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#3: Meditating on Scripture

Are you a reader?  Of course, we all read.  Some of us enjoy reading, others read only when we have to.  My wife, Terri, is an avid reader.  For as long as I’ve known her, Terri has constantly had a book with her.  She loves to read romance novels, and can devour a good book in a couple of days.  I, on the other hand, tend to read magazines and professional books that pertain to my role as a minister.  Only occasionally do I pick up a novel to read for pleasure.  There are some people who religiously read the newspaper every day – others who haven’t read a paper in years.  There are people who haven’t read a book of any kind since they left school, reading only what is necessary for functioning in their day to day lives, for work, or instructions to accomplish some task.  Yes, we all read.  What kind of reader are you?

The same is true when it comes to reading the Bible.  When it comes to the scriptures, there are those who read it daily, and others who never pick up a Bible.  There are those who delve into the text to understand it’s nuances and others who settle for snippets of verses they may hear when they are in church or read on Facebook memes on their social media feed.  Both types of readers may consider themselves to be “Christians,” but which do you suppose might be better equipped to live as a faithful disciple of Jesus?  It’s hard to be guided by the Bible if you don’t know what’s in it.

This morning, we are continuing our look at what it takes to follow Jesus as a disciple – the seven essential practices each of us must engage in if we want to truly follow Jesus.  Last Sunday, Pastor Sharon shared the first essential practice – a life steeped in prayer.  This morning, we are considering the necessity of meditating on Scripture, or what Marjorie Thompson, in her wonderful book, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, calls “Spiritual Reading:”  (and I am quoting)

“Imagine for a moment that you have just received a handwritten letter from a dear friend who lives at a great distance, and from whom you have not heard in a long while.  What would you anticipate about this letter? … Eagerness for news could tempt you to devour each page as quickly as possible, yet the sheer delight of spending precious time in your friend’s company might compel you to slow down, savoring the words, phrases, and images written specifically for you… words that bring a sense of your friend’s presence vividly into your life.

“Now imagine a different scenario.  After several intensely busy days, you spy a newspaper on the coffee table and realize that you’ve not been keeping up with world events.  You pick up the paper and begin paging through, letting your eye rove over headlines…  hoping to grasp as much information as quickly as possible in order to return to those unfinished tasks.

“These two examples may help us to recognize that we have different ways of reading, depending on what we expect to receive.  In the case of the friend’s letter, words are a means of personal relationship.  In the case of the newspaper, words are a vehicle of information…”

Marjorie Thompson goes on:  “The practice of ‘spiritual reading’ has much more in common with the first example than the second.  What makes our reading spiritual has as much to do with the intention, attitude, and manner we bring to the words as it does with the nature and content of those words.”  She concludes, “Spiritual reading is reflective and prayerful.  It is concerned not with speed or volume but depth and receptivity.  That is because the purpose of spiritual reading is to open ourselves to how God may be speaking to us in and through any particular text.”1  (end quote)

Marjorie Thompson says that “we have different ways of reading, depending on what we expect to receive.” When you pick up your Bible to read, which of her two scenarios best describes your approach?  What do you expect to receive?  Do you quickly skim what is written, just to get the gist of what the writer is saying, and then move on?  Or do you savor every word, listening for a message from God, longing to deepen your relationship with Jesus? 

If we want to be faithful disciples of Jesus, then we need to be doing everything we can possibly do to deepen our relationship with God.  And we do that by listening to what God might want to be saying to us through God’s word.  We can read many types of books and publications – for many different purposes – and that’s all well and good.  But there is only one Book that is essential for us to read and reflect on – the only Book that can lead us to the Savior and ultimately to heaven – and that is the Bible.  The Bible is the instruction manual for the Christian life.  To try to live as a disciple without reading and meditating on scripture is like trying to perform open-heart surgery without having ever read any medical textbooks.  The Bible is the primary way we can know what it means to follow Jesus.

John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, is famous for saying that he was a man of one book, “homo unius libri” – and that one book was the Holy Bible.  Of course, Wesley read other books – he actually was one of the best-read persons of his day.  What he meant was – when it comes to our salvation, there is only one book that ultimately matters.  All the rest are commentary.  This is what Wesley wrote:

” I want to know one thing, — the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri.”2

Or, to paraphrase the way Marjorie Thompson described how best to engage the Letter you have received from God:  You should “devour each page” and “delight (in) spending precious time in (the company of God).”  She advises you to “slow down, savoring the words, phrases, and images written specifically for you… words that bring a sense of (God’s) presence vividly into your life.”

So, to be a disciple, we must not only read, but meditate on scripture – to build our relationship with God and to listen for a word from the Holy Spirit that reaches through the text and grabs our heart.  This kind of reading may be new to you, but there are helpful methods of meditating on scripture that Christians down through the centuries have developed in order to teach us to do just that.  I’ll be sharing three approaches in a few moments – simple ways to listen for God’s word to you as you engage the Scriptures. 

But first, how does meditating on scripture benefit you in living as a disciple of Jesus?

There are many passages of scripture I could have chosen that speak to the importance of God’s word, but I’ve selected a passage from the longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119.  176 verses long, every one of which extolls the virtues of meditating on God’s word.  By the way – the reason this Psalm is so long is that it actually is a acrostic poem in Hebrew.  It is made up of 22 stanzas, each starting with a different letter in the Hebrew alphabet.  I draw your attention to the text of the scripture in the bulletin this morning.  What are the benefits of meditating on scripture?

First, we are to meditate on God’s word constantly so that it imprints itself on our hearts.

“Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.”  What does the psalmist mean by that?  That we are to spend all day every day in Bible study?  No.  He’s saying that we must be so familiar with scripture that we carry it’s truths with us throughout the day, so that we can call it up in moments of crises and challenge.  That is really the only way scripture is of any value to you if you want to be a disciple of Jesus. 

Second, the psalmist tells us that meditating on scripture makes us wise. 

“Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies… Through your precepts I get understanding.”  The Bible is the account of the people of God down through the centuries as they struggled with their own faith and doubt, and learned to put their trust in God.  When we study the Bible, we can benefit from gaining the wisdom of those who have come before – those who struggled with faith and prevailed.  We can learn the lessons of their faith journeys, which makes us wiser as we strive to be faithful disciples.

Third, the psalmist says that a spiritual reading of scripture can guide us on the right path and keep us from doing evil.

“I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word.”  God’s word teaches us what we ought to do, but it also warns us of the consequences of doing evil.  It is our guide, as well as our disciplinarian.  He writes: “Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.  Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” 

Finally, just like our Call to Worship from Psalm 19 says, our scripture lesson this morning reminds us that meditating on God’s word brings blessings to our lives.

“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.”  The more we meditate on scripture and build an intimate relationship with God, the more joy we will experience in our lives.  And, don’t we all want more joy and sweetness in this life?

So, have I convinced you that meditating on scripture is essential to the life of a disciple?  Do you want to hear a word from God to you as you engage God’s word?  If so, let me share with you several techniques for reading scripture that can help you do just that.

If you will turn to the back of the bulletin this morning, you will find a chart similar to the chart on prayer Pastor Sharon shared with us last Sunday.  You will see there the stages of developing a richer engagement with the Bible – from exploring and getting started – to going deeper and centering our lives on the Word. 

Below that, are many ideas that might help you to engage the scriptures more meaningfully.  Take this list home, and try some of the suggestions in your daily devotions, and see if they don’t help you get more from your reading of scripture.

But there are several techniques Christians have developed that I want to share briefly with you.  If you will try them, I think they will be a blessing to you.

The first method of meditating on scripture is called The St. Ignatius Method. 

Ignatius of Loyola was the founder of the Society of Jesus (aka Jesuits).  He encourages us to use our creative imagination as we engage scripture.  This method works best with scripture passages that are narrative in nature, in other words, the characters are living out a story of faith.

Once you have selected a biblical story, place yourself into the scene as one of the characters so as to experience it more fully in mind, body, and spirit.  Enter the story as a careful participant, as you attempt to taste, hear, smell, and feel the passage – experiencing it from that character’s point of view.  Then reflect on what that insight says to you.

For instance, what if we were to do this method with the story of the paralyzed man who is lowered through the roof of the house where Jesus is preaching, found in Luke 5:17-39?  You might read the text multiple times, experiencing the scene from the perspective of various characters.  What was the experience of the paralyzed man?  Can you imagine yourself in his place, lying helplessly on the stretcher?  Now imagine you are the friends who brought him, why did they do it? – the owner of the house whose roof was damaged? – the religious leaders who were there to find some reason to accuse Jesus?  – the crowds crammed into the little house who saw the scene unfold? – and finally, from the perspective of Jesus himself?

Allow yourself to experience the emotions, beliefs, or thoughts of each person in the narrative.  Then sit for a time in silence to let the Holy Spirit direct your thoughts.  Who do you most identify with?  Why is that?  What is God saying to you through this story?  Then record your insights in a prayer journal.

That is simple to do – and if you perfect this technique, you will be amazed at how the text will come alive!

A second method is called Lectio Divina.  If you receive our e-newsletters each week, this past Thursday my article was an introduction to this technique, so I won’t go into it in too much detail this morning.  This method is attributed to St. Benedict from the 6th century, and it is intended to help develop our spiritual-hearing.  If there is a scripture that describes the purpose of this method, it would probably be 1 Samuel 3:10 – “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

Lection Divina literally means “Divine Reading,” and is an ancient practice of contemplative Bible study that allows the Bible “to read you” rather than you reading the Bible.

This technique can work with just about any passage or section of scripture.  It involves four movements:

  1. Lectio (“reading”) – a very slow, reflective, receptive reading of a scripture passage, silently and aloud.
  2. Meditatio (“meditation”) – pondering or reflecting on a word or phrase that seems to stand out to you; that speaks to your heart; Why do you think it stood out to you? What might God be saying to you?
  3. Oratio (“speaking”) – now respond to the fruits of your meditation and insights through prayer to God.
  4. Contemplatio (“contemplation”) – Finally, let the Holy Spirit move you beyond thinking about God or talking to God, to basking in the presence of God; opening your soul to God in a period of quiet Sabbath-rest, without words, thoughts, or images; receiving whatever God wants to reveal to you.

You could try this technique with the story of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42, where Martha is busy waiting on Jesus and the disciples, while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, learning from him.

Read the passage very slowly several times.  Then meditate on the text, taking note of what word or phrase in the text resonates with you most.  Perhaps it was the phrase, “Martha was distracted by her many tasks.” Or, you may have been struck by her words, “Lord, don’t you care…?”  Or by Jesus’ response Martha, that “there is need of only one thing… and Mary has chosen what is best.”   Ask your self:  “Why do I think that passage got my attention?  What is going on with me or my life that might explain why those words jumped off the page? 

Once you have an insight about what God might be trying to say to you, respond by offering God a prayer.  Perhaps journal about your insight and write out your prayer to God.  Finally, spend time in silent contemplation, resting in the goodness of God.

This tried and true way to engage the scriptures will bless you every time you study God’s word!

The final method of Bible study that encourages meditating on scripture is called SOAP.  It involves keeping a journal where you record your insights every day.  The one I like to use is called the Life Journal, and it is produced by a church in Hawaii.  The Life Journal gives us a Bible reading plan to cover the scriptures in one year, asking us to read from the Old Testament and New Testament every day.  Then it gives us a place to record our insights whenever we hear God speaking to us.  What I like is that, since they are recorded in an organized way, we can go back to remind ourselves of our insights at a later time. 

The Life Journal uses this SOAP method – but you don’t need a Life Journal to do this technique – you can do it with any notebook you may have.  Just put S O A P down the left side of the page.  What does SOAP stand for?

S stands for “Scripture.”  Out of the daily assigned readings, did a verse or several verses speak to you in a powerful way?  If so handcopy the verse or verses at the top of the page.  Underline any words that God leads you to underline.

O stands for “Observation.”  Write down observations about why this text may be speaking to you.

A stand for “Application.”  You have now identified why the word or text spoke to you.  Now that you’ve heard God encourage or challenge you in some way, write out how you will apply this lesson to your life going forward.

P stands for “Prayer.”  Turn your application into a prayer of commitment, vowing to apply the insight God has revealed to you.

There are many congregations that have all their members following the Life Journal reading plan together, then gathering weekly in small groups to share some of the ways God had spoken to them throughout their devotional times.  I would love to have all of us at Tomoka do this together.  Perhaps we will form one or more groups for those wanting to start a Life Journal – reading the Bible together in one year, beginning on January 1.  If you are interested please let me know!

Friends, I’d like to encourage you to try one of these three methods of meditating on scripture, or come up with your own way of doing it.  It doesn’t matter how you do it, only THAT you do it – because that is the only way to grow as a disciple. 

John Wesley insisted that we must be people of one book.  In the same sermon I quoted earlier, he spoke of the need we all have to spend time alone with God in prayer and to meditate on scripture – if we want to follow as a disciple of Jesus:

“Here then, I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his Book; for this end, to find the way to heaven.”2

Or as the psalmist wrote in Psalm 1:1-2 – “Happy are those… [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”