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Listening for God

How an ancient method of prayer can deepen your teenager's faith.

Today's teenagers live at hyperspeed. Their days are jammed with school, work, friends, sports, homework, dates, church, and a few moments of sleep. The frantic pace of teen life has led youth pastors such as Tony Jones to search for ways to help teenagers be still and know God. Several years ago, Jones, then the pastor for youth and young adults at Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota, began using a centuries-old form of prayer called the "Lectio Divina" as a way of helping his junior and senior high students step out of their mile-a-minute days and into the presence of God. The practice was so well-received that Jones wrote a book about it called Read, Think, Pray, Live (NavPress), which helps teenagers discover the beauty of the Lectio Divina. CPT recently talked with Jones about this unique way of praying and why it can change the way your teenager experiences God.

Christian Parenting Today: Let's start with the basics. What is the Lectio Divina?

Tony Jones: Lectio Divina is an ancient method of contemplative prayer that involves four basic stages: Lectio: a selection or reading; Meditatio: thinking over or meditation; Oratio: speaking or praying; and Contemplatio: contemplation. I know it sounds intimidating, but I've been using it with students for several years, and we have been blown away by how we sense God speaking to us as we pray.

CPT: So how does a teenager pray the Lectio Divina?

TJ: You need to start with an atmosphere that lends itself to quiet and reflection. Some people like to use soft background music, but I think silence works best. Then you need to sit in a posture that keeps your spine straight, such as sitting on a firm chair with both feet on the floor and your head either looking straight ahead or slightly bowed. You can also kneel, although that can get uncomfortable pretty quickly.

Then pick a passage of Scripture. The Psalms lend themselves to devotional reading, so they are a good place to start. You can also look in the Old Testament books of the prophets, which contain a lot of poetry and songs. In the New Testament, the letters of John are good. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) works well, too. Some Christian traditions use a standard lectionary that follows the church calendar. The lectionary provides a psalm, Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, and a gospel lesson for each Sunday of the year. If your church doesn't use the lectionary, you can find one online.

I also encourage my students to stay away from their favorite verses—at least for a while—because they already have an idea of what theses passages have to say. That can get in the way of them hearing something new.

Once you choose a passage, read the passage slowly and repeatedly. You might read it out loud a couple of times, then once or twice silently. You don't need to think about what the passage means just yet. The idea is to experience the passage.

After you've read the passage a few times, move on to meditating on the words. Often a particular word or phrase will jump out at a student and that can be the focus of her meditation. I tell my students to think of this part as chewing on the Word. This is when we experience the flavor of God's Word. It's when we shine a spotlight on the word or phrase that's grabbed our attention and really look at it from all sides. What does this word bring to mind? What does this phrase feel like for me?

This is usually the longest stage. It's the time when we need to let other thoughts and worries fall away. That can be hard for teenagers, but I tell my kids not to obsess on their inability to focus. After they do this a few times, it will become easier for them to settle in to the quiet.

The next stage is Oratio. I think of this as my conversation with God. This is where your teenager might ask, "God, why did you put this phrase in my heart today?" People sometimes get hung up on whether it was God who gave them this phrase—maybe it was just them picking something out. Honestly, it doesn't really matter what comes from us and what comes from God—God can use even our self-motivated choices. We work under the faith-filled assumption that God is at work.

The ultimate question at this stage is, "God, what do you want me to do with what you've given me today?" The answer won't necessarily be something life-altering, but in the quiet, it really is possible to hear God speak into our heart.

The final stage is Contemplatio, where you just rest in God. It's a time to be quiet and simply be.

CPT: You're going back to an ancient practice that involves solitude and silence, which seems so antithetical to the life of teenagers. What got you thinking this was a good method to use with teens?

TJ: There's all this imagery in evangelical churches about prayer. We talk about "prayer warriors" and "wearing out your knees in prayer." It's a very hyperactive approach to prayer. But the kids I work with are inundated with noise. They wake up to music, they wear headphones on the bus and between classes. There's noise at school and at their jobs. They go home and have the tv on while they instant message their friends and do their homework. They fall asleep with music on. They need something that removes them from all the activity and noise.

And kids don't read the Bible. If you think about the Bible from a teenager's perspective, it's a weird book that's unapproachable. It's full of words they've never heard and it reads like nothing else they've read. You can tell how uncomfortable they are when you ask a kid to read Scripture in worship on Sunday morning and he says, "Are there going to be any of those weird words in it?"

The Lectio Divina is a way teenagers can read the Bible and pray. There's no pressure to read a chapter or fill in the blanks in their devotional books or jump around the Bible to find the answers for some worksheet. There's no schedule of reading three or four chapters a day so they can read the Bible in a year. Instead, this lets them take two verses and spend half an hour with them and just read meditatively.

CPT: Do you find that kids really get something from this practice?

TJ: Absolutely. Christians have long held that God will speak to the individual believer through the Word. That's why I think it's worth doing. Every time we do this with my youth group kids, they feel God says something. Regardless, they're thinking, they're praying, they're quiet. Too often, our understanding of the Bible is a mile wide and an inch deep. With the Lectio Divina, these kids really know the passages they've read and they've found meaning in them.

The first time I did this with the youth group was in our ninth-grade confirmation class. Every single kid heard something from God. Not one of them said, "Nothing stood out to me." Not one kid thought it was lame. They didn't all have some life-changing payoff, but every kid felt as though they had an encounter with the holiness of God.

It's also a sustainable practice. I know college kids now who still do this. When I was in college, I didn't know how to pray or read the Bible. I was trying to have a quiet time and failing miserably and beating myself up for it. This I can do.

CPT: It also seems to lead to a different understanding of how we think about the Bible.

TJ: There's a John Robinson quote that says, "There is more light yet to break forth from God's Holy Word." There's this long standing conviction that the Bible is an active, living thing. But a lot of us were taught that the Bible can be mastered, that it's been mastered for a long time. We get the impression that if we go to enough classes and memorize a few key verses, then we can really get our arms around this thing.

But God's Word is like a wild garden you can't fence in. We need to let it grow like crazy and enjoy its fruit. We don't have to prune it back or hedge it in. Instead of having to solve all the intricacies of the Bible, we can say, "I'm just going to take the first half of this psalm and I'm going to spend the next half hour with it. I'm going to dive into it and get under it. Then I'm going to sit back and listen to what God has to say to me.

CPT: How can parents encourage their teenagers to do this?

TJ: Start by doing it together. This way of reading the Bible really lends itself to family devotions. Get rid of the big study Bible and the intense devotionals and get a Bible in a translation that lends itself to devotional reading, such as The Message. Then make it a family practice to do the Lectio Divina once a week.

The great part is that a parent doesn't need to be some exegetical master to sit down and lead the family in the Lectio Divina. You can say "Let's each read the passage twice, sit quietly for 20 minutes, then share what we heard God saying." Parents are often so intimidated by the Bible that they don't know how to help their kids get into it. This lets parents get out of the way and let God do the talking.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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