Thursday, September 29, 2016

Three Ways to Pray Scripture

This is the handout I prepared for the "Intro to Spiritual Formation" workshop at Camp Lee on September 29, 2016 sponsored by the Spiritual Formation Team of the North Alabama Conference. I compiled material from a variety of sources.

In addition to praying and singing psalms and canticles as a way of joining in the ongoing praise of the saints, I suggest that there are three classic and deeply spiritual ways to pray scripture:

1) Entering the Narrative Imaginatively

Ignatius of Loyala (b. 1491) is credited with this method. He discovered how useful the imagination could be in fostering a deeper relationship with God, and imaginative prayer is one of the hallmarks of Ignatian spirituality. He integrated imaginative prayer into the approach to the spiritual life outlined in his work the Spiritual Exercises.

Ignatius presents two ways of imagining. The first is demonstrated in a meditation on the Incarnation. He asks us to “enter into the vision of God.” We imagine God looking down in love on our turbulent world. We see God intervening by sending Jesus. This imagining helps us see things from God’s perspective and take on God’s qualities of compassion and understanding.

The second method is to place ourselves within a story from the Gospels. We become onlookers or participants and give full rein to our imagination. We feel the hot sun, the itchy clothes, or our stomachs rumbling. We notice the faces. Above all, we watch Jesus in the story, seeing gestures and the look in his eyes. We hear him speak, and we imagine other words he might have spoken.

The best-known example of this is contemplation on Jesus’ birth. Imagine the labors of the journey to Bethlehem, the struggles of finding a shelter, the poverty, the thirst, the hunger, the cold, and the smell of animals. You find yourself holding the holy child and gazing into his eyes. What feelings fill your heart? Through the narrative, you have entered the prayer space of adoration. Many scenes from the Gospels are ripe for imaginative contemplation. This way of prayer helps us experience Jesus filling our senses, rather than simply thinking about Jesus.

Try it … 

• Choose a scene from the Gospels that captures your attention before you begin.
• Find a quiet place, breathe, and rest in God. Read the story.
• Set your Bible aside. Relax. Let your imagination take you deeply into the scene. What are the sights? Sounds? Smells? Turn your eyes upon Jesus. What does he do? What does he say to others? What does he say to you? How do you respond?
• After a long period of imaginative prayer, record your reflections in your journal.

2) Chewing on the Text 

Lectio Divina (Latin for "Divine Reading") is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God. It does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the Living Word to be feasted on.

Traditionally, Lectio Divina has four separate steps:
    1) Lectio - reading
    2) Meditatio – meditating
    3) Oratio – praying
    4) Contemplatio – contemplation

The focus of Lectio Divina is not a theological analysis of biblical passages but viewing them with Christ as the key to their meaning. For example, given Jesus' statement in John 14:27: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you", an analytical approach would focus on the reason for the statement during the Last Supper, the biblical context, etc. In Lectio Divina, however, we feast on the peace of Christ rather than "dissecting" the text.

The monastic practice of Lectio Divina was first established in the 6th century by Saint Benedict.

Try it … 

• First a passage of Scripture is read, slowly as if savoring a meal rather than quickly eating fast food. The plain meaning of the text is comprehended. A shorter passage is better for praying the scripture than reading large passages for study.
• Second, after a while the passage is read again. This time, notice a word or phrases that the Spirit brings forth to capture your attention. You don’t need to know why. Just let it emerge, like nuggets that appear on the surface when panning for gold. Then spend time chewing on it. Why is this speaking to you? What is the Spirit saying to you? Let it touch a deep place in you.
• Third, read the passage again and this time, respond to God in prayer. It may be helpful to journal your prayers and thoughts.
• Fourth, read the passage again and rest with it. Simply contemplate the majesty and mystery of God. Feel God’s presence as you have communed with him through scripture.

3) Gazing on the Symbol 

Symbol is, in its essence, the way we know what we cannot see. The origin of the word symbalon, means to throw. Indeed, symbols “throw” meaning into life. We use them in the way we talk, think, and process information.

There is a vast treasury of symbol and metaphor in scripture. Like narratives and parables, they are God’s unique ways of conveying truth in the Bible. To “gaze” with the heart on a scriptural symbol takes prayer to a place beyond words and concepts.

Symbol grows more meaningful as Christianity matures. It is interesting that when Paul talks about maturing in Christ, he uses metaphor of “milk” and “solid food.” As the journey progresses, truth is unveiled layer by layer, until the day when “with unveiled faces” we experience the glory of the Lord.

Try it … 

• Light a candle to focus, as this is one of the profound symbols of Christ’s presence.
• Choose a scripture that contains symbol, like an elemental symbol such as rock, fire, or water (Moses striking the rock, the day of Pentecost, the woman at the well, etc). Or choose metaphors of Jesus like light and salt. Or choose an “I am statement” Jesus makes in the book of John. Or choose a passage with the metaphor of the tree, the door, the gate, or a scriptural symbol that might be most meaningful to you. It might well be a favorite contained in a piece of art, church paraments, or stained glass you are familiar with.
• Draw, paint, view a natural version of, or gaze upon a piece of art containing this symbol. Or imagine it in your mind’s eye. Or let your body take its shape.
• Spend time with it. Experience it. What truth does God speak to you through it? What draws your attention to it? What healing does it bring? How does it shift your perspective? What prayer does it well up in you?

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Where's the Fire?

This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, August 31, 2016.

My mother was a really organized person. She orchestrated our family reunions, she kept a list of who was getting what from whom for Christmas, and she added a little order to my life when I needed her to. Yes, I was a teenager once.

After she and Dad retired, they enjoyed several years of traveling. It seems like they went everywhere. They scoured the United States. They coordinated overseas trips and cruises.

But my mom had a funny little habit. She was so organized that whenever they arrived at a hotel, the first thing she did was go through her mental checklist. On that list was finding the fire escape. She had to know, just in case.

One time when they were on a trip, in her usual fashion she went on her quest to find it. A small door on the end of the hall looked like it might be the right one. She opened it to take a look.

There, inside the door, was a man in the bathroom. "Oh, my goodness, I'm sorry," she said. "I was just trying to find the fire escape."

She quickly closed the door. Red as a beet, she headed down the hall toward her room.

Perhaps she shouldn't have been so surprised that a few minutes later, down the hall came that man with a very fast pace, frantically pulling up his pants. "Where's the fire? Where's the FIRE?"

It's the question we still ask. Where's the fire, when we feel like our flame just fizzled out? When we are tired or a little bit depressed? When the things we once believed in so passionately don't seem to work for us anymore?

Where's the fire?

One of the simplest pleasures I have always loved is a campfire. I love to build it, I love the careful tinkering of getting it started, and I love hoping it "takes". I love the thrill of watching it finally burst into flames.

I love to feed the fire, to be warmed by the fire, to roast marshmallows on the fire, and to smell the hot dogs sizzling in the fire. I love the taste of the charred, gooey white sugar and the crunch of the toasted bun around that meaty frank.

Sometimes I go camping without one, and it's just not the same. I lay awake in the cold night air, thinking "why didn't I just go ahead and build a fire?"

That's because there is something about fire that gets you in touch with what it means to be deeply human. After all, the campfire is where social life began. It's where song, story, dance, and ritual got its beginnings.

Thousands of years later, we still gather around the fire and we call that "worship." Yes, maybe a good old fashioned campfire rages more than a candle gently placed on the altar, but either way it warms the heart.

We still gather around the fire to sing the song, to tell the story, and to join the dance of the soul. It's ritual behavior at its best. And we don't do ritual just because we are Christian, or even because we are religious.

We do it because that's what it means to be human. And that fire is the fire of the Spirit.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at