Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Contemplative Bible Study

Don't we Americans often have a very goal-oriented approach to life? Every undertaking is evaluated based on the projected outcomes. We have all asked ourselves, "What did I expect would happen?"

This is good to an extent. We shouldn't be absolutely random in our approach to life.

But sometimes it doesn't seem to fit the situation. A man I know has decided to become my friend in order to get me to enter into a business with him. My entering will help him. He is being very goal-oriented. Very American. Very Western.

In relationships we call that "using" someone.

And don't we also often take a goal-oriented approach to Bible study? We want to learn. We want to find a new piece of the great puzzle. We want to build the grand structure of our theological framework.

We should study; we should seek to understand; we should seek to hold a coherent vision of the work of God in the world and in ourselves.

But taken too far I am beginning to think that a purely goal-oriented study of the Bible is also using somebody.

So this evening I led a Bible study group in a very contemplative manner. It was an experiment. Usually any contemplative/meditative reading of the Bible is done in our private time. I've never been in a group that tried it.

We read Psalm 63, an exquisite prayer. Instead of taking it apart and asking "What does it mean?" we pondered a quote from Augustine about prayer. Then we read the Psalm again. Then another quote. Back and forth. As each person was reading the Psalm, the others were praying along, letting the Psalm/prayer reverberate with the ideas in the quote.

Here are the quotes we used:

“A man is what his love makes him.”

“For this is the power of love, that it transforms the lover into the image of the object loved.”

“We must adhere to God by Love, and reach out for him in prayer.”

“Prayer is the affectionate reaching out of the mind for God”

“It is with the heart that we ask; with the heart that we seek; and it is to the voice of the heart that the door is opened.”

Matthew 6:8
“Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

“The Lord our God requires us to ask, not that our wish may be made known to him−for to him it cannot be unknown−but that through the medium of prayer, that desire may be developed in us by virtue of which we may receive what he is prepared to bestow.”

“The child learns to speak because his father speaks to him. He learns the speech of his father. . . Repeating God’s own words after him, we begin to pray to him.”

“All prayers of the Bible are such prayers which we pray together with Jesus Christ, in which he accompanies us, and through which he brings us into the presence of God.”

“If we want to read and pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ.”

“If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray.”

“The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.”

The thoughts, insights, and emotions that I heard expressed during this hour and a half process were very unlike what would have come about had we attacked the prayer/poem with the machetes of our Bible study formulae. Somehow I think that perhaps it was more respectful than my usual approach. I for one found it immensely rewarding. At the first reading I honestly didn't feel it to be a prayer, at least I don't think it was a prayer in me. But by the end that had changed radically! The change certainly wasn't in the text; it was in me.

Has anyone else out there ever tried anything similar?


Mary Rae said...

I think we often craft relationships, whether with people or ideas, with the goal of making them fit into our own lives--and somehow adding value in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world. It's much more difficult to quiet that acquisitiveness, and to give ourselves over to understanding. It sounds as if your prayer group is doing just that. Instead of breaking down verses in order to possess them in some way, it's possible to give yourself over completely to something which is not you. In the realm of friendships, it can seem useful to find ways in which we interlock with another, but we risk losing the whole of a new person, a new world. Maybe this is too rambling a response, but I still feel as if you are on to something.

Doug P. Baker said...

Mary Rae,

I think you are exactly right! We risk losing so much if we insist on possessing anything, be it a friend or a pet or a Psalm.

I do think there is great value in studying the Scriptures, but I am more and more feeling that we lose more than we can imagine if "study" is the only way that we are willing to encounter the Scriptures.

Lately I have felt a growing need to just soak (I hope that metaphor isn't in poor taste) in the Scriptures. Not to tear it apart. Even a Veterinary student once in a while wishes to stop disecting cats and to have a chance to curl up and pet a live one!

I think perhaps that I am playing on the edges of what David meant by "on your law I 'meditate' day and night." But if so then I have not begun to plumb its depths. Yet even so, in this experiment I think that Psalm 63 comforted me more deeply than any theological understanding that I could have wrangled out of it could have.

And as you can see, rambling is the only way I can talk about it too, because my religious background has not given me a vocabulary for this contemplative type experiment. I expect that some would wonder what was experimental about it, but to me it is new ground.