There’s something sad about the process of a well-chosen and evocative phrase losing its power as it slowly becomes a cliche. It’s a sort of petrification.
The phrase I am thinking about right now is “The Word became flesh.” Like many great phrases, there’s as much mystery as explanation here. Like many great phrases, there’s something about the rhythm and the combination of those particular sounds together. Most common understandings of what these words mean relates to the coming of Jesus into the world.
Whatever they were intended to mean, they also paint an interesting picture around the magical process of reading. We begin with symbols on a page. They form words, sentences and paragraphs. Somewhere in the midst of all this, something happens. It is a transformation. Somehow, we have constructed a whole world in our minds. Somehow, we have taken those words and made them flesh.
Part of the problem is that it’s not clear just how this magical process happens. When it does, our whole relationship with the words change. We see them as more than just random symbols on a page. We start to see the world they provide us a doorway into.
For a variety of reasons, the books that ought to be the most important and life-changing can be the last books we experience this transformation with. This ought to be surprising to us. The worlds that the bible wants to invite us into are real in ways that even our most cherished works of fiction aren’t. You’d think we’d be most eager to see those words made flesh.
Yet, how often does reading sacred scripture feel like a homework assignment? How rarely do the words of the bible come alive for us?
Clearly, we’re not the first people to ever ask this question. Over the centuries, a wide variety of practices have sprung up which support making these words flesh. Sacred reading practices are not new. But they seem largely neglected, forgotten, and passed over. In their place, we have tried a wide variety of alternatives.
Many of us have been taught to memorize scripture after reading it. Others of us try to research the history and facts. We might learn about archaeology, culture, doctrines, and history. It seems to me that the overarching goal in these cases is to find out what these verses “mean.” as if the bible is some kind of text book, waiting to be unlocked.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these activities. But these are not the sort of activities I’ll be talking about here. Truthfully, there are many people who could guide you in these areas much more effectively than me. In this book, I’ll be exploring some approaches which have been under utilized over the last several centuries. Broadly speaking, these approaches might be labeled “spiritual practices.”
More specifically, we’ll be looking at four broad categories of spiritual practice. These are prayer, journaling, lectio divina, and holy imagining. We’ll go deeper into the nuts and bolts of each of these throughout the book. But the thing they all have in common is that they deepen our views of scripture. Each of them can help us to take a deeper dive into what those sacred words might have ment; they will bring the pages alive for us in a whole new way. These practices can and will make the words flesh.
It’s worth emphasizing those words again: “each of them can help us to take a deeper dive into what those sacred words might have meant.” This is not a place we’re we will be dealing with absolutes and established facts. Some of the previously mentioned disciplines (archaeology, theology, and all the rest) often yield outcomes that have the appearance of scientific facts. Sometimes, these appearances are deceiving. Regardless of how dependable those are, scientific surety is not our goal here.
For example, the practice of holy imagining invites us to utilize our senses to give ourselves an experience of what it might have been like to be present at the time being described. When we ask ourselves to imagine the sights and sounds, the tastes and smells of events that happened in another culture, one that is quite different from our own, it’s easy to get lost in all the things that we don’t know. It’s natural to hesitate a bit, thinking that we don’t know where to begin. It can be tempting to want to track down all these things, to read up on the ways that it actually occurred. But this is missing the point in a significant way. The whole point of these processes is to connect to this distant, even alien, culture. It is to find the common ground between our lives and theirs.
Let’s imagine two people trying to connect with a passage. The first has advanced degrees in biblical-era archaeology, theology, and anthropology. The second just has a single translation of an old bible. If we asked both of them to connect themselves to a text, to find the connections, it’s not clear that the first person has an advantage in this role. Of course this person would be able to provide a more literally historically accurate explanation of what likely occurred. But if she spends all the time in his head, summoning all that book knowledge, she may be far away from finding the ways it relates to her life.
Put differently: these practices are meant to be discoveries of the self and God more than investigations into the past. We’ll frequently return to this idea, it is pervasive and damaging to a spiritual practice if allowed to continue unchecked.
This book is broken up into four sections, one for each of the four practices we’ll be exploring. The first three chapters of each of these sections will explore various considerations and variations of the practice being focused on. One of the things we’ll find is that these practices can be employed in a wide variety of different ways. Each of these first three chapters within each section will explore one of these different approaches. One important goal for this book will be to strengthen these skills.
These three chapters within each section will begin with some introductory comments. The second half of each chapter will be devoted to the practice. It will begin by identifying the verses we’ll be exploring. There will then be a description of the events that had occurred prior to those verses, in the hope of providing some context. There will then be a few questions and thoughts worth considering. It’s worthwhile to take a little pause at this point, as you’re reading. It is time well spent to look the verse up, read it, and consider the questions. After this, each of those three sections will have a numbered series of steps guiding readers through the practice. These chapters all close with a ‘How this went for me’ section, which describes my experiences when I tried this practice as I wrote this book.
That final section of each of these chapters is intended to offer assistance to readers who read the step-by-step description and are looking for more guidance of how it actually feels to experience the practice. I include this section with some hesitation, as I don’t think my experiences need to be considered the final authority on these things. In other words, there are lots of ways a person might “do” these practices. Thus, if you feel like the numbered steps painted a clear enough picture, you might wish to actually give it a try before reading my descriptions, as this could prejudice your experience of the thing.
In each of these practices, we will use passages from the life of Jesus in a more-or-less sequential manner. Thus, the practices in the beginning of this book will be drawn from early in Jesus’ life. The practices in the end of this book will be drawn from later in this life. This will assist in the second important goal of this book, which is to deepen our understanding of Jesus’ life and our connections with him.
One result of organizing the book in this manner is that a reader could end up only practicing one specific skill toward readings drawn from one portion of Jesus’ life. For example, in section one we will explore the topic of prayer. The first three readings we explore will be utilizing prayer-related strategies. If we didn’t return to the topic of prayer, we would end up not being able to apply these strategies to other portions of his life, at least in the context of this book. Further, it would be easy to leave these skills behind, unpracticed, as we moved on to the next spiritual discipline.
This is why the fourth and final chapter in each of the sections will be an invitation to try out the other practices on the readings we have just considered. At the end of section I, we will preview lectio divina, holy imagining, and journaling on the passages we have already prayed over. These descriptions are intended to be a bit more vague. They are not laid out with numbered steps. I have not shared my experience of doing all of these practices.
Ending each part of the book with these preview/review chapters will accomplish several things. These are explored below.
First, it allows us to try out the other practices on readings from all over Jesus’ life. Secondly, it allows us to review previously read practices and preview practices we haven’t tried yet. Finally, it allows us to see where and how the practices cross over.
As we grow more comfortable with prayer we’ll be developing skills that impact our journaling. As we grow more proficient at journaling we’ll find ourselves preparing the way for holy imagining. As we get better at holy imagining, we’ll grow more comfortable with lectio divina. Thus, the final chapter of each of those four parts will explore the implications that the skills have for the other practices.
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