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Having Ears, Do You Not Hear?

An ancient practice helps us stop merely studying the Bible and start listening to it in a way that transforms us.

Listening to the Bible is difficult. For instance, we form "Bible study groups." When you put the word study in the name, people think the goal is to master information. So they think the Bible is something you try to understand and explain. That's a huge barrier.

So I call them "conversation groups." We have conversations with the Bible. We take a passage and listen to it; different people read it in different voices and we try to hear the poetry of the language, the sounds, and the message. I take notes as people share, and then after an hour I bring out some commentaries. I show them that we uncovered virtually everything the commentary said just through our conversation. I try to break the stronghold that academic scholarship has over us. We don't trust ourselves to encounter God's Word.

You cannot read a poem quickly. There's too much going on there—rhythms and alliterations. You have to read poetry slow, slow, slow to absorb it all. That's how I began reading and praying psalms, because I realized they were poems.

The first time you read a poem, you usually don't understand it. You've got to read it ten times or more. You've got to listen to it. That's just like the four steps of lectio divina (see below). The four steps are not sequential. They're more like a spiral staircase. You keep going around and around, coming back to this step and over to that one. It's fluid.

There's nothing terribly difficult in the Bible—at least in a technical way. The Bible is written in street language, common language. Most of it was oral and spoken to illiterate people. They were the first ones to receive it. So when we make everything academic, we lose something.

When you've spent 12, 14, or 18 years in school, your habits form in a non-reflective way. And it isn't a school's job to make us reflective. We need to learn information. But most of us have never been taught to read and listen reflectively.

So when I see people in my congregation taking notes during the sermon, I say, "Put your pencils away. I want you to listen. Listen to the Word of God. It's not something for you to figure out; it's something for you to respond to."

Of course there are going to be misunderstandings with the Scriptures—that goes with language. How many times in a marriage do a husband and wife misunderstand each other? And those misunderstandings don't occur because they used incorrect grammar.

But if we're part of a community where the Scriptures are honored, we don't have to worry. The Spirit works through community. Somebody will have a stupid, screwy idea. That's okay. Creeds, confessions, and traditions keep us in touch with the obvious errors.

This piece is adapted from an interview in Leadership Journal, Winter 2009.

What is Lectio Divina?

The ancient Christian practice of lectio divina (spiritual reading) is the primary mode of reading the Bible for transformation. There is a place for reading large portions of the Bible in one sitting, but this is not it. Here we are concerned with depth rather than breadth.

There is also a place for Bible study, in which we apply exegetical tools of interpretation, but this is not "study" per se. Rather, lectio is a way of allowing the mind to "descend" into the heart, so that both mind and heart might be drawn into the love and goodness of God.

Our goal is immersion. We are shaped by the environment in which we live and breathe and interact. Lectio immerses us in the deep and timeless waters of God, that more of God's eternal life might flow into our time-bound lives.

In its classic form, lectio comprises four elements, although there are many variations on them with different wording and emphasis:

  • lectio (reading with a listening spirit);
  • meditatio (reflecting on what we are "hearing");
  • oratio (praying in response to this hearing);
  • contemplatio (contemplating what we will carry forward into our lives).

We can also refer to these basic elements of lectio as listening, reflecting, praying, and obeying. When these elements are combined—regardless of sequence, for they overlap and intermingle in a circular rather than a linear way—they lead the human spirit into a dynamic interaction with the Holy Spirit.
—Richard J. Foster

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Bible; Bible Study; Bible Study and Meditation; Discipline; God's Word; Spiritual disciplines
Today's Christian Woman, July , 2010
Posted July 1, 2010

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