Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Praying the Scriptures. . .

Devotional practices are largely person specific -- we all have our daily routines and preferences to be sure.  That said, there are patterns that tend to work well for larger groups of people and have served well over time.  Sometimes the problem is that we take on too much.  It seems like a good idea to read through the Bible in one year and it is doable but is it the best devotional practice?  I am not so sure.  Reading Scripture in smaller bites and reading it in the context of our prayer life is also a good and salutary practice.

Traditionally this practice has been called the lectio divina and has had three steps in the process of reading, praying, and meditating upon the Word of God.  First is the lectio, that is reading the text, slowly, carefully, and deliberately -- all the way through without stopping.  Then comes meditatio, spending time with it and focusing on the individual words, ruminating over those words and savoring them as one would savor one bite out of a full plate of food.  At this point, it moves to the praying of Scripture --  oratio --  letting the words you have read and meditated upon form and shape your prayers, prompting those prayers, and putting the voice of that Word into your lips as you pray.  Last is contemplatio; when the words read, meditated upon, and prayed then bear the good fruit of peace in your heart, give wisdom to the mind, and inform the shape of our Christian lives -- how we live because of that Word. 

After wrestling with several attempts to frame this kind of devotional life for pastors, Luther proposed an
evangelical pattern of spirituality that would become a familiar shape for Christians in general.  All of this was to draw one into the Scripture as well as to draw out of Scripture the gift and blessing of God's wisdom and grace.  For Luther, this was to involve three things: prayer (oratio), meditation (meditatio), and temptation (tentatio).  This pattern, like the one above, is atypical of the modern process of self-help devotions in which the goal is either the development or improvement of the self.  Both of these are more passive, receiving from God the fruits of His redeeming love and letting this drive the shape of our Christian thinking and living.  We do not climb the mountain to God but God has descended from the heavens in the voice of the prophets, in the incarnation of His Son, and in the Word that speaks of the promise of salvation kept in Him.  It is a focus decidedly on the heavens and eternal life.

If we are to grow in the Spirit and the Spirit to grow us into Christ, we need to be in God's Word.  God will not bestow the Spirit on us apart from the means and the primary means of grace is the Word of God.  In both of these, the focus is not on direct spiritual meditation or the Scriptures as mere springboard to a higher and more direct connection with God.  Luther himself faults this emphasis on the spiritual discipline of his monastic life.  It is a devotional life built upon and driving the Christian back into the external Word of God, the Scriptures.  Furthermore, this devotional life is not a substitute for nor in competition with the corporate life of God's people gathered around the Word and the Eucharist.  In fact, the pericopes appointed for the Sunday are the first place to start when spending time arranging a devotional schedule and order for the home and for the individual.  We need also to be careful not to make our devotional lives primarily mental or emotion centered.  God is, indeed, transforming the mind and the heart but the realm in which we encounter Him and the means of His work is external -- Word and Sacrament.  The Divine Service is both source and summit of our daily lives of prayer, meditation, and strengthening.

It might also be remembered that the point of this is eminently practical.  We live in the world -- a world made by Him but which did not know Him.  Our Lord bluntly warns us that the world will not treat us any better than it did Him.  In addition, Satan still is on the prowl looking for prey and we are the object of his affections.  There is in us a war between the old man on his way out and the new person created in Christ Jesus and given birth in the womb of baptism.  This means that the contemplatio and the tentatio are not some idealized pursuit of God's ways but the practical domain of a people ever tempted and ever being restored by God's grace.  The devil is no spectator watching our lives but actively at work tempting, creating doubt, attacking, and making us pridefully trust more in self than in Christ.  Though we do not talk about the devil and his works and ways as Luther did, we ought to.  The goal here is not to scare us or to create an unhealthy fear but to build us up so that we are not without answers or strength or weapons when tempted.  Go back to the first Sunday in Lent and think why our Lord was able to answer and deflect the temptations of the devil -- all the while Jesus was physically weak!

The goal of this is not to make me strong enough to stand on my own but to learn always to stand in Christ and on Christ alone.  A good devotional life will help build and sustain in us a living faith, so that we believe God is speaking His word directly to us and that this Word is how He works in us.  It will build us up to endure, persevere, and continue in the faith -- especially when our lives are filled with earthly defeats, trials, and afflictions.  We judge not with the results we see but always according to his promise, never forgetting that where we fail, He forgives and restores and where we can only see the moment, he beholds the heavenly future.  Finally, we are ever being directed away from the distractions of even a good and happy life as much the troubles we face and onto the face of God we see in Christ.  In Christ we see not only the face of the eternal God who has become our Savior and Redeemer but we behold our own future -- glorious flesh, the victory won, the eternal Sabbath rest in His presence without end.  So this builds within us a deep desire to know the Lord, to live in the presence of His Word and Sacraments now, and to anticipate the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His kingdom without end.

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