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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.

Odd and peculiar?

Wednesday February 4 2015

Many of our extended family members think my husband and I are distinctly odd. Strange. Maybe peculiar.

Some of the things we do because we’re Christians seem baffling them. We keep a Sabbath, which appears lazy. In many cases, we pray about things before we act, which seems irresponsible and a bit wacky. We give away at least 10% or our income, which seems totally crazy. We refer to the Bible as God’s word and we love Jesus, which evidently mark us as unthinking and blind to the realities of life.

Not too long ago I came across the word “peculiar” as a positive attribute in the hymn, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun.” The first verse of the hymn describes the extent of Jesus’ coming reign as encompassing all creation. The second and third verses describe widespread praise of God, and the fourth verse lists blessings humans receive when Jesus reigns. Then the fifth verse  invites us to respond to the good news that Jesus will reign and that his reign will be so wonderful:

“Let every creature rise and bring / peculiar honors to our king.”

When Isaac Watts (1674-1748) wrote the words to this hymn, “peculiar” could be used to mean particular or unique. With these words, he’s inviting all creatures to bring to God the offerings that are particular to their own gifts or attributes, the honors that they are uniquely able to bring. The verse is a wonderful call to pay attention to the unique gifts and characteristics that God has blessed us with and then bring to God our lives, our gifts, our abilities, and our praises in the utterly unique form that only we can bring.

I wonder if we would be wise also to think about “peculiar” in this verse as odd or strange, to think about bringing to God the offerings and honors that seem peculiar to the rest of the world. Practices like Sabbath keeping, tithing, prayer, Bible study and many other habits and patterns of life that Christians engage in seem bizarre, even incomprehensible, to many who do not know Christ.

Certainly the church of Jesus Christ needs to proclaim the gospel in ways that are culturally relevant. I worry, though, that we have become so culturally relevant that we are virtually identical to the wider culture. I think we need to speak up about the peculiar things we do because we are Christians.

I feel awkward talking about tithing, the fact that we give away at least 10% of our income. Shouldn’t that be private? I have come to believe that the fact that my husband and I tithe is one of the ways we proclaim with our actions that Christ is Lord of our lives to the people who know us. Specifically, that Christ is Lord of our money, which in Western culture is such a significant indicator of values.

I don’t like being told by family members that we are odd, strange or peculiar. That our faith has blinded us to the realities of life. That we are a bit brainless. But I do like bringing to Jesus the “peculiar honors” that I can bring, the unique and particular things I can offer. And if that means people view me as peculiar in the odd sense, maybe that’s a good thing.

Lent begins this year on February 18, and Lent is a great time to try a new faith-related habit that might look peculiar to others but that also might enable us to bring our own “peculiar honors” to God.

(This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a new post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)