Reading the Bible with head and heart

I have always been steeped in the Bible. In childhood, ­daily ­Bible reading was encouraged and occasionally accomplished. I studied the Bible in youth group and argued about it.

My understanding of the Bible started to change when I attended what was then Canadian Mennonite Bible College. I developed an appreciation for the Old Testament/Hebrew scriptures. I encountered scholarly approaches to the Bible that challenged my childhood readings. This did not lessen my faith but created more questions where answers used to be.

Later I attended Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, where I learned Hebrew and Greek and discovered new meanings behind the English translations.

At seminary the Bible was not only a subject for academic study but an essential resource for worship and faith formation. I learned to encounter the Bible with head and heart.

Since leaving seminary, my knowledge of the biblical languages vanished, but my appreciation for the Bible and its place in my life has not waned.

A few years after graduation I became connected to The Hermitage, a contemplative retreat center in Michigan with Mennonite roots. Once again, my understanding and approach to the Bible took on a new shape.

As I drew closer into a contemplative life of the spirit, I developed new Bible practices. I learned a deep appreciation for the psalms. I learned of the Rule of Benedict, which instructs the monks to pray all 150 psalms each week. While that seemed too ambitious, I began praying through the entire Book of Psalms each month and continued this practice for several years.

I also learned more about and practiced lectio divina, a slow, meditative reading of scripture. Lectio includes lots of space for silence, listening and prayer. I open myself to be formed and transformed by the text.

Since moving to Winkler, Man., and joining Covenant Mennonite Church, I’ve begun a Monday night contemplative prayer group. We gather for 20 minutes of silence and then enter a pattern of lectio divina. We read a piece of scripture and sit in silence, reading again and returning to silence. We read the chosen text five times, always followed by silence.

As we read, I encourage others to pay attention to a word or phrase that speaks to us. With a later reading, I invite us to listen for what God might be saying to us. And then, with another reading, we consider what our response to God might be.

After all the readings and silence, we share what we heard or felt through the text. It is a powerful experience to hear how people have met God in these times of reading and silence. My friends’ thoughts enlarge my understanding of the text and of God.

I do not disregard my academic training. My education enriches my experience of scripture. I do, however, hold my critical understanding of the Bible with more humility. I can’t hear God’s voice solely with my intellect. God’s voice is a gift freely given to those willing to listen.

Our Anabaptist ancestors knew the importance of studying scripture in community. Michael Sattler wrote, “The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it; the others should be still and listen.” This understanding was not limited to academically trained or religiously ordained minds.

These Monday evenings gathered with scripture and silence have become my most rewarding experience of holding on to this Anabaptist practice. We listen for our soul’s best understanding to be revealed deep within. Like our Anabaptist ancestors, we are led by the Holy Spirit as we read, listen and pray.

Kevin Driedger of Winkler, Man., is a member of Covenant Mennonite Church. He is interested in the intersection of Anabaptism and contemplative practices.

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