpted from my book A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife.)

Lent begins on Valentine’s Day this year. If you’d like a 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.

[1] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 11.

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.