Accepting the Embrace of God – Lectio Divina (Reblog)

Article by Luke Dysinger OSB

A VERY ancient art, practiced at one time by all Christians, is the technique known as lectio divina – a slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures which enables the Bible, the Word of God, to become a means of union with God.   This ancient practice has been kept alive in the Christian monastic tradition, and is one of the precious treasures of Benedictine monastics and oblates.  Together with the Liturgy and daily manual labor, time set aside in a special way for lectio divina enables us to discover in our daily life an underlying spiritual rhythm.  Within this rhythm we discover an increasing ability to offer more of ourselves and our relationships to the Father, and to accept the embrace that  God is continuously extending to us in the person of his Son Jesus Christ.

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Peace! Be Still!

Mark 4:35-41
Lectio Divina

35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

Jesus, help us to hear and heed your call to do great things: Help us to leave familiar shores behind and cross into the unknown territories with you.

36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.

Jesus, help us to take you as you are and accept life on life’s terms. Save us from our own delusions and dreams.

Other boats were with him.

Jesus, everyone we meet is fighting a secret battle. Though we may often feel alone, we are never alone. You are with us always, and you also give us the gift of each other. Help us to reach out and ask for help when we need it.

37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.

Jesus, blowing wind and living water are common symbols for your Holy Spirit. Sometimes, you do things that are inconvenient for us and lead us into situations where we would rather not go. Help us to trust you, even when the wind and the waves threaten to break our little boats. And when these boats finally sink, show us how to walk on water.

38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion;

Jesus, you show us that faith sometimes looks like sleep, that the most convincing speech is silence, and that stillness is the most effective course of action. Help us to rest in you, as in the eye of the storm.

and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Jesus, we are so prone to panic that we forget who we are and who you are. Forgive us when we malign your character and strike the rocks to which we should speak. Help us to see that you do not actually care about the fate of our little, inconsequential boats, our false selves, our ego-attachments. SOS, Jesus: Save our souls, our true selves, and bring us safe and sound to the place you have prepared for us, where you are working in us greater things than we can ask or imagine.

39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!”

Jesus, I wonder whether you are speaking to my circumstances or to me? Sometimes you calm the storm and sometimes you calm your child.

Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

Jesus, you speak your Word into the substance of the universe and creation takes on the qualities you carry within yourself: Shalom, Stillness. Speak, not only to the winds and waves of my life, but to me also. Make me more like you. Let me be the change I wish to see in the world.

40He said to them, “Why are you afraid?

Jesus, you are the great diagnostician. Your incisive questions cut to the heart of the matter and expose the sicknesses within us. Faithful are the wounds of a friend. You ask us these questions, not because you require information, but so that we might see ourselves more clearly. Help us to explore these difficult questions with you, that we might gain wisdom and insight. May your questions show us how our attachment to (and identification with) these little boats is keeping us from the peace we so desperately cry for.

Have you still no faith?”

Jesus, your questions are the surgeon’s scalpel. You cut straight to the heart of the matter. We are too caught up and identified with things that are not us. In spite of all the time we have spent sitting at your feet, we still have no faith. We still have no clue who you are, and therefore, we haven’t the faintest idea who we are.

41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Jesus, sometimes the beginning of faith looks like a really good question. Lead us, by the power of your infuriating sleepiness and the cutting of your questions, to ask better questions. Instead of “Do you not care?” let us ask, “Who then is this?” And may your silent response be all the answer we need.

The Dark Night of Denial

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Since autumn, I’ve been pretty good at staying on top of my Daily Office discipline, but I’ve fallen woefully off the wagon when it comes to Lectio Divina and Centering Prayer. Here is my attempt to get back on top with a little public journaling.

So, I did my Lectio today on the Gospel from the Daily Office Lectionary:

JOHN 18:15-18, 25-27

Peter and John followed Jesus, as they had for years, but this part of the journey was the most difficult by far. Jesus was asking them to follow him into a place of darkness and cold, a place of suffering and death, a place where their faith would be challenged and (literally) torn to shreds.

This is what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” All traces of divine blessing and consolation disappear. It is a season of emptiness and suffering. So it was for the disciples on the night of Jesus’ arrest, and so it is for Christians today. The Jesus we loved (and thought we knew) is suddenly taken away from us. Like Peter, we find ourselves haunted by terrifying questions.

The temptation in this season is to flee the darkness and warm ourselves around the old familiar fires of certainty. This is the tactic employed by secular skeptics and religious fundamentalists alike. When the mystery becomes too difficult to face, they default to easy answers that can be fully understood. The problem is that any such answer amounts to a denial of our Lord.

Better to remain silent in the face of uncertainty and allow the mystery to remain as it is. Jesus tried to warn us that the journey would lead to this place, but we were not willing (or ready) to listen at that time. Now that we find ourselves here, will we deny the disturbing mystery or live with it long enough for Christ to bring us through the dark night to the morning of faith’s resurrection?

 

Romancing the Book: Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians

This is part 2 of 3 in a series of posts called Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians.  Evangelicals, much maligned among liberals, nonetheless possess an impressive array of gifts and skills that can benefit the larger Christian community, including those who do not share their beliefs and biases.  Liberal Christians are so quick to self-identify as “not evangelical” or “not that kind of Christian” that we have developed a nasty habit of tossing babies out with the bathwater.  I’m suggesting that we all go outside and recover these babies from the muddy ground outside (although we may have to give them another bath before we bring them back into our house).

Wow… I’m really stretching that metaphor.

In my first post, entitled God Has No Grandchildren, we talked about how evangelicals have done an amazing job of taking personal ownership of their spiritual lives.  For them, Christianity is not a set of dogmas, morals, and rituals to which one defaults by accident of birth.  For them, it is a whole-hearted commitment of one’s self to an ongoing relationship with the divine.

In today’s post, I want to talk about the Bible.

As far as religious communities go, none have had a more passionate love affair with the Bible than have evangelicals.  They tend to take it with them wherever they go: church, work, school, and vacation.  They sometimes refer to it as their sword (a source of strength) and other times as their love letter from God.  Most of the time, they simply call it the Word of God.  They have confidence that the voice of the Holy Spirit is able to reach, comfort, and guide them through these words on a page.  Like newlyweds in the bedroom, evangelical encounters with the Bible are intense and frequent (if a bit messy and awkward).  They tend to devour it, even though they don’t understand much of what they’re reading.

Liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to relate to the Bible like an older couple in a long-term relationship.  In place of the young lovers’ passion, they have developed a deep respect for its mystery and complexity.  They let those old, familiar words wash over them and anchor them to all time and eternity.  There are still some things they don’t like about the Bible, but they’ve learned how to accept those things and still appreciate the Bible for what it is.

Liberal Christians, while they tacitly accept the appellation “Word of God” as applied to the Bible, tend to cringe at notions of inerrancy and infallibility.  For us, the Bible is not a magical book that was somehow “beamed down” from heaven without flaw or error.  Why then do we still refer to them as the Word of God?  I love the answer given in the Catechism found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979):

We call them (the Holy Scriptures) the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.

I love this answer’s dual emphasis on inspiration and continual speaking.  Liberal Christians believe that the divine Word is speaks to us “in, with, and under” (a phrase I’m borrowing from Luther’s sacramental theology) the human words on the page.  For those of us in the Reformed (and always reforming) tradition of Protestant Christianity, we identify Christ as the true and Living Word of God.  The scriptures, as we have them, constitute a witness to that Living Word.  In other words, the early disciples experienced something extraordinary in the person of Christ and spend the rest of their lives wrestling with what it meant.  The Christian churches have continued to wrestle with that mystery for almost two millennia.  These days, we are less certain than ever about our particular answers, but more convinced than ever about the overall importance of what we’ve found.

In our less glorious moments, liberal Christians have tended to abandon this treasure of the faith to those who would abuse it and co-opt it for their own selfish ends.  Our respect for the complexity and mystery of the Bible has sometimes led us to throw our hands up in despair that anyone could ever know what this crazy book is talking about.  We despise trite and easy answers taken from text on a page, which leads us to sometimes give up hope of finding any guidance at all.  In our very worst moments, we tend to cut and paste the parts we like and throw out or ignore the parts we don’t.  My favorite example of this kind of project is the famous Bible produced by my American forbear, Thomas Jefferson.  He didn’t like the idea of supernatural miracles, so he just cut those parts out.  These days, many liberal Christians have a tendency to cut out the parts about judgment and sex, as if the Bible had nothing valuable to say about these topics.  To be fair, many evangelicals do the same thing.  They underline their favorite verses about individual salvation and “the pelvic issues” while they ignore the passages that emphasize the importance of social justice or suggest the possibility of universal salvation.

The tendency toward idolatry is a human universal, not unique to evangelicals or liberals.  We all have an instinctual urge to recast Jesus as an advocate for our own personal ideology.  We all tend to hear our own voices, rather than God’s speaking to us in the text of the Bible.  Anne Lamott once wrote, “You can safely assume that you’ve made God in your own image when she hates all the same people you do.”

I was speaking with a colleague once at a pastor’s retreat on Christian spirituality.  I was talking about the central role that the Bible plays in shaping our spirituality.  He asked, “Does it have to be through the Bible?”  I responded that it doesn’t have to be through the Bible, but it gets to be.  As Christians, we have the privilege of conducting our collective faith-journey in dialogue with this cacophonous chorus of voices from the past.  I see the Bible as a library, rather than a book.  It’s a messy collection of stories, poems, and letters that chronicle our ancestors’ relationship with God.  They stretched to describe the indescribable.  They failed to capture the essence of the divine in their writings, but they did leave a number of helpful signposts.  I love the scriptures for their messiness.  It gives me hope for myself.  God never gave up on Abraham, Israel, or Peter, so I have every reason to trust that God will not give up on me.

The exercise that has most helped me recover the Bible as a tool for my spiritual growth is a practice developed by monks over a thousand years ago.  It’s called Lectio Divina, which is Latin for “Divine Reading.”  Here’s how it works:

  • Sit down with a short passage of scripture (e.g. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15).  Read it slowly.  Out loud, if you can.  Maybe even stopping at every verse or sentence.
  • Pay attention to any words or phrases that “jump out at you” or seem to touch your life in some significant way.
  • Take a moment to process what that word or phrase means to you right now, in this moment.  You’re not looking for once-and-for-all absolutely authoritative interpretations.  You’re listening for what God is saying to you today through this passage.  God might be saying something completely different to someone else through those same words.  God might say something completely different to you tomorrow through those same words.  The Spirit blows where it wills…
  • Craft a prayer of response to what you think you’ve heard.  This can be a prayer of thanksgiving, a request for help, or a dedication of oneself to service.
  • Sit still for a period of extended silence while you contemplate God’s presence within and around you.  It might help to focus your attention on the normally unconscious act of your breathing or perhaps pick a special word to guide and focus your meditation.
  • Close by reading the passage slowly once more.  Be thankful for what you have encountered in this process.

I think that liberal Christians have an opportunity to re-engage with the Bible in a passionate way.  We can begin our “second honeymoon” with this old partner and rekindle in ourselves the romance we admire in our evangelical brothers and sisters.