Life With God 4

It was this…intention that made the primitive Christians such eminent instances of piety, that made the goodly fellowship of the Saints and all the glorious army of martyrs and confessors. And if you will here stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it. ~ William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Intent rather than method. A bracing thought for the modern Christian who finds themselves enmeshed in the current intellectual culture of the Church. Spiritual formation is reduced to a set of to-do’s and application. Richard Foster leads us now to develop the proper mindset needed to read the Bible for spiritual formation rather simply information. Life With God locates the next chapter in helping us to draw the distinction between reading the surface of the text and encountering God. The greatest cultural challenge that we face is that we encounter daily the idea that the Bible exists to serve our needs. We are tempted to pick and choose verses that serve our needs while setting aside the context that might challenge our perceptions. When read this way, the Bible becomes a manual for moralism, a behavioral set of scales that substitutes for true relationship with God.

The approach that we can take to engaging the bible to participate in God’s transformation of our souls is called Lectio Divina. Our reading changes focus from breadth to depth. It is a way of encouraging our mind to descend to our hearts so that we are drawn into the love and goodness of God as it is spoken to us through the living Word. Our goal is total immersion in the text so that we a drawn into the story, becoming a part of the words.

There are four elements to Lectio Divina:

  • Lectio – this is the practice of reading with a listening spirit
  • Meditatio – we reflect on what the voice of God speaks to us
  • Oratio – in response to the elation of hearing from God, we pray the scripture in response
  • Contemplatio – most importantly, we contemplate deeply on what changes we will make in our lives in obedience to the Word

Engaging the Bible in this fashion is a challenge to much of what we may have learned. It is not compatible with a daily reading plan which schedules a number of verses so that the book can be completed in a year. We skim over the words that God has for us in our pursuit of the goal. Lectio is a much slower process, immersing us in a single passage, perhaps even a few words or a phrase so that the voice of God can get through to us. It seeps into our heart as we camp on this verse or passage and as our hearts turn, we act in obedience to demonstrate to the world the way of the disciple.

Have you practiced these methods with success? Has there been some culturally or in the Church that works against this method of engaging the text? Let’s talk about this.

Life With God 3

Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. Isaiah 55:3

Richard Foster emphasizes the messy reality of the the “I am with you” Immanuel principle in chapter three of Life With God. Reading the Bible with this in mind, one of the transformative themes that we can derive is that the book does more than just tell us about the immediate presence of God. Instead it unfolds for us how embedded the Presence is in every aspect of human existence. Whether we are running toward or away from God, we cannot escape the truth of His pursuit. He calls out, “I am with you” and asks, “Will you be with me?”

Our struggle with Immanuel is often spelled out in the tension between two ideas. We comprehend our value to God in His pursuit of relationships with us and yet, when skies cloud over, we identify equally with the Psalmist’s lament “why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? The space between these two poles is life guided by the choices that we make. In those choices is the ultimate act of spiritual formation, allowing God to perfect His will and His ways in our lives. In the pages of our Bible, we can see how the Living Word transforms countless other human beings and it speaks to us; surrender your will and come into relationship with me! In exercising our freedom to choose to trust in Christ, we open ourselves to transformation in the depths of life with God.

For spiritual formation, we want to read the Bible with two aims. First, we want to engage the story of God’s people who were immersed in God’s immediate presence, whether they were aware of it or not. We read of God pursuing relationship with His creations and of the blessings and consequences of choosing for or against this relationship. In fact we learn from those that have gone before us that turning back to God is not a mechanical transaction, not a rule to follow, it is a relationship.

The second aim that we want to approach the Bible with is hear God as he speaks to us through the Word. The stories that we read are replete with examples of failure and restoration. Human beings are not the most reliable partners in relationship and when we come to this realization it opens up a new horizon in how we view God. Because we are by nature fickle, the transformation that occurs in each of our spiritual lives is a unilateral commitment from our Father. He pursues and transforms. Our task to immerse ourselves in those things that can positively affect our character. It is at this level that the living Word works.

Foster refines this approach to a single statement for modern Christians in saying that the way into this life, the Immanuel life, is trusting in Jesus. The Lord’s words make it simple, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” (Mark 5:36) Our call is to live the Kingdom life now and not just approach the faith as fire insurance. Our way into the fullness of this life is through character transformation, something that occurs when choose for life in relationships with the Lifegiver and when we immerse ourselves in the Word that changes us into what we were intended to be.

I would love to hear of your experiences of transformation. Have you found any particular scripture verses or story that were particularly meaningful in this process? Let’s share and grow together.

Life With God 2

Approaching chapter two of Foster’s Life With God we may find ourselves tempted to skip past it. With its title, “Entering the world of the Bible”, our instincts as long time Bible readers is to guess that we have read all this before. We have been trained to remember context and literary genres and history and all of the other skills that we bring to a technical study of the Bible. What should prevent us from turning these pages too quickly is Foster’s core message of reading the Bible not just for knowledge, but for spiritual transformation. He poses this very question in introducing this section by asking what kind of attitude is most helpful to us in trying to apprehend the transformation that awaits in the Word.

Hint, it is not the mechanics.

The mechanics that we have learned feed our head and provide a guide for praxis but they do not necessarily engage the soul. Orthopraxy is the result of inner transformation, not just the expansion of one’s knowledge base. Jesus vehemently pointed out the bibliolatry of the Pharisees who were frozen in their mechanical devotion to the letter of the scripture:

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. Jn 5:39-40

To avoid a similarly arid fate for ourselves, a different approach is called for with the aim of spiritual transformation. Foster recommends a trio of attitudes for entering the world of the Bible; we should seek to enter expectantly, attentively, and humbly. To enter the story of the Bible expectantly is enter fully anticipating an encounter with God. Reading the words is less about hearing the words replayed in our mind and more about the expectation of a dialogue between our soul and the Holy Spirit (cf. Rev 3:20). With the approach in mind, we become fully present to God in a way that transformation is now possible where in the process of memorization it is not. In the immediacy of that contact we engage more than the God that is written about and we find ourselves face to face with the living God as He is revealed through the Bible.

To come to the Bible attentively is to come in recognition that more than any other label that we apply to it, the Bible is a story. It is not neat and systematic, instead, it is an epic depiction of how works out His purposes through the messiness of human life. We see good and bad, trial and error, and success and failure and through all of it we see the triumph of God moving purposely to His ends. God certainly could have told His story in the form of a systematic theology but the temptation would be to gather the knowledge and then move back to a position of self reliance. Instead, Foster observes, God has made the story difficult so that we must rely on Him for life and to have any hope of comprehending the transformative message of the scriptures.

Though it should go without saying, we must also come to the Bible humbly. Foster uses the Damascus road story to demonstrate the depth of humility needed to engage the process of spiritual transformation. In a humbled state such as Saul found himself, he and we are open to multiple opportunities and avenues through which God can initiate and further our transformation. Humility that is less than complete tempts us to rely on our own powers to change, with the expected less than satisfactory results. Transformation occurs as we surrender to the variety of ways that God chooses to speak through the scriptures as we are drawn away from our own concerns and needs.

The difficult question that we must address is the application of these attitudes to our bible study. Do you have ideas on how we might properly approach the scripture with the purpose of reading for spiritual transformation? How about breaking from the old habits of reading for information? I’m interested to start a dialog about transformation, so please join in.

Life With God 1

In order to embrace the message of Richard Foster’s latest book Life With God, it’s important that we first define terms. The intent of the book is guide us in responding to God’s statement and question: “I am with you. Are you willing to be with Me?” Foster has long advocated the practice of spiritual disciplines as methods of intentionally moving ourselves, body and soul, to the place where we meet God in order that we can receive from Him the ability to do what we cannot do on our own. In other words, we purposely place ourselves in the position of being open to transformation so that God can perform this action. We become, to quote Foster directly, “…the kind of person who automatically will do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.” In this transformation, we gain the life that Jesus speaks of in John 10:10, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

Foster narrows his focus with this book to the discipline of reading the Bible for transformation, Lectio Divina. This practice stands in contrast to a brace of reasons that people often give as their reason for studying the Bible. The first is to gain knowledge alone. This knowledge is double edged; it often stays in our head only, rarely moving down to the heart and we risk becoming arrogant in our storehouse of biblical knowledge despite the fact that we are not transformed by it. Second, the Bible is often read in search for a formula to solve some pressing issue. This opens us up to numerous possible problems such proof texts pulled out of context ignorant of other contrasting or supporting passages in the whole of scripture.

Transformative reading is bible reading with the heart more than the head. It is listening to the text, submitting to the text, reflecting on the text, praying the text, applying the text, and obeying the text.  In each case we bring ourselves to the altar of transformation so that God can receive our sacrifice and perform that change that we ourselves cannot.

Are you currently engaged in this practice? What would you add or subtract from this list?

Life with God

image

Most Christians can enunciate the Immanuel principle in some fashion; “God is with us.” This stirring promise has been the foundation of belief and practice for as long as there has been a Church. Discovering the key to tapping into this powerful presence has been a goal of discipleship for centuries, not just for purposes of knowledge but also to seek out the transforming power of that relationship. Through the history of the Church, many disciples have discovered and deepened our understanding of various disciplines that allow us to draw closer to this power source. In 1978, an unknown Friends pastor published a book entitled Celebration of Discipline which has become a standard in Christian libraries. Richard Foster, the author and one of our leading thinkers on Christian spirituality, has contributed a new work that narrows its focus to the practice of reading the scriptures for personal transformation.

The book, Life with God, centers on the practice of Lectio Divina, a contemplative praying of the Scriptures which enables the Word to become a means of union with God. In each of its chapters, Foster challenges us to respond and be shaped by the truth-proposition that God voices throughout the scriptures, “I am with you. Are you willing to be with Me?” If you’ve read the book or would like to, I would love to engage in conversation with you about the ideas and practices within. In the coming weeks I will examine one chapter and idea per week in addition to looking at another book having to do with the reading of the Bible, Scot McKnight’s upcoming The Blue Parakeet.