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"Praying the Scriptures is like reading a love letter from a dearly, dearly beloved person," John Mogabgab said. "When you get a letter from a person who has a special place in your heart, you don't skim it, you savor it, you try to enter that person's presence through the page."
Editor of The Upper Room's Weavings: A Journal for the Christian Spiritual Life for 24 years and now editing The Henri Nouwen Collection, Mogabgab uses words such as "listen," "shape" and "savor" to describe the practice.
He emphasizes not worrying about "getting it right," in terms of form or the amount of time spent praying. "How can there be a right or a wrong way to express our love for God?" he asked. "God helps us find our expression for our love."
Listen, be shaped
When praying the Scriptures, one listens "for what God has to say to us personally" through the text and allows it "to shape what we want to say God," Mogabgab said.
Using Acts 8:27-39 as an illustration, he discussed two prayers that the text might incite.
In the Scripture, Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch as "a response to prompting by the Holy Spirit," Mogabgab said. "You might begin to ask, 'What prompting, what whispering have I intuited recently that suggested I go to someone or some place or undertake some initiative that I had not thought of?'"
As the story continues, Philip reveals that the scroll the eunuch holds tells him "his own future as a baptized Christian." The prayer might be to discover "what has God already given me to help me deal with the questions of my heart? What power, what insight, what relationships do I already possess?"
As you "dwell" in the text, he said, "let it speak to you and try to listen to the words and beyond the words and to something that is coming to you from the other side of your imagination.
"Scripture can give you metaphors to express what you had not known how to express before or give shape to your prayers."
A way to begin
Mogabgab described lectio divina (divine reading), a fourfold process many use to pray the Scriptures.
Read the text several times, listening for an attention-getting word, phrase or image.
Meditate. Reflect on a word, phrase or passage, "really trying to squeeze every bit of insight and meaning out of the text." Reading a commentary or two before may help.
Practice oratio. Allow "the word or phrase to shape the direction of your prayer—maybe intercession, maybe petition, maybe listening—anything prompted by what you have experienced in the text."
Contemplate. "Simply let go of any effort to do anything but to rest in God's presence, to be quiet," he said.
Mogabgab advised thinking of lectio divina not as "a lockstep process. It's very organic. We can be quite earnest about this, but even in the meditation and prayer parts, there's a certain relaxing of our effort to do something. It is like we're being led; the word or the phrase that has surfaced leads us into prayer."
A favorite, meaningful text is a good place to start, he said. "Approach it in a new way. The familiar is both wonderfully familiar and familiar in a way that prevents you from seeing the depth. Spend some time with it in a different way."
Another way is to begin with Psalm 1 "and slowly pray through the psalms," Mogabgab continued. The psalms "are our human prayers to God at the same time they are God's words to us."
Others might choose a favorite book of the Bible or, if they are familiar with the lectionary, use those passages.
Whatever the Scripture, "take small portions," he said, "not more than 10 verses. One of the keys to praying the Scriptures is not to stuff ourselves with them, but to savor, to take small bites, to pay a short visit, not overstay. You don't need to be there a long time to get what you need."
'Pray as you can'
Mogabgab also advised being realistic about the time available as one begins to pray the Scriptures.
He quoted Douglas Steere, a 20th-century Quaker theologian, who said, "Pray as you can, not as you cannot."
A parent with young schoolchildren should not try to set an hour aside at 7 in the morning to pray. "Look at your actual life and the commitments," he said, "because that is your actual rule of life. Your prayer should honor that.
"It's maybe 10 minutes," he continued. "While you're chewing your breakfast cereal or your toast, chew on a psalm. It's not multi-tasking; it's converging the spiritual and the physical.
"God can take a small offering and turn it into abundance. You may find yourself desiring to offer more and finding ways to give it. You might find a way over time to spend a half an hour appropriately."
One hears the smile in Mogabgab's voice as he advised remembering, "This is a practice that should nourish us and not enervate us. The key is to place ourselves in an inner posture where we can hear God tell us again and again how much God loves us."
The Rev. Kathy Noble is a deacon and editor of Intepreter and Interpreter OnLine, www.interpretermagazine.org.
'Teach Us to Pray' Webinars
Presented by The Upper Room and Interpreter. Learn more and register at www.umc.org/pray.
Tuesday, March 19—7 p.m. CDT: "Praying the Scriptures"
Thursday, April 25—7 p.m. CDT: "When Congregations Pray ..." (rescheduled from Feb. 21)
Selected Resources from The Upper Room
"Audio Lectio" podcast, http://alivenow.upperroom.org/audio-lectio/.
Beginning Prayer, John Killinger, The Upper Room, bookstore.upperroom.org.
The Way of Prayer (Participant's Book): Companions in Christ Series, Jane E. Vennard with Stephen D. Bryant, The Upper Room.
Gathered in the Word: Praying the Scripture in Small Groups, Norvene Vest, The Upper Room.