How do you read the Bible? Prayerfully, with other people.

Here at L’Abri I have found that along with, “How do you read the Bible?”, one of the most common questions people ask is, “How do I pray?”  I have found the movements of lectio divina (“holy” or “divine reading”) offer these answers: Read the Bible by praying; pray by reading the Bible.  In other words, reading the Bible and praying go hand-in-hand.  

Lectio divina has been around for a long time (at least since the 6th century in Benedictine monasteries) and aims to listen to the Scriptures with the “ear of the heart.” I first began to learn the prayerful movements of this way of reading the Bible in 2009, after graduating from Regent College with a master’s degree in theological studies. Most Wednesday mornings, as my Vancouver neighborhood was waking up, I walked half a block to my church’s urban retreat center–a converted basement apartment that was said to have once been a prohibition era speakeasy–to gather with a handful of other people from my congregation to read aloud and pray with a short passage of Scripture.  Then we ate a simple breakfast together and went on our way.

While lectio divina (among other spiritual practices) has gained in popularity in Protestant circles in recent years to the point of seeming “liturgi-cool” (as Joshua jokingly calls it), this way of approaching the Bible helped span the gap years of church upbringing and academic study had put between “the ear of my heart” and God’s primary means of communication.  Not that church upbringing or academic study of the Bible are necessarily problems in themselves–both have given me their own sets tools for reading the Bible–but as Dick noted here, if you’re going to spend your life with the Bible, flexibility is important.  After grad school, I needed a reading approach that helped me bring my whole self to Scripture again–unfortunately true to some of my professor’s warnings, reading the Bible had become an academic burden requiring more than I could give on a day-in and day-out basis. Moreover, I can see now that what I needed was a way to let the words of Scripture become strange to me again; I thought I knew what the Bible said and so I wasn’t actually hearing it.  Put differently, I needed to learn how to slow down and pray with Scripture as I read it.

So how do you “do” lectio divina There are five movements (or moments–I think it is fair to say the relationship between these components is dynamic more than it is linear): silence, hearing, meditating, praying, contemplating (or resting). In silence, you begin by acknowledging Christ’s presence in the person of the Holy Spirit, ready to speak in the words of Scripture to your heart.  The short passage of Scripture (a psalm or a piece of one of the Gospels are great places to begin) is then read three times, aloud, slowly.  It has helped me to think of these readings in terms of the process of eating: first, you taste the word, then you chew on it, then you swallow it.  Finally, what you have eaten begins to metabolize, and by the grace of God you become what you eat.

To break this down a little more, in the first reading, you are meant to turn “the ear of the heart” to the Scripture passage, and notice if there is a word or phrase in the passage that stands out–this is tasting the word.  And what stands out can stand out for any reason: it is troubling; it is arresting; it is confusing; it is surprising; it is beautiful; etc.  In the second reading, you meditate on the passage–especially the particular word or phrase that stands out–turning it over, asking, “How does this connect with my own life?  How am I responding to this word?  Why am I responding in this way?”  This is chewing on the word.  These questions are all asked as prayers, as things to mull over with Christ’s help.  In the third reading, you pray in response to the words God has spoken in the Scripture, and in thought and prayer while reading.  This is swallowing the word.  Finally, in contemplating or resting in the words God has given, you trust God to make his words part of you.  And you go on into your day, fed and nourished.

A concluding note: this way of reading can be done in solitude, but I also recommend doing this with another person or a small group if possible, giving a brief time of sharing thoughts and insights between the three readings.  There are several benefits to corporate lectio divina: simply hearing the passage read aloud by others helps you hear things you wouldn’t if you were reading to yourself; hearing what stands out to other people in a passage of Scripture will help you hear it more fully, too; it is harder to skip over troubling moments in the Bible when you are reading in a group (it is good to be bothered by moments like “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts” (Ps. 7:12-13); it is good to wrestle with different meanings of the same word and to be enriched–and at times corrected–by one another’s knowledge.

During term here in Southborough, all are welcome to read the Bible and pray together in the tradition of lectio divina on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings before breakfast.  Starting in January, we will be “eating” our way through Psalm 119.  You are welcome to join us in the tiled room–or from afar.

-Sarah Chestnut

If you are interested in further resources for leading lectio divina for a group, email Sarah at This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading  -     By: Eugene H. Peterson

For further reading on lectio divina and reading the Bible prayerfully, see Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book.






How do you read the Bible? Harumpf. Harumpf.

So, I should confess I am an easily distracted person. It doesn’t take much. A bird flying by the window: “where’s it going?” A partially read book on the shelf: “Maybe now is the right moment to finally finish it.” And then, most destructive of all, there is that random, trivial question which pops into my head with some sort of overwhelming, otherworldly compulsion to Google the answer right now. (Yesterday it was, “How much money did Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade bring in its opening weekend?” $29.3 million in case you’re wondering). This last impulse–Googling answers–leads me down that never-ending rabbit hole of insignificance and distraction, which is the internet.

Being easily distracted has not made me the best of readers, especially when it comes to the Bible. I can start a chapter and before I know it I’ve put aside my Bible because of some flashy (but ultimately unimportant) something-or-other has caught my attention and led me elsewhere. So I’ve needed a different sort of reading strategy to help keep my focus.  I’ve taken my cue from Psalm 1.

This introductory psalm has a lot going on in it, but central to it is a contrast between someone who is happy, stable and fruitful–in a word, blessed–with someone who is insubstantial, fragile and ultimately solitary–in a word, wicked. According to the psalmist, a key difference between these two people and these two ways of life is that the blessed person “meditates on the law day and night.” Meditation is an intimidating word. When I think of meditation, what comes to mind is inner quiet, extreme self-discipline and the utmost of attentiveness–all things I’m not so good at. And while these are all good traits which I do aspire to I’m not sure they are what the psalmist has in mind. In fact, on the whole, meditation in the Bible looks–and sounds–differently than we might expect.

Here’s what I’ve learned: in the Bible meditating (hagah) is an action more commonly ascribed to animals than it is to people. One example is in Isaiah 31:4 where our word from Psalm 1 for meditate is the same word used to describe the delightful noises a lion makes as it pleasurably devours its prey: Harumpf. Harumpf. The purr and growl of a lion noisily chewing up and chomping its prey as it takes it in is a vivid image of the biblical practice of meditation, at least in part. Eugene Peterson writes that this sort of meditation “is a bodily action; it involves murmuring and mumbling words, taking a kind of physical pleasure in making the sounds of the words, getting the feel of the meaning as the syllables are shaped by larynx and tongue and lips.”

And so taking my cue from Psalm 1, I have begun to read my Bible slowly, quietly and out loud to myself–taking it in like I would a delicious mouthful of something–chewing it over slowly as I mutter the words out loud to myself. Harumpf.  Harumpf.  This different way of reading the text has helped enable me to sustain my attention in the activity at hand as I bring my whole muttering self to the text.

-Joshua Chestnut

How do you read the Bible? Quickly, in large swaths.

Last week we began a series of posts addressing the question, “How do you read the Bible?”  See a few of Dick’s thoughts on the question here.  This week, Ben answers: read large, continuous portions of scripture quickly.

Thankfully there is no one correct way to read the Bible. It is always fruitful to slow down and study a small passage of scripture in depth. In my own experience, many texts have come to life for the first time as I began to understand the historical context. But if this was the only way to approach the Bible many of us would get discouraged and even shy away from reading it at all. We say: “if that kind of in-depth study is what it takes to understand the Bible, I don’t have the time or the energy.” To make matters worse, many Christians vaguely fear that the Bible is incoherent. We view it (from a distance) as a large body of disconnected and disconcerting texts, each telling a separate story. We ‘dip in’ to the Bible on Sunday morning but all too often we experience passages out of context, and may not hear them again for several years. With this as our standard way of interacting with the Bible, there is little hope of understanding how each part fits into the whole.

In light of these two problems, it is helpful (every so often) to read large portions of scripture quickly with the goal of getting a ‘sense’ of the overarching story. I found this to be true during my first semester of grad school when my classmates and I read the whole Old Testament in a few weeks–something I had never done before. This approach required us to temporarily ‘shelve’ questions that we had along the way in the interest of covering the ground quickly.

At first glance this sounds like a defense for reading superficially, which is true in a way. To read the Bible quickly does not allow for depth of study or serious contemplation of any one text. In another sense however, it allows for a different kind of depth. Reading large continuous swaths of scripture is a way of stepping back and contemplating the whole story of scripture that transcends but includes every individual text.

The first result (very significant for me) was the realization that the scriptures, while written by many different people, in different places, in different genres and over many hundreds of years, really is ONE STORY. The troubling texts that I had ‘cherry-picked’ from the bible for most of my life, were no longer free standing ‘problems’. They could be read as twists and turns in the one story: a story of God pursuing His rebellious people throughout a range of fallen circumstances. Secondly, the consistency of God’s character showed forth. Reading disconnected texts without a sense of the whole is one of the reasons God sometimes appears to be vengeful and capricious. I was able to see that His wrath, while real, was always in the context of his holiness and love. The overarching picture of God was one of incredible patience and forbearance. He is a Holy God who is continually staying his hand from judgment on a people who provoke Him every day. Thirdly, I saw a connection between the Old and New Testaments, which bolstered my faith.  By reading the Old Testament quickly, I could sense a rising tension that could only be resolved in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

These are a few reasons why reading the Bible quickly–in addition to more focused study or devotional reading–is a good idea. If all else fails (or even just because!), read the Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones, which does an excellent job of telling the one story of scripture.


– Ben Keyes

How do you read the Bible? By being flexible.

During a recent Worker’s meeting and discussion lunch, we discussed a question we often hear from students here at Southborough L’Abri.  Indeed, it is a question we keep asking ourselves as well: How do you read the Bible?  This is the first in a multi-post series giving you “snippets” of that conversation from each of the Workers.

How do you read the Bible? The short answer is, “By being flexible.” Having virtually never read the Bible, I stumbled into L’Abri in Switzerland in 1964 and was amazed at how central the Bible was to the life of the community and to the thinking of Francis Schaeffer which was challenging my life. Into what had seemed a closed universe, the Bible claimed to be a word from outside, a window of light from beyond human ignorance, ideologies and speculations. I knew I had better read it. So I went back to France and read it in three days. (Not recommended.) But I did know a little more afterward than before – importantly, I had a long list of things that I could not believe, which I had to look at more carefully later.

Having believed in Christ since then, I have read it in many different ways. For several years I used a scheme which read the Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice in a year. Then with this plan of four chapters per day I felt I was skimming too lightly. I slowed down to two chapters or to one or less than one chapter a day, sometimes going slowly through a good commentary on a Biblical book, sometimes meditating on certain passages, sometimes reading the same passage on two consecutive days.

If reading the Bible is difficult, we need to ask ourselves, “Why?”  Does it stimulate boredom? Anger? Fear? Bad memories? Confusion?  We are likely to need a different strategy for each of these responses. It is good to find someone with a lot of experience to help us to be flexible. For those of us who can read English we have more resources to help us read the Bible than Christians have ever had.

– Dick Keyes




A Thanksgiving Reflection

Recently while reading the gospel of Luke, I was struck by two passages that I had heard many times separately without realizing that they belong together:

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” 

11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

What is striking about both of these passages is the lack of congratulations that God gives people for simply doing what is right. In the first passage (Luke 17:7-10) Jesus assumes his listeners understand that a master would not thank his servant for doing what, after all, is required of him. In the second passage (17:11-19), Jesus does not commend the healed Samaritan for returning. Instead he asks him why none of the others have returned to thank him. The thankful ex-leper is not considered to be especially pious or thoughtful. He is simply doing the obvious and clearly appropriate thing. Jesus seems to view the others as having failed morally by not displaying their gratitude, which is the bare minimum of piety for any Israelite.

One could get the impression that God receives our thanksgiving somewhat coldly, as if to say: “about time.” But I don’t think that this is what Luke wants us to conclude. When read side by side, these two texts raise an interesting question about the nature of thanksgiving: is it offered freely, or are we under obligation? Is it something we offer with joy, or with a sense of duty? The answer to all of these questions is, yes. God expects our gratitude but does not compel it. We are free to offer him thanks, or to withhold it. However, it is clear that if we understand the nature of our relationship with God and have any memory at all, to give thanks is the obvious thing to do. We are simply recipients of every good thing we have ever experienced. God is the giver of all good things. To thank God is to give Him His due.

But this does not have to be an act of joyless duty! The healed Samaritan returns to Jesus ‘praising God’. His act of giving thanks is clearly overflowing from his genuine gratitude of heart. And Jesus is not cold in receiving his thanks (despite offering no congratulations). Jesus receives the man’s thanks as a sign of his faith; a faith that has made him ‘well’ in more ways than one.

This Thanksgiving let’s strive to offer our gratitude to God both with a sense of the obligation we have to him AND with the genuine joy of the Samaritan who returned to Jesus. Why wouldn’t we give thanks to God?

-Ben Keyes

Ben has given several lectures on the themes of thankfulness and gratitude, most recently, “What is Thankfulness Without God?”  Listen to this lecture and others from Southborough L’Abri here.  

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Southborough L’Abri!






Poems for Advent (I)

By Sarah Crowley Chestnut

Back in October I had the privilege of attending a poetry workshop at OQ Farm in Vermont with a dear poet friend of mine. It jump-started what was feeling like a stalled-out writing life, and since the workshop, I have found writerly camaraderie springing up both close to home (Liz, in the other wing of this big, old house) and afar (Anna and Hilary at Swiss L’Abri, and Andy and Lindsey in Greatham). There are many reasons I love poetry and believe people should include poetry in the pile of books on their bedside table—it hones my vocabulary, it schools me in image and metaphor, it makes me a more perceptive reader on the whole, and this: it slows me down and helps me pay attention to life and language.

Yesterday we marked the beginning of Advent, the start of the liturgical year, and the season of watching and waiting—for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and for his anticipated Second Coming. To keep watch expectantly requires that we slow down and pay attention in a season when most of us are racing to check things off our lists (the gift list, the party grocery list, the cleaning-before-family-arrives list, the winterizing list, the decorating list). But to what—or whom—are we meant to pay attention? In his Gospel, Matthew answers this question in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight…” This Advent, we are invited to slow down and pay attention to Jesus, the one who proclaims justice to the nations, the one who does not shout out about himself, the one who is gentle with the bruised reed, the one who tends to a smoldering wick. The one in whom the nations put their hope.

And so, in hope that it might help you slow down and pay attention to Jesus this week, I offer you this poem. If all goes well, there will be one for each week of Advent.


Hope     (Matt. 12:15-21)

because we were hungry

because sunlight was thick on the fields

because his hands were at home

brushing the tops of golden wheat

because at his touch

the grain fell heavy

because we were hungry

warm kernels rolled like hope

over our tongues, seed of bread

ground like mercy between our teeth

because we were hungry

as hungry as a bent reed, hungry

like a flickering wick—

he whispered mercy, hauled up hope

cold and wet, bleating like some frightened sheep

(some say hope has feathers—

let us say it has a woolen fleece)

but because we only saw what we could see

because even eyes can want to feed,

we dreamed of grinding him like wheat,

pinning down those reaching hands—

the flour sack dropped—dust on everything—

dust on the Sabbath, he made dust on the Sabbath

but still we trailed him for healing,

laid hope wheeled in like the harvest at his quiet feet,

saw the traceable trail he tracked

through the dust on everything

because we were hungry, it was hope that fell

into our dust-covered hands, silent like a seed.


by Joshua Chestnut

Matthew 10:1-4 – And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.


So the votes are in and we have a new president-elect.  In an election season as divisive, antagonistic and downright juvenile as this last one, many of us, myself included have not been immune from breathing it’s toxins in.  Yet, now that the votes are counted, that the winner has been declared, it would be naive to hope that these months and months of angry slander and polarizing rhetoric will just dissipate and we’ll all happily move on together.  The common refrain that I have read and heard since election night is that we just didn’t realize how fragmented and angry the American people actually are, and from where I stand it seems as though these divisions are as real in the church as they are in wider culture.

What has been instructive for me these last months is to consider why in the gospel of Matthew the only disciples whose names are followed by a title are Matthew “the tax collector” and Simon “the Zealot.”  Now, in most cases, if you’re a reader like me when you come upon any list of people in the bible (this one included) your mind jumps into skim mode, zooming over at a thousand feet so you can get back to the matters at hand.  Yet upon slowing down and taking a second look at this list, and these two titles of “tax-collector” and “zealot” in particular, I wonder if Matthew, in a rather subtle and indirect way, wants to teach us something important about the type of community that Jesus has both called to himself and sent back into the world.

In Jesus’ day a zealot was about as far removed ideologically, socially and politically from a tax-collector as a Marxist guerilla is from a conservative radio pundit.  The political differences between a progressive Democrat and an anti-establishment Republican might in fact pale in comparison to these radically conflicting political alignments.  Commenting on this in his hefty but profoundly helpful two volume commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale-Bruner writes “… that a “leftist” Zealot and a “rightist” tax collector would now find themselves in Jesus’ apostolate suggests the power of Jesus.  He is able to take both liberal and conservative mentalities, both Left and Right, and, by uniting them to himself, unite them to each other in a cause higher than either Left or Right.”

There is something instructive here for Christians on either side of the political divide living in a splintering democracy like ours.  At a minimum, Matthew’s list of the disciples with its striking juxtaposition of a former freedom-fighter now working alongside a one-time traitorous collaborator with the Empire shows us that Jesus’ mission is undertaken by sinners transformed by grace rather than saints without pasts.  This should instill in us a grace and hospitality towards those who differ from us on weighty and important political matters.  But even more so, this list evidences the power of the gospel to create a community of radically different people whose political and ideological differences have been put in subjection to Jesus’ greater call of being his disciple.

To be clear, I do believe there are lots of political and cultural matters that are worth disagreeing about, even getting upset about, and I am not intending to downplay these in the some sort of watered-down call to “just get along.”  Nor am I saying we should overlook unacceptable behavior or dangerous policy proposals, but how we deal with that is a matter for another blog post.  Many of us are justifiably upset at the way this whole process went down, and frightened by the picture of the nation it has given us.   It is here, in this place of disillusionment, fragmentation and polarization that the church of Jesus in North America needs to remember that Jesus calls his disciples from across the political spectrum to himself and his call eclipses, transforms and subverts our prior political affiliations uniting us to a higher cause.