Monday, February 28, 2005

Lectio Divina

In a few words, lectio divina is the art of praying the Bible. This may sound like gibberish or jargon, but I don't know if there's a better way to describe it. It involes slowly, mindfully reading sacred scripture and allowing yourself to be drawn into the flow of the text until what you are reading gives way to prayer.

Lectio divina changed my life.

I used to be a standard pew-sitter. I have a family, and so I came to church on Sundays. I sang. I passed the peace. I picked my daughter up from the nursery and went home. Then one Sunday I was reading the bulletin (probably during the sermon) and I saw an announcement for a class on building spiritual habits, and I decided to give it a try.

The "habits" were pretty standard: prayer, stewardship, fellowship, Bible reading.... But there was one that the instructor called "daily quiet time". So for the next week, I tried out this practice. It involved the following:

  1. Spend a few minutes in quiet prayer, asking for God's blessing on what follows.

  2. Take up the Bible and read until something catches your attention.

  3. Let the text that you have just read roam freely in your mind. Ask what God is saying to you.

  4. Respond to God in prayer.

  5. Take some time to savor what you've just experienced.

  6. Close with prayer.

After a week of doing this daily, I was hooked. I felt a closeness with God that I had never known before. It lifted me from the dryness of simple petitionary prayer and helped me to see the possibilities of communication with God.

I later learned that this was an ancient practice, dating back at least as far as the Rule of St. Benedict, and that steps 2 through 5 outlined above are the four traditional movements of lectio divina: lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio. (Sometimes Latin is easy. Lectio is reading, the rest are what they seem.)

But the truly remarkable part of this for me was that it didn't just make my prayer life more satisfying -- it drew me out of my shell and transformed me into an active Christian. This is the chief reason that I revere this as a work of the Holy Spirit and not just a psychological trick. It's changed the way I think, the way I act and the way I see the world.

Thanks be to God for the wonderful gift of lectio divina.

Sunday, February 27, 2005


I visited Grace Cathedral in San Francisco this weekend. I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it's an exceptionally beautiful church. On the other hand, the whole thing being made of concrete has a rather disconcerting effect. On the third hand, during worship on Sunday I developed a new-found appreciation for cruciform worship spaces, especially of such grand scale.

One thing that I had to work through is Grace's pride in being "a house of prayer for all people". I love inclusiveness in Christian worship, but the "interfaith" chapel with symbols from non-Christian religions and the references to welcoming people of other faiths everywhere from the instructions on using the prayer labyrinth to the text of the liturgy was something I needed to think about. (From the eucharistic liturgy: "We break this bread for those who journey the way of the Hindus, for those who follow the path of the Buddha, for our sisters and brothers of Islam, for the Jewish people from whom we come, and for all those who walk the way of faith.")

I've visited Hindu and Buddhist worship spaces, and I don't recall ever seeing any signs welcoming Christians. But after some reflection, I think maybe wherever Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam or whatever are the dominant religion in a pluralistic society, they should make a point of welcoming people of other faiths. They should go above and beyond to release their grasp on God. And so perhaps it is meet for Christians in America to take this step of faith.

Grace Cathedral makes no pretensions of being anything other than Christian. But being followers of Christ, they do not count God as something to be controlled.

In this week's reading from Exodus, the Israelites ask, "Is the Lord among us or not?" How would we know?

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Thirsting for Righteousness

The Old Testament reading for the coming week is Exodus 17:1-7, the story of the Israelites in the desert grumbling against Moses and against God at Meribah.

One of the reasons I love the Old Testament is that it just doesn't gloss over the full reality of life. Verse 3 of this passage says "But the people thirsted there for water." When you hear this passage being expounded in a typical Bible study group, everyone will focus on the grumbling of the people. "Oh, they're just so ungrateful. After all that God has just done for them, they still complain. They still don't trust." They're just a bunch of ingrates, right? But what does the Bible say, "the people thirsted there for water." How unreasonable of them!

A common explanation for the way this is usually treated is that we Christians want to "clean up" the Bible. We wouldn't be so impious as to think that the Bible would condemn people in the desert for complaining about thirst, so we clean it up.

That surely happens, but I think in this case the reason may be even more sinister. If we can reduce the sin of the Israelites to blatant ingratitude, we can do better. But if they're just plain thirsty, what then?

I once heard a story about Tertullian counselling Christians who wanted to defend their employment in the idol-making business. The conversation went like this:

Workers: We have to work.
Tertullian: Why?
Workers: Because we have to buy food.
Tertullian: Why?
Workers: Because we have to eat.
Tertullian: Why?
Workers: Because we have to live.
Tertullian: You don't have to live. You only have to be faithful.

Back to the lectionary texts, the psalm for the week doesn't let up. It's Psalm 95, where we read, "O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah." Following the progrssion I expected the New Testament lesson to be from Hebrews 4, "‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’ ... Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs." Instead, we get Romans 5 and justification by faith.

I fear that we have turned the corner from law to gospel too quickly. We can take the classic Protestant escape and say, "Yes, we're sinners just like the Israelites. We'd complain about thirst in the desert too. It's a good think God lets us off the hook, justifying us by faith." But what is this faith we're supposed to have?

The gospel reading draws this all together with the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty," Jesus says. Then in verse 28, look, "Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city."

We Lutherans like to define faith as radical trust. This week's texts lead me to ask, just how radical are we willing to be about that trust?

Now, and only now, am I willing to go back and let Romans 5 into the discussion in order for Paul to say, "And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

We will be thirsty. We will sorrow. We will suffer. But do we dare trust God in the midst of it all?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Making Sacred Space

I tried listening to music while doing lectio divina for the first time. The noise in the lunchroom at work where I do my lectio is a distraction, so I was hoping music would cancel that and add a positive atmosphere. I used to drive to a wooded park for sanctuary, but now I take the light rail to work so that isn't an option.

The effect was surreal -- looking around the lunchroom, seeing people having animated conversations over sandwiches or around laptop computers, while I could hear nothing but Bach's Mass in B Minor. It was like being in a Stanley Kubrick movie.

Now I wonder if they would mind if I lit some incense....

Monday, February 21, 2005

Dam! Stop that noise!

My daughter and I went for a walk today and saw a relatively new beaver dam in our neighborhood. She loves learning about animals, so I suggested that when we get home we do some research to find out why beavers build dams. The answer shocked me so much I thought it must be an urban legend (or would it be a rural legend in this case?).

It turns out that beavers build dams to stop the sound of the rushing water.

Beavers always build their dams in the narrowest part of a stream. This is sometimes taken as a sign of their intelligence, but a researcher studying beavers noticed that they are, in fact, dumb as stumps. So he did some playing around and discovered that if he recorded the sound of a free flowing stream and replayed it in an area where beavers lived, the beavers would build "dams" on dry land to cover his speakers. So the beavers build their dams in the narrowest part of the stream because that's where the sound is coming from. Brilliant!

Now I am happy to accept evolution as the best scientific explanation on the market and one which isn't likely to be replaced soon, but I can't see any obvious sequence that would lead creatures to develop a dislike of the sound of flowing water and such an impressive solution to the problem.

Nature truly does declare the glory of God.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

War and Peace

The United States Navy today commissed the USS Jimmy Carter. Carter said, "The most deeply appreciated and emotional honor I've ever had is to have this great ship bear my name." Now, in addition to lust, Jimmy Carter has torpedos in his heart.

The naming of this sub struck me as terribly ironic. During the Reagan years it seemed like Jimmy Carter was the most unappreciated man in our country. But a Nobel Peace Prize can work wonders for your reputation. The press reports mentioned that this is the first time a submarine has been named after a living ex-president. I have to wonder if this also makes him the only Nobel Peace Prize winner to have a piece of major war machinery named after him.

Is there an ISS Mother Theresa? An SASS Desmond Tutu? A TSS Dalai Lama?

(Note: Further research shows that Carter shares this war-peace distinction with at least Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt.)

Friday, February 18, 2005

House Built On Rock

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that whoever hears these words of his and acts on them is like a wise man who built his house on rock, and whoever hears but does not do act on them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

The standard interpretation of this is that Jesus' teachings should be the basis for our life, and if Jesus' teachings aren't the basis of our lives, during times of trial we will find ourselves in dire trouble.

But it seems to me that it is more than that. Obedience to Jesus' words shouldn't just be the foundation upon which we build our lives, they must be the foundation upon which we build our faith. Too often we try to separate faith from discipleship, as if we may believe unto salvation, and then separately decide to obey him. But this kind of faith is precisely what is washed away by life's trials.

Polycarp is a classic example of the house built on rock. Facing martyrdom he says, "Six and eighty years have I served him, and he has done me nothing but good; and how could I curse him, my Lord and Saviour!" Not "six and eighty years have I believed in him" but "six and eighty years have I served him." And through this service, Polycarp knew the Lord.

Does it sound like I'm talking about justification by works? Lutherans might fear so. But it seems to me, that Jesus is not talking about works when he speaks of the one who "hears my words and acts on them", this is the very essence of faith. Faith so-called grounded anywhere else is a house built upon sand.

Thursday, February 17, 2005


We've been talking about orthodoxy and heresy on Beliefnet. Some days I think the Reformation was a bad idea. Bring back the Inquisition!

As a Lutheran, I'm more or less committed to the idea that orthodoxy can't and shouldn't be enforced. And yet, I think being a Lutheran also commits me to the idea that orthodoxy should be strived for.

My interest in Christian scholarship has led me to see that there are at least three distinct options: (1) Insist that my group and its historic/official interpretations of the Christian faith are correct, and everybody else is wrong, (2) Insist that no one's official interpretations are sure to be correct, and that I am therefore free to boldly assert whatever I happen to think is true, (3) Recognize that while my intepretations may not be perfect, I have a calling to seek the truth and I am best positioned to seek said truth within my community of faith.

Basically, what I'm saying is this: I belong to a community of faith. I have, for various reasons, accepted the faith of that community and am constantly in the process of making it my own. There are certain things that community tells me that I can't quite reconcile with my experience of the world, but because I have accepted the faith of the community, I do not simply reject these doctrines -- I take them under advisement and consider throughout my faith walk where they might fit in and what they might mean. My experience has been that quite often I do eventually come to understand these things in such a way that they become part of my own personal faith.

But this process is completely impossible if my community of faith decides to toss orthodoxy out the window.

In an interview on the Speaking of Faith radio show, Luke Timothy Johnson put it this way:

The function of tradition is not to live in the past; it's to secure the future. And when we play with these basic instruments of self-definition, when we say, 'Oh let's bring in these other texts, and we'll read these in the assembly' and so forth, or, 'Let's take the Lord's Prayer and call God Mother/Father' and so forth, we know what we mean, right? Because we grew up in the tradition, and it does us no harm, because we are actually troping a consistent fixed tradition. But the next generation will not know what it means, and so what happens is that we cut off the conversation with us. We are the end of history.
Save Our Tradition!

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

My First Blog Post

So what do you say in your first blog post? I figure it has to be something really stupendously interesting or people seeing it for the first time won't come back. I was going to post my plan for ending poverty in the United States (for starters), but then I came across today and that's better than my idea.

But I don't really have anything else, so here's my idea....

It's based on the open source software development model. The idea is that if I try to come up with something on my own, it will be miserably flawed. But someone somewhere will know how to solve the most obvious problem. This will leave (and maybe even create) a next most obvious problem, but someone will have an idea to solve that. And so on. Eventually, we'll have pieced together something good enough to do the job. (This is how Linux became what it is.) Then we'll take the idea to the lawmakers, and it will be so good they'll adopt it.

I know, Reinhold Niebuhr is RIHGL (rolling in his grave laughing) at my naivete at thinking there is a perfect solution to the problem waiting to be discovered, but that's what I've got.

My base idea is that we pass a law banning jobs, including part-time jobs, which pay below the poverty level. This way, everyone who has a job will have a certain level of income. The most obvious problem is that a whole lot of people would find themselves out of work as a result of this law. I'd solve that by passing a law that requires the government to hire every able-bodied person who wants a job and pay them at the previously set minimum salary. This part could be partially privitized if someone wants to start a company drawing on this talent pool. ;-) The next most obvious problem is that the government would need a lot of money to pay all of those workers. I'd solve that by ruthlessly taxing the wealthiest people in the country. They'll scream bloody murder, but the poorest 90 percent of our country have more than enough votes to make it happen.

Hi. I'm Melancthon, and I'm a dreamer.

Who's got the next idea?