I headed to Southwestern College, a United Methodist-related college in Winfield, Kansas, as a freshmen expecting to get a good education in a Christian environment. What I did not expect was to be called to ministry.
The years just prior to my starting college were lean years for campus ministry at Southwestern. But when Dr. Steve Rankin was appointed as campus minister/religion professor during my sophomore year, the tide began to turn. Chapel once again became a place of gathered worship, small groups and Bible studies were reignited, and other Christian faculty and staff were encouraged to live out their own calling by serving the college students.
My junior year I strayed from my normal biology classes and took a New Testament class for fun. I remember Steve keeping me after class the day I did an exegetical presentation and asking me the question that stopped me in my tracks: Have you ever thought about seminary? To him, it was a simple question. To me, it was a watershed moment. True, others had identified gifts in me for ministry, but for the first time in my life, I actually entertained the idea that perhaps God had different vocational plans for me than I had thought.
My experience of being called to ministry in the college years is not isolated. Thousands of others in the United Methodist Church have also heard a call to ministry through their Wesley Foundation or other ministry on campus. In fact, in order to find some of these folks, my campus ministry colleague, Creighton Alexander, pastor of young adults at New City/Central UM Church in Kansas City, and I started a Facebook Group called United Methodist Campus MinistryRaising Up Christian Leaders. Through this venue alone, we have discovered over 850 people who heard a call to ministry through campus ministry!
One of the four areas of strategic focus that was adopted by General Conference in 2008 was developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world. Perhaps I am clouded by my own experience, but I can think of no better place to find these leaders than on college campuses. Each year thousands of students across the country are being introduced to a relationship with Christ and are serving in ministry through the auspices of their Wesley Foundation, campus ministry at a United Methodist-related college, or local church with an emphasis on collegiate ministry. Some of these students become leaders. Some of these leaders feel a call to ministry. And some of the called go on to seminary and prepare for ordination in the United Methodist Church.
Unfortunately, not all campus ministries are equal. Due to a neglect of campus ministries as an area of focus by the overall denomination, many are small, overlooked, under-resourced, and directed by someone who may or may not have a calling to campus ministry. However, there is simply nowhere else in the world that has more potential young church leaders than on our college campuses. Would it not make sense to put our brightest and best servants of the church in this fallow ground? Of the 17 million students who will head to college this fall, are we as a church offering the heart of the gospel to a population looking for answers? These questions, and others, compel us to do more than just ask the questions. They compel us to pray.
On August 17, 2009, a 40-day, nationwide prayer effort was launched with the goal of witnessing to United Methodist campus ministries as being vital centers of vocational calling. We are praying for new clergy and lay ministers who will answer Gods call over the coming decades to campus ministry and we are interceding for our campus ministries in the start of the 2009-2010 school year.
The prayers were written by people who are supportive of campus ministry across the denomination including bishops, general board officials, professors, administrators, and campus ministers themselves, many of whom received their call to ministry through campus ministry. The prayer effort from August 17-September 25 is in conjunction with the first six weeks of school for many universities. As the new school year is launched, we are praying that campus ministers and students will be intentionally sustained by prayer. Our hope is that boards of directors of Wesley Foundations, pastors of neighboring congregations, grandparents with grandchildren in college, campus ministers themselves, and anyone who wants to see a revitalization in the UM Church will join us in the prayer effort. The prayers can be found at www.collegeunion.org/prayer.
Personally, campus ministry is not only the place I discovered a calling, but it is also my place of service. In a turn of events that I can only identify as Gods hand at work, four years ago I returned to Southwestern College, this time not as a student but in campus ministry. To be the campus minister who asks the timely question or provides the opportunity for a student to hear Gods voice is my front row seat to watch how God is already developing Christian ministers to lead us in the church and in the world.
Ashlee Alley serves as campus minister at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas, and is a provisional deacon in the Kansas West Conference of the United Methodist Church. She blogs regularly at ashleealley.blogspot.com and, together with Creighton Alexander, serves as the co-editor for www.CollegeUnion.org.
By Frank Billman
“My experience at the Lay Witness Mission was amazing! It was the first time I heard stories about how Jesus was working in the lives of people I had gone to church with for 17 years. I was amazed at the transparency and openness that this event created. It felt natural to see everyone singing and hugging each other, which had been missing from our church. It was evident that the Holy Spirit was given freedom to work in our church in ways that we had not ever experienced. My life personally was touched as I watched the congregation come to the altar on Sunday morning and give their life to Jesus either for the first time or to renew their relationship with him. I never saw that happen here before!”
That is a pretty typical testimony from a recent Lay Witness Mission—a ministry that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
The roots of this ministry stretch back to the Rev. Ben Johnson, a Methodist pastor in the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference and a sought-after revival preacher in the late 1950s. Sensing that his work as an evangelist had grown stale, he started a prayer group. The members grew close to one another as they prayed for Johnson regularly.
Soon after that, he was doing a revival that proved to be difficult. He sent for his prayer group to come and they prayed for him before the service. When he stood to preach, Johnson was moved by God to ask several of the prayer group members to share a witness. It was a God-inspired moment. Those chosen to share were anointed and the congregation was electrified. Hearing lay people talk about what God was doing in their lives stirred the church. Johnson was led by the Spirit to not preach after that; he just gave an altar call. The people rushed forward to kneel and the altar service lasted more than an hour. It was the witness of laypeople rather than the preacher’s sermon that stirred them.
When vital lay witnesses described how they had been loyal to the church program, how they had served in many official capacities, and yet were lacking in a genuine experience of Christ, other lay people could readily identify with them. But their witness did not stop with describing an empty, meaningless Christian life. They went on to relate how their lives were changed through prayer and a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Each of them shared relevant experiences of how their new life worked on the job, in the home, in the church fellowship, and in community life.
From the first experiment with using laypersons on a mission, several discoveries were made: laypersons listened to other laypersons; laypersons were willing to discuss pointed problems with other laypersons; dialogue resulted in deeper commitment than traditional altar prayer times; the laity and clergy learned to participate as equals in a group and witnessing laypersons both inspired and encouraged others to witness.
From that point on, when Johnson was invited to preach for revival services, he arranged in advance for his prayer group to come with him. During the meetings, he gave them opportunity to share. More pastors urged him to come to their churches. He would preach and intersperse laypeople to witness, but soon he discovered that power was released as the lay people told their stories. Gradually the weekend schedule began to shift and his preaching was minimized and he became more of a moderator. Later he found that these open and honest, prayer-filled laypeople could be effective in leading small groups. Sunday morning altars were filled. Prayer groups were started.
Word spread and soon more invitations were coming in than Johnson could handle, so he chose and nurtured lay coordinators to conduct the missions. What began as a clergy-coordinated event became a lay-coordinated event and the Lay Witness Movement was launched. In 1960, it was incorporated as the Institute of Church Renewal.
Soon the weekend pattern for missions was set. Teams of 15 or 20 laypersons went to a church for a weekend and stayed as guests in homes of the congregation. Often their presence proved to be a blessing in disguise and God ministered to the families where they were staying. The movement was reinforced by prayer. Every time a person got up to witness he or she would call on someone on the team to pray for him or her.
The church would gather with the team for a Friday night dinner, after which there would be spirited chorus singing and sharing by witnesses and small groups. On Saturday morning, coffee fellowships were set up in the homes of the congregation who invited their friends and neighbors to come hear the witnesses share. The church gathered for lunch and they divided to allow female witnesses to share with the women and male witnesses to share with the men.
On Saturday afternoon, the witnesses would go with church members to visit sick and shut-in members. On Saturday evening, there was more singing, sharing, small groups, and an opportunity for the church people to come to commit or recommit their lives to Jesus Christ. On Sunday morning, team members shared in the Sunday school classes and the coordinator spoke in the worship service. Another opportunity for church people to commit or recommit their lives to Christ was given.
A children’s coordinator and youth coordinator along with youth witnesses were brought to work with the kids and young people. Literally thousands of churches were renewed and revitalized and brought to spiritual strength as a result of lay people telling other lay people about their life in Christ.
The Lay Witness Movement became ecumenical and spread to the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Southern Baptists, the Disciples of Christ, and other denominations. The movement also went international, starting with the birthplace of Methodism, Great Britain. Lay Witness Missions have been held in Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Mexico, the Philippines, and other countries around the world. They have also been conducted as district-wide or cluster events involving multiple churches, as well as in prisons, in the stockade at a military base, in retirement centers, and in retreat settings.
During the second decade of its existence, what started as a movement became part of the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD). At the height of the movement in the early 1970s, there were more than 2,400 missions scheduled from Nashville, more than 100,000 team members on the rolls, and 1,200 coordinators.
Since that high point, the Lay Witness Mission entered a period of decline. The decline led the GBOD to discontinue it as one of their local church programs in 2003. Since Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (ARM) had then been an affiliate of the General Board of Discipleship for 26 years, it asked if it could be entrusted with the Lay Witness Mission program. The Board of Discipleship approved the request and we’ve been scheduling missions across the country ever since. Without changing the structure of the weekend, we’ve strengthened the preparation and follow-up materials.
We continue to believe that the Lay Witness Mission is an important, valid tool in bringing renewal to United Methodists and their churches. It follows the biblical pattern of Andrew telling his brother Simon or the woman at the well telling her village about their encounters with Jesus.
Many pastors can testify that a Lay Witness Mission in their past was an important component of their call to full-time ministry. The Board of Discipleship is beginning to offer Lay Witness Mission Team Member Training as an approved Advanced Lay Speaker’s Course. The testimonies coming from missions today demonstrate the continued effectiveness of this evangelism and renewal tool.
From a pastor in Louisiana: “The church gathered for its evaluation on Sunday night and everyone present could not stop talking about how it impacted their lives. It was described as awesome, fantastic, spiritually rewarding, motivating, very moving, and exhilarating. A new small group was formed. A desire for prayer groups and bible study, youth and children ministries will be addressed.”
From lay people at a church in Virginia: “We were spiritually recharged.” “I can’t think of a better way to have spent the weekend.” “I loved being able to share, knowing others share the same struggles.” “The weekend opened us up and brought us closer together. We got to know each other better.”
After 50 years, the Lay Witness Mission continues to prove itself to be effective in local church evangelism, renewal, development of small groups, and initiation of prayer ministries. It has enabled local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Frank H. Billman is the director of church relations for Aldersgate Renewal Ministries.
By Steve Beard
Despite being a monumental influence on contemporary music, most people outside the small fraternity of blues aficionados have never even heard of Robert Johnson (1911-1938). As a matter of fact, it was not until 70 years after his death that he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys.
His mark on the history of rock ‘n’ roll, however, is undeniable. “Robert Johnson is the most important blues musician who ever lived,” says legendary guitarist Eric Clapton. “I have never found anything more deeply soulful. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.”
Robert Johnson’s life was tragic, miserable, and short. He never knew his father. His birth was the result of an extramarital affair. He wandered around the South, using aliases to keep one step ahead of the law. When he got married as a young man, both his wife and baby died during childbirth. After that, he drank hard and chased women. In “Preaching Blues,” he sings, “the blues is a low-down achin’ heart disease/ Like consumption killing me by degrees.”
Johnson also was a certifiable musical genius, able to do things with the guitar that no one else had done. Even though he only recorded 29 songs in the mid-1930s, he mesmerized fans all over the South.
Because he had mastered the guitar seemingly overnight, the rumors began to whirl. It was said that he went out to the crossroads and traded his immortal soul for the ability to play the guitar. Like a showman, Johnson never contradicted the rumors. With songs like “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Hellhound on My Trail,” as well as lyrics that dealt with damnation and salvation, he let the legend take on a life of its own.
Five years ago, my best friend Troy and I traveled to the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly waited for his encounter with the Devil. Blues fans like us from all over the world travel to the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
In the South, the juke joints are packed on Saturday night and the clapboard churches are crowded on Sunday morning. The Robert Johnson legend of the crossroads fits right into a vibrant worldview of angels, demons, heaven, hell, sin, and atonement. At the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, you can even buy a t-shirt that reads, “Lord, forgive Robert Johnson.”
The metaphor of the crossroads is not reserved for yesteryear blues vagabonds looking for fame, fortune, and females. Rather, it carries a universal draw to anyone looking for a second chance. The crossroads represent an opportunity to get back on the right course, regain integrity, and give life another shot. It often defines our journey with grit, soul, and drama.
In honor of Robert Johnson’s memory, Eric Clapton hosts the Crossroads Guitar Festival every year. He actually knows a thing or two about crossroads. At one point in his life, Clapton was in the middle of a tour in Australia and he couldn’t stop shaking. “I’d reached the point where I couldn’t live without a drink and I couldn’t live with one,” he wrote in his fascinating autobiography.
At the time, Clapton was a new father and he knew he had to get back into alcohol treatment—especially for the sake of his son Conor. “I thought no matter what kind of human being I was, I couldn’t stand being around him like that,” he wrote. “I couldn’t bear the idea that, as he experienced enough of life to form a picture of me, it would be a picture of the man I was then.”
Clapton had been to rehab and tried to control his drinking, but once again it was controlling him. “I now had two children, neither of whom I was really administering to, a broken marriage, assorted bewildered girlfriends, and a career that, although it was still ticking over, had lost its direction. I was a mess.”
His love for his son proved to be his prime motivation. Clapton wanted things to be different for Conor from what he had experienced as a boy. “I had to break the chain and give him what I had never really had—a father,” he wrote. Clapton had grown up believing that his grandparents who raised him were actually his parents. His childhood was miserable and he was scrambling to make sure history didn’t repeat itself.
Ticking off the days in rehab, he came to the terrifying realization that nothing had really changed about his desires and that he was going to go back outside the safe confines of the treatment center completely unprepared to deal with his addiction.
“The noise in my head was deafening, and drinking was in my thoughts all the time,” he wrote. “It shocked me to realize that here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair.”
“At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room I begged for help. I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with,” Clapton confesses. “Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn’t allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help, and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered.”
That epiphany took place in 1987. Eric Clapton just recently turned 65 years old, but more importantly he has now celebrated 23 years of sobriety.
It took only a few days after that experience for him to realize that something profound had taken place within his life. “An atheist would probably say it was just a change of attitude, and to a certain extent that’s true, but there was much more to it than that,” he conveys. “I had found a place to turn to, a place I’d always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in.
“From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety,” Clapton continued. “I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and with my ego, this is the most I can do.
If you are asking why I do all this, I will tell you… because it works, as simple as that. In all this time that I’ve been sober, I have never once seriously thought of taking a drink or a drug. I have no problem with religion, and I grew up with a strong curiosity about spiritual matters, but my searching took me away from church and community worship to the internal journey. Before my recovery began, I found my God in music and the arts, with writers like Hermann Hesse, and musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him.”
In 1991, Clapton’s four-year-old son died from an accidental fall from a Manhattan highrise. Understandably, this crossroads devastated him.
“I cannot deny that there was a moment when I did lose faith, and what saved my life was the unconditional love and understanding that I received from my friends and my fellows in the 12-step program,” he writes. The song “Tears In Heaven” emerged out of the anguish of the tragedy in order to help him cope.
Clapton would go to his 12-step meetings and people would get him coffee and let him vent. On one occasion, he was asked to chair the session on the third step—the one about handing your will over to the care of God. During the session, he recounted the mystical experience he had when he fell to his knees and asked for help to stay sober. “I told the meeting that the compulsion was taken away at that moment, and as far as I was concerned, this was physical evidence that my prayers had been answered,” he relates. “Having had that experience, I said, I knew I could get through this.”
Much to his surprise, a woman came up to Clapton after the meeting and said, “You’ve just taken away my last excuse to have a drink.” He asked her what she meant. “I’ve always had this little corner of my mind which held the excuse that if anything were to happen to my kids, then I’d be justified in getting drunk,” she said. “You’ve shown me that’s not true.”
Clapton came to the sudden realization that perhaps there was a way to turn his excruciating pain and tragedy into something that could help someone else. “I really was in the position to say, ‘Well, if I can go through this and stay sober then anyone can.’ At that moment I realized that there was no better way of honoring the memory of my son.”
Not everyone responds at the crossroads of pain and tragedy by finding peace kneeling in prayer. But everyone has been given a choice and an opportunity—from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton to you and to me. There often comes a time when decisions must be made, courage must be summoned, and change must occur. For some it is getting off dope, for others it is getting right with God, and still for others it is just choosing to be a decent human being.
Robert Johnson died at age 27 after three days of pain and agony. Apparently, he was given moonshine laced with strychnine by a jealous husband who believed that Johnson was messing with his wife. Even though there are three different graveyards that claim his bones, he most likely is buried in the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church cemetery in Greenwood, Mississippi.
Etched in the granite tombstone are the words that Johnson supposedly scribbled on his death bed: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He will call me from the grave.”
The lines between fact, fiction, and Robert Johnson are blurry at best. What we know for sure is that crossroads have always held out the offer of a shot at new hope, even if we are approaching the exit gate of life.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.
By Emily Cooper and Jan Surratt
One church launched a prayer altar ministry, another initiated prayer partners, and one other called for the creation of prayer spaces. At still another church, the pastor set aside the lectionary for part of the summer to preach on prayer.
Four United Methodist congregations in South Carolina. Four different paths to reinvigorate the role of prayer in the lives of members.
There are many different paths to reviving prayer ministries in churches, congregation leaders say. The key is to make it a priority and get started.
“If we are the people of God, the most important thing we should be doing is listening to God,” said the Rev. Michael Henderson of Cayce United Methodist Church. “There has never been a revival or a reformation or re-anything that was not firmly bound in prayer.”
Henderson said his church had a prayer chain, but no real emphasis on prayer ministry. This past summer, he abandoned the lectionary and preached on prayer for several weeks.
Members decided to become more focused and do away with the shopping cart approach to prayer. No more robotic rattling off names and needs to God. Instead, they prayed for specific things daily. These were posted on the church sign.
“Pray for the homeless.” “Pray for those who are unemployed.” “Pray for President Obama.” The church also “adopted” Busbee Middle School, and the Sunday before the first school day of the month, cards are passed out with the name of a school staff member. Members pray for the person listed on their card every school day in the month.
Jericho United Methodist Church in Cottageville began a prayer partner ministry nearly a year ago. Now, more than two dozen people turn out for a meal and workshop once a month. In addition, the prayer partners talk with one another several times a week. They may meet in person or talk on the phone to pray. Prayer partners also arrive before Sunday services and pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit. They continue to pray through worship.
“We know that prayer changes the world and that God’s hand moves when people and pastor move together,” said Jericho’s pastor, the Rev. Jerry Harrison Jr.
The Rev. Jeff Kersey said prayer is also re-energizing his congregation, Mount Horeb United Methodist Church in Lexington. The church has grown from 250 to 2,600 since becoming more deliberative about prayer. To accomplish this, the congregation developed an altar ministry. During worship, people are invited to come forward and be prayed upon.
“People get up from all over the sanctuary to come during the pastoral prayer time,” Kersey said. “They come because they believe something is going to happen.” Today, he calls Mount Horeb “a prayer-driven” church.
Members of First United Methodist Church in Lancaster recently held a conference that discussed creating prayer spaces and rituals. People who are artistic and energetic may enjoy prayers that allow for movement, such as talking, singing or dancing, said church member Betty Kay Hudson. Others may prefer quiet activities, such as walking, writing or memorizing Bible versions.
The key, Hudson said, is to be intentional about not only when you pray, but where you pray. Be comfortable, said the Rev. Nellie Cloninger from Lawrence Chapel United Methodist Church in Clemson, another conference presenter.
“We need to be real when we pray out loud,” Cloninger said. “Tune in to where you experience God on a regular basis and let that feed your praying.”
Emily Cooper is the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate. Jan Surratt writes for the paper.
By Steve Harper
It happens to all of us sooner or later. Our enthusiasm for Scripture declines. We begin approaching our time of Bible reading more as a duty than a delight. We come to a familiar passage and feel like skipping over it because “we know what it says.” If we are ministers, Sunday school teachers, or Bible study leaders, we may experience this in the feeling that we’re using the Bible as a place to “find” an idea or an outline. All of us come to the time when we need to recover the joy and meaning of searching the Scriptures.
We can be thankful we have somewhere to turn when we experience times like this. Our predecessors in the faith have left us a precious legacy called lectio divina. In English it goes by various terms: sacred reading, formative reading, and devotional reading, to name a few. It is a process of mining Scripture (or any other text, for that matter) in a way that allows God to speak to you through it. It is a process that has helped untold numbers of Christians to personalize their reading of Scripture, the devotional classics, etc. It is one way many have used to find the Word of God again.
The term lectio divina may seem quite new to you, but I expect you have already engaged in a form of it, even without knowing it. Take your Bible in your hands and open it. If you have ever underlined a passage, or otherwise marked it, you have experienced a type of sacred reading. There have been times in the past when a portion of a passage has really “spoken” to you. That is a kind of lectio divina. It is what my colleague, Dr. Robert Mulholland, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, calls being “shaped by the Word.” It is something that can happen to all of us, and it is something each of us can enrich and improve.
In this brief article, I want to do two things. First, I want to give you an overview of the sacred reading process so you can begin using it. Second, I want to conclude with some of the benefits I’ve personally received as a result of practicing lectio divina in my own reading of the Bible.
In describing the process, let’s keep the goal clearly in mind. The purpose of lectio divina is to enable us to encounter the Word of God through the reading of God’s Word. It is our goal to attune ourselves, so that as we read we may hear and respond to the particular message God has for us in this moment. We want to come away from our times of Bible reading able to say, “I have met the living God.” To be sure, no methodology is foolproof; nothing works every time. But I do believe that formative reading is a practice that will enable this contact with God to be your experience much of the time. So, with that goal clearly in mind, what are the steps of the process?
Prayer. We begin with prayer. The ancients called this the Prayer for Illumination. Today, we might pray it like this: “Lord, I am grateful for this opportunity to read and reflect on your Holy Word. I ask you to prepare my mind and my heart so that I can hear what you want to say to me. Come, Holy Spirit, and inspire my reading, even as you originally inspired the writer. I ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.”
Such praying is an opening to God. It is our recognition that we are not “in control” of the text. Rather, we want it to “control” us. We are not trying to
master anything; we are seeking to be mastered by God’s Word. We have become accustomed to reading for information, to pass a test, or acquire additional knowledge. In lectio divina, we are reading in order to meet the living God. Information and knowledge may or may not be involved; encounter is the key. The act of reading may fill our minds or warm our hearts (or both). We do not care; we only pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Prayer is the first action in lectio divina. Indeed, it is the action that saturates the whole process.
Reading. The second step is reading. We enter the text itself, absorbing it in the hope of discovering what God has to say to us. For one thing, we read slowly; lectio divina has no set amount in mind. We are seeking to be deep, not broad. We are going for quality, not quantity. We may read three chapters or three lines. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we read slowly enough to sense when and where we need to stop, look, and listen. And whenever we sense that halt, we pause and dig in right there. It may be a word that captures our attention. It may be an idea that speaks to something going on in our lives. It may be a promise we need to claim or an instruction we need to follow. Whatever it is, we stop where we are, accept it as God’s message for us, and allow it to penetrate our lives.
Our slower reading is accompanied by a systematic approach. To be sure, we can skip around and still use the sacred reading process. But ideally, we read systematically and sequentially. We do this because we believe the Holy Spirit inspired the original author to write with a certain progression. We believe we shall encounter God more authentically in the text if we follow the same progression of inspiration. So, the second step is reading, slowly and systematically, in order to hear and respond to God.
Meditation. The third step is meditation. That word has unfortunately taken on negative connotations in our day. But it merely means that we “walk around” the idea that has seized us in our reading. Hugh of St. Victor described meditation as “piercing the core of a particular truth.” In the reading step, we have latched onto a particular truth. In the meditation step, we seek to pierce that truth and be shaped by it.
Here is where we can bring any and all skills we have to the passage. If we know Greek or Hebrew, we can do full-fledged exegesis. If we have learned inductive study skills, we can apply that methodology to our “particular truth.” If we have a chain-reference system, we can trace the idea through the Bible. We can use our concordances, commentaries, maps, cross references, etc. We can use anything and everything that enables us to derive more meaning and inspiration from the passage on which we are focusing. Meditation is the step in which we probe, explore, research, compare and contrast, illustrate, and otherwise walk around the text, seeing and hearing as much as we can.
Contemplation. The fourth step is contemplation. This is the step in which we personalize and own the text. In the phase of meditation, for example, we may have found out what six Bible scholars think about the passage. In contemplation, we now determine what we think about it. We appreciate what we have learned in the meditation stage; now, in contemplation we integrate all the “words” into that personal “word” for ourselves. To illustrate, in contemplation we come to the place where we receive John 3:16 as “ours,” as it was John’s when he first wrote it down. Needless to say, contemplation is a holy moment and a precious privilege.
Application. The fifth and final step is application. What else could it be? We have prayed for God to speak. We have read in a way that enabled us to select a meaningful portion of Scripture to focus upon. We have meditated by using every means at our disposal to ruminate on that portion. And we have prayerfully and sincerely sought to make that text our own, to integrate its message and inspiration into our lives.
Now, in application, we seek to allow the power of that Holy Word to flow through us for the sake of others. We end our sacred reading realizing that “to whom much is given, much is required.” In the first steps, God has blessed us. In application, God is challenging us to become a blessing to others. That blessing may flow out in our words, in our deeds or in both. But in the step of application we are now praying, “Where, when, and how would you want me to live out your Word, O God?”
Do you see what we’ve done? A little while ago, we approached the Holy Bible with no idea of what God might want to say to us. Through the process of lectio divina, we not only have received a word from the Lord, we also have received our marching orders for putting it into practice. The Bible comes alive as the written Word of God becomes the living Word within us and through us.
I do not mean to suggest that this always happens. There are days when even sacred reading seems dull and uninspiring. But I have come to see that this approach to the Bible (and other literature as well) is a precious means of receiving and responding to God. Lectio divina is one way of actualizing the prayer, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” It has been a way for many to find the Word of God again when it has become somewhat dull and routine.
At the beginning of the article, I promised to share some of the blessings I’ve received by using this process. As I have moved along, I’m sure you’ve picked up some of them in the way I’ve described the method itself. Sacred reading has made prayer and study all one fabric. It has freed me from the obsession to read a certain amount whether I get anything out of it or not. It has given me a deepening appreciation for the way each book of the Bible unfolds and progresses.
It has enabled me to utilize many other tools in gleaning truth from the Scripture. And it has challenged me to validate the intention of Bible reading in the first place; that is, to live the message.
In addition to these important things, I would add some others. Sacred reading has increased my sense of intimacy with God. It has enabled me to see that I do not have to wait until some expert tells me what the Bible says. It has given me a sense of anticipation for sharing what I am learning with others, both as a check and balance and also as the basis for fruitful discussion. Lectio divina has enriched my sense of communion with the saints, in that I realize I am using a method which Christians have used for centuries.
Ever find yourself going through a time when you need a boost in your use of the Bible? Try lectio divina. Plug into the process of sacred reading. I predict you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you discover. I predict you’ll be grateful that God indeed speaks when we use this method to listen. God bless you in the quest!
Steve Harper is Professor of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies at the Florida-Dunnam campus of Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando. He was the founding director of The Pathways Initiative, a ministry of The Upper Room to spiritual leaders. He has authored 12 books and co-authored six others. His latest book is Talking in the Dark: Praying When Life Doesn’t Make Sense. This article originally appeared in the Asbury Herald and is reprinted by permission.