Saturday, January 19, 2008

Devotional Reading

Carmen has us doing this 30-day journey in journaling, using the Life Journal, a simple little publication that seems to be the outgrowth of the personal devotional habit of a pastor in Hawaii (as far as I can tell). It's great, though, because it is so simple. Lots of material currently labled "Devotional" in bookstores is, in my opinion, either too complicated, not flexible enough, or shallow. The Life Journal suffers none of these, though it somehwhat lacks adequate space for reader response in the various sections. Its purpose is straightforward: interaction with Scripture, and through that interaction personal devotion to God.

Though simple, devotional reading is not simplistic. Reading the Bible devotionally is a discipline that dates back, as such, to the Middle Ages. The practice of Lectio Divina is being revived in contemporary Christian practice, in both Catholic and Protestant spirituality. It consists of four movements: Reading (out loud), Meditation, Prayer and Contemplation. The trajectory is somewhat mystic, aimed at bringing the worshiper beyond his analytical reflection into the mystery of communion with God. I've been practicing this type of devotional reading for about the last two years. For me, the Medieval aim of the Lectio needlessly separates the analytical from the spiritual -- a Gnostic dualism that can be remedied if one's goal in devotional reading becomes not experience, but rather action, seeking to live out what we find in the text.

Devotional reading at its best should be nothing less than the radical application of God's word and will to our lives. Distinct from other types of Bible reading - study for example - devotional reading requires that both our heart and head, our will and emotion become fully entangled with the text we are reading. It is not that we won't learn Scripture as we read devotionally. Just the opposite: devotional reading puts our hearts in the proper position to instruct the affections to savor and the intellect to retain . Thus the word of God becomes more than an object of reflection or contemplation, it becomes life to us (
Psalm 119:159; John 12:50).

I would commend devotional reading as essential, not optional, for the spiritual formation of every Christian. Saying this, I would be quick to add that I am not asserting that a particular method or formula is necessary. When I was a baby Christian, I'd just find a text I was interested in and read it Coram Deo (before the face of God). Intuitively, new creatures in Christ read their Bibles as if God were speaking to their hearts in the text. In those tender days I always read with a pen and notebook in hand, because I wanted to write down what God was showing and telling me through interaction with his word. I naturally treated the Bible not merely as an object for study (though it is!), but as a personal letter from a Father who wants to shape the values and vision of his sons and daughters. Natural curiosity compelled me, however, to never separate observing details of the text from existential application.

Spiritual maturity requires that we turn those innocent responses into disciplines, so we will learn to be faithful in the difficult or dry times (
2 Tim. 2:1-15). The Life Journal has advocated a four movement method called, simply, SOAP. The four movements are faithful both to the devotional tradition and basic inductive Bible study principles. Scripture, the first movement, includes the entire Bible, but the reader has to determine which verse or short passage he or she will zoom in on, taken from large chunks of reading. Observation, the second movement, is the core of all sound exegesis: what is the text saying, to whom, by whom, for what purpose. Again, the Life Journal doesn't leave enough room for detail here, but at least basic features of the text can be observed prior to personal application. Application follows Observation, querying one's own heart and the Spirit as to how the text might be lived out in the reader's life. Finally, Prayer brings the reader into communion with God, making the whole exercise more than an intellectual enterprise.

The journey has been profitable for me, and I trust for those listeners who have participated. I started at August 8 in the Life Journal, because I wanted to read Jeremiah. Most recently, I zoomed in on
Jeremiah 4:23 (ESV) I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. Now, there is a powerful piece of prophecy I might have missed, had I not slowed down enough to notice. I titled my journal entry, "Uncreation." I observed that these words are a direct reversal, in attitude, of Genesis 1:2-3. I remembered that God's judgment on Israel's committed anti-law attitude was literally the dissolving (un-creation) of the northern tribes by Assyrian invasion in 722 B.C. I thought about the poetic language in Jeremiah and noted that the application of these passages sometimes reaches beyond the original audience. I thought about my own life, committed in some ways to Christ as his disciple, but in other ways perhaps conformed, committed to the world rather than to my Lord. Writing that application, it was time to voice a simple prayer: God, help me to be in the world but not of it. Please continue to conform me to the image of Christ.

The power of devotional reading is that, behind that simple prayer stands the force of God's word and Spirit applied to the heart of the one who has uttered it. There is certainly more in the text of
Jeremiah 4 than my devotional reading has yielded, but there is not less. In other words, slowing down to savor and apply a single verse, as the SOAP approach, or Lectio Divina or perhaps another method requires, is the most effective way to get our hearts saturated with the significance of Scripture.

I hope lots of listeners (and maybe a few random blog-readers) will take this journey with us. Feel free to comment as you do.


Carmen said...

Bill, you took the words right out of my mouth!

Bill Martin's Personal Ramblings said...

Yes Carmen, but your tongue is stuck in your cheek.

Donika said...

Bill, as I read this blog I felt God was telling me to apply the SOAP method to the current book that I am using a devotional book. After I finish this book, I'll have to take a look into the Life Journal. Thanks for sharing. I don't mind reading the Latin words, I actually enjoy reading words like that and learning something new. Sometimes I have to hear or read a phrase multiple times for it to stay with me, but I do enjoy reading the words. Also I heard you still had you and Dave still have your Christmas tree up today. You two are not alone, my mom still has your Christmas trees up today as well. I still have my strand of Christmas lights up outside. Again thanks for sharing! Have a great day!

S Himes said...

This blog came at a critical time in my life. As I've been struggling with various things in my personal life I have sought to read the bible morning and night as my day begins and ends. Some days I struggle with what the word is saying that I have to read it two or three times (sometimes more). Just reading your blog has opened my mind to new methods of reading, understanding, and applying God's word.

Thanks Bill!!!!

Vicky Beeching said...

Hey Bill!

Thanks for commenting on my Blog...great to hear from you!

The Life Journal sounds fascinating... I will look into that!

Haven't had any grits in a while... I might need to hunt some down here in Tennessee...some sweet tea too... I'm becoming a Southerner for sure!

Keep in touch - I'll check out your blog regularly now that I know you have one!

vicky with a "y: : )

Drummer Chris said...

The Life Journal is AWESOME! I've been posting my entries on line since July. This has got me deeper into His word than I have ever been. Our church bases our life groups around the Journal.......

Drummer Chris said...

Thanks for the comment Bill,

I just post my entries on my blog as well as write them in my Life Journal "hard copy" at home. If I'm away from my journal I can get the readings from:

A link on the left side of my page takes you to the links for all my entries:

Talk at you later!

christy clark said...

Hey Bill, I think it's great that you used Latin words. I love Latin words especially the spiritual discipline of lectio davina. I am a Masters of Divinity student and we use lectio every day in class as a way to study the many other spiritual disciplines. Thanks for the links in your blog. They are really helpful.

Tell Carmen (I love you Carmen) that she should appreciate these Latin words and their importance in spiritual formation.

God bless all three of you. Your show makes my drive to work the best part of my day.


Bill Martin's Personal Ramblings said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Appreciate the link, Chris. Christy, keep up the studies and thanks for listening to the show!