A Season for Growing--Devotional Life

by Rev. L. John Gable

My guess is you would not think it unusual or inappropriate if your physician asked you about your physical health and regular routine of exercise, or about your diet, what you eat, how much and how often you eat, whether you eat in a hurry or at a more leisurely pace, whether you typically eat alone or with others?  All of these seem to be appropriate questions for a physician to ask because they all have to do with your general physical health and well-being.  We know that regular exercise and good nutrition are part of having a healthy mind and body.

So, what if I asked you similar questions about your spiritual exercise and nutrition, would that sound unusual or inappropriate to you?  Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy, “Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present and the life to come.”  So, just as regular exercise and good nutrition are important to us physically, so they are as well spiritually.  We know that there is truth to the old adage: “Garbage in/garbage out.  Good stuff in/good stuff out.”  Or, “We are what we eat” which begs the question what are you putting in, what are you eating, digesting, spiritually?

This morning, as part of our summer series on “A Season for Growing” we are going to talk about our devotional lives, the things we read and take in and think about which help us grow and mature in our spiritual health, just as exercise and the foods we eat help us grow and mature physically.

Think for a moment of the books and materials you are currently reading, the books and magazines you have on your nightstand or coffee table?  Of what value would you say they are to you spiritually?  Let me quickly add that I love to read history and biographies and nothing beats a good international spy novel for me, so I am not suggesting that I think you should only have your seven different translations of the Bible close at hand; but I do wonder, with you, if your Bible or any other devotional material is in that stack at all?  If not, ask yourself, why not?  If so, how often do you read it?  And perhaps of equal importance, how do you read it?

Those who laid out the order of the Psalms very intentionally made Psalm 1 Psalm 1.  They could have chosen from any one of the 150 songs they had on hand, and I’m sure from many more, but they chose this one, why?  Because Psalm 1 sets the tone and lays out the path for all that follows and gives us a template for our spiritual lives as it contrasts the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked.

It begins, “Happy are those”, “blessed are those”, which sounds very much like the way Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount when He gives the Beatitudes. “Blessed are those whose delight is in the Law of the Lord and on His Law they meditate day and night.”  The Psalmist is focusing our attention on the source of our blessing, the Lord and His Law, God’s guidance and instruction for righteous living.  Notice that these Laws are not burdensome and laborious, rather they bring “delight” to those who read and follow them.  This is God’s intention for us, that as we know and walk in His way, we will enjoy His blessing, “abundantly and eternally.”

So, “Happy are those who delight in the Law of the Lord and who meditate on it day and night”.  What does that mean, to meditate on the Law?  We tend to think of “meditate” as “read it, think about it for a moment, then read on”, but that is not what the Psalmist is proposing.  The Hebrew word for meditate, hagah, might better be translated “masticate”, chew on it, like a cow chews its cud.  Take a bite and chew on it for a while, and then chew on it again, and again, and again.  That’s what it means to meditate on the Word, and in order to do that “day and night” we have to really slow down and think about what we are reading, to reflect on it, even to commit it to memory, so that we can meditate on it, even when we do not have our Bibles open in front of us.  The rabbis taught their disciples as they walked together through the normal routine of life.  They weren’t carrying scrolls with them, they were talking about spiritual truths they had read and learned and digested and committed to memory, since their own childhoods, the time of their own bar mitzvahs.  In an age before electric lights they weren’t lighting lanterns to read at night; they were meditating and reflecting on what they could call to memory and knew in their hearts.

How many of you remember who Evelyn Woods was?  She is the one who introduced the concept of speed reading.  Wonderful for novels, terrible for reading Scripture, why?  Because she taught a method of scanning the paragraph or page until you got the main point and then moving on, literally rejecting the rest.  That is the exact opposite of what we are instructed to do with Scripture.  In order to memorize something, and really take it to heart, you-have-to-read-every-word.  Hagah– you have to meditate on it, masticate it, chew on it again and again.

One writer suggests that we should read Scripture no longer than 15 minutes at a time in order to really be fed by it.  He is not minimizing the importance of Scripture, rather he is saying if we read longer our reading becomes like ordinary reading.  But at 15 minutes it is “like a lozenge dissolving slowly in the mouth”; another good image to encourage us to slow down in our reading.

So how might we do that?  One of the most ancient, yet still best loved and most widely practiced ways of reading Scripture is called “Lectio Divina” or sacred or holy reading, which has been practiced since the earliest centuries of our faith and finally codified by St. Benedict in the 6th century.  There are four movements in this practice, each with a slightly different purpose, but each using exactly the same passage of Scripture.

The first movement is called “lectio” and you can think of it as becoming “acquainted” with the passage.  You begin by reading the passage aloud.  You might want to tell those who are around you what you are doing so that they don’t think you are talking to yourself.  Reading Scripture aloud is always a good practice because it too forces us to slow down, and to engage not just our minds, but our tongues and our ears in hearing the Word as well.

The second movement is “meditatio” as in meditation, which involves silently thinking about what you have read.  What words are used and what they mean?  Asking questions of the text as well as seeking insights.  Some have referred to this movement as “friendship” with the passage.

The third time through the text is called “oratio”.  By this point you have some “intimacy” with the text which invites your verbal, spoken prayer.  It is an invitation to pray about what has risen up in your mind and heart in meditation.

And finally, the fourth movement is called “contemplatio” or contemplation in which you simply rest silently in God for a time after you have prayed.

Once you have read through the same passage four times, and thought and prayed deeply about it, you can see how “masticating” the Word or chewing the cud really is an apt description of what you have done.  You are now so familiar with the text that it will actually continue to come to mind throughout the day as you go about your regular routine, or as you lay down to rest at night.  Invariably when our minds go to idle they will return to what we have been reading or thinking about, so there is great benefit to us spiritually if our minds can naturally return to what we have been reading in Scripture.

For many, this practice of “lectio divina” enables the Word to come off of the page and become deeply imbedded in our hearts.   The Word actually speaks to us as it calls for our reaction or response.  By slowing down and reading Scripture in this way, we find ourselves asking questions, such as, “I now know what it says, but what does it mean…for me?  What am I going to do with it?  How am I going to put this truth or principle or teaching into practice in my life?  What is God asking me to do or to be?”

There are many other practices for reading Scripture, but the Lectio Divina is a time-tested method.  As modern readers we are always wanting something new every time we read, but not so the ancients; they continually wanted to read and re-read and rehearse the great story of Scripture so that they could meditate on it “day and night”, something we cannot do if we speed read.

I have a nurse friend who says, “Any food you get through a drive up window is not really food”.  She may be right, and the same truth she gives about physical health and nutrition may be applied to our spiritual lives.  The Psalmist says, “Those who delight in the Law and meditate on it…are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.”  That is a picture of good health.

I’ll close with a beautiful prayer of illumination, the prayer often used before the reading of Scripture in a service of worship, from the Anglican tradition which appropriately sums up what we have spoken of today.  “Help us, Lord, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Thy Word.”  May this be our prayer and heart’s desire this day and every day as we meditate on His Word.  Amen.