Slow Down and Listen, Be Still and Know

Have you ever met someone who seems instantly to “get” you and is able rather quickly to give an honest assessment of you that, while completely accurate, might also include a little “Holy Spirit poke in the ribs”? Last year I met someone like that, who, after spending a weekend with us, said this to me: “You don’t let any grass grow under your feet, do you?” True—I am indeed wired for “full speed ahead.” That has its undeniable advantages in terms of productivity and efficiency, and it seems to be part of my genetic makeup. Also true—this was an area where the Spirit had already been whispering some correction and invitation into my life, hinting that I needed to give attention to “the dark side” of this strength.

“Full speed ahead” is great for checking tasks off the to-do list. It’s a great mode to be in when time is short and the tasks are many. However, it’s a deadly rhythm for relationships—including, most importantly, the primary relationship with our heavenly Father. For those of us who preach and teach, the temptation is always there for Bible study to become task-driven—fodder for the next sermon, the next lesson. Add to that the tendency to be “Speedy González,” and devotional times become tasks rather than encounters, Scripture becomes a means to an end, and prayer becomes an item on a checklist. The Holy Spirit had already been poking and prodding at me right at this point, and our new friend’s comment drove it home. The two imperatives that kept surfacing were slow down and be still.

Slow down, be still—neither of those is intuitively easy for me. But DNA and life habits don’t let us off the hook! Slowing down to listen more closely to the voice of the Spirit and settling into stillness so that we can hear—these have always been central disciplines of the spiritual life. So I asked the Spirit for help, and he has led me to two beautiful disciplines that are helping me learn a new rhythm. One of them is new to me, although ancient in the life of the church; the other is a recovered love from my youth. I’m still a novice at both, but God is graciously giving me ample opportunities to practice. (I’m sure the Spirit is chuckling gently, because, as I sit down to write this, I am in Haiti with only brief periods of access to the internet. I have determined not to stress over the inability to do any of my countless online tasks, but to settle in to this tech-free zone as a gracious space for slowing down and being still.)

The two disciplines that are slowly becoming dear friends to me are the practice of lectio divina and the embrace of poetry. Each in their own way and as “helpmates” to each other (helpers fit for one another), lectio and poetry are teaching me how to slow down and listen, to be still and know that God is God. Lectio is what Eugene Peterson calls “spiritual reading”; it’s an ancient contemplative approach to reading Scripture that focuses on listening to the biblical text and to the voice of the Spirit through the text. It meditates on Scripture, like a dog or a young lion gnaws on a bone, turning it over and over, savoring every last drop of flavor and goodness, ingesting it. Although a close observation of the text is the prelude to listening to it, lectio is not Bible study. For someone whose lifetime habit and whose professional and ministerial life are shaped by in-depth Bible study, this is a challenging switch to make, even one day a week. But as I’ve been practicing this for several months, I find myself looking ahead in anticipation to those Wednesday morning listening sessions—because the Spirit never fails to speak through the Word! Slowly I am learning new rhythms—and learning not to fret if they “interrupt” my productivity. (Some helpful resources for learning more about lectio divina are at the end of this essay.)

Poetry is something I loved as a teenager, but “grew out of” or grew away from as the years passed. Poetry is not the language of instruction manuals or Tweets or treatises—it’s not fast nor linear nor straightforward. Poetry is not the “Instant Pot” of the written word; it’s more like the slow cooker. It engages the mind—but usually only after it has captured the imagination. It is oblique, often sneaking up on the reader—are you thinking about Jesus’ parables? Poetry communicates via metaphor, allusion, imagery—are you thinking of the biblical prophets? For the past several months I’ve been deeply engaged with the book of Revelation—and there’s nowhere else in Scripture where metaphor plays a larger role. I began to wonder, as Peterson and others have suggested, if we can be responsible and responsive readers of Scripture if we are not also steeped in poetry and able to move freely in the world of metaphor. So I made a commitment to spend some time weekly in poetry, intentionally looking for voices that were new to me or that I had not heard in a while. This second “slow down and be still” discipline has paired beautifully with lectio divina, and I also find a sense of anticipation for the ways the Spirit engages my imagination through a word or an image from the day’s poem. (Some of the poets that have engaged my “praying imagination” over the past several months are listed below. I’d love to hear your suggestions, as well!)

“You don’t let the grass grow under your feet, do you?” I suspect that will always be an easy-to-discern trait of my life. But I hope that, as I progress from kindergarten level to more sustained and profound engagement with lectio divina and with poetry, people who meet me will also be able to say, “You spend time listening to the voice of the Spirit, don’t you?”

Suggested resources for learning more about lectio divina:

Peterson, Eugene H. Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.

Vest, Norvene. Gathered in the Word: Praying the Scripture in Small Groups. Pathways in Spiritual Growth. Nashville, TN: Upper Room, 1996.

Wilhoit, James C. and Evan B. Howard. Discovering Lectio Divina: Bringing Scripture into Ordinary Life. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012.

Poetry that has impacted me:

Jackson, Drew. God Speaks through Wombs: Poems on God’s Unexpected Coming. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 2021.

Lo Alaman, We Sang A Dirge: Poems, Laments, and Other Things that Matter to God. Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2020.

McDonnell, Kilian. Yahweh’s Other Shoe. Collegeville, MN: Order of Saint Benedict, 2006.

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