Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Praying With Scripture Reflection

This is a paper that I wrote for the class Praying With Scripture. It is a reflection on some of the methods of prayer that we have studied so far in class.


The practice of Lectio Divina has been a relatively new one for me. I've been led through Lectio Divina a few times in the past, but I could never seem to get the various phases down correctly. I'd find that when getting to one of the steps I had accidently done it already in the previous step.

During this class is the first time that I've had a chance to take an in-depth look at the whole structure of Lectio. It finally started to make some sense. I was finally able to make it through the whole process without jumping ahead on my own.
I found the practice to be both difficult and fulfilling. For me, it is an odd prospect to look for a personal message in the scripture. My tendency – like yours, I gather – is to want to get right into the analysis of the passage. I want to tear it apart, look at historically, translate the original languages, and try to get at the root meaning. I want to find a best and universal meaning.

That is not at all the process of Lectio Divina. In Lectio, I am waiting for the gift of my meaning. It doesn't have to be the best meaning. It doesn't have to be a meaning that works for other people. It is simply my meaning. And it is only for the here and the now. It is an odd experience to have a personal meaning come to me when I know that it was not the intended meaning of the author. The text becomes strangely alive and able to speak to me in new ways at new times.
I found some interesting and helpful tools for praying the Lectio Divina at MethodX.org. I even ended up writing a short blog entry about it and got a few comments from my readers.

Lectio seems like a great way to get in tune with God in the here and now. I would be careful, however, of trying to use Lectio to gain insights into writing a sermon. I think that the personal nature of the Lectio experience makes it somewhat inappropriate for the more universal nature of the sermon or even the Bible class. It could be used as a wonderful experience for a congregation or class, but I think that trying to get universal insights from it distorts both the Lectio and the sermon.

Singing scripture is something that is more common for me than the practice of Lectio Divina. Though music has been important to me for a long time, the practice of singing or chanting scripture has come to me late. In fact, I have recently considered becoming Anglican because of their use of liturgy, including singing prayers and scripture. The Episcopal Church is where I was first introduced to this practice, but I have since discovered that my home is still with the Methodists.

I have, however, joined another organization that is committed to liturgical renewal, including the singing of scripture: the Order of Saint Luke. Yes, I am now Br. David D. M. King, OSL. And a major part of the practice of OSL is the praying of the Daily Office. My vows require me to pray the office at least twice a day, typically morning (lauds) and evening (vespers).

I use the office resources that are created by the Order. For more information, you can read my articles on the subject here and here.

In any case, this office includes the singing of scripture. First, every of the seven offices includes a pointed psalm, which can be chanted to any one of five tones, found in the Psalter of The United Methodist Hymnal, page 737. The psalms for vespers and lauds cycle, but the psalms for compline, terce, sext, and none typically remain the same. By the end of one year, every psalm has been sung once.

Second, the reading of scripture is followed at vespers by the singing of the Magnificat (Luke 1:39-56) and at lauds by the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79). These are typically chanted to one of the five tones mentioned above. However, there are also hymn versions of these found in The United Methodist Hymnal.

Third, several offices begin with a Canticle, either scriptural or ancient. Vespers always begins with the Phos hilaron or "O Gracious Light." During Eastertide, lauds begins with the "Christ Our Passover."

Fourth, the service of compline always ends with a scriptural canticle, the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32). Like all of the canticles mentioned above, this one is sung to one of the five chant tones.

Finally, the Lord's Prayer is often chanted. It has its own chant tone, found at number 270 in The United Methodist Hymnal.
I find great power and significance in the singing and chanting of these scriptures and canticles. The chant not only forces me to slow down and really hear the words, but it creates its own mysterious significance in sound and vibration. We know that these texts were written as songs, though we no longer know the original instructions for singing them. Nonetheless, it is good to sing them.

I recently delivered a sermon on the singing of scripture at Calvary Baptist Church of Denver, called Hidden Songs in Scripture: How Can We Keep From Singing. In it, I argued that people of faith have always sung their prayers to God, and that we Protestants are particularly bad at carrying on that tradition. We, however, need to sing. There is meaning that cannot be expressed with spoken words alone, but is captured in song and chant. You can find the full sermon text here. The Baptist crowd that heard it seemed to be at least intrigued at the possibility of singing prayers of scripture.

Protestants haven't completely lost the art of singing prayers and scripture, of course. This art has been transferred to the realm of hymnody. Hymns have long been for me a method of prayer and meditation. Long before I knew how to pray, I know how to sing and play hymns. Before I got a reasonable Christian education, I learned the faith from the hymns. They have been very influential in my faith and in my discernment of call. UMH 340 "Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy" is my justification hymn and prayer. UMH 386 "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown," a Charles Wesley classic that recounts the story of Jacob wrestling with the stranger, has been very important to my sense of calling. The Faith We Sing 2212 "How Can I Keep From Singing" has to really sum the whole thing up in it's call to sing prayers to God even in the midst of terrible tribulation.

In addition, I practice the art of hymn meditation. For many years at Salem First United Methodist Church, we had a hymnfest in which people called out their favorite hymns (by the number, of course) and we would sing them. Whatever the last hymn of the hymnfest became the basis for an improvisational prelude that I would play. This was quite an act of meditation and trust in God. It became for me a prayer beyond words. Though I am no longer called upon to share these hymn meditations in worship, I still practice them as a form of prayer from time to time.

The Ignatian Method, though I had not learned it by that name, seems familiar to me. I may have learned it first in Preaching Class. We were instructed to take time to meditate on the scripture passage, imagining ourselves to be inside of it. Preferably, we were to do this several times, each time taking on the persona of a different character in the story. Further, we could do the same, but imagine ourselves as specific members of our congregation, hearing this text.

All of these exercises are quite revealing. It doesn't take much imagination to really make the scripture come to life with new meaning. This is a very valuable tool for bringing out some the marginal meanings of the text – the feminist and liberation readings. Try reading the expulsion of Hagar from Hagar's view. Then from Sarah's. Then from Abraham's. Then from God's. I tried this with a class of young adults recently, and it was absolutely amazing the readings and meanings that they were able to bring out. These were not biblical scholars, but with very little effort they were able to understand a text that before had seemed completely foreign. They were able to speak as experts because they had lived the story. They had become, even in just those few minutes, the people in the Bible.

This is the same kind of experience that I have using the Ignatian method. It's easy. All it takes is a little time. And it is so powerful. Suddenly hidden meanings, things that aren't stated explicitly in the text but can be understood by the context, spring to life. What had been dull words become living, moving beings and things.

Clearly, this method works best with narrative passages. It can still be somewhat effective with other types of scripture, but stories are the natural environment for the Ignatian method.

Furthermore, and unlike Lectio Divina, the learnings gained from the Ignatian method seem to be transferable to sermons and lessons. These are more universal meanings. Insight does not come just to me, but comes by being someone else, by crawling into a character's skin and walking around. The learning comes from the character much more than from the self and is therefore transferable to other listeners and readers.

5 Comments:

Blogger St.Phransus said...

Hey David,
although you say to be cautious in using lectio for sermon prep, i have used lectio for the actual sermon itself. i did a guided lectio experience with my congregation a few months ago and instead of a sermon, we had a conversation after the guided meditation. it went sooooo well. i still have members come up to me and tell me that they really felt the communal experience meaningful. good luck with your venture into the means of grace, and contemplative practices.

6:48 AM  
Blogger david said...

Yes, I agree that Lectio can be a very good communal experience. What a wonderful way to introduce the congregation to a new prayer practice. Discussions of Lectio experiences can also be very, very rewarding. That's awesome that you used Lectio as a sermon.

I'm simply a little nervous about taking my own Lectio learnings and trying to prescribe them for others. Prescribing the practice is great. Prescribing the learning seems a little sketchy to me.

1:44 PM  
Blogger gavin richardson said...

i had commented on that earlier blog post on my fav way of thinking of lectio. it's is one of my fav ways to read scripture now. i actually use it to take incite for my lessons (i don't do sermons) and have used it for sunday school as part of curriculum.

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