Tag Archives: Spiritual Growth

Reading Scripture as Spiritual Practice

A month or so ago I decided to read through some of the Old Testament historical narrative books, given that it has been sometime since I have done so. I decided to start with Ruth and read it a chapter a day several times before moving to 1 Samuel. One of my spiritual practices is to read a portion of scripture and then journal one page of reflections about it. For the last couple of years my attention has been given largely to Psalms and James, with other bits and pieces of scripture thrown in. With James I might focus on a single verse for days at a time, though I do prefer to work with larger portions of text. At present I am reading a chapter of the Minor Prophets and a chapter of 1 Samuel most days.

Alongside my reading of the biblical text, I like to also use a commentary or two. Typically, I read a passage for a day or several days, journaling as I go. And then I pick up the commentaries to see what they say. I find that I am often on a good track in my own deliberations. I find often that I learn new things about the text that enriches my reading and deliberations. I sometimes find I disagree with the commentators’ interpretations, or have gone in different directions in my own interpretation. Using several commentaries helps protect against singular views, bringing different perspectives into dialogue that mutually inform and condition the various readings.

My interpretations are no doubt idiosyncratic, though I do endeavour to practise good exegesis. I try to hear what the biblical authors were saying in their own context. I try to read with some degree of historical and literary expertise, though my historical knowledge is better for New Testament reading than Old Testament. The commentaries are indispensable for this kind of background work which often so illuminates the text.

Of course, I bring myself to the text as well. This is one of the benefits of dwelling with the same text for days at a time. After a few days of meditating on a passage, and having done initial exegetical work, all kinds of life-observations and questions that concern my present circumstances begin to surface. More importantly, I think, implications and applications, and theological, ethical and pastoral connections begin to show up and impress themselves upon me. The biblical passage starts to work its way into my consciousness and do its work. Sometimes this can be deeply instructive, or comforting, or challenging, or enlivening. The Spirit speaks through the Word, mostly unobtrusively, and so quietly—though sometimes not so quietly—shapes and reshapes my thoughts and imagination, my commitments and priorities, my intentions and behaviours. Often, I am led to prayer.

Reading the biblical text slowly, exegetically, reflectively helps me get past the “professional hazard” of reading just for information, or to tick off another occasion of legalistic accomplishment, or for sermon preparation. It also helps me get past a “merely exegetical” reading where I am slicing and dicing, examining and parsing, acting as though I am the master of the text, and it is simply a thing to be studied and understood, as though at a remove from my life. Journaling my understanding, insights, and responses slows me down further, helps me internalise the text, and draws forth thoughts and insights that I might otherwise have missed. I am often struck by what I write—not because what I write is a stroke of genius, but rather that things emerge that I did not anticipate. I usually start with ideas already known or anticipated, but as I write insights dawn, wisdom comes. Engaging the commentaries expands this process, slowing it further, introduces dialogue and further reflection leading to additional insight and creativity. Marinading in the text like this evokes a stillness and an openness to the breath of the Spirit, and to prayer. “Text” becomes Scripture. It becomes more of a “living word” that accompanies me through the day. It speaks.

I love this little cluster of spiritual practices that has so shaped and continues to shape, my life. It is a fountain of life and an opening of wisdom for me. I am not sure how it started, but I recall filling exercise books with my studies and reflections as a young Christian. Now I use a handsome leather bound journal because I want to keep the records of these encounters and reflections. I still only write a page a day – maybe 300 words, maybe 400. It is the only form of journaling that has ever “worked” for me.

Is there time enough simply to meditate my way through the entirety of Scripture like this? I don’t know, but I hope to try! This little set of practices, along with the practice of regular corporate worship, are those practices which have sustained my spiritual life over the years. I cannot do without either of them, and when one or the other slips, so too does my spiritual vitality.

A passage in Proverbs helps capture the vitality of the Word for me. The passage focuses on parental instruction, though in the book the “my son” texts seem to convey a divine as well as a human exhortation.

My son [my daughter], keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching. Bind them on your heart always, tie them around your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you. For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life… (Proverbs 6:20-23).

A Sermon for Sunday – Psalm 77

hot-coffee & beansIntroduction 

Many years ago I was living in Geraldton and one weekend had to get down to Perth. A friend flew up to Geraldton, picked me up in a light aircraft to fly me back to Perth. During the flight he turned the autopilot off and handed the controls over to me. One of the dials I had to keep an eye on was the attitude meter – which measures the orientation of the aircraft in relation to the horizon. Keep the nose up or you’ll crash and burn! Keep your attitude up! How?

Easier said than done, especially for an introvert! An introvert is someone who lives inside their own head. The busy brain is always at work, observing, hearing, seeing, processing, thoughts whirling around and around. And all this is okay as long as everything is on the up-and-up. But of course, real life has its downs as well as its ups…

Lament

Psalm 77:1-3
I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered you O God, and I groaned; I mused, and my spirit grew faint.  Selah

Psalm 77 begins as a psalm of lament, the cry of the people of God in days of darkness and distress, despair and desolation. Here the psalmist is recounting his story: urgent, persistent, prolonged prayer, and yet the prayer seems to go unanswered. And the more he thinks, the lower he gets: I mused, and my spirit grew faint. Sometimes all you can see is darkness…

Psalm 77:4-6
You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired.

Notice how much mental energy is going into this. The brain is busy, the mind consumed. I remembered, I mused, I enquired. So much so that he cannot sleep and cannot speak.

Psalm 77:7-9                                                             
‘Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favour again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?         
Has his promise failed for all time?     
Has God forgotten to be merciful?      
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?’

Six heart-aching, heart-breaking rhetorical questions. The psalmist has fallen into a pit of despair, distress and depression. The psalmist is filled with doubts, sleepless and weary. The very thought of God is painful. This is not simply one bad circumstance that caused this sorrow: his whole life has been defined by anguish. He longs for days gone by when life was a praise and God seemed so close. Now, it seems that God has rejected him; his unfailing love has failed; his limitless compassion has exhausted itself and found its limit; his promise has fallen to the ground, empty and broken. As he surveys all this evidence he comes to a conclusion:

Psalm 77:10 (NASB)
Then I said, ‘It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’

The psalmist is in the midst of spiritual depression. The tide has gone out; life is empty, emotions are flat and days are endless. Notice the amount of energy turned inward – how the focus is only upon himself. How will he ever find any hope if he believes that even God is against him, has forsaken him?

Hope

But as so often in the psalms, lament turns to hope and praise.

Psalm 77:10-15
Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.’ I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.           (NIV)

The great change of mood in this psalm comes when the psalmist begins to remember, to meditate and consider the works and goodness and power of God. He has lifted his eyes from himself to the Lord. He is still musing and meditating, but the direction of his meditation is different. Our life tends in the direction of our dominant thoughts. His distress is still real, but the sting of his grief has been pulled—the sense that he is alone, alienated and abandoned. In the midst of his distress and without denying the reality and pain of his circumstances, he turns his attention toward God, towards God’s faithfulness, towards God’s goodness, towards God’s power. The holy God is also a mighty God, and the holy, mighty God is also a faithful God: faithful to his people! He redeems the descendants of Jacob—including the psalmist! We are drawn towards that upon which we meditate; we are drawn in the direction of our dominant thoughts. This is why we must praise and pray and meditate: so that we might be drawn more deeply into God, into God’s purposes and promises, God’s plans and priorities, God’s power, peace and provision.

What is the content of the psalmist’s meditation? Obviously he is recalling previous blessings. But more than that, he is meditating on the Scriptures, the Bible, the Word of God. More specifically, he is meditating on the story of God’s redemption of his people from slavery in Egypt and the power of Pharaoh.

Psalm 77:16-19a
The waters saw, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the skies resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea…

The psalmist had turned to the Scripture and from the Scripture was drawing a new hope. He was a descendent of Jacob! He was a member of God’s people.

  • Here we see a difference between Christian meditation and other forms of meditation which encourage us to empty our minds, to centre ourselves deeply within ourselves. Christian meditation fills the mind with Scripture and rises up out of ourselves towards God. The great spiritual masters of the Christian tradition agree that there is no real depth of spirituality or spiritual maturity without the practice of meditation in God’s word.
  • See also Psalm 1; Joshua 1:8; Isaiah 26:3; John 8:31-32; John 15:7; Colossians 3:16;
  • Spiritual transformation—two analogies: The coffee analogy – the water runs through the beans absorbing the colour, flavour, aroma and taste of the beans. So, too, we allow the Word to run through our minds over and over again until we take on its aroma and character. The ‘engrafted’ word (James 1:21, KJV) – a farmer friend grafted four kinds of citrus onto one plant, so the one tree bore four different fruits! Engraft forgiveness, courage, love for and confidence in God into your life through meditation in the Scriptures. Meditate on the person and work of Christ and allow Christlikeness to grow in your life.

Psalm 77:19-20
Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Israel was in a hopeless situation and filled with despair. Hemmed in by the desert on each side, the sea in front and the Egyptian army approaching behind. They had no hope, no escape, no resources, no future. But God’s footprints are ‘in the sea’ – where there is no possibility of footprints. His way is often hidden from us, and when we cannot see the path we must trust the shepherd. God shepherded his people in the days of Moses and brought them through the sea. Is that what Asaph grasped when meditating the Word? That he too was a descendent of Jacob? That he too was a member of the covenant people? That God would be faithful to him too? That as God had shepherded the people then, so he would also shepherd Asaph now?

And what about us? We, too, have a shepherd – Jesus is the good shepherd who gave his life for the sheep. He is the great shepherd of the sheep who will shepherd us all the days of this life and into all eternity.

Revelation 7:9-10, 13-17
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb…And they cried out with a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ …

 Then one of the elders asked me, ‘Who are they and where did they come from?’ I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said,

 ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

My point today is not to make light of the terrible heartache and grief that we sometimes feel: this is real. But friends, God is a God of hope, and he wants to give his people a future filled with hope. One of the means by which he will cause that hope to arise is through his word. Will you take it up and read, meditate? Will you resist spiritual depression and go forward?

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:21

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:21
Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

After my conversion, the church I attended used the King James Version of the Bible and this became one of my favourite verses. The quaint terminology, rhythmic cadence, and almost absurd weightiness of the language made it memorable: “Wherefore, lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.” It still makes me smile. Nonetheless, the language needs updating, and even the NRSV might be clearer; the NIV reads simply, “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent…”

The commentators are divided on whether this verse better belongs with verses 19-20 (e.g. Davids and McKnight) or with verses 22-25 (e.g. Moo and Vlachos). This may indicate that it is better not to divide the passage here, but to consider verses 19-27 as one overarching unit with several subsections. James’ use of “my (beloved) brothers and sisters” in verses 19 and 2:1 may be the best marker of what he intended, given he often uses this phrase to introduce a new section (cf. 1:2, 16, 19; 2:1, 2:14, 3:1, 3:10b(?), etc). There are certainly connections both with the previous section, and with that to come. The “implanted word” (Logos) recalls the “word of truth” in verse 18, as well as foreshadowing the instruction in verse 22 to be “doers of the word.” The exhortation to “receive with meekness” may echo the command to be “quick to hear” in verse 19, and several commentators suggest that the evil (kakias) spoken of in this verse is best understood in terms of malice, and so parallel to the anger of verses 19-20 (see, for example, Vlachos, 56; McKnight, 142).

James’ first instruction is not a grammatical imperative although it functions like one. “Therefore, rid yourselves” (dio apothemenoi) does suggest that this instruction is predicated upon what has come earlier, probably in verses 19-20, but also reaching back to verse 18. The participle apothemenoi literally means to “put away” or “lay aside,” and is often used in the sense of removing one’s clothing (cf. Acts 7:58). The image is common in New Testament exhortations to lay aside pre-Christian patterns of behaviour. Thus, in Romans 13:12 Paul calls on the church to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.” This pattern of “putting off and putting on” is found also in Ephesians and Colossians. In Ephesians, the believers are to put of the old self and put on the new self (4:22-24; cf. v. 25), while in Colossians they must put away anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk, and put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love (3:8-14). The author to the letter of Hebrews exhorts his readers to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” so that they may be freed to run the race set before them (12:1). Finally, Peter also instructs his hearers to “put away” all malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander, and to hunger for the word of God that they may grow up into salvation (2:1-2). All these texts show that this was a common theme and metaphor in early Christian teaching.

James calls upon his readers to rid themselves of “all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness” (pasan rhyparian kai perisseian kakias). Rhyparian continues the clothing metaphor, its cognate being used for the shabby clothing of the poor in 2:2. The adjectival form is also used in Zechariah 3:3-4:

Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ And to him he said, ‘See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you in festal apparel.’

It is impossible to know whether this text stands behind the common New Testament usage, but its context is suggestive. Joshua the high priest must take off his filthy clothes and be clothed with “festal apparel” (“pure vestments” [ESV]) in order to stand before the Angel of the Lord. The change of clothing is a symbol of his cleansing from sin, and so the change of status given him. The metaphoric use of the term also indicates that the concern of the writer is with moral filthiness. The “rank growth of wickedness” (perisseian kakias) is literally, “abundance of evil,” although as already noted, it may be better to understand kakias as malice (cf. vv. 19-20; 1 Peter 2:1). This translation would suggest that James’ admonition in verses 19-20 were not simply general advice, but specific instruction directed toward disunity and anger in his community. The NRSV correctly picks up the “middle voice” of the participle: “rid yourselves,” which indicates the believer’s responsibility for a deliberate and decisive repudiation of all these things.

Repentance in the New Testament, however, is more than simply repudiation. Not only must the believer turn from that which is evil; they must also turn toward and embrace that which is good. Thus the second part of the verse—“and receive with meekness the implanted word” (en praútēti dexasthe ton emphyton logon)—provides this balance in James’ teaching. Praútēs (meekness, gentleness or humility) stands in contrast to the anger and refusal to listen of verses 19-20. Instead of an aggressive or demanding disposition, James’ hearers must adopt the meekness that characterised Jesus (Matthew 11:29) and so “receive with meekness” the implanted word. Vlachos (57) suggests that the aorist imperative for “receive” (dexasthe) be interpreted in parallel to apothemenoi as a “true middle” with the sense of “open yourselves up to” the word of God, and so once more affirming the believer’s responsibility. The imperative calls the community to a humble listening to and hearing of the word of God (“be quick to hear!”), which must be welcomed and embraced if it is to work powerfully in one’s life. That this word must be “received” and is also “implanted” in us, shows that it is a work of grace to which we are called to respond, one of the good and perfect gifts which is from above (v.17), and for which we are allowed to pray (v. 5).

How is this word implanted? That it must be received suggests that it comes from without, most likely through the preaching and teaching ministries of the church. In verse 18 James showed us that our “new birth” was occasioned “by the word of truth,” which as we noted then, is an expression synonymous in the New Testament with the gospel. James says more: this word “has the power to save your souls” (ton dunamenon sōsai tas psychas humōn). Believers are to “open themselves up to” this word, maintain a continual openness toward it, so that its power might be continually at work within them. Although we are already born again or brought forth by the word of truth (v. 18), we are still awaiting the completion of our salvation, which in James refers to deliverance from the eschatological judgement which is yet to come. The same word by which we were brought to new birth is the same word by which we grow and by which we finally will be delivered. When James says that our soul will be saved, he likely is referring to our whole person, and not simply to some immaterial aspect of our being.

This verse, then, is a call to repentance—a life of continual repentance, which includes a decisive turning away from all the kinds of evil that characterised our pre-Christian life, and a humble, voluntary openness and submission to God through his word. This is not to be understood as a dour or joyless life, but as a life lived in accordance with God’s good and perfect purpose, a life, James will go on to explain, of liberty, generosity and moral integrity.