In December of 1776, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Although the circumstances were different, we can relate. The COVID-19 has impacted millions of people worldwide in a multitude of ways, not the least of which by raising anxiety levels. No one wants to be overly alarmed, but no one wants to be caught off guard or ill-prepared either. If grocery store aisles are any sort of social indicator, people are anxious. These are anxious times.
But we all know that anxiety isn’t good for us. On a very basic level, anxiety can cause a person to be restless, fatigued, irritable, tense; it can keep a person from falling or staying asleep. It can also lead to depression, accelerated heart rate, feelings of doom, etc. Anxiety can keep a person from being able to think clearly or act rationally. But telling a person not to be anxious in anxious times doesn’t do any good. Instead, people need something to replace their anxieties. It seems like the Apostle Paul knew that, too.
While Paul was in prison in Rome for advancing the gospel, he wrote his friends in Philippi a letter. It seems they were deeply concerned for Paul because, well, he was in prison. They also had some issues of their own. So Paul wrote a letter to them that was far from what a typical letter from prison might be; Paul’s letter was all about the joy of following Christ – even during anxious times.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians may be one of the most upbeat prison letters in the history of the world. From start to finish, Paul highlights what it means to be a follower of Jesus and the joy that goes with it. But it is important to bear in mind that Paul’s circumstances at the time were not so great; he was sitting in a Roman prison under Praetorian guard. And yet, tucked within that letter Paul passes along something to his friends that deserve passing on today.
Again, it doesn’t do any good to tell people not to be anxious in anxious times but it is good to help them focus on something that (or someone who) can overcome those anxious times; that’s just what Paul did. He wrote, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5-7 ESV).
During anxious times – and our times are anxious – it is important for followers of Christ to be reasonable, for sure, and to keep their anxiety in check. The way to do that, according to Paul, is through prayer. But this is no ordinary prayer (as if such a thing exists) but rather prayer that is laced with asking and giving thanks and making your requests known. In other words, it is the sort of prayer where everything is laid out before God. No emotion is held back – and that includes our fears and anxieties. Paul isn’t simply saying “don’t be anxious.” Paul is saying, focus your mind and heart on communing with God – connecting with Him.
But, truth be told, connecting and communing with God during anxious times may not come as easily as it does at other times. It may be that a person may need a little more help getting there.
Years ago, during a particularly anxious time in my life – a dear friend – my pastor at the time – introduced me to Lectio Divinia. The practice of Lectio Divina (literally divine reading) is a monastic practice that dates from Saint Benedict in the 5 to 6th century. It probably dates back even further – given the fact that the Psalms often speak of meditating on God’s word and allowing it to frame every aspect of life. Lectio Divina is intended as a contemplative way of reading short passages of the Bible, slowly. It requires a person to slow down, read deeply, pray earnestly, meditate on the words of the Bible, and enjoy enough silence to be able to respond to God’s Spirit. It may help to think of it like sharing a meal with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Lectio Divina doesn’t have to take a long time – 30 minutes may be enough time to get a person-centered on Christ. It is usually done in 5 steps. I’ve included an abbreviated guide, but it begins with silence. That means more than simply turning off the TV and putting the phone far enough away that news notifications and texts don’t distract. It also means turning all attention toward God, getting quiet, detaching from busyness. Give yourself enough time to start slowing down and give yourself the gift of time. You may have to return to this step a few times during the process. It may help to simply pray, “Lord help me to quiet my mind and heart so that I can connect with you; Jesus, help me; Lord help me.”
The next steps will require a Bible and I’d suggest a pen and some paper or a journal as well. I suggest finding a short passage of the Bible even before you start to settle into a comfortable spot. Short passages rather than entire chapters are recommended only because they are easier to focus on, but whatever works best is what’s right. Paul’s letter to the Philippians may be perfect for these days but the Psalms are fantastic as well. Reading the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels are always spot on.
Once a text has been selected, read it out loud, slowly, quietly, several times. Read the text at least twice. Allow the words, the images, the phrases to stand out where they will. There is no need to rush. This slow reading will lead to the third step, meditating, and the fourth step, praying. The truth is, it is sort of tough to separate meditating and praying through the text so they can be thought of together to some extent.
Once the text has been read several times, spend some time going over the text itself mentally trying to visualize each word. I often close my eyes and try to repeat the parts of the text that stood out to me; I do this either mentally or verbally. It may also help to visualize an image that came to mind from the text itself. For instance, take each word of the Lord’s Prayer or a Psalm and just think about each word for a moment or so. Sometimes it is helpful to imagine a biblical scene (like Jesus turning water to wine); think through the people who are present in the text; think about the context; think about the message that is being conveyed to the first people to read the text; think about how the text applies today. Think about how this text speaks to who you are and what you are going through or even what others are dealing with.
With the text in mind, quietly start to pray through the text. Try not to drift away from the text into other areas of your life but instead focus on the text and what it has to say. Pray the text back to the Lord. For instance, in Philippians 4:4, Paul encourages the Philippians to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice.” This text would allow a person to pray, “God I want to be able to rejoice in anxious times but it isn’t so easy. Help me to rejoice.” Or it may lead a person to worship – as they think of reasons to rejoice in the Lord. It may lead to praising God and rejoicing for the beauty of the day. It may lead to the singing of a hymn (“Praise to the Lord the Almighty the King of Creation”). In other words, turn the text into a prayer; use it as a liturgy that leads to confession, or worship, or petition. During this part of Lectio Divina, try to savor each word of the text and keep it central to your thinking and rest in it what it has to say.
Rest is the fifth and final part of Lectio Divina. In fact, one of the major benefits of Lectio Divina is how deep reading, meditating, and praying leads to rest in connection and communion with God. This final step is meant to bring a person to the place where they give God thanks for the way the text has given shape to their lives that day. It is also intended to be the place where a person begins to pray – not just for themselves – but for their loved ones, for their neighbors, for the concerns on their hearts, and for the world. But those concerns for others are to be tied, not to an anxious heart, but rather a heart that has been renewed through communion with God through a deep reading of the Bible.
A person can pray at this point because, hopefully, out of their communion with God, they are centered, calmed, and reminded that God is sovereign and at work in their world. This is also the point that it may be good to write things down. It is good to have a written reminder for years to come of what God has done. However, there is one final part that is critical.
It is important to know Lectio Divina doesn’t end when a person closes the Bible and returns to the business of the day. The Psalmist advised meditating on God’s word day and night (Ps 1:2). As part of Lectio Divina, it is helpful to set reminders (perhaps on the phone) throughout the day that brings the text back to mind –as a means of redeeming the day, redeeming the time, as Paul said.
Ultimately, Paul was able to convey a sense of joy to the Philippians during an anxious time out of his communion with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is clear from reading his letters that Paul’s focus wasn’t on the anxiety-inducing circumstances but rather on what God had done in his life through Jesus. Christians everywhere ought to do the same. That’s one of the great advantages of adopting Lectio Divina. While we live in anxious times, we don’t have to be anxious but it may require a bit of work on our part. We can reorient and re-center our focus on the Lord so that the joy of the Lord can become our strength during anxious days.
Abbreviated Outline for Lectio Divina
LECTIO DIVINA: A Five-Course Feast
1st COURSE: APPETIZER: SILENCIO (silence) “Be still and now that I am God” ~ Ps 46:10
- Prepare yourself for communion with God
- Calm and quiet yourself
- Detach from busyness
2nd COURSE: LECTIO (reading) “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” ~ Psalm 119:105
- Read the scripture passage slowly, attentively several times.
- Read the text out loud, slowly, and let each word time to resonate.
- Re-read the text – at least twice.
- Note the word, images, or phrases that “jump out at you.”
3rd COURSE: MEDITATIO (meditating) “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!” Ps 34:8
- Ruminate on the passage, words, images, or phrases.
- Do this Coram Deo (before the face of God).
- Attend to God’s presence through the Holy Spirit.
- Listen for what the Spirit is saying through the word.
- Imagine yourself in the scene.
4th COURSE: ORATIO (praying) “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” ~ Romans 10:17
- Converse intimately with God.
- Pray expectantly. Pray for others. Pray for yourself.
- Pray the text – word for word – if it helps to keep you focused. If the text has raised questions, ask the Lord to help you understand.
5th DESSERT: CONTEMPLATO (communion with God) “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
- Give God thanks by remembering all that He has done in your life, in the lives of those you love, in the beauty of creation. Give God thanks by remembering how Christ has worked by His Spirit in your heart.
- Joyfully rest in the Lord and let the Joy of the Lord be your strength.
- Glorify God and enjoy Him.
- Write key thoughts and what you’ve learned down.
- Redeem the day by keeping God’s word close to you. Choose times throughout the day to bring the text back to mind.
Suggested Texts for Lectio Divina:
- Philippians 3:8-11
- Philippians 3:12-16
- Philippians 4:4-7
- Philippians 4:8-9
- Luke 10:38-42, Mary and Martha
- Matthew 5:14-16 Light of the world
- Mark 10:46 – 52 Blind Bartimaeus