by Afton Rorvik
I did not expect to find spiritual challenge in a novel, certainly not a challenge about how to read the Bible.
After hearing about if for years, I finally read the book Sensible Shoes by Sharon Garlough Brown. As I read the first 100 pages, I thoroughly enjoyed her character development. I began to care about Meg, Mara, Charissa, and Hannah. I began to see bits of myself in each one of them. And I related to their anxieties about relationships, careers, family, and faith.
By writing in the first person voice of each character, Sharon Garlough Brown pulled me into the hearts of these four women. And their souls. I could see and feel their wrestling with God. Their respective doubts. The anger some carried. The sense of estrangement each one battled in her own life.
The plot of the story focuses on spiritual growth through the many twists and turns of everyday life. I remembered as I read that God can, and does, change hearts overnight, but He changes lives bit by bit over many days and months and years.
Much of the growth for Meg, Mara, Charissa, and Hannah began at the New Hope Retreat Center. Under the wise leadership of Katherine Rhodes, the four women learned to connect with God and the Bible in new ways. And in the process they also connected with each other.
As I read, I found myself participating with these four women, doing the spiritual exercises with them. And I also found myself wondering if participating in these exercises would begin to change my soul the way that it had begun to change the souls of fictional characters Meg, Mara, Charissa, and Hannah.
And, yes, I felt rather odd participating with fictional friends on a spiritual journey!
And, yes, I felt rather odd trying spiritual practices outside the realm of my evangelical upbringing.
When I first surrendered my life to God as a teenager in the 1970s, my youth group leaders encouraged me to have a daily quiet time, focused on reading the Bible. I remember a three-column chart: What Does the Bible Say? What Does it Mean? What Does it Mean to You? In a recent purging of our attic and my bookshelves, I found some of my Bible study charts, filled out in my loopy, adolescent cursive.
When I left home to attend a Christian college, I learned to think about things like the context of the biblical passage. And the culture of the day. And the theology. Sadly, my own quiet time reading often began to feel more like an academic exercise.
And then post-college, I attended some churches that focused on exegetical preaching—verse by verse, careful, theologically sound explanations of biblical texts. Church often felt like another classroom lecture, a place where I never got to that third column on my 1970s Bible study chart: What Does It Mean to You?
When I began to read on page 102 of Sensible Shoes about Lectio divina (sacred reading), an ancient way of listening to Scripture, dating back to the early Middle Ages, I knew I wanted to join my fictional friends and try this spiritual practice.
Sharon Garlough Brown’s fictional spiritual director, Katherine Rhodes, explains the practice this way:
Picture lectio divina as a way of feasting on God’s Word . . . First, we take a bit; then we chew, savoring the taste of it; and finally we swallow and digest it, and it becomes part of us. I’m going to read the same passage several times. Slowly. As I read the first time, listen for a word or a phrase that chooses you—something that catches your attention and invites you to linger with it. Don’t analyze it. Just listen to it.
Then, as you listen to the text again, ponder that word. Chew and savor it, letting the word descend from your mind to your heart. Why did it catch your attention? What is God personally saying to you? How does that word connect with your life? Don’t be afraid of thoughts and feelings that arise around that word.
So much in that explanation gave me pause.
Let a word or phrase choose me? What if I took something out of context? And I didn’t fully understand the historical or theological background of the passage?
Don’t analyze. Just listen? What if my analysis wasn’t right? What if I heard my own thoughts, not God’s thoughts? What if I couldn’t tell the difference?
Don’t be afraid of thoughts and feelings that arise around that word? Wouldn’t I risk stretching or misinterpreting the Bible if I allowed my emotions to enter into my reading?
I asked myself, “Is practicing lectio divina safe?”
By safe, I think I meant something I felt fit comfortably within my preconceived, 1970s notion of the way a Christian SHOULD read the Bible. And something that didn’t bring forth emotions I didn’t want to face.
As I tried this new spiritual practice with my fictional friends Meg, Mara, Charissa, and Hannah, I surprisingly found myself in tears multiple times as God used His Word to penetrate to the deepest part of my heart and unearth my emotions. He also then used that same Word to step into that emotion and offer His healing and understanding.
I went on to read several more books in the Sensible Shoes series and also listen to some of Sharon Garlough Brown’s Daily Lectio Divina podcasts: https://www.abidingway.life/lectio-podcast in which she reads texts aloud and facilitates contemplation of the text. Each time I participated in a lectio divina practice, God spoke to me powerfully through His Word.
These days when I sit down for my quiet times, I still seek to understand the context and theology of the texts I read. And I often research the meaning of a passage or two by reading study notes or a commentary.
But now, thanks to a work of fiction, I also sometimes read through a biblical passage multiple times, often out loud, and practice lectio divina.
I marvel every time I sit to read the Word of God that this unique collection of words has such power—divine power—to bring about change in my heart and in my life.
And I have discovered that God can speak to me through the Bible in a variety of ways. Go figure!
May I always stay open to new spiritual practices that draw me back to hearing God’s transforming voice through his Word. May I always allow the Word of God to read me.
Per Gen contributor Afton Rorvik writes about living connected, something that matters deeply to her even as an introvert. In her book Storm Sisters, she talks about the power of friendship in hard times. Afton and her husband John have two adult children and love to walk and hike in Colorado. You can connect with Afton at https://aftonrorvik.com/ or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LearningtoLiveConnected/