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Enjoy the SilenceA 30-Day Experiment in Listening to God
By Maggie Robbins Duffy Robbins
ZondervanCopyright © 2005 Maggie Robbins & Duffy Robbins
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWHOLLY LISTENING
We'd been to this church several times, so the offer didn't catch either of us totally off guard. On the other occasions I had spoken at Mount Oak Church in suburban Washington, D.C., Maggie and I had opportunities to meet some of the folks in the congregation. We knew many of them held important and interesting government jobs. It was not unusual on a Sunday morning to be ushered to your seat by a Pentagon consultant, listen to a testimony by an FBI agent, or hear an offertory solo by a congressional aide.
But Steve Evans had a particularly intriguing job. He was in charge of all Secret Service agents working in the White House.
He approached us after the Sunday evening service and offered an invitation. He said he would like the two of us to come to the White House the next morning to meet the president of the United States.
Of course we were blown away. We couldn't believe it. We just kept thinking, "Gosh, what a treat this will be for the president!" So we said, "Great, let's do it!"
Standing in the back of the church, we worked through the logistics of the next morning. Steve made it very clear we needed to meet him at the west gate of the White House promptly at 7:30 a.m.-and we had to be out by 8:15 a.m. It seems there was a cabinet meeting scheduled for 8:15, and Steve had a sneaky suspicion the cabinet members wouldn't appreciate our presence in the room during the meeting.
He told us we'd have to leave the home where we were staying by 6:30 a.m. if we were going to make it to the White House by 7:30. That meant rise-and-shine no later than 5:30!
That Sunday night we went to bed at our friends' house with our heads spinning. We couldn't believe we were going to be standing in the Oval Office in eight short hours. It took us awhile to settle down to sleep, but finally we drifted off.
In what seemed like the middle of the night, we were awakened by a ringing phone. We couldn't figure out who would be calling at such an hour, but since it wasn't our phone, we ignored it. We heard footsteps crossing the kitchen floor to answer the phone. A moment later Carol, our hostess, knocked on our bedroom door and said, "Duffy, are you awake? Telephone for you. It's the White House!"
I opened the door, still half asleep, took the phone from her, and said, "Mr. President, I hope you're not going to ask us to stick around for the cabinet meeting tomorrow morning. We've got things to do."
I was greeted by an urgent voice. "Duffy, is that you? Where are you? Do you know what time it is?"
My brain was still lingering in the Twilight Zone, so I asked, "Who is this?"
"It's Steve Evans," was the reply. "Duffy, it's 7:45. I was calling just to make sure you guys were on your way. If you haven't left yet, there's no way you're going to get down here in time. We're going to have to cancel the whole thing this morning. I'm sorry. Maybe the next time you come to Mount Oak, we can set something up."
By the time I hung up the phone, my wife knew something was up. She heard only my end of the conversation, but she could tell something wasn't right. When I got back to bed, she asked what the problem was.
"Maggie," I said, "I don't know how to say this, but you're married to one of the only guys in the country who slept through a chance to meet the president of the United States."
I couldn't see the expression on Maggie's face, but I knew exactly what she was thinking. She was thinking-well, she was thinking exactly the same thing you're thinking as you read this story: What a complete idiot!
But before you close this book in disgust, let me make two comments about this episode.
Number one: It never happened. We made it up.
Number two: Actually, it did happen. In fact, it happened this morning. And it happens every day to millions of people. It's probably happened to you.
Not that you would sleep through a chance to go to the Oval Office and meet the president of the United States. Nobody's that stupid.
But people just like you-just like us-on days just like this one, pass up the opportunity to enter the throne room of almighty God and talk to the Creator of the universe. Every new day offers each of us a chance to get out of bed and spend some quality time with our heavenly Father. But most of us blow it off for a few extra minutes of sleep.
That's a pretty sobering thought. But it shouldn't make you feel like a disgusting, spiritually impaired, sleep monger. That's not the purpose of this book. After all, meeting with God every morning isn't some religious hoop you have to jump through in order to earn his love. We spend time with God because he loves us already-unconditionally-and because we want to develop and deepen our relationship with him. Heck, it doesn't even have to happen in the morning! (Can we get an "Amen"?)
AN AUDIENCE WITH THE KING
The purpose of this book is to invite you into the presence of God, to help you find a practical way to listen and speak to the One who desperately wants a deeper relationship with you. The practical method we're talking about is a devotional exercise called lectio divina, two Latin words that literally mean "divine reading." At the heart of this exercise is a very simple notion: God wants to speak to us, but in order to hear him, we have to be willing to listen. (For more about God's desire to make himself known to us, check out Psalm 19:1-4; John 1:1,14; Romans 1:18-21; 2:14-15.)
Just listen. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. You see, we live in a loud world, and often God speaks quietly.
The Lord said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-12)
There, in that whisper, was the voice of God.
FINDING QUIET SPACE IN A LOUD WORLD
Suppose you're on a retreat and your youth leader gives you a passage of Scripture to read with these instructions: "Go find a place where you can't see anybody else and read this passage at least three times. Give yourself at least half an hour. Stay in that place and, in the silence and solitude, see what happens."
Let's say you find a place in the woods next to a babbling brook. The birds are singing. The breeze is gently blowing. You find the perfect tree stump, take a seat, open your Bible, and read the passage. Then you read it again. And, for good measure, you read it a third time. After trying really hard to be quiet for as long as you can, you check your watch.
Only five minutes have passed.
Oh, man, what the heck are you going to do for another 25 minutes?
You think through your options: study the maps in the back of your Bible, draw mustaches on the pictures of the little children on Jesus' lap, check to see if there are any illustrations in Song of Songs, or look for secret codes in the Book of Revelation. Finally, you decide to read your assigned passage once again.
This time, you find there's one particular word or phrase that keeps jumping out at you. You didn't think much about it on the first pass. But on your fourth reading, it begins to stick in your heart. You start to think about it.
There are still distractions over the next 25 Minutes-the sounds of the forest, the ants crawling across a nearby log, the shadow of what appears to be Bigfoot crashing through the woods-but you keep bringing your attention back to that word, that phrase. And in that place of intentional listening, in that carved-out space of quiet, you sense God is speaking to you. That is lectio divina.
It's not a complicated spiritual discipline. All you have to do is read a passage of Scripture slowly and repeatedly, and then give God the space and time to speak to your heart through that passage.
Lectio divina isn't just an impressive name for an everyday Bible study or quiet time. With lectio the emphasis is not on content but on contemplation. Lectio is a discipline inviting us to listen at a deeper level. Bible study is an activity-it's something you do. You read a chapter, you underline key verses and words, you make notes in the margins.
Lectio begins with a word, a verse, a picture, a hint of God. Its goal is to move us from listening with the head to listening with the heart, from activity to receptivity. The emphasis is not on speaking or praying to God. Or thinking great thoughts about God. Or logging time on a spiritual stopwatch. Or notching a few more Bible facts on the walls of our brains. Lectio divina is a devotional exercise where the key is listening.
Lectio divina is about creating the space and time for God to speak to us. One writer described it as an exercise in which the mind meets the heart, so the heart can meet God. It's a quiet time that places a strong emphasis on creating time for quiet.
ANTHONY OF THE DESERT
The practice of lectio divina dates back almost 18 centuries to a young Egyptian man named Anthony (251-356). Anthony was, what you might call, a hard-core believer. One day he heard a sermon on Jesus' words in Mark 10:21: "Go, sell everything you have.... Then come, follow me." And that's what Anthony did. He stuck around long enough for his kid sister to finish school, then he sold everything he owned and took off for the desert. And that's where he lived in solitude for the rest of his life. His only nourishment was bread and water-which he never tasted before sunset and sometimes tasted only once every three or four days. The only clothing he wore was sackcloth and sheepskin. The only thing he did from sunset to sunrise was pray.
Believe it or not, when other people heard about Anthony of the Desert and his lifestyle of silence and solitude, they thought it sounded like a good idea. An entire monastic community sprang up in the desert under the instruction and encouragement of Anthony and other "desert fathers and mothers." The people in the community were seeking to separate themselves from every distraction and obstacle that might interfere with their ability to hear God. They weren't just looking for cheap property and a high-carb diet. They were wrestling with the same issues followers of Jesus wrestle with today-stuff like wealth, lust, greed, success, and popularity. More than anything else, they wanted to hear God.
Now you might be thinking, "Wait a minute, Anthony of the Desert sounds like a nickname from WWE SmackDown!, and my folks will kill me if I run away to the desert, and my school has a strict dress code that doesn't permit sheepskin." But never mind any of that.
Eighteen centuries after Anthony, we can still practice habits that help us step away from the noise, stress, and distractions of the world in order to create silence and space for God to speak to our hearts. But those habits require discipline-namely, the spiritual discipline of lectio divina.
LECTIO DIVINA: THE PRACTICE OF WHOLLY LISTENING
When Maggie and I were in middle school, seventh graders were required to take dance lessons as part of gym class. And let me tell you, those dance lessons were among the most awkward moments of our teenage years. You can imagine the passion in the air when the gym teachers called on five seventh-grade guys to ask some poor girls to dance. Some of the guys were still convinced that girls had cooties, so they weren't exactly chivalrous. In fact, most of the guys walked back and forth in front of the equally uncomfortable girls looking for a partner with all the tact of a sheik shopping for a camel.
The worst part, though, was learning the dance steps. One-two-three-slide, one-two-three-get off your partner's foot. You've been there. The gym teachers told us how wonderful it was for us to learn such necessary social graces, and how exotic it would be to glide across the floor with our partners. But most of us were so busy watching our feet, we barely even noticed we had partners. To us, the ritual of romance and grace was reduced to three steps and a slide.
You may feel the same sense of awkwardness in trying to master the steps of a spiritual exercise. We all know what it's like to hear mature Christians talk about their wonderful times of prayer and meditation; meanwhile, we're floundering with "one-pray, two-read, three-be totally confused by what we just read, four-eat bread and drink water, five-slide, six-doze off, seven-go back to one." But spiritual disciplines are not about getting all the steps right. They are about developing habits that will help us gaze into the face of our partner, Jesus, the Lord of the Dance.
Obviously there's a lot more to lectio divina than a series of steps. No one is suggesting just going through the motions described in this book will usher you in to the throne room of God. Working really hard to listen is like trying really hard to fall asleep. Sometimes just the act of concentration itself becomes a distraction. We must remember it's not a matter of simply deciding to listen. God must decide to speak, also.
But we can prepare ourselves to listen well. Just as we might get ready for a special meal with friends-setting aside a time, inviting guests, setting the table, taking care to set the right atmosphere, eliminating any distractions-there is much we can do to prepare for our Divine Guest, to let God know he is welcome and his visit is expected eagerly.
A French Benedictine monk named Dom Marmion describes lectio divina in terms of four steps: "We read (lectio) under the eye of God (meditatio) until the heart is touched (oratio) and leaps to flame (contemplatio)." Understandably, when we first read those words-lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio-they seem strange to us. Like something off the dessert menu at Bertucci's. However, those four steps help us develop a habit of excavating our hearts and clearing our minds so God can take us to new depths in our relationship with him.
Step One: Lectio
Saint Benedict described lectio divina as cultivating the ability to listen deeply, to hear "with the ear of our heart." In other words we open the door to our heavenly Guest by listening.
Lectio means reading. Not reading to get through something. Not reading to get the facts. But reading to get focused. Reading slowly. Refusing to be hurried. This type of reading is a form of gentle listening. Just as you can't fully appreciate all the facets of a diamond by driving by it in a car, you can't fully appreciate a Bible text by cruising past it at full speed on your way to the next paragraph.
To help you slow down, we've installed some verbal "speed bumps" throughout the readings in this book. You will come across phrases like "Read slowly," "Don't hurry through these verses," and "Take your time with these words." One of the real keys to lectio is expectant reading. God is going to meet you in this text, but it likely will not be through a pop-up message or an IM flashing across the bottom of the page. Sometimes he will speak loudly and clearly, but often you will need to listen for his "still, small whisper."
Step Two: Meditatio
Meditatio, or meditation, is a concept that seems a little weird to some people. That's because the word is used so many different ways and in so many different contexts. Does it involve chanting? Closing our eyes and trying to communicate with a rainbow? Going into a closet and smoking oatmeal?
Biblically speaking, meditation is taking time to think about something, to savor it, to deeply consider its meaning. For example, as the amazing events of the first Christmas unfolded around the Virgin Mary, we are told she "treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). Meditation is the act of pondering something in your heart.
Excerpted from Enjoy the Silence by Maggie Robbins Duffy Robbins Copyright © 2005 by Maggie Robbins & Duffy Robbins.
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