I tend to babble about how much I love the Bible. Then I take out my Bible and introduce people to it like it’s a friend. Once we get past the weird looks I get for introducing them to an inanimate object, I often have to deal with this question:
“Don’t you think the Bible’s kind of boring?”
To which I’m obviously supposed to respond, “Ohmigosh no it’s like so interesting and fun and beautiful all the time!!” like the Jesus cheerleader that I am. But I’m too honest for that.
“Absolutely,” I say. I wait for them to look scandalized, then I go on. “It’s hard and it’s weird and parts of it are quite dull. But when I can’t find the beauty in Scripture, it’s not because it’s not there. It’s because I’m not looking hard enough. I’m not open and I’m not ready. So I don’t move on to another book; I sit with this one and immerse myself in it until I do find the beauty.”
Scripture can be very daunting and if you just fly through it trying to find something to stitch on a sampler, you’ll come out the other side with a whole lot of clichés and an unchanged heart. But if you really take time with a passage, trying to enter in, you may find that those platitudes you’ve heard your whole life are rather revolutionary.
One approach to Scripture that calls us to work through the text in a very intentional way is lectio divina (divine reading), an ancient form of prayer in which we ruminate on the text in order to encounter God. Cows are ruminant animals–they chew the cud, working through it again and again to get every ounce of nourishment out of it. When we ruminate on a text, we work through it over and over again in order to get everything the Lord has for us out of his Word. Rather than churning through a passage so we can move on with our day, a fast food approach, we treat it like the feast that it is. We soak in the Word, reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating.
Sometimes you’ll sit down with a passage in mind to meditate on; other times you’ll want to do lectio and you’ll flip through your Bible for a highlighted passage (another reason to get a beat-up Bible); my favorite experiences of lectio come when I’m just reading and the Spirit calls my attention to a particular passage, when I was just trying to get through my daily reading and God stopped me in my tracks to speak to me.
The more you pray through lectio divina, the more you’ll find that the steps don’t necessarily have to come in order. You’ll read a passage and suddenly find yourself speaking to the Lord in response or be transported to a wordless prayer, an encounter with Christ.
To begin with, though, it’s good to work through the steps in order, to start experiencing Scripture in an intimate way. I thought I’d take a few minutes to walk you through lectio divina, especially as it can be done in a group or with a journal. This form of prayer works really well in a group, with reflections being spoken aloud. That way, you hear different translations of Scripture and are exposed to the many different meanings God’s Word can have in people’s lives. If you don’t have a group to do this with, try journaling instead. Write the passage you’re using, then write your reflection on each step.
To give you a feel for it, I’ll explain the steps and then give examples. We’ll use Ephesians 3:19-21 (part of Thursday’s first reading):
Know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Before each step, you’ll take turns reading the passage slowly, then pausing for a bit to digest. I find that reading 3 or 4 times with 20 to 30 seconds in between is thoughtful but not painfully slow.
The first step of Lectio Divina involves prayerful reading. You’ll chew through a few verses over and over, allowing the text to speak to you. You may find that certain phrases jump out at you, that you want to sit with those phrases and repeat them. That’s the idea of this first step–to allow yourself to be drawn to a particular line.
If you’re doing this in a group, each person will go around (after the group has read the text aloud a few times) and say a phrase from the text that strikes him. For example:
“Know the love of Christ.”
“Far more than all we ask or imagine.”
“The fullness of God.”
“Know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”
“Who is able.”
These can be two words or a whole sentence, and you’re not committing to focusing on this phrase for your whole meditation. I find that I often meditate on one section during the first step, then hear someone point out a part I hadn’t noticed and switch to that portion for the rest of my meditation.
During this second step, you’re interpreting the text. You’re looking for the meaning in the passage or the phrase you’ve been drawn to. This isn’t always going to be the meaning that’s obvious and universal; instead, it’s often connected more immediately to your life.
Your reflection here will be one or two sentences in the first or third person–talking about God and yourself, not yet to God. For example:
I keep trying to prove Christ and to be certain of my love for him, but there’s something beyond the intellectual when it comes to my relationship with him. I have to be at peace with that element of faith.
I don’t know how to trust God.
God’s miracles don’t just come in calmed storms and corpses raised. Sometimes his power works through our weakness to do greater things than we could ever have expected.
I’m empty without God.
Don’t worry if you’re not poetic. The idea here is not to sound impressive but to be real.
This third step is our response to God’s Word. We speak to him in prayer (now using the second person as well) and respond to what we’ve learned from the text.
If you’re praying with a group, this will be a sentence or two addressed to God. Something like:
Lord, help me to see that all the good I do is a gift of your grace. May I always praise you and live in humble acceptance of your gifts.
Father, I want to know your love.
Jesus, empty me of myself and work in me, through me, for the sake of the kingdom. Free me from everything that is not of you so that I can be a vessel of your grace, bringing your light into the world.
God, you are so good.
Some people are really uncomfortable praying out loud. Remember that beautiful prayer can be really simple. Besides, anyone who’s judging you for not being clever when you’re praying isn’t someone whose good opinion should matter. So pray away and don’t worry about other people–if they’re doing this with you, I’m pretty sure they weren’t judging you anyway.
This final step is contemplation, often described as wordless prayer. The idea is that you reach a depth of reflection on God’s Word that surpasses anything you can really put into words. it’s more of a feeling or a conviction than it is a thought. Ironically, for the purpose of this exercise, we now have to put it into words.
So in this final step, you’ll use just one word to describe what your lectio has left you with, This isn’t necessarily a word from the text and it can be any part of speech.2 Here are some possibilities:
Your word doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else. You’re doing this in a group because it can help keep you accountable or give you different insights, not because you’re trying to look awesome.
After you’ve gone through the four steps, close in prayer. If you’re in a group, discuss your experience of the text and how it changed as you meditated on it, If you’re alone, try journaling about your prayer time.
As you work through a passage, you’ll notice that it has layers and layers of meaning. What seemed to be a straightforward commentary on wealth can become a passage on discernment or devotion or pornography or trust, depending on what the Spirit has in mind for you. This is particularly clear when you pray with a group and hear two people with opposite interpretations who are really both right. This is why Scripture has been enough to satisfy the Church for two thousand years, why I still read with a highlighter on my eleventh time through. The more you plumb the depths of Scripture, the more you begin to realize how right Pope Gregory the Great was:
“Scripture is like a river, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.”
Your challenge this week is to try this form of prayer and report back. I’d love to hear about it!