Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Listening Prayer -(Part 3 Hearing God's voice through scripture-continued)

My last post dealt with the devotional reading of scripture using the monastic exercise of Lectio Divina as a templet for hearing from God. There are some negative associations with the idea of a devotional reading of scripture over an academic reading. Let me make a couple points to help clear the air.
1. A devotional reading of scripture is not the beginning point to scriptural study. 
Spiritual infants need to grow in their their knowledge of scripture and the ‘elementary principals of the oracles of God”(Hebrew 5:12) “For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness , for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil’ (Hebrews 5:13-14) The disciplines of extensive Bible study and grounding in good theology should be regarded as prerequisites to devotional practices. 

Guidelines for an Academic study of scripture

Focus on Historical Context
  • Reconstruct the situation. How?
  • Read the whole letter/passage, big picture
  • Make notes, what issues were addressed?
  • How did the author know or learn of the situation?
  • What attitudes of the author can we spot?
Focus on the Literary Context

  • Genre (i.e. poetic, apocalyptic) 
  • Reading entire 'thinking paragraphs'. 
  • Pay attention to the use of metaphor, allegory.. etc..
Some tips for interpretation

  • "A text without a context is a pre-text" -BG
  • A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his reader
  • Whenever we share comparable particulars with the 1st century setting , God’s Word is the same to us as to them
  • Read the precept, investigate the context to discover the Principle behind the precept, Follow the Principle. (The spirit of the command, not the letter) 
  • The bible must be read through the lens of Jesus. 
Some cautions for interpretation

  • Avoid allegorizing – looking for more than the plain meaning, narratives aren’t full of yielded spiritual truths for the clever elite to uncover
  • Avoid decontextualizing – ignore the big picture, “a text without a context...” e.g. Balaam and the talking donkey
  • Selectivity, shopping for hermeneutical dainties on the shelves, picking specific words and phrases to concentrate on rather than balancing the parts and the whole – e.g. Joseph’s dreams
2. Meditation and contemplation must always be tethered to the truth of the Word. 
Contemplation is not an introspective New Age practice of altered consciousness or voiding the mind of content. A biblical concept of meditation is more correctly described as the filling of oneself with truth of scripture. We circumvent this dangerous territory of a New Age approach by commitment to sound doctrine, by being comfortable with the high view of scripture, and by approaching scripture with a willingness to study it and put it into practice. 

3. An academic reading of scripture is not enough. 

"When evangelicals study scripture they typically look more for precepts and principals than an encounter with God. The practice of the devotional reading of scripture can correct this lack of balance because it stresses a spiritual formation and experience with the God of scripture."- Dr. Kenneth Boa
Most contemporary approaches to Bible study have more in common with the scholastics than the monastics. The distinction being that a scholastical approach to scripture is focused on information and a monastical approach is primarily intrested in formation.The early patristic fathers wrote extensively on the limits of a purely intellectual approach to scripture and God. John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa wrote of the incomprehensibility of God and of the ‘mystical light’ in which God is hidden in darkness that is beyond our understanding. Knowing God involves the mind but moves beyond reason and formulation to faith and trust. We follow to where scripture leads us, which is a living relationship with Jesus. It is this relational understanding beyond the written word that Christ desires for the Church. (see part 1 of this blog series)  

Take the example of the human eye's ability to see colour. The human eye can only see a small fraction of what constitutes colour. The spectrum begins with high-energy and high-frequency particle gamma rays, nuclear gamma rays, and x-rays; it moves through the middle range of ultraviolet to infrared wavelengths of light; and it ends with the lower-energy and lower-frequency range of microwaves, radio and television communication and sound waves. Just as the electromagnetic radiation that is visible to human eyesight is but a speck on much larger spectrum, so human reason can perceive only a minute trace of the awesome mystery of God. 

Acknowledging both the value and the limits of reason and acedemia, we come to see that growth in the experiential and personal knowledge of God is produced by faith, hope and love. Faith brings us to an awareness of ourselves not only as known by God but also as invited to participate in union and communion with him. Hope inspires us to dare to long for the infinite and to transfer our aspirations from the earthly to the eternal as we “rest in the LORD and wait patiently for Him”.(Psalm 37:7) Love seeks to possess the Beloved as it increasingly realizes the degree to which we have already been possessed by Him. 
4. Scripture alone is not enough. 
Christian scripture is the product of a community of believers who affirm that they, and not a book, are called to be the earthly repository of divine truth. The New Testament was written as, among other things, an ongoing reminder that the Bible alone is not enough. I think of passages like this, where John says,
As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him. ~1 John 2:27 (NRSV)
Do you see the irony? John is teaching these Christians that they do not need anyone to teach them. He identifies the Holy Spirit’s anointing on the church to guide them into all truth, and yet sees his written encouragement as a part of that process and so goes on to teach many wonderful things in the letter we now know as 1 John.
The early church leaders do not display a self-awareness of contributing to a book called the Bible so they could finally dump their delegated authority into the book and then sit back and allow the book alone to steward the truth of Jesus for future generations. It seems as we read through the New Testament that the writers of scripture had a sense that their writings were one tool to keep the church on track but, should not take over for the church itself as a whole stewarding the truth of Christ in community together. 

More to come.......

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Listening Prayer - (Part 2- Hearing God’s voice through scripture)

Opening the conversation 
This blog series on listening prayer is being posted with the sole purpose of learning to hear from God that is already speaking us. We learned last week that one of the primary methods that God is speaking to us is through scripture. I mentioned last post about the practice of devotional reading of scripture called Lectio Divina. The practice was introduced to the church through the Eastern Father John Cassian early in the fifth century and has been a monastic exercise ever since. I would like to walk through this exercise with an emphasis on hearing the Lord speak to us. So lets begin using Psalm 23 as our templet. 

Take a moment to prepare yourself. This is not just an exercise in gathering information. I find it helps to remove as many distractions as possible before attempting a devotional read of scripture. To some people this looks like shutting themselves away in a room. To others music is useful to achieve a the place of silence and rest.The silence emphasized in this exercise is primarily a silencing of our hearts and minds to the many distractions of the day. 
When your ready continue on...
Lectio –(Reading/receiving). 

It is helpful to apply a slow, deliberate and prayer approach to reading. Read the text again and again until it is in your short term memory. Try making your first reading audible, as this will make your words slower and more deliberate. If possible I encourage you to read the same passage using multiple translations. For this exercise I will use NIV, The Message and NASB. 
Psalm 23 (NIV)
A psalm of David.
 1 The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
 3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
   for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
   through the darkest valley,[a]
I will fear no evil,
   for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
   they comfort me.
 5 You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
Psalm 23 (The Message) 
A David Psalm
 1-3 God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing. 
   You have bedded me down in lush meadows, 
      you find me quiet pools to drink from. 
   True to your word, 
      you let me catch my breath 
      and send me in the right direction. 
 4 Even when the way goes through 
      Death Valley, 
   I'm not afraid 
      when you walk at my side. 
   Your trusty shepherd's crook 
      makes me feel secure. 
 5 You serve me a six-course dinner 
      right in front of my enemies. 
   You revive my drooping head; 
      my cup brims with blessing. 
 6 Your beauty and love chase after me 
      every day of my life. 
   I'm back home in the house of God 
      for the rest of my life.
Psalm 23 (NASB)
The LORD, the Psalmist’s Shepherd.
    A Psalm of David.
 1 The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
3 He restores my soul;
He guides me in the [c]paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
 4 Even though I walk through the [d]valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Meditatio – (Processing, nurture your thinking) 

Take time to seek the meaning of the text. Ask questions of the text. Personalize the words of text, step into the imagery of the text. Meditation should address the mind, the emotions, and the will. Processing on scripture stimulates our thinking and understanding and it also elevates the affections of our heart. In this process our intellect, imagination and volition should not be divorced from one another. 
Here are some questions I asked of the text:
What does it mean for the Lord to be my shepherd? In what ways was God a shepherd to David? 
Why at times do I experience ‘being in want’? How can I learn to trust the Lord’s provision and leading?
Is fear the result of feeling distance from the Good Shepherd? Why does God choose to walk with us in the darkest valley? Why is our ultimate source of comfort knowing the Father has never left rather than avoiding the hard times? 
How is it possible to find comfort in the discipline of the ‘rod and staff’... Is it the knowledge that the Lord is the only Good Shepherd? 
Oratio – (Prayer) 
Take time to respond to God. (Sing, shout, whisper, speak..) 
Try asking the Father a question about something that speaks to you from the text. Wait for a reply. (ex. God why do I have a hard time feeling your with me in the darkest valleys of my life?)
What did God say? 
When you read Psalm 23 where do you find yourself in the imagery? 
Are you in the green pastures, the still waters, the valley of the shadow of death, or at the table set out for you?
What do you feel ? 
Do you see the Good shepherd with you? What is He saying to you? 
Contemplatio – (Inward reflection, resting, receiving)
Contemplative prayer involves the development of a deeper and more intuitive form of receptivity toward God. Take time to present yourself before God in silence and yieldedness. Take time to inwardly reflect about the application of the scripture in your life. Reflect on what God has said to you. 
Take time to discern the voice of God. Weigh what has been said. (1 Cor 14:29) Does the Holy Spirit testify to your own heart that this is truth? Does it line up with The Word (the character and teaching of Jesus)? Seek out discernment in community. 

Did you feel God’s voice prompt you about an area that needs change in your life? Does this line up with scripture? Take time to think about the implications. Take time for confession and continued dialog with God. Be sure to seek out community. 
Rest, abide, wait...
Incarnatio – Living out the text
I would argue that this is the most important part of the exercise! To spend time in scripture and the presence of God is pointless if it ultimately has no relevance or application to our lives. Seek ways to grow into the person God desires you to be.Remember that as a Christian (christ - follower), we are called to put on display his character, love and essence of Jesus! We are God’s show and tell to the world. 
MORE TO COME - My next blog will continue with practical exercises on listening prayer.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Listening Prayer (Part 1- God speaks?)

A several years ago I was at a weekend retreat hosted by Horizon College and Seminary . They begin each year with a three day time of prayer, worship and fellowship.   It’s a great way to begin a year. I love getting away to seek God. Some of the most significant  times of spiritual growth in my life have happened at camps and retreats.The speaker at this particular retreat was Brad Jersak. Brad spoke on his personal journey into something that he affectionately called “Listening Prayer”. The teaching really left an impact on me for years to come. 
So what is listening prayer?

Simply put, Listening Prayer is the opening of our spiritual ears to listen to the voice of God, and the opening of our spiritual eyes to see behold the face of God. This approach to prayer is more than a one sided conversation or a grocery list of items. Listening prayer expects a dialogue with the Creator. Listening prayer seeks to hear and behold Christ, the voice of the Living God.

How does God speak to us ?

General Revelation– indirectly

God's revealing of Himself to humanity has come about in a couple of different ways. One of these ways is known as "general revelation" or "natural revelation." General revelation is something that all humanity has received. It is general in that it reaches all people in all times and in every place—nobody is without general revelation. There is some debate as to an exhaustive list of what constitutes a ‘general revelation’. I am not sure on some of the examples I’ve read in the past, such as ‘providence, circumstances and traditions’, but it when I think of general revelation I primarily think of the following two examples:

 a) Creation. 
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” -Psalm 19:1
God speaking through creation or the natural world means that when we look at the ‘cosmos’ around us we see the fingerprints of God. The more we fix our eyes on the wonder of creation, the more we must conclude that these things could not make themselves. Both the intricate design of creation and the way the universe appears to be fine-tuned for life declare that this couldn’t happen by chance. For more in-depth discussion of the revelation of God in creation check out the work of Dr. William Lane Craig http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8662, Ravi Zacharis (http://www.rzim.org/)  to name a few.

b) Conscience

General revelation also includes that which God has placed in our hearts; for example moral law: "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law do by nature things required by the law ... they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness" (Romans 2:14-15).

Special Revelation-directly 

Special revelation can be defined as a supernatural communication from God that has been given to humanity. This communication can come in either oral or in written form. The truths revealed by special revelation could not be known through looking at unwritten tradition, nature, providence, history, our conscience, or any by reasoning process. God must reveal directly them to us. How then does God directly reveal Himself to us?

a) Scripture
I cannot conceive of daily communion with God without scripture at its centre. ~ N. T. Wright

Scripture is the telling of God’s interaction with humanity. It is the by-product of God stepping into the story of humanity and humanity preserving the story for future generations. Scripture is given by inspiration of God by which the whole Bible to be inspired in the sense that men were moved by the Holy Spirit to write the very work of Scripture. When we read Scripture we partner with the authors and voices of the past to see the God of all history. We share in the experiences, the struggles and the questions of authors long ago. Scripture is full of God’s ‘love letters’ to past generations. Reading scripture with an open heart is one of our primary ways of meeting with God of the cosmos. The practice of reading Scripture with the purpose of devotion and encounter is called Lectio Divina. This spiritual discipline follows this basic format:
Lectio Divina
Silencio – Preparation for spiritual reading, inner shift from control to receptivity from information to formation, from observation to obedience
Lectio – Reading/receiving
Meditatio – Processing, Nurture the thinking
Oratio – Response to God from the heart
Contemplatio – yielding and waiting upon God 
Incarnatio – Living out the text
Christ followers today receive spiritual illumination to enable them to understand the Scripture,(John 14:26) but God does not grant new revelations which are contrary to the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.(Jude 3) God does however grant revelation that is in step with the faith once handed down. (more on this later) The question every believer need to ask is... When did God once and for all hand down the faith? Was Jude talking about only scripture? Paul can help out here when he echoes Jude’s statements in the letter to the Colossians.

“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form,  and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; - Colossians 2:9-11
Christ is the ‘once and for all’. The incarnation is God’s final word on His character, His substance, His essence. If you want to know what the fullest picture of God looks like, then keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. All of the words scripture must be read through the lens of The Word made flesh. Jesus is our hermeneutic!
Jesus is The Word made flesh. (John 1:1)

When we go to the Bible (the words of God), we learn about Jesus who has authority over all scripture. Scripture contains the words and revelation of God. We must remember that Jesus is the ultimate end goal of the book that tells his story – its telos.  The book is not the destination for a believer in and of itself.  This book is the place where I learn about Jesus who claims to be the final destination for our Christian lives. The whole of scripture is about one thing: Jesus.

The writer of the book of Hebrews puts it like this:

 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4) 
B) Beyond Scripture
You study the Scriptures, because you think that in them you will find eternal life. And these very Scriptures speak about me! Yet you are not willing to come to me in order to have life.- Jesus

An excerpt from “Can you hear me”- Brad Jersak 
Not so long ago, much of the church considered it offensive and even heretical to suggest that God might speak outside the bounds of scripture. The notion of extra-biblical revelation was suspect, maybe even cultic. The doctrine of cessationism taught that once the cannon of Scripture was complete, God had delivered his final word; when the last word of the book of Revelation was written, God ceased to speak....(however) The bible itself testifies and models how God’s voice may be heard through messengers , circumstances, and direct messages to our hearts.

We must allow scripture to inform our approach to special revelation. The most amazing thing about scripture is that scripture itself points us to an experience outside scripture! This is to say, Christians are not just people of the book, but people of The Person of Jesus; who is illuminated by the work The Holy Spirit. We follow the risen Lord, who is still active and speaking. We are not, as Paul says, ‘led by mute idols’ (1 Cor 12:2), but the God who speaks! 
So what does scripture teach us about hearing from God today? 

1. GOD is speaking! 

There are countless biblical promises that God will speak to us. (i.e. Jer. 33:1-3, John 10:1-5; John 16:12-16; Rev. 3:20)  

These passages and scores of others suggest, model and even command us to listen to God’s voice and converse with Him. It's not just a one side conversation either!  Note those texts that describe conversation with God, especially where they are embedded within the New Covenant promises. I.e. What has been provided for every believer because of Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension and the outpouring of his Spirit. 

2. Believers have the ability to hear the voice of the Lord. 

"My sheep hear my voice”- John 10:1-18  
It is easy to be critical of the statement “believers can hear from God”. Anyone who has spent some time in the church could probably give you a few examples of the misuse of hearing from God. (i.e. ‘God told me to marry you) I don’t think Jesus lets us off the hook! Jesus makes it clear that hearing from God is not just for ‘special people’ but for ALL that are apart of the flock. Jesus is our Good Shepherd guiding us by his voice. Jesus is speaking in creation, messengers, circumstances, and directly to our hearts.
 A really cool case study of God speaking to directly to a situation is found in Acts 16. 

“They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; 7 and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; 8 and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. 9 A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” - Acts 16:6-10
The Holy Spirit forbids them to speak the word in Asia, and Bithynia but sends a vision to Paul to go to Macedonia. Talk about divine revelation! This account in Luke-Acts is a beautiful example of the Holy Spirit partnering with people ready to hear the voice of God. Paul and his companions where open to letting the Spirit change there steps even though going to these places seemed like a perfectly logical thing to do. 

3. Believers have the ability to NOT hear the voice of Lord. 
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.”- Revelation 3:20-  
It is important to point out that Jesus is speaking to a church, a body of believers, in Laodicea. You would think that the people of the church of Laodicea by all accounts should be hearing from God. Sadly this is not the picture we are given. Jesus presents Himself as standing outside a house and knocking on the door. When Jesus approaches this house, He finds the door shut. He takes the initiative to break down the barrier to fellowship. His "knock" is His initiative to break that barrier. Jesus invites us into fellowship with Him not only with His hand by knocking but with His voice. He is calling out to meet with us!
What is so intriguing about this story is that Jesus is not willing to preform a B&E (break and enter) to get inside the house. His love and respect for humanity's free will is so great that Jesus is not willing to force someone to fellowship with Him. BUT....Jesus is knocking! Jesus is calling out to us to come and fellowship with him! Are we willing to listen? 

4.The Holy Spirit is the voice of the Lord

I will send you the Helper, the Spirit of Truth- John 14:16
Holy Spirit is with us forever and dwells within/empowers us- John 14:17, Acts 1:8
Holy Spirit teaches and reveals to us Jesus’ teachings.  (John 15:26; 16:14-15)
Holy Spirit points to, uplifts, and glorifies Jesus the son. (John 16:14; 1 Corinthians 12:3)
“...that He (the Father) would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith;” Ephesians 3:16-17

5. Community is key in helping believers in discern the voice of God. 
“As for prophets, let two or three speak, and the others evaluate what is said.”- 1 Corinthians 14:29 (KNT) 
The entire thrust of NT thought points to God's working through community. Paul even goes as far to say that individuals are members and parts of the greater body. (1 Corthinians 12) We need each other! 

6. We are encouraged to behold the Lord with the 'eyes of our heart'

Behold' and 'Lo,’ words which most often mean, 'Gaze, on purpose and with love, using the eyes of your heart' and especially 'at the Lord Jesus.' Beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus is an invitation and prescription found in John 14, John 16 (the words 'see'), Eph. 1 (eyes of the heart), Heb. 12:1-2 (fix your eyes on), or Col. 3:1-3 (set your 'minds' on). In Rev. 3:18ff, we are commanded to ‘get eye salve so you can see. 

MORE TO COME- My next blog will deal with some practical examples  and exercises of listening prayer.