Alumni Josh Reed on Lectio Divina

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A few years ago, two separate incidents in my life collided and set me on a path of thinking through the reading of Scripture. First, an elderly lady (whom I love dearly) from my hometown and I were having a conversation about the Bible. In the middle of our conversation, she made a remarkable statement. She said, “You know, I’ve read the Bible five times and don’t understand a word of it.” She remembered interesting facts about various parts of the biblical story, but meaning and significance had eluded her.

Second, my pastor asked the congregation a stunning question one Sunday during the sermon. He asked, “How do you primarily read the Scriptures: for information or transformation?” His message continued, but I did not hear much of it for those two words, information, transformation, reverberated in my head, and continued to do so into the following months. To be fair, my pastor was not polarizing the two. The question was one of importance. These two incidents became a catalyst for me to reflect on the intake of Scripture. As Bonaventure said, “To know much and taste nothing–of what use is that?” It is not important that we merely read the Scriptures. Importance resides in the way we read Scripture.

To get to the point, there is a tendency to “flatten” the words of God when we approach them hurried. Within the atmosphere of busyness, our mindset as creatures tends to run towards “tell me what to do” so I can make sure I’m “good” and get on with other matters. But to feast on the Word made flesh, we must linger and respond thoughtfully and faithfully to God’s self-revelation.

Historically, reading for transformation has been called lectio divina and it contains four elements: lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio.

Lectio is encountering the text. It is a reading but not a mere reading of Scripture. It is recognizing that the words are the very words of God being spoken and heard. The wonder! They are not lifeless words on a page. Lectio invites us into the realm of reality where the world of the Bible is the real world and seeks to orient the listener to God’s reality.

Meditatio is a meditating upon or devouring of the text. My wife makes an incredible chocolate pie. Every bite is as delectable as the previous and as the piece of pie winds down I savor each bite all the more. There is no need to rush: I don’t want it to end! When I’m done with the pie, I push back from the table and reflect on how good the piece of pie was. Meditating on the Scriptures is similar.
Involved in entering the Bible and the biblical landscape, meditatio is when the text drips into our very soul and connects our story to the overarching, true story of the wholeworld. Reflecting on the Scriptures brings us into the presence of the King because it is in this savoring that we actually begin to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). Is it no surprise that Jesus himself said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” So meditatio then is the tasting of the Christ whom the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures is illuminating.

Oratio, in short, is praying the text. It is more than simply agreeing with God. It is embodying the text in such a way that the word of God is reflectively vocalized in prayer. The word is living and active (Heb. 4:12); the saga continues. Amazingly, God not only gives us his words, but he listens to ours. Again, the wonder! And is it not amazing, that as we taste the Christ and encounter him in the Scriptures, that “consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).

Contemplatio means living out the encountered, devoured and prayed text in the day-to-day of life. Since all of life is lived before the face of God, contemplatio destructs the idea that life ought to be divided into sacred and secular realms. All of life is sacred, so that work and conversations and grocery shopping and music and preaching are to be done as worship unto the Lord who reigns over all creation! It guards us from reading others’ stories and drives us to lived participation in the Story.

Much more could be said about lectio divina, but I do want to highlight one danger of hurried readings of the sacred text. Typically, readers skip meditatio and oratio and jump from reading the Bible to attempting to live it out. I see great danger here, mainly that the Bible has simply been reduced to a mere instruction manual ripe for criticizing, doubting, abusing and abandoning. When God himself is not consciously seen as the speaker and deliverer of the Scriptures, it would be easy to read the Bible five times and not understand a word of it. I admire my friend’s courage to at least admit it. Perhaps a recapturing of lectio divina would reorient our churches on the path of true transformation so that as we taste and see Jesus, we would truly become more like him.

Josh received his M.Div. from Southeastern in 2011. He is married to Jacelyn and they have five children. He and his family attend North Wake Church in Wake Forest, NC.  

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