How Do I Know What to Read in the Bible?

What to read in the Bible?

Lectio Divina Series: Conclusion

Lectio Divina is a great gift from God. I hope you have seen that this is not so much a technique as it is a simple way to connect with God through the Scriptures. God has always encountered his people in these sacred writings, and he is inviting you into deeper relationship. As we conclude this series of reflections, I want to answer one last question. How do you know what to read in the Bible?

Three Ways to Choose What to Read in the Bible

Through the centuries, Christians have usually approached this question in three different ways.

1) The lectionary

The first way (and my practice) is to follow a daily lectionary. A lectionary is a simple series of readings that the church appoints to be read everyday. It leads us through much of the Bible, including parts that we may not normally choose. The lectionary is used in one of our most common devotional practices, daily morning and evening prayer. As Christians pray together and read Scripture, the lectionary helps us know that wherever we are in the world, there are other Christians reading the same Scriptures and praying the same prayers.

If this interests you, it is easy enough to find the readings. There are usually three readings for each day, along with two sets of Psalms for morning and evening use. You can use them all in daily prayer, or you can choose one a day and use that for your Lectio Divina. The Forward Day by Day devotional booklets (online here) list the readings for each day. You can also find the lectionary online here.

2) A book at a time

The second way is to read through a specific book of the Bible as a way of praying through an entire book slowly. For example, you might pick a book like Galatians. Starting at Galatians 1:1, you would read a section at a time, over many days or weeks. Remember, the principle of slow reading means that you can’t read big chunks. You will need to discern how much to read and pray through in a day. Some Bibles break up sections with headings that make it easier to choose a shorter section.

3) By theme

The third way is to pick a theme that you want to examine more deeply, and then find a series of passages that speak to that theme. In the back of many Bibles is a helpful tool called a concordance. In it, you can look up a word that you want to pray about, ‘faith’ for example. Look up the word ‘faith’ in your concordance and you will find a list of ten to twenty verses about faith. You can pick one verse a day and pray through it.

Usually when I do this, I look up the verse and then read the larger section that it is a part of. For instance, let’s say you chose the classic verse from Ephesians 2:8 about being saved through faith. When you look at your Bible, you see that this is part of a larger section that goes from verse 4 to verse 10. Use that six-verse section as your material for the day. As you slowly pray through the list of verses about faith, over time you will gain a good understanding of what the Bible says about it. You will also find some profound insights into your own faith. You can do this with any theme. As a side note, you can also google “verses about faith” or any other theme, and you will be led to lots of verses.

In Conclusion

Remember, the point of prayer is not the technique. Lectio Divina is just a tool. No matter what you read in the Bible, the point is to grow deeper in your love of God and in wisdom about yourself. God is inviting you into a relationship. Don’t worry about getting it right; just show up every day, and you will grow.

Praying with Psalm 131 (Lectio Divina Series – An Example)

Praying with Psalm 131 (Lectio Divina Series)

In this reflection, I want to write about my own experience with Lectio Divina, praying with Psalm 131. I want to show you that this process can be very personal. Because it is personal, my meditations here won’t be the same as you would have. That is exactly the point. Lectio Divina is a way to listen to God speaking to YOU, personally. I chose this particular Psalm to share with you because God used it to lead me on a bit of a roller coaster ride.

Reading (Lectio)

Psalm 131 is extremely short. I read through it very slowly and still finished it quickly. So, I read through it several times. Even though it is only a few verses long, three images really leapt out at me. They were all from the first two verses, while the last verse didn’t seem to impact me at all. In this session of reading prayerfully, I just left it as an afterthought and never returned to it.

The first image was this strong declaration from the writer, David, that his heart isn’t proud. This declaration drives to a second declaration that he doesn’t concern himself with things beyond his understanding. He just leaves them alone. Third, he uses the vivid image of a child, just past the stage of nursing, content to be in his mother’s arms. For David, this image of God as a mother, gently holding him, hit me somewhere deeply inside.

Ponder (Meditatio)

I started to ponder this passage and ended up having a bit of a spiritual crisis. It came from the second part of verse 1, where David reflects, “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.” I found that verse emotionally compelling. As I read it, I felt that I wanted to be in the same place that David was, spiritually. But, as I read, I realized I wasn’t even close.

It hit me that I actually live my whole life “concerning myself with great matters.” This is what I am all about. I am driven to seek out answers to hard questions. As I ponder, I am never satisfied with simple resolutions. I spend huge amounts of time wrestling with big questions like, Who is God? Why is there suffering in the world? Which religion is true? What do we really mean by atonement? What is true justice? This is not just a drive. Indeed, I love having conversations with people about big questions. I love reading and absorbing what people in the past have said. It fills me joy and energy and purpose. It is literally my favourite pastime.

This was my personal spiritual crisis: I felt the truth of what David was writing, but I also felt that God has called me to be a thinker and writer. I genuinely believe that this is my vocation.

Prayer (Oratio)

As I brought my dilemma to God, I prayed: How do I put them together!? The way forward was beyond me. Then, praying with Psalm 131 gave me an insight. I saw the irony: this is exactly what David was talking about. I believe that God spoke to me that day through this realization. Of course I couldn’t put it together, because there are “great matters” that are beyond me.

I didn’t feel that God was forcing me to an answer to the dilemma. He was just revealing it to me. The answer wasn’t so much a solution as an invitation to continue to ponder and pray. As I prayed, I would grow. But I needed to trust God even when I couldn’t see the way forward. This pondering led me into silent rest in God.

Silent Prayer (Contemplatio)

I realized deeply in my soul that, although I love the act of thinking and wrestling with big questions, ultimately all of that points beyond itself to God. I don’t have to have all those answers just to sit and love God. In fact, my calling can also be my idolatry. Sometimes I need to set them aside and be with God. As my praying with Psalm 131 led me to silent contemplation, I imagined myself as this weaned child just resting in the arms of his mother, and that was enough.

Over to You

Obviously, Lectio Divina doesn’t always lead to a spiritual crisis. As we pray, we often just discover insights about ourselves and our relationship with God. But because we each come to God with our own concerns, this way of praying through Scripture can be very personal. God is speaking to your questions, your situation, your joys, your fears. Our task is to listen, not to know the answers. As we said at the beginning of this series, ‘listening’ is one of the most important spiritual skills we can develop.

Contemplative Prayer (Lectio Divina Series – “Contemplatio”)

Contemplative Prayer

Contemplation is the highest expression of [our] intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith.

Thomas Merton

We now reach the last movement of Lectio Divina: Contemplation. This is the natural culmination of everything else you have done. Be aware that it can be the most beautiful part of your time of prayer, but it can also easily be the hardest. Contemplative prayer is also the hardest to explain because of its utter simplicity. Here are the instructions: just sit there. Don’t think about anything or do anything. Don’t expect anything. Just sit there. Actually, there is one other instruction: be attentive to where you are and to the God in whose presence you sit.

Moving Beyond Words

Contemplative prayer is a form of silent prayer. This is sometimes confusing because it often seems that prayer is all about words. We use words in the liturgy, words in praying for others, words in reading the Bible, words while singing, and words when just talking to God.

Word-filled prayer is very important; language is a great gift. But we need to understand that words are not the final goal. They point to something beyond themselves. For instance, when I tell my kids to come and eat dinner, the word “dinner” is not what is important. They don’t stop and say, “What a great word, Dad!” They rush by me to get to the actual plate of food sitting on the table full of food. The food is the dinner, not the word.

Contemplation is similar. It is the recognition every word we use in prayer is pointing beyond itself. Words point us beyond ourselves to the great mystery that words can’t capture. In the end, they are only signposts on the way, leading to what is really important: God. In my story of my children and dinner, the real point is not hearing the word, but that they enjoy the delicious food we have prepared. At some point, in a similar way, we leave the words of prayer behind, and just enjoy the presence of the God who made us for just this profound relationship.

Contemplative Prayer is Savouring and Attentiveness

I recognize that this can still be confusing. Let me suggest two other human scenarios that might help us to glimpse what contemplation is. First, imagine that you are eating the best meal you have ever had. It is in that little restaurant that people have told you about. You didn’t believe that food could be that good, but you went anyways. Then you put the first bite in your mouth… and oh…my… goodness!! The flavours are so rich and succulent. Your table mate asks how it is. You pause because you just want to savour that taste for a moment before answering. That savouring is a form of contemplation. You don’t think about it; you just experience it.

Second, imagine walking on the beach with a friend. It is the perfect day: warm but not hot, the faint scent of salt, the water pleasantly wet on your feet. You talk for awhile as you walk, but over time you just drift into silence. It is just pleasant to be there with your friend, all your senses taking in everything. There is nothing you need to say. It is enough just to be there.

This quiet attentiveness to what is around you is also a form of contemplation. Walter Burghardt calls it “a long, loving look at the real.” While this is easier to do when things are pleasant, to be attentive is a way of deepening spiritually in all circumstances. You can start simply with a few minutes at the end of Lectio Divina.

Beginning to Practice Contemplative Prayer

Contemplation is just sitting there. Don’t think. Just be…in the presence of God. I recognize that this is deceptively simple, so there are techniques to help quiet the thoughts and words that constantly drift through our minds.

Let me give you a little trick that most people use, even established contemplatives. When you have finished praying about your reading, choose one of the words in the reading that spoke to you. Maybe the word was faith or love or God or joy or follow. It could be anything.

As you find your mind wandering, say that word in your mind. Let the word be the tool you use to re-focus on the presence of God with you. When you wander again, say the word again. Say it as much as you need. I find that sometimes I need the words a lot. That is fine. The point is not to accomplish anything, but to be in God’s presence with no agenda. Just sit in the truth that God loves you so much.

Next time, as an example, I will reflect on a session of Lectio Divina I did with Psalm 131.

Praying with Scripture (Lectio Divina Series – “Oratio”)

Praying with Scripture

Christian spirituality is always a response to what God is doing. Having received from God, we respond, first in prayer and then in action. In the first two movements of Lectio Divina, we have been learning how to open our hearts so that we can receive the word that God wants to speak to us today. This prayerful preparation comes in slow reading and intentional meditation on what we hear. All of this is a way of praying with Scripture and trying to listen deeply.

Word-Filled Prayer (Oratio)

After we have meditated on God’s word, we turn to prayer. The tradition calls this Oratio (Prayer), which is word-filled prayer. Oratio transitions organically into praying with minimal words. We call this transition to wordless prayer Contemplatio (Contemplation). In this reflection, I will look at word-filled prayer, and in the next reflection I will turn to contemplative prayer. 

Prayer is Responding to God

From meditation, we turn to prayer. Prayer is a wonderful gift from God. It is an amazing opportunity to be in dialogue and conversation with God. In Lectio Divina, we are prayerfully responding to any insights that emerge from our meditation. There is a constant pattern of hearing God’s word in Scripture and then responding in prayer.

Praying with Scripture: A Personal Example

For example, when I was reading Scripture devotionally the other day, I was working through the letter of Paul to the Philippians, Chapter 3. In this passage, Paul describes all of the advantages he had as a Jewish Pharisee. He was well born, had a great education, was well known for his commitment to the law, and blameless in his observance. Many people would have been jealous of the advantages he had. And yet, he considers all those advantages as rubbish compared to knowing Christ. The love and grace of Jesus Christ is worth far more than any of his privilege. He sings about the joy he feels in knowing Christ, and his willingness to trade everything else for it. He writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…”

When I read those words, my heart jumped. I thought, “I want to know Christ like that too! I want to know the power of Christ’s love like Paul did. That’s what I really want.” So in my reading, I meditated on those passionate lines from Paul: what would this look like for me? Then I turned to my time of prayer, and this is what I brought to God. Using Paul’s words, I prayed, “I too want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection! Please, Lord, let me know this tremendous gift that Jesus has given us.” I just took the words from Paul’s letter and I MADE THEM MY OWN.

Bringing the Prayers of Our Hearts

This time of prayer is obviously whatever you make it. The structure of Lectio Divina is extremely flexible. It is only meant to be an opportunity to bring the prayers of our hearts to our loving Father.

Perhaps there is something in the reading that confused you, or that you didn’t like. Make that the content of your prayer. Maybe you just felt a strong emotion when reading something in the passage. Make that the content of your prayer. Ask God about it. Long after the prayer is over, you may find insight into what is going on spiritually within you. Maybe something in the reading encouraged you. Voice that to God. Maybe the reading spoke to a bad habit you are struggling with. Make that the content of your prayer. As we pray with Scripture, nothing is out of bounds.

I hope you see the profound flexibility of this way of coming to God. Lectio Divina only lays down a framework. You get to make it your own. There is only one real requirement for growth in the spiritual life. Just keep showing up, every day you can.  

Reading the Bible Prayerfully (Lectio Divina Series – “Meditatio”)

The Hope Canteen: Reading the Bible Prayerfully

In the previous article, I wrote about not hurrying through Scripture. Rather, we should read slowly and deliberately. This is because we are LISTENING, listening very closely. True listening is hard to do, because it needs to be without agenda as much as possible. Even so, taking our time and listening carefully opens the way to reading the Bible prayerfully.

For example, imagine my wife says that she has a good idea about what we should do this weekend. I already have an idea about what we should be doing this weekend, and without listening to her, I already know that my idea is a lot better. I have an agenda, and it keeps me from hearing what she has to say. I have already determined that it is not as good as my idea, and I am only listening to find reasons to show her why my idea is better. This does not honour my wife or our relationship. I would do better to put my agenda aside and listen to what she has to say. This act of putting aside my agenda and paying attention is what I am calling listening.

Deep Listening to Scripture

When we read Scripture, we use this same kind of listening, but we call it “meditation.” This could be confusing. When the Bible uses the word “meditation,” it doesn’t mean sitting in silence, something that is a lot closer to the Christian practice of contemplation. Meditation in the Bible comes from the Hebrew word “to mutter.” We see this in Psalm 1 as it describes the truly happy: “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they MEDITATE [mutter] day and night.” Muttering implies that the reader stops and repeats what they just read, so that they can get a deeper sense of what is written.

Ruminating on Scripture

In the Middle Ages, writers talked about ruminating on Scripture. Ruminating comes from the image of a cow chewing its cud. It means that they are covering the same ground over and over. The passage is full of meaning; we need to sit for a time with the image or idea we are meditating on.

The author of our Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer, wrote a wonderful prayer that describes ruminating on Scripture. He wanted to capture the Reformation desire that people would come to love the Bible as the Word of God. He wanted them to use the Bible, not just as a source of information or to do theology, but as a way to connect to the living God, who still speaks through its pages. The prayer goes like this:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.

By using that strange but delightful phrase, ‘inwardly digest them’, Cranmer asks us not just to learn the truths of Scripture by rote, but to absorb them into our very souls. Meditation is being spiritually nourished by Holy Scripture.

God Is Always Speaking Through Scripture

Lectio Divina assumes that, in reading the Bible prayerfully, you will find something that speaks to your heart. In his book on meditating on Scripture, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it like this: “In our meditation, we ponder the chosen text on the strength of the promise that it has something utterly personal to say to us for this day and for our Christian life.” This is an incredible promise! To claim it, we need to be able to listen carefully and put aside our agenda during our prayer time.

The Lectio Divina Practice of Meditating on Scripture

The practice of meditating on Scripture works like this: as you are reading the passage slowly, pay close attention to how you are feeling and what you notice. Usually, an image, a verse, a phrase, or even just a word will stand out to you. You may just note something interesting. At other times, you might find something you are excited about, or strongly dislike. Whatever it is, stop here and ponder for a moment. First, ask what it means for the Biblical writer. Then, ask what it means for you. Why do you think this place in your reading is interesting to you? You are trying to draw a living connection between the world of the Bible and your world. Our goal is to live in light of what God is doing in the Gospel.

Listening to God’s Word

When something in Scripture speaks to you, it is a good indication that God is using it to tell you something about a question or experience you are having. Sometimes, what God is saying will be clear. Other times, you will need to ponder and pray about it for a while. Either way, after you have meditated on your passage, turn to God in prayer. I will say more about this in the next reflection.

Steps of Lectio Divina: The Four Movements

Steps of Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina is not as fancy as the name might suggest. I would use a different name, but this one has such an ancient tradition that I will leave it be. Remember, though, that it is just a way to read the scriptures devotionally. In this article, we are looking at the four movements, or steps, of lectio divina.

Reading the Bible to Get to Know God

You can read the Bible to find out facts about Jesus, learn Israelite history or to explore questions of theology. Most people, however, just want to know God personally. They want to grow in their faith. Lectio divina is a simple but profound way of doing exactly that. While we are looking at the traditional steps of lectio divina here, what I love about this way of prayer is that it is so flexible. It can be adapted in so many ways. If you are not familiar with this way of reading, I would encourage you to try it and see what you think.

Four Steps of Lectio Divina

In the last article, I wrote a little bit about how Lectio Divina envisions a slow and gentle process of reading prayerfully through scripture and being formed by it. This time, I want to give an overview of the different movements in Lectio Divina. I will expand on each of these in subsequent articles.

Traditionally, there are four movements in Lectio Divina, and they make simple logical sense.

1) Read a passage of scripture

2) Think about it

3) Pray about what you thought about

4) Don’t rush off. Let it sink in.

That’s it. Super simple. But the beauty of Lectio Divina is that the more you do it, the more profound the movements can become. Let me say a brief word about each movement.

1) Read (Lectio)

(I will give you the Latin titles too, just for interest’s sake.) This way of reading is different than how you would read a newspaper. Typically, when I am reading the paper, I am also eating lunch and involved in a conversation with my wife. I am usually scanning headlines to see what interests me. When I find something, I usually read pretty fast because I want to get through the article and on to something else. At the end, I throw the whole thing in the recycling.

Reading devotionally is the opposite in every way. The reading needs to be short so I can read it slowly, perhaps a few times. I try to get away from distractions, and I keep the passage with me through the day. This is a contemplative form of reading. It is not just for information, but for encounter. It requires attention and humility.

2) Think (Meditatio)

A better English word would be ponder. Thinking sometimes gives too much the impression of problem solving. Pondering is slower. It means something like weighing or considering. The image I like to use is imagine a young man who has just received a letter from his girlfriend. (Back in the days when there were letters!) He doesn’t just read through it and put it in his desk. He lovingly and attentively reads and re-reads certain lines. This is his beloved speaking to him through words. Those words are rich in meaning. He squeezes every bit of meaning out of them and looks for more. This is meditation in the Biblical sense.

3) Pray (Oratio)

As I said in my first article in this series, we believe the Bible was written “for them, but to us as well.” The idea is that in pondering scripture we find that God still has a word for us today. There is something in there that will stand out to you. It will speak to the questions you have today. It might be crystal clear what God is saying, or it might be unclear and odd. Either way, our first step is always to go to God in prayer.

We take the insights that we found in pondering and we pray to God about them, asking for insight and wisdom. We might ask for help in applying the insight. It might be a prayer of thanksgiving. In Lectio Divina, we let this process flow naturally.

4) Sit (Contemplatio)

This is the hardest movement to explain because it is the simplest. What do you mean just sit? In my experience, at the end of this process, after I have read, and pondered and prayed, my heart is calm. My mind is relaxed. Inside, I have found what I call a devotional space. (This doesn’t always happen, by the way, and it doesn’t have to.) Sometimes I find there is a deep love for God inside. Sometimes it is just a pleasant quiet. The Christian tradition advises not to rush off, but to enjoy just being with God. Even if you don’t feel something, our tradition still advises to sit there for a time and reverence God.

5) Live (Via Activa)

Wait! You said there were only four movements. There are, but there is also an implied fifth movement. Christianity is a way of life. You need to go from prayer to your life: going shopping, picking up the kids, visiting your friends, going to work, doing the dishes, watching TV, and making dinner. In all of these, your prayer goes with you. Through the prayer, over time, you will come to see the grace of God everywhere.

How Do I Meditate on Scripture?: An introduction to the Lectio Divina Series

Lectio Divina

If you were to ask me what is the single most important habit you could cultivate to grow spiritually, my simple answer would be to meditate on Scripture daily. There are so many benefits to this habit. Scripture is the primary witness to the amazing life of Jesus Christ and the faith of the people of Israel. It is also the primary way that God speaks to us. The Bible teaches that we receive faith through hearing the Word of God: faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)

Learning to Listen

What this means is that we really need to develop our skills in LISTENING. In the central confession of Judaism, the people are commanded: “HEAR O Israel, the Lord is one.” In the Bible, God is personal and speaks. God is not some impersonal force like the Platonic One. God is a God who enters into history, has a story, enters into covenant relationship with his people, and still speaks to us today.

We are called into a life-giving relationship with God, and the primary way we connect with the God who speaks is to listen to his Word. As we meditate on Scripture, we develop this skill of listening. True listening takes humility and time. We have to develop the skill of pondering or meditating on what the scriptures say. We need to pray deeply on the insights we find there, and finally we need just to be able to enjoy being in the presence of God.

Meditating on Scripture to Grow in Relationship with God

Over the centuries, the Christian church has developed a simple and accessible way to meditate on Scripture. This method is normally referred to by its Latin title: Lectio Divina. This simply translates to “Holy Reading.” It is a way of listening deeply to the Word of God. Lectio Divina has two purposes: to grow in love of God and in relationship with God, and to cultivate a heart of wisdom.

The Bible Isn’t Always Easy to Understand

The Bible is a hard book to read for most people. First of all, there are so many details! The pages of the Scriptures are packed with dozens of stories and hundreds of names and places we have never heard of. Because it is actually a library of books rather than a single book, there doesn’t seem to be a logical thread connecting the beginning, middle and end. There are so many different interweaving themes, literary styles and genres, that it can be difficult to keep them straight. How do we understand it all? Lectio Divina suggests that we don’t need to.

The vision of Lectio Divina is that we don’t need to grasp Scripture all at once. Rather, it is a much simpler vision of reading just a little, slowly and prayerfully every day of your life. You ponder the puzzles, make rich connections, gather insights, wrestle with ambiguities, and constantly ask, “How is God speaking to me in this?”

Meditating on Scripture to Take Our Place in its Story

We assume that Scripture is written ‘for them, but to us as well.’ To say it is for them is to admit that the Bible is NOT written for us. It was written for people who lived long ago in strange lands, referring to unfamiliar customs, and asking questions that were important for them, but not for us. Therefore, it is sometimes helpful to have a Bible dictionary or commentary handy to help us understand someone of the cultural things we don’t get.

We also assume that the Bible has an eternal voice. It is written ‘to us as well.’ It tells the story of God’s plan for the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ. The Biblical writers want us to see this story as OUR story as well. The story of the Bible forms our lives because it is the story of salvation.

The Lectio Divina Series

In this series, I am going to walk us through the stages of Lectio Divina. Some people teach this as a technique. This is not what I am trying to do here. Instead, I want to give you the principles that can guide a prayerful way of reading scripture. These principles can be used with a variety of different techniques. This way of praying scripture is very important to me because it is my daily bread and butter. I practice it everyday to grow closer to God and, hopefully, to grow in wisdom. And I am happy to share it with you.

  1. How Do I Meditate on Scripture? An Introduction to the Lectio Divina Series
  2. Steps of Lectio Divina: The Four Movements
  3. Slow Reading and the Bible (“Lectio”)
  4. Reading the Bible Prayerfully (“Meditatio”)
  5. Praying with Scripture (“Oratio”)
  6. Contemplative Prayer (“Contemplatio”)
  7. Praying with Psalm 131: A Personal Example of Lectio Divina
  8. How Do I Know What to Read in the Bible?