All around me people sipped steaming coffee and scrolled away on their electronic devices. They were oblivious. But I could not have sensed Jesus' presence more clearly if he'd sat down in the chair across from me.
I came alone to the coffee shop. My mission: to attempt the spiritual discipline of lectio divina. The intimidating Latin name, combined with the suggested component of burning incense screamed weird to me when I learned about it in Sunday School, but I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that I should try it.
Bible study is a normal part of my routine, but I tend to go to the Word with a preconceived plan. Sometimes I want answers for raising my children. Sometimes I need to prepare a discussion topic. And, quite frankly, sometimes I just want to read a few verses and check it off my list for the day. Lectio divina does not allow that.
The English translation of lectio divina is "divine reading." It is a classic spiritual discipline of Scripture reading, meditation, and prayer. According to M. Robert Mulholland Jr. in his book Invitation to a Journey, when practicing Lectio Divina we are not to take an analytical approach to the passage but are to be mastered by God for the fulfillment of his purposes in us and through us. We are to shift within ourselves from What do I want to learn from this text? to What does God want to teach me through this text?
I finally gave in to the relentless nudge and wrote LECTIO DIVINA in orange block letters on my dry erase calendar. When the scheduled day arrived and those two words leapt off the calendar at me, I felt obliged to follow through.
I gathered my Bible, Kindle, and journal, and hopped in my mini-van en route to my lectio divina destination: a little coffee shop down the road. It is probably more on par with the traditional discipline to find a quiet place of solitude, but I was already taking a step out of my comfort zone by participating in lectio divina, so I decided the location must be comfortable and familiar.
Once I had my focus (and my coffee), I was ready for my adventure in the Word.
Step 1: Lectio
I began with the first of four steps, lectio, which is simply the process of reading the text while involving our senses. This is where the burning of incense fits in, but instead the scent of freshly-brewed medium roast in my green mug involved my senses.
Starting felt strangely similar to taking a seat on the first day of a college course and not knowing what to expect from the professor. I wasn't sure what to read and wondered if I looked as odd to everyone around me as I felt. After opening my Bible and flipping through it a bit, I landed at Isaiah 55. The chapter was a reasonable length to study for the time I had allotted, so I planted myself there. Mulholland says that we are to "read expectantly, hungry to hear what God has to say to us…" So I started reading, hopeful that I could study the passage without forcing any of my own impressions into the text.
As I worked my way through the chapter, I found familiar passages. But I about choked on my cranberry orange muffin when my eyes met with verse 11: "It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it."
Surely Jesus was sitting beside me. Surely the man reading his newspaper at the next table heard him speak that verse to me.
You see, God had used those very same words to comfort me several months previous. As I sat on a little twin bed in a dorm room wondering why in the world I was at a writing conference with a bunch of people who were all surely more talented than me, God led me to that verse. It was a comforting reminder that my value does not come from what I have to say, but from what he says in the Scripture.
God's Word prospers everywhere he sends it.
He gave me a double-dose of grace when he spoke that verse out loud through speaker Jane Rubietta the following day. It was a defining moment of my summer.
Just as God met with me on such a personal level at that conference, he was now meeting with me at a coffee shop. When I stepped out of my comfort -zone, God was right there waiting for me.
With Bible in hand, breath caught in my throat, and half-eaten muffin on my plate, I sat staring teary-eyed at the passage. I've done it again, I thought. I've gotten caught up in my own words. I've given what I have to say more importance than what God has to say.
Step 2: Meditatio
The second step in lectio divina is meditatio; the act of processing Scripture. Mulholland calls it "chewing" on the words. Benedictine monk Father Luke Dysinger says that through meditatio "we allow God's word to become his word for us."
I so often quickly read through Scripture and miss out on what God wants me to hear. Meditatio forced me to slow down and take it in word by word. I sat for a long while rereading the middle section of Isaiah 55, placing the emphasis on different words and letting truth soak in. Those verses became to me the tender words of a father soothingly reminding me that he had everything under control—that his plan cannot be thwarted by my shortcomings.
Steps 3 and 4: Oratio and Contemplatio
The third and fourth pieces of lectio divina are oratio and contemplatio—our response to God and a yielding to his will. According to Dysinger, oratio should be an interacting with God as with someone you know loves and accepts you. And he likened contemplatio to resting in God's embrace, letting go of our own words and simply enjoying being in God's presence.
These final components melded together as I volleyed between a scribbled stream of consciousness in my little pink notebook and quiet reflection. I asked for forgiveness for my selfish desire to dictate my own life's plan, and for my unhealthy concern with what I had to say and how it should look on paper. I pleaded with God to help me release my white-knuckle grip on "control" to him who has had my life in his hands, patiently waiting for me to release my grasp.
I can't say my first lectio divina experience "fixed" my sin issues. It actually made me more acutely aware of the ugliness of my sin. But I can say with absolute confidence that God met me at that coffee shop.
When we step out in obedience to grow closer to Christ, even if it's in something unnatural for us like lectio divina, he is faithful to show up. I don't receive jaw-dropping personal revelations every time I practice lectio divina. But God has honored my commitment to seek him. If we make a discipline like lectio divina a part of our regular routine, we open up opportunities to learn and to hear from him in ways that we otherwise would not.
So go ahead and try it. Just be sure to keep the chair across from you open in case he decides to come and sit a while.
Kim Harms lives in Huxley, Iowa with her husband and three sons. She is a freelance writer and cofounder of 500 Dresses, a clothing ministry to Haitian children. She can be found online at kimharms.net and 500dresses.org or on Twitter at @kimharmsboymom.
References to Father Luke Dysinger were taken from the following two articles: Accepting the Embrace of God: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, and How to Practice Lectio Divina.