Maybe you struggle to find the words to share your faith.
Maybe you have talked to someone about God and the conversation was going great…until you realized the other person was talking about a completely different god.
Maybe you enter into spiritual conversations and before you know the other person is shutting down, walking away.
Maybe you struggle to find words that aren’t weighed down with heavy baggage, duplicitous meanings, and sound stilted and archaic.
If so, you’re not alone. I’ve felt all these things and more. Sometimes talking about God and faith can feel so A-W-K-W-A-R-D we’re tempted to stop talking about it all together.
Yet that’s not who we are or who we are called and created to be.
This week a dear friend of mine, Jonathan Merritt, is releasing a groundbreaking book that addresses these challenges with groundbreaking research and practical insights that will change the way you think and talk about faith called, Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive them.
An award-winning writer for The Atlantic, and someone who I consider the premier religion writers in America, Jonathan’s book is thought-provoking, beautifully written, and remarkable. While Jonathan and I don’t agree on everything—notice I avoid all Twitter fights with him J–this book is crucial to the conversations Christians are having…and not having…because of the language we use.
I asked Jonathan to share on today’s post about how his understanding of the word, “Prayer”, has changed through his reflections. I hope you enjoy as much as me.
“Spiritual writers these days love to talk about encountering God through chance encounters and in unexpected places, and I say hooray for spiritual surprises. But for those of us who live seemingly ordinary lives, the divine is also waiting in the everyday. We need to tell unspectacular God-stories as well.
I discovered one of these stories a few years ago when I took a spiritual retreat at a small monastery near where I live. Accompanied by friends from my church, my time there included some contemplative practices, such as silence and solitude.
The second day of the retreat, we gathered in a musty room on the second floor of the creaky monastery explored a different way of praying that I had not previously encountered. It didn’t require holding a downward dog pose or thinking about fancy theological words with the power to make listeners cry. The prayer practice was, well, ordinary.
Lectio divina is a Latin word that means “divine reading.”
To engage it, a scripture is read in repetition while those meditating let the words wash over them.
Each time the passage moves from breath to air, listeners focus on the syllables, and attempt to select a single sacred word that appears to stick in their minds. This word becomes a point of focus, quieting the inner noise and attuning us to divine presence.
Western Christians have always valued prayer, so the seriousness and intentionality of lectio divina is not as jarring as the way it postures your spirit. It is less about giving and getting, and more about being. Less about speaking and more about listening.
For me, this way of understanding prayer felt less transactional and more relational. And these shifts are unique for many Western Christians like me who are used to spending “prayer time” begging God to give them what they want in life, or convincing God to act when God feels absent.
Prayer was simple, my childhood Sunday School teacher once told me. Just remember four letters: A – C – T – S. It was more than an acronym; it was a recipe. And with only four ingredients, it was simple enough to whip up in any life stage and in the face of any struggle.
“A” stands for “adoration.” This is the opening act where you express your love for God and give praise for how amazing God is.
“C” represents “confession.” The second act is where you put yourself in your place. Now that you’ve praised God, it was time to talk about terrible and sinful you were.
“T” means “Thanksgiving.” The third act swings the spotlight right back to God. Here is where you give God gratitude for the good gifts in your life—food, family, friends, and whatever else popped into your mind. If it existed and you benefited from it, God was responsible..
“S” is for “supplication.” This is really just a fancy synonym for the requests. It goes last, of course, because you don’t want to sound greedy. The first three acts prepare God for the grocery list you’re about to pull out of your pocket in the final act. Amen and Amen, amirite?
I prayed this way for years, and though formulaic, the pattern worked well enough. I never forgot the four steps, and by the time I was a teenager, I could run through them without even thinking about it. But as I grew and matured, I needed new tools for encountering God in prayer.
Most Western Christians pray with the assumption that prayer serves two main purposes: giving something to God (adoration and thanks) and getting something from God (forgiveness following confession and answers to your requests).
This way of understanding prayer makes sense to those who live in capitalistic America, in part, because it’s transactional. It’s all about giving and getting.
The day I first engaged lectio divina, however, I encountered a new way of understanding the word “prayer” and what it means for those who use it as a tool of spiritual formation tool.
It was relational, rather than transactional, which is why it became transformational. Interestingly, this way of understanding prayer is something that those in the realm of both spirituality and science can understand.
Western and Eastern Christians are not wrong in their understanding of prayer. The space between humans and God may be used for giving to God, receiving from God, being in the presence of God, or hearing the voice of God.
But prayer is also about transformation. It is good for us. It makes us better, stronger, happier, healthier by strengthening our concentration, fortifying our memory, and changing the way we think.
Reading and repeating scripture during your daily prayer isn’t the kind attention-getting practice that splashes across a magazine cover or makes a blogpost go viral. It’s more like breathing or eating breakfast, seemingly ordinary but a lifeline for the spiritually hungry.
If you meet God mostly in the mundane moments of your day and the regular rhythms of life, then maybe you should try lectio divina too. The practice isn’t the kind of thing that will go viral on Instagram, but it may just save your spiritual life.”
Tell me: What have you found that’s really reviving your prayer life right now?