This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to start a new small group with several young ladies from our church. (If you want to join in virtually, check out this post on what we're doing.) While I pray that what we study will benefit these young women, I know that whatever I teach always challenges me too!
For our first meeting, we focused on Mary (as in Mary and Martha---see Luke 10:38-42, and I'm sure you'll recognize her) and her love for Jesus. She is often viewed as the paragon of godliness or the inspiration of the guilt we feel…or both. I have often wondered how I can be like her.
While Jesus may not physically be on earth with us now, we too can learn how to "sit like Mary." At first, I wondered how I could do this without my mind wandering to the to-do list that is always running in my head. And even if I managed to get through this obstacle, I certainly did not want to fall prey to my mind's own all-too-human thoughts. I wanted it to be focused on truth, just as Mary was listening directly to Jesus' words. But I also wanted the relational aspect that Mary enjoyed. Clearly, she was learning from Jesus, yes, but it didn't look like she was in class sitting under a professor and taking copious notes. There is a relational aspect to Mary that I longed to capture as well. In short, it gives God's Word a chance to get beyond the head and into the fabric of your life.
A few years ago, I was introduced to a spiritual discipline called lectio divina, which is a Latin term for "divine reading." Basically, it is a slow, contemplative, thoughtful reading of a short section of God's Word. For me, it is a simple way to learn to listen like Mary.
So what do you do?
First, select a brief passage of Scripture. By brief, I mean no more than 6-8 verses. The goal is to keep it short and focused. You may choose a story, poetry, or one of Paul's letters for starters, though all of Scripture is fair game. For our time together with the girls, we looked at Ephesians 3:14-19. This exercise is also a wonderful way to close an inductive Bible study. Simply use the passage you just studied or a significant portion to you.
Next, take a moment to prepare your heart to listen. Don't just jump right in as if conducting a business meeting. Remember that we are listening to Jesus. If you've been particularly frantic, take a few moments to let your spirit calm down, and then invite Him to speak to you through His Word. Wait for it. Pause. Prepare. Ask the Lord to help you resist the temptation to enter into this time only on a mental level.
The actual practice of lectio divina refers to a repeated, slow and focused reading through of your chosen passage. Each of the 3-4 readings has a specific purpose. In essence, you are listening for how this particular passage intersects with your own life and experience at this moment. If you can, try to read it out loud or listen to it being read to you. If that isn't possible, just make sure you read it slowly.
For the first read through, or lectio, listen for the word or phrase that strikes you. What stands out from all the rest? What resonates with you? Or what causes resistance in your soul? Pause silently with your word. Don’t try to analyze at this point. Your goal is to allow God to surface and identify a focal point.
For me, I was challenged by the opening words, "I bow my knees…" in verse 14. Right away, I knew that God had some business he needed to deal with me, as I resisted these words. Interestingly, these same words can also be a positive picture for others. This is the beauty of lectio divina: letting God bring His unchangeable word to bear in our varied lives and experiences.
The second time through, reflect on the way your life is touched by this word (if you want the fancy Latin term, it is called meditatio).
- What is it in my life that needed to hear this word today? Is it an area of confusion? Sin? Sorrow? Is it a word of confirmation? Guidance? Peace?
- If you happen to be using this text with a narrative (story) you may wish to ask yourself: Where am I in this text? Which character do I relate to in this story? What do I experience as I allow myself to be in this story?
Keep going back to the word. The goal is not to figure out what the word means or studying it. Rather, let God show you what He wants this word to say in your particular life and circumstances.
Again, for me, I knew that the Lord was wanting to address a spirit of rebellion in my own heart, particularly in my attitude towards Anah. I had been feeling very disgruntled at the portion He had given me. I felt like it was unfair, and I didn't want any of it! I was not bowing my knees to Him, and He wanted me to see it. I didn't like it, but it is true.
For your third reading, respond to the Lord's insights in the previous reading (oratio).
- Is there an invitation or a challenge to respond to? What is our response to God’s invitation?
- Is there a particular life situation that these words address? Is there a course of action He is guiding you to take? How will you receive it?
- Is there sin that needs to be dealt with through confession and repentance?
- Or does this simply evoke a response of heartfelt praise and worship?
Ruth Haley Barton, in her book Sacred Rhythms, recommends going with the first and unedited response to what you have heard, what comes most naturally—even if it is a place of pain, frustration, anger. Pour out these feelings to the Lord and express them as honestly as possible.
Right away, I knew that God was reminding me that He is the Lord of all, not me. He does not do things to suit me. If anyone is to bow the knee, it is me. In this situation, it is not only the right thing to do, it is the best thing to do. The only one stopping me from receiving the blessings He has in store is myself. And I knew it. In this reading, the Lord was challenging me to release my discontent and anger so that I may fully receive all that He has for me through this journey with Anah.
During this time, it was my turn to respond to His gentle word of rebuke and correction. Needless to say, this was not a response given in a heartbeat. Take as much time as you need. For me, I have needed to process over a period of time, even as I went through this week.
The last reading is one of rest or contemplatio. Before jumping up and rushing off, take time to pause again and rest with the Lord in peace and quiet, much like a child would lay her head on her daddy's chest. If it helps you, or if you must do something, write the word in your journal, doodle, illustrate, as you rest in Him.
Personally, I am often tempted to skip this reading, but it does allow God's Word to settle into your soul. Take a few moments to let it sink in and rest in your relationship with God. Rest is a perfectly acceptable state of being, especially when you are sitting with a good friend. Perhaps it is only in our frenzied culture that we are uncomfortable with quiet moments.
Ready to give it a try? Grab a journal if you like. When you are finished with your readings, take a moment to record a brief thought so you can remember what the Lord has shared with you. This additional practice can help you to process through the Word on a personal level and look for themes and recurring messages. As I mentioned earlier, build in time at the end of your Bible study to simply let the Word that you have just analyzed permeate your spirit.
Most of all, remember that this is a tool, an exercise, to help you to grow your relationship with God. It does not earn you brownie points with Him. It is meant to help you to sit at His feet and soak in His presence through His Word…just like Mary.