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David G. Benner Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer
Downers Grove IL, IVP 2010

It was one of those moments of delightful ‘accident’ or serendipity. I was browsing a small bookstall in a retreat centre recently and came across this little book by David G. Benner. It is a book about prayer but it is so much more: it offers practical guidance while also giving psychological insight and glimpses of profound theology.

Benner is a Canadian writer on spirituality with a professional background in clinical psychology and the teaching of spirituality. He argues that prayer is primarily an expression of our relationship with God. It is more than ‘saying prayers’, it is ‘being with the Beloved’, a relationship which spills out into the whole of life and leads to personal transformation. There are many practical suggestions about the ‘how’ of prayer in this book, but the author begins by arguing that prayer is not something we do but something God does in and through us. Prayer is the act of breathing in the love of God and then breathing this same love back out into the world.

The evangelical roots of this author are in evidence as he shows the importance of Scripture in nourishing the life of prayer.  The traditional method of  lectio divina (spiritual reading) is explained and then its four stages are used as a way of exploring the many dimensions of prayer. So lectio (reading) leads to ‘prayer as attending’, meditatio (meditation) leads to ‘prayer as pondering’, oratio (prayer or speaking) leads to ‘prayer as responding’ and contemplatio (contemplation) leads to ‘prayer as being’.

Along the way, Benner explores the importance of silence, honesty and imagination. He explains clearly such forms of prayer as the examen (the prayerful recollection of the day), the Jesus prayer, pondering art, journaling, conversational prayer and centering  prayer.

A key concern is that prayer should be holistic. In part, this means that, whatever our personality or spiritual tradition, we should broaden the repertoire of our praying. But holistic prayer also means that our prayer activity should move beyond our times of prayer to transform the whole of our lives.

Prayer that is reduced to technique or discipline seriously misses the fact that first and foremost, prayer expresses a relationship between us and God… [for] we are his friends, not his servants (John 15.15)… It is to this friend’s presence in our life and our world that we attune our self when we offer prayers of attending. It is with this friend that we offer prayers of pondering, responding and being. (p150)

This is quite simply the best book on prayer that I have read. It’s first reading will excite and encourage and re-reading will offer rich reflections and practical guidance. On a scale of one to five, I give this book six stars!

You can check our David Benner’s blog and some of his other books at http://www.drdavidgbenner.ca/blog/

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…the self is the sovereign text for living, the Bible is neither ignored nor banned; it holds, in fact, an honoured place. But the three-person Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is replaced by a very individualized personal Trinity of my Holy Wants, my Holy Needs, and my Holy Feelings.

Eat This Book: The Art of Spiritual Reading

by Eugene H Peterson (Hodder & Stoughton 2006)

Surveys tell us that bible reading is on the decline in all parts of the Christian community. Eugene Peterson is not only concerned to encourage the reading of the bible, but of reading it on its own terms as God’s word to the reader.

This is the second book  in Peterson’s five-volume series on Spiritual Theology. It’s style clearly indicates Peterson’s approach to Spiritual Theology as being in the form of a conversation rather than  a tightly focused textbook. The material is wide-ranging, illuminative and entertaining. It is a highly personal approach which offers fruitful reading and, as usual for Peterson, a gold mine of quotable quotes.

The book is in three sections. The first offers a theological introduction which includes reflections on, for example, how the reading of scripture can mediate the presence of God, scripture as revelation, the importance of story in an incarnational religion and the connections between bible reading and Christian living.

The second section shares reflections on methodology of spiritual reading. However, while it is structured around the classic four stages of lectio divina, it does not offer a standard explanation of these stages. Instead, it shares a number of fertile reflections about the process of reading and praying. In fact, Peterson diverges from the usual treatment of the fourth stage, contemplation, as a mystical resting in God, by seeing this stage as a working out of the reading and praying scripture in daily living and the forming of a Christ-like life.

In the third section we are treated to some fascinating observations about the process of translating biblical languages into contemporary English – a veritable feast for enthusiastic readers of The Message.

There is, however, an overall thesis to the book – that healthy Christian spirituality requires an appropriate method of regular and meditative scripture reading in order to form Christ-like character and obedient living. This thesis is not developed in a linear way but  conversationally, through a series of reflections which focus on different aspect of spiritual reading and the best way to report this is through a series of quotations or summaries.

Reading scripture isn’t enough. How we read it is vitally important. The title Eat this Book expresses this and is based on the Revelation 10.9-10. Peterson suggests this phrase should be regarded as a key text alongside such injunctions as ‘Love the Lord you God with all your heart’, ‘Repent and believe’, ‘Give thanks at all times’ and ‘Follow me’. Why is ‘Eat this book’ so important? Well:

It is the very nature of language to form rather than inform. When language is personal, which it is at its best, it reveals; and revelation is always formative – we don’t know more, we become more. Our best users of language, poets and lovers and children and saints, use words to make – make intimacies, make character, make beauty, make goodness, make truth.

The authority of the Bible is derived from the authorial presence of God. This is not an impersonal authority, a collection of facts or truths, it is not a bookish authority like a textbook:

This is revelation, personally revealed – letting us in on something, telling us person to person what it means to live our lives as men and women created in the image of God.

This personal revelation means that the reader should approach scripture as one ready to be addressed by the personal God we meet when we read in the right way. Peterson describes this right reading as ‘participatory reading’. This participation is helped by much of scripture being in the form of ‘story’. After all, story is an incarnational genre. God’s revelation is incarnational – and his presence in our lives is to be incarnational as well. So,

Spiritual  theology, using Scripture as text, does not present us with a moral code and tell us ‘Live up to this’; nor does it set out a system of doctrine and say, ‘Think like this and you will live well.’ The biblical way is to tell a story and in the telling invite: ‘Live into this – this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-rules world; this is what is involved in becoming and maturing as a human being.’…

When we submit our lives to what we read in Scripture, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but our stories in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves.

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