Practice Makes Possible

Finding Our Way Again by Brian McLaren

image“Everybody wants to go to heaven, nobody wants to die.” Peter Tosh

As the late Winston McIntosh said, we strive to possess things but often do not want to do the work necessary to attain them. Within in the realm of Christianity, this is visible in people who want a transformed character without doing all of the work necessary to attain it. Modern Evangelical culture nourishes this empty desire through its promotion of a church-centered spirituality wherein transformation is supposedly a product of attendance at church-sanctioned events. Apparently, it is to be passed via osmosis.

McLaren, in his introduction to The Ancient Practices Series, puts this mythology to rest. Finding Our Way Again spells out the objective of this series of spiritual formation books that are rooted in spiritual disciplines that have encouraged the character formation of millions of saints through the centuries. In the short chapters that follow, he surveys the topics that form the center of the individual volumes that focus on each in greater detail.

If you read Finding looking for detailed instruction in the formative practices you will be disappointed. Once McLaren has established the benefits and need for the disciplines, the chapters that survey are but an amuse-bouche, teasing you into a further exploration. His style is appealing, intertwining personal reflection, ancient patristic writings and clear benefits that derive from the integration of the spiritual disciplines into your life.

Many Evangelicals have developed a fear of McLaren due to his provocative approach to matters within the Christian community. Other than a few references that appear to impart a kind of equality amongst the Abrahamic faiths, there is nothing that should dissuade a broad readership for this volume. Finding Our Way serves as a useful index for the rest of the series, a book that you can return to again and again when searching for a new discipline to explore.

I am grateful to Thomas Nelson who supplied this book for review.

Lectio Divina–An Obedient Spirit

lectio divina

If you have ever tried to make an extremely sharp change in direction on your bicycle while traveling a trail at high speed only to find yourself face down in the mud, you know that this type of change is not only dangerous, but it is also extraordinarily difficult to pull off. In contrast to the sharp twist of the handlebars that resulted in the endo, a gradual shift of a couple of degrees can take you swooping through the ride of your life. So it is with obedience.

Lectio divina as a spiritual exercise transitions our encounter with the scriptures through four steps, starting with a reading that listens for the voice of the Spirit to rouse us. He calls us to linger in the scriptures, perhaps on a phrase or even a single word. We reflect on this text, allowing the Spirit to wring His message for us from the words. Our prayer centers upon this message, not to simply receive it, but for the wisdom regarding its proper application. Our final step is to obey this call.

The final step in the spiritual discipline of lectio divina is contemplatio. The disciple contemplates the application of the Spirit’s message to our lives. In other words, we obey what we have been directed by our Lord. Without this step, all of the rest is for naught.

The contemplation that we engage in is twofold. Initially, we are seeking to understand the meaning of the message for our choices today and tomorrow. Caution is required not to reduce the obedience to a series of check-list items—treat people better, check!—but instead to see it as an incremental step toward a more Christ-like image. The message that we encounter in this spiritual discipline is often subtle, but it is designed to works its way deep into our souls. As our souls are transformed, our outward expression to the world is transformed as well.

The second order of contemplation is this outward expression. Christ’s sanctification is not purely for our own good but for good of all. As we become more Christ-like as a body, our influence as salt and light has much more of an effect. We become less two-faced and present the singular image of Christ to the world.

We must not underestimate the effect of even the smallest shift in obedience when played out over the scope of a lifetime. The slightest move in obedience to our Lord is not to be dismissed. What seems minor today can become radical when viewed over the span of our lives.

Grace and peace to you.

image JL outdoor photography

Lectio Divina–A Praying Spirit

image

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabonni!” (John 20:16)

Lectio divina as a spiritual exercise transitions our encounter with the scriptures through four steps, beginning with a reading that listens for the voice of the Rabbi to call out to each of us individually. It is His call to slow down and reflect on what we read, moving the content from head to heart. Meditating on the word that the Spirit has brought to our attention piques our desire to apply it in our lives, and for this, we require prayer.

The third step of this discipline is oratio. We pray at the sound of the voice of our Lord, turning almost involuntarily toward the One who is whispering in our ear. Just as we strain to hear every word uttered by our human lover, we lean into the voice of the ultimate Lover. At the sound of His voice we are moved to look Him in the face, to look deeply in His eyes and know that what He is telling us is true and right.

Through prayer we engage the text in which we are centered. As we pray in response to the voice of the Lord, the written word of God recorded for all of the people of the world has transformed into a personal word to me alone. This sounds dangerous if it is understood as the interpretation of theological truths on an individual basis. It is not. Remember, we are not interpreting the scriptures in this exercise, we are listening to hear God speak through the words. These are safe waters in which to tread.

Our prayer, intertwined with the intercession of the Spirit, leads us to grasp the reality of what the Lord says to us. We are overwhelmed by gratitude, confession or lament or any of the innumerable attitudes that guide our interactions with God and man. The lectio divina prayer is unconcerned with other things at this moment. It is only in response to the voice we have heard and where that voice wants to lead us.

Grace and peace to you.

image c jill reed

Lectio Divina–A Reflecting Spirit

image

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42:2)

The four-step sequence of the lectio divina spiritual exercise commences with a reading of the Scriptures and a listening spirit. With an ear attuned to the voice of God, we read slowly, listening for those words or phrases that the Spirit draws to our attention. Once identified, our hearts turn not to our heads for translation, but to a period of reflection in which we immerse ourselves in the word or phrase in order to discover the message that God is delivering through it.

Meditatio is the next step that we ease into as our word or phrase has been heard. We are going to meditate on this small segment of God’s Word in order to discern what it means to us. Reflection enables us to delve much deeper in the words and asks the Spirit’s participation to direct our heart-thinking to communicate the nuances of the message. For example, we all read the beginning words of John 3:16 the same: “For God so loved the world…”. If I say that I love my wife and that I also love lasagna, it is easy for all of us to distinguish the difference in meaning between the two uses of the word love.

If the Spirit has raised the word love to our attention as we listened to the passage, as we meditate on the word He will communicate the specific application that it has for each of us. If I am struggling with a brother or sister in my faith community, God may communicate to me the need to surrender my position for the good of the other. Meditation on that word may reveal to you that God is pleased with your sacrificial love for others. There are innumerable messages that can invested in that simple word, all unique and most easily overlooked when we read simply to read the book. Meditating on the word moves it deeper, into our heart where the Spirit can cause it to reverberate and reveal its meaning. We do not seek definition, we seek revelation.

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. Psalm 42:7

Our reflection centers itself on the single question, how are your revealing yourself to me Lord? Whether a single word, a verse or even a broader passage. Our immersion into the Scriptures is not seeking information, rather, we seek identification. The voice of the Lord speaks the passage directly to us and we are to receive it, perhaps differently than others who may be hearing the same exact passage. He may want us to take Peter’s place in the shadows as the cock crows, or to substitute for Mary in early morning chill as Jesus makes His first resurrected appearance. There may be warning or encouragement in “Be holy, because I am holy”. The single word “finished”, uttered from the cross may be the single reflection that alters your theological understanding of all that comes before and after.

Grace and peace to you.

Lectio Divina–A Listening Spirit

imageThe spiritual practice of lectio divina is our primary mode of reading the Bible when our purpose is spiritual transformation. Our reading in this manner is directed toward depth rather than breadth. We are not studying, we are allowing our hearts to be drawn to the incalculable depths of God’s love. Our goal is to be immersed in that love, to be washed and shaped by it as stone is by the waves or the rushing of the river.

Once the passage or section is chosen, a quiet environment free from distractions is the ideal place in which to pore over the scriptures. Before the first word is read, allow the quiet of your environment to still your soul. This is not a practice for the coffee shop. God does not normally speak to us through thunder or fire from the sky. It is a quiet voice, a whisper to which we must be attuned in order to hear it. To listen for that hushed voice, we must be expectant and prepared to welcome it into our soul.

When we read with a listening spirit our objective differs from our other reading practices. The words are not as much in focus as is the speaker of those words. We read in such a way that the words of Scripture transcend the page, the ink and even the particular person who is in view in the text, and we hear our Father telling us His story. Read the text without stopping, hearing the voice form the story. Hear His inflections and emphases as our expectant heart directed by the Spirit clues us into the particular message that He wants to communicate to you and me through these words. Repeat the reading a second and third time, repeating until the emphasis becomes crystal clear.

The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. Psalm 145:18

When you have extracted the personalized word that the Spirit has guided you to, you are ready to move to the next phase of lectio divina, reflection. We will pick this up in the next post. Until then, grace and peace to you.

Lectio Divina

imageWhen we seek spiritual transformation, our bible reading practices diverge onto two separate paths. We read from cover to cover repeatedly throughout our lives in order to know the scriptures. As we invest in this practice, we make the Scriptures our own and our knowledge of God expands. The benefits of consistent reading are manifold; our love, obedience and understanding increase, but this increase comes at the expense of a relatively fast reading pace. Reading for transformation takes a different pace, a slower velocity in which we breathe deeply and immerse our souls in the Scripture, reading with our hearts.

The practice of lectio divina (divine reading) has a long history among God’s people. It is a slower, meditative form of reading in which we approach the Scriptures in smaller segments, seeking to hear the whisper of God more than the accomplishment of a reading objective. We seek out more than an understanding of the words on the page. Divine reading has as its purpose our spiritual transformation through the submission to the scriptures, allowing it to flow through the processing of our eyes and brains and to settle into our hearts to do its work.

“To get the full flavor of an herb, it must be pressed between the fingers, so it is the same with the Scriptures; the more familiar they become, the more they reveal their hidden treasures and yield their indescribable riches.”– St. John Chrysostom

The unit of reading may be a passage, a sentence or phrase or even a single word. Lectio divina is not study, it is reflection and meditation on the Scripture. It relies upon the Spirit to guide and direct our reflection on the reading, to shine the light on what God wants to communicate to you and me specifically. As we develop in the practice, our meditation leads to praying the scriptures to start a new cycle of understanding. The word we hear in response helps us to apply the passage or verse. Obedience follows from application, and transformation from these.

There are four components to the spiritual practice: listening, reflecting, praying and obeying. We will look at each of these separately in the posts that follow in the coming days. This may be a good time to subscribe so that you don’t miss any part of this series. Grace and peace until we meet again.

image CarynNL

Digging In

imageIt is impossible to enslave mentally or socially a Bible-reading people. The principles of the Bible are the groundwork for human freedom.

Horace Greeley

The foundation of all spiritual development is rooted in the Scriptures. It is on the pages of the Bible that we learn who we are and where we came from. Our need for redemption is established and the great gift of mercy in Jesus is recorded from a number of perspectives. God’s principles for living together are spelled out and explained. Although it is often portrayed as constrictive, the Word is our freedom.

Bible reading is the first of the spiritual habits that we are going to explore and seek to apprehend. We are not going to read simply to turn the pages and for the sense of accomplishment. God speaks to us through the Word. He lives in the pages, displaying His character for us, and recording His interactions with those who came before us. We will be reading to hear Him speak to us so that we are shaped by His hand, rather than by the dominant culture.

We’ll start with establishing a reading plan and getting into the habit. Do you currently follow a plan? Are you more of a free-form reader? I look forward to hearing from you.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. (Psalm 119:105)

image rimabek

The First Step on a Lifelong Journey

lionLamb

We all remember it, even if the name escapes us. The ‘abdominator’ or ‘muscleizer’ or something of that nature. It was a wide, flexible belt with electrodes attached to it that you wrapped around your expanding stomach. Turning it on, if you dared, sent electrical signals to your abdominal muscles causing them to dance and jerk, exercising themselves. Through this miracle device, you could remain slouched in your Lazyboy in front of the television with your favorite beverage and, with enough time and twitches, you would emerge with rock-hard abs. All gain, no pain!

Except, it never worked. You were still flabby and thirty dollars poorer.

If you want to get in better physical condition you have to move. You have to get off the couch, put down the soda and chips and take the dog for a walk. There is no magical way to have the physique and health that you want, you have to work for it. Late-night television and the glossy images on the newsstand will attempt to tell you otherwise, but the facts can’t be disputed. A healthy body requires a healthy life.

Christians often labor under a similar misconception. We think that by appearing in church on Sunday, consuming a sermon and then returning to life we will be transformed. We want a faith like the people we hear about in those bible stories, a faith that can carry us through the tough times. Every so often, we even feel a little tug to change the world.

Except, it doesn’t work.

Rather than a trim, powerful, world-changing faith, we have a soft, casual, private religion that affects our lives very little, and the world even less. The faith we want and that we were intended to have doesn’t come through osmosis. It doesn’t mystically appear by listening to sermons or listening to radio programs. It takes work and devotion, and there are no shortcuts.

That’s why you’re here.

The gift of salvation that you have received is much more than a fire insurance policy. It is meant to be transformative in your life so that you, in turn, will be transformative to the world around you. The Spirit within you craves solid food. He does not want to continue to subsist on milk alone, and His urgings will not let you simply ‘be’.

Together, we’re going to begin a renewed journey of spiritual strength training. We’re going to be exploring the variety of spiritual tools and practices that have proven to produce fruit through the centuries. We’ll talk about and create community around it. You and I will praise Him for the growth we see, and He will be pleased at the transformation we bring to the world. We will be what He intended for us to be.

Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  1 Corinthians 9:24-25

Psalm 102–Contrast

imageMy days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass.

But you, Lord, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations. Ps 102:11-12

Contrast; an easy concept to define and understand. Placing one thing aside another so that the differences become apparent. As the psalter continually reminds us, no greater contrast exists than the gulf between God and man.

Man…created in the very image of God, privileged to be imbued with His Spirit and yet starkly different. Given domain over the Earth as caretakers of creation, humanity aspires to go beyond, to grasp the divinity that belongs only to the Creator. Brokenness of character marks our souls forever.

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. (vv 25-26)

We lament our condition, fragile and brief as it is in contrast to the eternal nature of God. Life passes by in an instant, sometimes filled with joy while other moments are marked by despair. Permanence is sought and found only in one place, at the base of the throne of God. Our quest for eternity is satisfied only here, hand and hand with the Creator of all.

Grace and peace to you.

image .indigo.