It’s only polite to listen to those who speak to us. It’s also impolite to remain silent when someone has just tried to engage us in a conversation.
When someone speaks to me, I respond. Especially when the speaker is God.
As Eugene Peterson, in his brilliant book Answering God, points out, prayer is not so much initiating speech as it is answering speech. God always gets the first word. We respond. All of the big work in the world, all of the first work of creating and saving, are done by God, but still we are invited to participate in the work our Lord is doing. Similarly, God speaks to us in all kinds of ways (though primarily through the Scriptures), and we are invited to participate in what he wants to be an ongoing conversation by responding through prayer.
If God is engaging with us, speaking to us through the Scriptures, it would be impolite of us to nod our heads and walk away, leaving him hanging.
And yet that’s what we encourage our congregations to do almost every time sermons are preached. Pastors package up sermons with nice, tidy bows and send people on their way, almost never encouraging them to pray in response to what they’ve just heard from God. And with our tightly planned and executed worship gatherings, we rarely give people time or space to respond.
Of the four steps in lectio divina, this third step of praying in response to what we hear is the one step that is most frequently ignored — both in our private Bible reading on our own and in our public Bible reading in worship gatherings. (Preachers often include some form of exposition in their sermons, helping people do the first step of hearing the text, the Voice. We often include questions and stories in our sermons to help people become personally engaged. And then we often end with some sort of call to action, which can be a form of contemplatio. But almost never do we initiate the response of or create the space for oratio, praying in response to the God is speaking to us.)
All of this begins with how we engage with the Bible. Is the Bible a book to engage the mind and learn from? Is the Bible a place to go for personal reflection and encouragement? Is the Bible a source of moral and missional activity? Yes. It’s all three of those. But it’s also to be words from God that engage us in conversation with him, that launch us into prayer.
If we read and do not pray, have we really heard the voice of God?
If the preacher never engages in a prayerful response to the God who speaks this biblical word, then it will not enter the preacher’s mind to expect the congregation to do so either. But when the preacher slows down after being personally engaged in the meditatio phase and considers, “How can I respond to this God who has spoken to me?” then a prayerful conversation with God is engaged which extends into the sermon.
There are lots of ways to do this, so don’t be limited by what I do. But to get your imagination kickstarted, here’s how I do it.
Generally, I read through the questions I’ve come up with in the meditatio or engagement phase and consider how I might reply to God about them.
So, pulling from the questions stemming from our Lord saying, “I will never leave you or forsake you,” I would talk with God about times when I have in fact felt forsaken by him. I’d try not to move too quickly from this, wanting to make sure that I was dealing with everything that came up. Then I’d ask him for insight into how he was actually present and active with me during that seemingly forsaken time. Next, I’d consider the things going on in my life at that time and ask for him to be actively present during those and the things that I can see coming up in the near future.
From there, I’d move outward, asking God to help me not be one who forsakes others. And I’d consider those I may have forsaken and ask for forgiveness of God and how I might repair these damaged relationships. Then I’d move outward still more and consider the forsaken in my community and in the world, asking God to comfort them and to help me and my church community be a part of that comfort.
This is a conversation with God, not a checklist to go through, but I’m generally trying to cover a whole range of relationships in prayer, not just God, me, and my family.
Again, let the passage guide the conversation. Come back to it again and again during the praying. We don’t want to be the only ones speaking in this conversation.