Monday, January 22, 2018

Discerning Mission through Lectio Divina

Rev. Dr. Brenda Buckwell, contributor

            I was astonished. The leadership team of the small urban congregation had just signed their death certificate. In response to the question “What is your greatest desire in ministry?” a tenderhearted gentleman in his early seventies, with head held high, stated, “To keep the doors of the church open until the oldest generation dies.” The team was not surprised by the man’s response. The church had tried various approaches over the years. With one glance at the declining community around the church building, anyone could see the marks of hopelessness and poverty. The closed stores, folks walking rather than driving from one place to another, children running in the streets on school days, drug dealers standing on the corner: all spoke of despair. There seemed to be little opportunity for church renewal and revitalization. Not surprisingly, however, God had other plans for this aging urban community of believers.

            In my astonishment, I paused a moment and then leveled the playing field of mission and ministry for this congregation. With a deep breath and the infilling of the Spirit, I replied: “You can certainly do that if you would like. I can speak to the bishop about sending someone here to your declining ministry to do just that, close the congregation. I am just not that pastor. If you would like to venture forth with me, we can discover God’s desire and mission for this congregation together.” Now it was the team’s turn to be surprised. That very night the leadership team had their first experience of lectio divina, and the journey to amazing new life began at First United Methodist Church in Zanesville, Ohio.
            Opening the Bible for a prayerful soaking in the Word, I posed questions to the leadership team based on the historical practice of lectio divina.[i] In choosing scriptures for vision planning for a church, I work from the perspective that to be vital, the congregation—any congregation—must seek the presence of God’s Holy Spirit as the first-century church did. I began with a healing story so they could picture God desiring healing for them. Later, I used the scripture of Jesus walking on water and asking Peter to step out of the boat to develop their capacity for acting on faith. The final scripture was the Pentecost story from Acts 2. After the scripture passage was read, each member responded to the question “What word or phrase catches your attention from this text?” Next, elaborating on the answer a bit more, the conversation grew as they responded to “How does this text intersect with this leadership team for the congregation?” And finally, because we believe that God’s Word is a living Word, not just a historical document, we deepened our prayer through invitation. Prior to the third reading of the scripture, I encouraged each person to be open to a third question: “From this scripture, what is God inviting this leadership team to, for the sake of the mission of this congregation?” I recorded the responses and read them back to the community for clarification and accuracy.
            After recording each response from the question of invitation, I explained the final step in this community process of praying the scriptures. Confirming that the leaders knew the name of the person on their right, I asked them to pray for one another and the invitations each had heard in the scripture. Audibly each person spoke prayers around the circle. Not just any prayer but a prayer of empowerment for the team and the congregation to live into the invitation stated by the neighbor on the right. As we audibly prayed the other’s invitation, no one could insist “my way is the best way” or “I have the perfect direction from God.” Each listened to the other’s heart’s desire and cared for the other’s invitation to bear fruit. In that instant God began binding prayer-filled hearts together. New community was born. This praying for one another’s invitation is vital to the discovery process that is discernment.
            Our discernment journey continued as we prayed the scriptures out loud and set aside personal agendas at each church council meeting for six months. Then, with a unanimous uplifting of the Spirit, a collective aha! birthed new vision and life into the fragile congregation. As we named the potential ministry, each person was certain it was a direction from God, clearly the fruit from our practice of lectio divina. Unity and excitement were the marks of the Spirit’s leading. The excitement could not be contained. The leadership team passionately spoke at the next Sunday worship and encouraged others to join in the ministry. The next week eighty-year-olds were on the floor or climbing ladders with paint or mop in hand. TheLifewell Free Store was prayed into existence.
            The congregation transformed empty rooms into possibility; an ecumenical board was formed to govern the Free Store. The connectional United Methodist Church sent supportive presence to the store’s opening. A television broadcast about the grand opening of an “unusual store” where no money changed hands brought the first throngs of people to theLifewell Free Store.
            Enthusiasm and passion for ministry grew as community mission expanded. People once hesitant to pray aloud became advocates for prayer, and they continue to kneel in awe of God’s mission and ministry explosion on the corner of Pierce and Putnam. Prayer and mission in this congregation have transformed life in the neighborhood and in the church. A gentle-spirited seventy-year-old woman sums up the miraculous power of praying the scripture for discernment and mission. Her words still ring in my heart: “Why hasn’t any pastor ever before in all my years of going here taught us to pray like this?”

[i] See Jane Tomaine, St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2005).

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