Last Friday, July 4, I attended a session on contemplative spirituality led by Randy Harris, Rhonda Lowry and Gary Holloway at Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration.
These three along with Jackie Halstead lead a seminar on deepening spiritualitysponsored by New Wineskins. I have not yet participated in the program but I know some who have. I have heard nothing but glowing reports.
After an introduction by Randy, Rhonda and Gary led the group in two different contemplative exercises in reading the Bible. I have practiced both of these at different times (though they each had their own unique stamp on the exercise), but it was a wonderful reminder to me of how I need to give more attention to this kind of reading of Scripture than I actually do. In other words, I confess that I am often much too academic in my approach to Scripture.
In this post I will summarize the method through which Rhonda led us and how it applied to me…and moved me to obey God (do we hear the word “transformation” as a process?). In my next post I will summarize the method through which Gary led us and how I encountered God in that moment.
Rhonda reminded us of a very simple inductive way to read Scripture for personal transformation. I first (at least so my memory serves me) encountered this method–or something very similar to it–in Roberta Hestenes’ Using the Bible in Groups (1985). However, Rhonda’s version emphasized the goal of personal transformation by private encounter with God through Scripture.
Below I summarize her method, what I did with the text in the setting of the workshop, and how it applied to me. The language in the headings and the directions given below belong to Rhonda Lowry to whom I am indebted.
Before we can read Scripture transformatively, we must settle ourselves. We must rid ourselves of the busy-ness of life, focus on task at hand, and seek God.
I seek this with some meditative breathing exercises and prayer. To encounter God in the present, we need to be “in” the present (rather than letting our mind wander back to the past or planning the future). I find the easiest way to do this for me is to pray the “Jesus prayer” with rhythmic breathing. As I inhale I address Jesus with these words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and as I exhale I pray “have mercy on me, a sinner.” I do this repeatedly until calm enters my soul, everything else is excluded from my consciousness, and I sense some focus on God’s comforting presence. It is an experience of calm. This prepares me to hear the text.
Rhonda gave us Mark 5:21-43 to read. Our task was to simply observe the text through inductive reading. She recommended that we make at least five observations about the text. Each of these should be written in complete sentences and they must be factual observations rather than any sort of interpretation. The point is simply to observe.
I observed, for example, that:
- Both healings involved “daughters”–one had suffered for twelve years and another had lived for twelve years.
- Both Jarius and the afflicted woman met Jesus on their knees as they fell to the ground.
- The afflicted woman trembled in fear before Jesus and Jarius was tempted to fear when he heard his daughter was dead.
- The text moves from public (Jarius’ request) to private (the woman touches Jesus’ clothing) back to public (the woman confesses her touch) and then to private again (the healing of Jarius’ daughter).
- The healings involve both a chronic illness and a death.
Of course, many more observations could be made of the text. And the more we observe, the more deeply the text sinks into us as a datum of our mind and ultimately heart. The more time we spend with the text, the more we see in text. In this method I have yet to find a text where I did not notice something new even when I tended to think I already knew the text well.
Rhonda then suggested that we take one of our observations and brainstorm about it. This is an act of interpretation. Our task is to think of all the possible ways in which that observation could be understood, what it might mean, and what it might teach. The task is to interpret, but limit ourselves to one specific observation so we can focus our contemplation. If we attempt to do too much, we will end up superficial rather than contemplative.
I chose to focus on the observation that both Jarius and the healed woman fell at the feet of Jesus–they either knelt or fell prostrate before him. What is the significance of this? What might it mean? Rhonda suggested that we list at least ten possible meanings or nuances. This can be difficult at times but it forces reflection, concentration and probing. Here are mine though there could perhaps be many more:
- They humbled themselves.
- They expressed grief.
- They expressed fear.
- They plead or begged Jesus for his mercy.
- They were awed by Jesus’ presence.
- They were seeking and searching for healing.
- They were embarrassed.
- They told the truth.
- They expressed gratitude.
- They confessed.
Rhonda then suggested we meditate on that meaning of that observation for our own lives through the lens of how we brainstomed it. She encouraged application. But this is a highly personal and direct application. The application, according to Rhonda, must be both concrete (something specific) and time-dependent (to be done within a specific time period).
For whatever reason (should we say the movement of God?–ok, I think so; after all, I prayed for such movement; my, it does surprise us when God shows up, right?), I chose to focus on the observation that both actors in the drama fell at the feet of Jesus. I saw in that humility, awe, seeking, confession, etc. Why did I choose that? Why was this observation important to me? What was God telling me through this observation and meditation.
What I “took” from my meditation was a renewal to practice kneeling in my prayer life during my morning and evening meditations. I spend much of my time sitting in prayer rather than kneeling or prostrate. From this contemplative exercise, I sensed a need and a call to kneel in prayer more often. Consequently, I committed in my own heart to pray on my knees or face during the rest of July.
The return to the posture of kneeling or prostration has been transformative for me. It reminds me that I am not talking to air. It accentuates for me that I am in God’s presence when I pray. It demands that I tell the truth when I pray. It humbles me.
The “story” and “study” functions of Bible reading would certainly reveal to me how the people of God have often knelt and prostrated themselves before God in prayer and worship. But the “silence” of contemplative reading moved me to kneel before God in my own prayer and worship. In this way, I rediscovered something that I had lost in the last few years of my life. And with that rediscovery comes the experience of humility, confession and awe that I needed to re-experience. I learned again to participate in the drama (story) of God through kneeling before him as I seek the face of God. It has truly been transformative.