A small group of high school seniors meets at our house on Monday evenings. Every week, they gather with Julie and me on our couches in the basement, munching popcorn and drinking Diet Coke. We've spent the year trying to get our arms around the entire Bible, reading a chapter each week from Walt Wangerin's novelized version called The Book of God.
But deep in the heart of a Minnesota winter, our group has fallen into a rut. Everyone comes every week, but most aren't reading the chapter consistently. We've been reading from the Old Testament for almost six months. Although we're just about to make the turn into the New Testament, I figure a one-week diversion will help. After our college updates and a brief report on Jeremiah from Katy (the only person who read the chapter), it's almost nine o'clock. We're ready to start lectio divina.
All the members of our small group have done lectio divina before, so they know the drill. I start by reminding them about contemplative prayer: "We've all got a lot on our minds tonight, me included. Chad's got a math quiz tomorrow, Julie's got a busy day with the kids, Charlie's got his internship, and I've got meetings from 7:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. All of our activities will try to creep into our lectio divina. When this happens, don't get upset with yourself. Just gently repel the distractions. This is all about us getting quiet and listening for God. Ultimately, it's about resting in God's love."
A couple of the kids have their eyes closed as I'm saying these things. Some are shifting on their couches, getting comfortable. Others find their cell phones and turn them off. Brenna pulls the comforter up to her neck. Heidi puts down the kid's toy she is fiddling with. I have the sense that they all need this experience.
Still, I'm a little fearful of doing lectio divina with my small group. I'm afraid I'll get this reaction: "There goes Tony, imposing another of his spiritual disciplines on us again." While it may not seem strange for a youth pastor to steer the group one way or another, that's not the kind of relationship I have with this bunch of students. I'm one of the members—an equal part. We meet at our house only so Julie and I don't have to hire a babysitter every week (not to mention that both of our babysitters are in the group!).
So I've made the decision to lead the group through lectio divina with some trepidation and much humility.
The story of the lost sheep
The 15th chapter of Luke is taken up with a trio of stories that explain what happens in the kingdom of God when someone is lost—what God does when one of his creations wanders away and can't find him. I explain this broader context to the group, and then I read the first parable: the story of the Lost Sheep:
By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, "He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends." Their grumbling triggered this story.
"Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn't you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, 'Celebrate with me! I've found my lost sheep!' Count on it—there's more joy in heaven over one sinner's rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue" (Luke 15:1–7).
I announce that we will have a few minutes of silence before I start reading again. (Usually, I like to have various people read, but I decide that on this occasion I will read the passage every time. I'm aware that not everyone in our group likes to read out loud. I'm also springing the whole lectio divina process on them as a group anyway, so I don't want to spring reading out loud on them, too. Some people get so anxious about reading out loud that they have a hard time concentrating on prayer.)
After a short silence, I say: "Now I'll read our passage again. Listen for the word or phrase that stands out for you. What word is God giving you?" Three times I read: "'Celebrate with me! I've found my lost sheep!' Count on it—there's more joy in heaven over one sinner's rescued life than other ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue."
Continuing in meditation, contemplation, and prayer
We sit in silence for a couple of minutes. Then I ask people to say the word or phrase that God has given them. Answers include "good people," "Celebrate with me," "found," and "Count on it" (my answer).
I explain the next step, meditatio, as chewing on that word. "Don't move forward yet," I explain. "Just chew on the word with your mind and pay attention to how you feel as a result." Then I read the passage two more times.
After some silence, I invite people to share what they are experiencing. One of the students identifies "rescued life" with a sense of newness, or a new beginning. Another associates "joy in heaven" with the idea of a party. "Lost sheep" brings another student into feelings of sadness. As I meditate on "Count on it," I feel a solidity, firmness, confidence, and surety. Actually, I imagine an Egyptian pyramid with a strong foundation that cannot be moved.
Next, I explain that the time has come to talk with God in prayer about what it means—this word and this emotion—and to listen for his response. I read the passage again. In the minutes that follow, I sense from God that Jesus' words "Count on it" are a challenge to me to have faith in what he says. God seems to be saying: "Listen! These words of Jesus are sure things. You can count on those words, and you can count on the one who said them." I find the time of prayer to be comforting and even joyful as I bask in the solidness and reliability of Jesus' words.
We don't share our prayers out loud, but after a few more minutes, I encourage everyone to set all words, images, and feelings aside to spend the last minutes in contemplation—simply resting in God's loving arms.
Finally, I close the lectio divina time with a brief prayer: "Lord God, thank you for your Word, which is inspired and inspiring. You've spoken to each of us tonight, given each one of us a message through your Word. May we carry it with us as we move into the week and often be brought back to the feeling of resting in your loving arms. In Jesus' name, amen."
We don't take the time to go around the group and share because time is short and I want to respect their privacy. But as the seniors are putting on their coats to leave, I let them know they can e-mail me about their experiences this evening. Here's an example of the e-mails I received:
I just wanted to tell you what I thought of the prayer that we did. I really, really like it, but it frustrates me so badly. I mean, here I am trying my darndest to sit and be at one with God and truly be quiet, and I find my mind wandering to subjects like dresses for the Sweetheart Dance. That's right—I couldn't be quiet with God 'cause I was preoccupied with dresses. What a joke. I think we should do that more often, though. I know it would be helpful for me to practice being quiet with myself and with God. So there you have it: I loved it and was frustrated for most of the time.
Last night's small group was cool. Lexio devina (don't know how to spell it) is one of my favorite prayers you do with us. Every time I have done it, God says something new. No matter where I am in the business of my own life, God takes whatever verse is being read and forms it to spark something within me. Last night, the phrase I heard was "Celebrate with me." Through the meditation and reflection processes, I realized that God was telling me I am very excited about Him. That whatever comes of my plans for after high school, I need to celebrate His life, and that comforted me.
All of my concerns about springing this method of prayer on the seniors without their wanting it are allayed. Their responses confirm that lectio divina is a powerful and profound tool for our small group.
Adapted from Divine Intervention by Tony Jones, © 2007. Used by permission of NavPress, www.Navpress.com. All rights reserved.
Interested in learning more about contemplation or student groups? Check out these great training resources from Building Small Groups:
• Go Deeper with God: Discover the art of contemplative prayer and how to listen for God's replies. Explore the concept of lectio divina and how it applies to a better understanding of, and closer relationship to, God.
• Great Small Groups for Students: Small groups can be used in a youth ministry in at least two ways: as a primary system of care, support, and discipleship for the youth of the church, and as a method of outreach for teens who do not know Christ. Careful planning can help your church accomplish all these goals.