Friday, November 1, 2013

Revive Your Prayer Life with Lectio Divina

Today is the final day in our 43rd week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are Ezekiel 13-15; John 5; Psalm 136.

Whenever I teach Christian spirituality, I like to use the ancient framework of Lectio Divina (Latin: "Divine Reading).  At one time, all Christians were taught the practice of Lectio Divina, but it was kept alive in the monastic tradition.  It's a way of fully absorbing the Word of God, waiting on God, and praying God's word back to Him.  As an example, I often use Psalm 136 to teach this practice.

There are four steps in Lectio Divina.  These praying person should flow freely from one step to another, effortlessly and patiently.  Personally, I like to spend about an hour in this practice.

The fist step is Lectio, or "Reading."  
Let your prayer time begin with the Bible.  Choose a scripture and read it deliberately and unhurriedly.  I like to read it phrase-by-phrase, moving my lips as if I were speaking the words slowly, yet without prouncing them fully.  This allows me to take time with the words, rather than skimming the verses.  When you reach the end of your exhale, inhale slowly and take time to reflect on what you've just read, before you continue with your next exhale.  

When you've finished reading the scripture the first time, read it again.  Ask God to show you a word or a phrase that stands out from that scripture.  Don't look for an entire verse--this is too long.  Look for something shorter than that, just a word, or short phrase.  This will be God's special gift to you.  

Then, repeat the scripture again.  Read it through several times.  If you've carved out an hour for Lectio Divina,  then make this about 1/4 of that hour.

Today, I've chosen Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26 in order to give you an example of this.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods.
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
His love endures forever.
to him who alone does great wonders,
His love endures forever.
who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures forever.
who spread out the earth upon the waters,
His love endures forever.
who made the great lights
His love endures forever.
the sun to govern the day,
His love endures forever.
the moon and stars to govern the night;
His love endures forever...

23 He remembered us in our low estate
His love endures forever.
24 and freed us from our enemies.
His love endures forever.
25 He gives food to every creature.
His love endures forever.
26 Give thanks to the God of heaven.
His love endures forever.
I use this passage because it's easy to tell which phrase stands out above the rest.  "His love endures forever" becomes a message that, being repeated over and over, works its way from your head to your heart.  By the time you're done repeating this scripture, you fully grasp that God's love endures forever.  

The second step is Meditatio, or "Meditation."
Take this word or phrase that you've found in Scripture (in this case, "His love endures forever," and repeat it to yourself.  Breathe in slowly, whispering the phrase.  Breathe out slowly, whispering the phrase.  Repeat this for several minutes.  Personally, I like to do this for fifteen minutes or so, if I'm doing Lectio Divina for an hour.  Just allow the phrase to sink in.

Some Christians are opposed to repetition, citing Jesus' injunction against "vain repetition (Matthew 6:7)."  "Vain" means pointless or ego-centric, and this repetition is neither.  It's a way of breaking through to my stony heart.  Jacob Riis writes in Reader's Digest: "I look at a stone cutter hammering away at a rock a hundred times without so much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the 101st blow it splits in two. I know it was not the one blow that did it, but all that had gone before." God's word is like that. Repeat it enough, and it finally breaks through.

As a side note:  Some people will use the word mantra to describe this repetition of a word or phrase.  I never use this term, since mantras stem from the Hindu tradition, and what I'm talking about is decidedly Christian.  Hindus believe their mantras to possess an esoteric quality, resonating with divine frequencies and effecting spiritual dimensions by their mystical resonance.  Mantras are believed to have nearly the same qualities as a magic spell.  The only similarity between a Christian's repetition of scripture, and a Hindu's mantra is the fact that it's a repeated word.  Instead, I use the term Logos Prayer to describe this repeated word or phrase.  Simply repeat this word that God has given you, back to Him.  And in the process, He will give it back to you again, letting it break through your stony heart.

The third step is Oratio, or "Prayer."
If you've allowed an hour for the entire process of Lectio Divina, then spend about fifteen minutes in prayer.  But don't just go through your prayer list.  Instead, pray about the word or phrase that God has given you.  In this case, our phrase is "His love endures forever."  So, spend your prayer time talking with God about His enduring love.  Thank Him for it.  Praise Him for it.  Ask Him for more of it.  Give your enduring love back to Him.  Ask Him to give enduring love to others.  Let God's enduring love be the theme of this prayer.  This is a free-form prayer time, without any script, without any right or wrong way to pray.  Just allow the Logos Prayer to flow freely.  If you wish, you might mark your transition from prayer to contemplation with the simply phrase, "In Jesus' name, amen."

The fourth step is Contemplatio, or "Contemplation."
Simply put, contemplation is resting in the "amen."  Instead of letting your "amen" mean "Ok, I'm done praying now, so I'm going to hang up the phone," spend about a quarter-hour resting in it.  "Amen" means "let it be."  It is a word of simple reliance, trust, and resting in God's ability to do all that you could ever ask or imagine.  Psalm 46:10 (NIV) says, "Be still, and know that I am God."  Contemplation is being still, waiting on God, trusting God to complete what He has begun in you.  Contemplation is uncomplicated in that it involves no reading, no repeating, no forming your own thoughts into words.  It is simple resting in God's presence.  

The thing to remember when practicing contemplative prayer is that it's not about you.  In fact, in contemplative prayer, the ultimate goal is to empty one's self and be in God's presence.  This doesn't mean that you're "opening your soul to whatever spirit wants to come in," as some people have suggested.  It means that you're emptying yourself of ego, realizing that "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20 NIV)."  Instead of filling your mind with the things that you want or think, simply rest in the passive attitude of a person who truly means it when they say "amen."  Let it be.

You may find your mind wandering as you sit in silence, trying to think nothing and simply listening for God's still, small, voice.  If this happens, simply say your Logos Prayer once.  Don't repeat it as before.  Just say it once, allowing it to bring you back to a place of silence.  Sit quietly.  Trust God.  Listen to God.  Let God fill you.

Many Christians say that their prayer life is boring--a routine of going through their prayer list and saying "amen" before they get about the business of their day.  Lectio Divina is an ancient prayer method that refreshes your soul every day.  Instead of being self-centered, this practice is God-centered.  I invite you to try it for yourself, and see how your relationship with the Lord will grow.

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