If I were betting I’d bet that Jim Somerville doesn’t practice glossolalia. I’m quite certain, however, that he understands what the Bible says about it.
[Here is part of an old piece I originally wrote for work, which I intend to serve as the introduction to a new post that is still in the hopper.]
My college pastor once commented, “There is a difference between studying the Bible and meeting the Author.” How tragic when we forget that simple truth! Bible study is important, but what is most important is encountering God in the text.
Sometimes there is an unspoken assumption in churches that spiritual maturity is a function of raw biblical knowledge. Consequently, some believers are intimidated in Bible study settings because they do not have a firm grasp of biblical content. At the same time, many seasoned Christians have memorized large blocks of Scripture but are stymied when it comes to letting the Word of God transform them from the inside out. James warned against reading the Bible and failing to be changed by it (Jas 1:22-24). If it does not result in life transformation, Bible study is “unbiblical”!
We are not the first Christians to struggle with this issue. John Bunyan spoke of “poring over” the biblical text so that it might touch the heart as well as the head. What Bunyan was describing is actually very similar to what Christians have been doing from the beginning. It is, in fact, one of the oldest traditions of Christian prayer.
Lectio divina, or “sacred reading,” is a time-tested method of communing with God through the medium of Scripture. It does not dispense with rational analysis of the scriptural texts, but supplements such an approach with one that is more conducive to “meeting the Author” rather than merely “studying the Bible.”
Classic lectio divina discerns four stages or movements. The progression is quite logical; for many Christians learning about lectio divina simply puts into words what they have already been doing—or striving to do—in their private devotions. There was a country preacher who described his sermon preparation in a way that exactly matches the classic stages: “I read myself full, I think myself clear, I pray myself hot, and I let myself go.” The four stages are:
1. Reading (“I read myself full”). This is not speed-reading, but reverential listening for God’s “still, small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12). It is listening attentively for what God is saying through the Scripture. The goal is not to cover all the verses, but to find a word or phrase that speaks to us in a personal way.
2. Meditation (“I think myself clear”). Once we have found the word that seems meant for us, we mull it over. We turn the word or phrase over in our minds to let God’s Word become God’s Word, for us.
3. Prayer (“I pray myself hot”). Now we are ready to offer the word back to God in prayer. We may dialogue with God about what we have heard. We are also often drawn to offer to God parts of ourselves that perhaps we had previously withheld.
4. Contemplation (“I let myself go”). The final stage is simply resting in God’s presence. Contemplation moves us beyond words; it is enough just being there.
One of my basic presuppositions is that most people (at least, most people like me) are pressed for time when it comes to prayer. I love those rare occasions when I can pray for half an hour, an hour, or longer. Just call me a frustrated contemplative! In the real world, there are always other things crowding out my prayer time and I have to think more opportunistically.
If you only have a few minutes to pray, your prayer has to count. For me, that means starting with a basic form that can be expanded or compressed to fit the time available. I have found the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father to be the perfect prayer for this purpose.
First, it was precisely the Lord’s Prayer that early Christians prayed three times a day from the first century on. It’s hard to argue against that kind of precedent. The Lord’s Prayer has been a constant in private Christian devotions for something like 100% of Christian history.
Second, the Lord’s Prayer is “portable.” You can take it with you wherever you go. It can be committed to memory minimal effort so you don’t need a prayer book, devotional magazine, or other aids. (I’ll return to the issue of portability in a later post.)
Third, the Lord’s Prayer is expandable and collapsible — almost infinitely so. Consider the ways one can pray using the Lord’s Prayer:
- It can be recited. While not the best way to pray the Lord’s Prayer, this can serve in a pinch, especially for those who have spent some time on point 2.
- It can be studied. This is not a form of praying the Lord’s Prayer, but it is a fine way of making the most of the prayer in private devotionals and public worship. The more you understand what the prayer is about, the more engaged you can be even in a bare recitation of the words. Find a copy of Tertullian or Cyprian’s commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer and read through them, slowly and meditatively. See if that doesn’t make a difference the next time you pray the Lord’s Prayer.
- It can be prayed contemplatively. This was the approach favored by Jeanne Guyon. Pray slowly, meditating on each phrase or even each word. Repeat each line several times until you are genuinely offering the prayer (and yourself) to God through it.
- It can serve as a prayer outline. Similar to point 3, the Lord’s Prayer can serve as a skeleton on which to hang our own expressions of praise and petition. Martin Luther advocated this usage of the Lord’s Prayer.
Although it has been a while, I can attest that it is quite possible to spend the better part of an hour praying the Lord’s Prayer through a combination of these methods. Furthermore, anybody can double the amount of time they pray just by listening to God as much as they talk to him!
It is also possible to pray briefly but with great intentionality through reciting the Lord’s Prayer and meditating briefly on each line before moving on.
What approaches to the Lord’s Prayer have you found fruitful in your prayer life?
My favorite Baptist contemplative at last has a presence on the Web. If you’re unfamiliar with Jeanie Miley, do take the opportunity to become acquainted with her unique blend of “Bible study, the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, contemplative prayer and Jungian psychology” (from her About page). I don’t know how regularly she intends to update her blog (as if I’m the one to talk!), but I’ve already added her to my blogroll and my feed reader just in case. She really is a delight to read and has even done a few stints as commentary writer for the Formations Bible study curriculum, of which I am editor.
I’m told her books are occasionally even found in Catholic monastic houses—no doubt to the consternation of some!
Pseudo-Polymath wants to know, “If you do not pray to saints, why not?” He summarizes some of the reasons those who pray to saints do so. Most centrally (if I’m reading him correctly), one prays to saints to ask them to pray to God for us. Those who accept the practice often compare it to asking for a trusted Christian friend or advisor’s prayers.
He also suggests the following additional reasons to pray to saints:
- To keep alive the memory of one who proved by his or her life to be a holy person.
- To honor the image of God revealed in that person.
- To express hope that God’s image would be similarly manifested in oneself.
He concludes: “Is my [praying to saints] adiaphora or not for you!? If so, let’s talk about it.”
In fact, if this is an adequate summary of Ps-P’s practice, I have no objections to it. As I have written previously, I object to the wording of some traditional prayers to the saints that seem to grant them power in their own right to effect benefits that, properly speaking, only God through Christ can confer. As for Mary, Paul, Francis of Assisi—or Thomas Helwys or Lottie Moon!—joining their prayers with mine for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, I don’t see the big deal with that that many Protestants do.
My concerns are not christological but eschatological. Here is how I expressed it some time ago:
If we believe it is right to ask other believers to pray for us, the questions we need to settle with respect to the saints have nothing to do with the centrality of Christ or his role as God’s uniquely appointed mediator between God and humanity. Rather, the pressing questions are eschatological in nature. Do the righteous dead know what is happening on earth? Is their entire attention focused on a heavenly vision of God, so that earthly concerns are completely beyond them? Or do they exist in some sort of “twilight zone” or “time warp” in which there are no conscious thoughts at all between their death and eventual resurrection?
So, in answer to Ps-P’s question, first of all, I don’t pray to saints because I haven’t gotten my eschatology quite worked out. I suppose I probably should, but to be honest, systematic theology was never my strong suit. I’d much rather just read the Bible and believe in Jesus 🙂
Having said that, however, I should admit that I see no problem praying a litany of the saints such as this one of my composing. (I might even be persuaded to use the traditional refrain.) I don’t know if such a prayer does anything in terms of enlisting the intercessions of the saints, but it certainly makes me appreciative of how God has worked in the lives of these holy men and women and inspires me to try to be more like them.
Second, and this is at least as important as the first point, I don’t pray to saints because nobody ever taught me how. My family has been rural Appalachian Baptist for eight generations. It was never even on the radar in my spiritual upbringing to ask the departed saints for their intercessions, so it never occurs to me to consider the possibility. From my frame of reference, praying to saints is kind of like eating sashimi: it strikes me as very unusual thing to do. If you love it, more power to you. And if a knowledgeable friend would lead me along—and the place checks out with the health inspector!—I would probably give it a shot.
So, here is a question in reply for Pseudo-Polymath (and anyone else who wants to chime in): What advice would you give an open-minded Protestant about baby steps into the practice of praying with the saints?