Lectio Divina…

… an ancient method of prayer that consists of four steps.  In English, it’s called “sacred reading.”

Another book was left on my desk this morning: Read. Think. Pray. Live. by Tony Jones.  Never heard of him, but he’s from New Jersey, so he’s okay in my book.  And before you roll your eyes, stop using Jersey Shore, Jerseylicious and The Sopranos as your indicators of what New Jersey and its natives are like.  Yikes.

I was guided by a well-placed index card to the fourth chapter: Lectio, which means “reading.”  This is Bible Reading 101, as basic & simple as it gets.  “This is the kind of pace you should read.”  “Here’s a recommended way to sit so you can focus calmly.”  “Here’s what you should think about when deciding on the time of day to read.”  Wow.  Sometimes I just need the process spelled out for me.  I like procedures, I like templates, tried & true methods.  But I often find it difficult to create the method on my own.  I guess I didn’t realize how far back to being a beginner I need to go to get the hang of my quiet time with my Savior.  It’s so elementary, and I say that with more wonder and realization than chiding.  It’s really not that hard!  It just requires effort.  Another sacred thorn in the side of my foolish passivity.  I might get out of this desert yet.

In the midst of this chapter was a heading that leapt off the page at me: PICKING THE PASSAGE. This has been an area of tremendous struggle for me.  I habitually gravitate toward the same passages, the same books I’ve read over and over.  Or, I play “sword drills” and let the pages fall where they may, followed by randomly picking a passage with eyes closed and finger pointed down towards the open sheets of paper, and I find myself struggling to find any meaning within the words I just read.  Usually, I’m left completely empty.  Without context, without any idea why this particular passage passed beneath my gaze, unsure if God took charge over the laws of physics and forced those particular pages apart and then caused my eyes to seek those words in particular, or if it was just the luck of the draw, a random throw of the dice.

Our spiritual walk isn’t a gamble, and we shouldn’t ever treat it as such.  There’s too much at stake.  There’s no room for playing roulette, no room for taking wild guesses at what He (to Whom nothing is ever a surprise) is aching to show us.  God is specific, there is no gray area with Him.  How dare I treat His Word with such fleeting hope, with no real confidence!  If He approached our future the same way, the word “hope” would disappear from our vocabulary, having never existed in the first place.

So how can I break this pattern of reading at random?  Make a plan.  First thought: find the right translation for me.  I received a Bible several years ago that was in the New Living Translation.  (If you’re concerned about it being truly accurate, check out their website for more info on how the translation was made.)  I call it the “Plain English Version,” it’s a bit more conversational without being anecdotal and I’ve really taken a liking to it.  I’ve also started to like The Message translation, it’s a bit more “artful” than the New Living and is actually a paraphrase version that was created to bring the words into a more modern idiom.  I’ll often use it alongside another translation (usually the NLT) to gain even more clarity on a confusing passage, and I’ll also use it for a more poetic view at the scripture for songwriting.  By using translations that read a bit more relevantly to me and my understanding, I find life and clarity in passages that previously would have seemed tired or confusing.

Second thought: try using a “read the Bible in 1-2-3 years” program.  YouVersion.com has one, and I’m going to give their program a go.  It’s a vastly different approach to just reading the Bible cover to cover, which I did a number of years ago.  For one, reading the Bible cover to cover can be both boringly predictable and frighteningly daunting.  Instead, going through specifically chosen passages laid out by someone who has a deep knowledge & comprehension of scripture can open up entirely new realms of understanding, even in passages you’ve read a thousand times before.  In these programs, the passages to be read on any given day often tie in with each other thematically.  I’m really looking forward to seeing the connections between scriptures that were penned centuries apart by so many different historical figures.

The other major theme here is finding the right environment, the ideal place to quiet myself and read, where I’m subject to little to no distraction.  Even while typing this blog post, I’m tempted to open up another browser window to check out the latest technology news, or check the email that just came in even though I know I can’t address it until later in the day, etc.  Like most musicians I know, I get distracted far too easily.  I love reading.  I love stories and history and immersive plot.  The Bible has plenty of all that, but I find it hard to keep myself focused enough to absorb any of what I’m reading because of everything else going on.  I need to separate myself from the world for a time, dig my heels in and just go for it.

Oh, and one more ingredient: patience.  Lord only knows I don’t always have it, and He knows I dread asking for it.  It’s high time I buckled down and started practicing it.  Care to join me?

You said the secret word!

A friend recommended I read a section from the book An Hour On Sunday by Nancy Beach, the former Arts Leader at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago.  It’s a great read for anyone who’s done any kind of arts ministry for a long time and needs some encouragement and guidance on surviving in the church arts world.

I went through Chapter Seven: Well-Ordered Hearts and Lives.  Some key thoughts I received right off the bat:

  • While the end result of ministry can move people in striking ways, beyond anything we possibly had in mind for it, it all comes at a tremendous cost to us: time, energy, interpersonal relationships, etc.
  • My talent isn’t the greatest gift I bring to the church, even as a staff member.  The greatest gift I bring is my very life.
  • Take the time to minister!  Don’t just hand it off to someone else because “they’re better equipped to handle it.”

Proverbs 4:23 – “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” We can’t serve from a heart that’s exhausted, embittered, distracted.  We also can’t serve from a heart that only comes to life on weekends.  There needs to be an influx of life happening throughout the week!  It’s an active and participatory process that requires practice and honing and repetition.

Many of us find it exceedingly difficult to do the work we are called to do and be the kind of people God asks us to be.  If we’re not careful, we begin to see ourselves as victims, to make excuses, to look for wiggle room so we can somehow be the exception to rules for godly character.  It’s not that we don’t long to be fully devoted to God, but too often we allow deadline pressures, relentless ministry demands, and overwhelming standards to become excuses for slippage.

-Nancy Beach

How true.  Excuses, no matter how valid, are still excuses.  My wife is going through a very difficult time right now in her job life, and it’s taken a substantial toll on her, and by proxy, me.  Right now she needs my strength to lean on, and if I’m not renewing my own strength, I will be utterly useless to her, and by default, I’ll be even more useless to myself and in my own job & causes.  I don’t blame her for it; I could never blame her.  I chose to partner with her through thick and thin when I asked her to marry me, so I will share the burden.  But Jesus never intended the burdens of this world to overtake us, because He said He would take it from us and give us a lighter one (Matthew 11:30).  And I can’t let the frustrations she’s experiencing rule the day for either of us.

Some responses to the chapter:

  1. I need to make sure I am taking care of myself.  God knit me together in my mother’s womb, my body is His temple, and I have to keep it properly maintained.  I’ve been eating better; I’ve been proactive about getting enough sleep; I’ve been exercising, albeit not as regularly as I want to be.  Discipline.  Sounds like the operative word for me right now.
  2. I need to make sure I’m always reconciled to those around me, whether it be my wife, my parents, her parents, my bosses, my coworkers, my cohorts, etc.  I don’t think right now I’m in a place where I’m at odds with anyone.  If and when I am, I have to make peace so it doesn’t spill over into other areas of my life.
  3. I have demonstrated a severe lack of discipline in spending quiet time with my King.  Severe.  Inexcusable, but forgivable.  Praise God for that.  This is probably the first major step in guiding me out of the desert of passivity I’ve been in.  (There’s that operative word again… discipline.)
  4. How do I feel coming into a weekend?  Sometimes I’m feeling good, other times I feel dread.  It comes down to preparedness.  It stands to reason that emotional & spiritual preparedness are just as important as musical & logistical preparedness, if not far more so!  If I’m more prepared emotionally and spiritually, I’m better equipped to deal with the rest.
  5. I know what it is to minister out of weakness.  I have led worship while being far down in the depths of sadness and despair.  I vividly remember what that was like.  The only way I made it through was by His grace.  How much deeper could I go with Him if I sought that grace week in and week out when I’m not in a deep and dark valley?
  6. I really, really don’t like the unexpected.  I’ve tried really hard to handle it well, to be patient, flexible, understanding.  Things happen, and there’s no way around them when they do.  But I need to demonstrate patience, flexibility, and understanding so my team and collaborators aren’t thrown off or made nervous by any mishandling of the situation.  As a leader, I am charged with being an example to my team.  If I lead well, they will follow.  If I suck at leading, they’ll go elsewhere.  I don’t want to risk that with our team, both for their sake as well as my own.

So what are my next steps?  Well, the operative word DISCIPLINE comes to mind once again:

  • Discipline not only in setting aside the time to spend in reflection and reading scripture and books, but in actually using that time for that purpose and not getting distracted.
  • Discipline in finding resources to glean from on my own, not just going on what’s left on my desk by dear friends (although it’s always welcome, I just can’t rely solely on that, they’re walking my walk for me if that’s the case).
  • Discipline in not looking at the time, to “clock in and clock out” of my quiet time.  I don’t think heaven has a punch-clock.
  • Discipline in looking for ways to interact with others outside of the musical sense, reaching out to those in need, being aware of what’s happening underneath it all.

I’m sure there are more, and I’ll most likely be adding to this list in the future.

What’s your list look like?

Find me in the river…

I’m a worship pastor in central Florida, and our lead pastor, recently returned from his annual summer vacation (thought that was just for teachers, didn’t you?), opened the room up to stories about recent wins within our community.  To hear stories of young kids accepting Christ, ministries partnering together to pursue life change in our community, volunteers flying to South Africa to minister to the impoverished and needy… it’s inspiring, but also overwhelming.

I turn flush with embarrassment and jealousy on the inside.  What have I done lately that’s been a change-the-world kind of action?  How have I fulfilled anything other than my own little agendas and goals?  “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with having goals,” you say, but these little goals pale in comparison to the ones I had even just a year or two ago. It’s as if my walk with Christ over the past several months has been an exercise in passivity, seeing challenges but viewing them from afar, saying to myself, “God will take care of that, as long as I pray.”  If I even pray at all.

My lead pastor changes gears and opens Joshua 3:13-17.  The quick version: the Israelites are on their way to the land God promised them, and the priests are carrying the Ark of the Lord.  They reach the Jordan River, which was at its flood stage, and at God’s command, as soon as their feet touch the water, the waters stop flowing and bunched up far upriver, and the entire nation of Israel crosses the Jordan on dry land.

Okay, so they cross a river.  No big surprise there as far as biblical history goes.  Heckm, Moses led the Hebrews across the Red Sea when God held back those waters.  Something else had to be going on here, so I Google’d the Jordan River to see what I could find…

The River Jordan is derived from the Hebrew word yar-dane, meaning “descender.” The “Descender” is a very appropriate name for the river because it flows in a virtually perfect north-south line on a map from its source near Mount Hermon (about 10 miles north of Lake Huleh) to it’s terminus at the Dead Sea, the lowest point of any lake on earth.

The elevation of the river drops virtually 2,368 feet from its source to where the river flows into the great salt sea. The length of its meanders over the same two points measures approximately [nearly 197 miles], over twice its direct distance….

Source: The Jordan – River of the Rising Sun

Think about this for a moment.  The Jordan is the lowest river in the world relative to sea level.  It is also a fairly narrow river.  Not only are the Israelites coming out of the desert through one of the only clear openings between the mountains surrounding the desert to actually reach the river near its end where the water flows the strongest, according to the Hebrew calendar they’re also arriving there during the peak of the flood season.  This is the place where God has instructed the Israelites to cross.  A speeding, raging river, swollen with rushing currents flowing over its banks.  This was the final obstacle between them and the promised land.

God then tells the priests to put their feet in the water, for once they do, the water will immediately stop.  But not one moment before….  That water is moving fast.  Really fast.  God promises the water will stop, but the priests have to take the first step.  I wonder… how many seconds, or even minutes, passed between the time God issued the command to step into the water and the actual moment their toes felt the frigid currents rush around their feet?  This monumental moment in their journey, to be confronted with a seemingly impossible task… would their trust in God allow them to step forward?

But eventually in verse 15, they step in, and the waters bunch up further upriver, allowing them to cross on dry land.  I wonder which priest was the first to step in.  I wonder what was going through his mind, what finally prompted him to put all his cards on the table and take that first step.  The physical aspect of the challenge was fully covered by His divine control over all things, so the real challenge wasn’t the river… it was trusting God’s promise.

It’s the same reason Jesus Christ taught in parables.  The things of the Kingdom are so mysterious that God gives us a natural picture first, then the spiritual will be revealed to us as we begin to comprehend.  The Israelites didn’t reach a barrier of a rushing river, they reached a barrier comprised of their own fear and resistance to trust God with their all, no matter the circumstances.  The point wasn’t to cross the Jordan; it was to step into their calling in boldness, and faith, and trust in He who had led them safe thus far.

The barriers we face aren’t physical.  They’re spiritual.  How incredibly true is that for me, for each of us?  But physical barriers are what we encounter first, that’s what we know, that’s all we’re capable of wrapping our heads around.  If we take the time to ask, to listen and seek and knock, God wants to show us what those barriers are indicators of, to show us what the real issues are, what the real barriers are.

What’s my barrier?  My insurmountable block?  What is causing me to hold back, be indecisive?  My passiveness about my walk with God, my lack of enthusiasm at all times to reach out to the heart of God and embrace the promises He has for me.  My lack of passion, which would be a hard thing for anyone who knows me to believe.  Maybe it’s improperly directed passion, passion that’s not flowing in the right direction.  Either way, it’s not there, not the way it should be.  How can I begin to trust in Him in new ways, instead of responding how the enemy would have me respond, i.e. by not responding at all?

My pastor closed by having us write down a few questions to be pondering:

  • God, how are you calling me to trust in Your power?
  • What’s the next part of your promised land you’ve called me to enter, where I must depend on your power and not my own resources?
  • Where am I not content with what I have but wanting more of what You are offering?
  • Where do I need to bless others more?

I’ve been given a challenge.  The gauntlet has been cast down, and it’s time for me to step up.  No more passivity, no more doldrums, no more inaction.