Over the next few weeks, I’ll be updating the blog, which is also a resource for other clergy or religious leaders, with resources I’ve created in the past year or so. Most of these were developed in the context of the First Baptist Church in Henderson, NC, where I served as a pastoral intern. Feel free to use any of the lessons, prayers, or liturgies with proper credit given. I’m all about getting good content out there for churches and not putting it all behind a pay wall that some smaller congregations can’t afford to get over.
The following lesson is an exercise in a process developed by the Benedictine folks who developed the St. John’s Bible. If you haven’t ever checked out the St. John’s Bible, you really should. It’s a beautiful work of art. The process that these Benedictine’s helped modernize they call Visio Divina, sort of remixing the popular contemplative method of Lectio Divina used by religious educators, contemplatives, and tons of other Christians. It aims to use art as a place for spiritual reflection and renewal in conjunction with Scripture.
I’ve made some modifications to the St. John’s format so that it fit more in the Baptist setting in which I was working, so it’s not a republication of their curriculum (which would be a no-no!). Instead, this is my own variation on the spiritual practice. Myself and a large (20ish) group of high school students did this together and it proved very fruitful for exploring the passage of Scripture, pondering its ethical imperatives, and the implications it had for our life. I highly encourage you to take a piece of art and do this within your own congregation.
We used a piece of art that hangs in my house that was created by a student in the college ministry at Samford University. This is what it looks like:
The Scripture passage we were looking at that week was Micah 4:1-5.The text:
In days to come
The mountain of the LORD’s house
Shall be established as the highest of the mountain,
And shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
And many nations shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That he may teach us his ways
And that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
And shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not life up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more;
But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
And no one shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
For all the peoples walk,
Each in the name of its god,
But we will walk in the name of the LORD our God
Forever and ever.
The first step in the process was deliberation. Talk about “peace.” Have the students define it. Encourage divergent definitions as they come up. See how they negotiate between different contexts. Here are some guiding questions:
1. Do different people define peace differently?
2. How does a government define peace? Is it different from how you define peace?
3. Is peace just about you or is peace about you and other people? What other people?
4. Is peace just the absence of conflict? Why or why not?
5. Is peace a good thing? Why do we want it? Why do some people not want it?
6. What does justice have to do with peace?
7. Will peace always be temporary?
The second step is reading together. However, often you cannot just read a passage of the Bible without putting it in context because everyone in the group won’t know the context. So, I followed this series of steps: I had them reconstruct the larger narrative of Scripture for me (e.g. Creation, Fall, Promise, Covenant, Kingship, Exile, Emmanuel, Church, etc.) and then asked them to locate Micah on that timeline. If they could name it, that was great, but if not, I helped a bit. Then, I briefly (key word: briefly!) set up the context of the book:
Micah was a preacher who talked about what was going to happen to his people if they kept living how they were living. They were setting themselves up for failure. Bad things were going to happen to them, and he listed those things plainly (2:1-3).
Things are going to be very, very bad for them, but things will get better. God will not forget them. God has a plan for God’s people and God’s creation, and it is for good, not for evil. That’s when we hear the words of Micah that we read today.
You have probably heard them before, but we can always hear something new in the stories from the Bible. Plus, we’re going to do a new activity today with the reading.
After we’ve looked at the passage together, we take the third step of contemplation. I explained the process to the students.
It’s called visio divina. What does that sound like? What does that remind you of? Yes, it is sort of like lectio divina, but it’s a little different. If it’s visio divina can you guess what’s different?
First, we are going to listen to the story read. While you listen, see if a word or phrase sticks out to you.
Second, we will share. Speak the word or phrase that stands out to you.
Third, we’re going to look at the picture while we read and what the picture says about the story and vice versa. Pay attention to anything that might stand out to you.
Fourth, we will have a time of sharing and questions about the picture and the story.
Be sure to take questions and make sure everyone is clear on what’s going on.
Now, read the text. Read slowly and deliberately, perhaps even emphasizing certain turns of phrase that you feel are important as the leader. If you have a good reader in the group, feel free to let them do the reading. It’s always good for the students to handle the text.
Say: “Now, say any words or phrases that stood out to you. There are no right or wrong answers, just say what stood out to you.” Write their words on a board if you can to emphasize their contribution.
Place the artwork you’ve chosen (mine is above) to go with the passage for them to see. Let them look at it for a moment as you find your place to read again. Tell them to study it as you read and to make note of things that stand out to them in the passage that didn’t stand out before, things in the painting that the passage that makes them notice (or the other way around). Read the text again as before.
Open the floor for comments. What did they notice? What stood out to them new this time? What do they think the artwork says? Try to get them to connect their answers with the Scripture passage whenever possible. Here are some sample questions dealing with this art and passage I used:
1. What does it say to you that there are so many different languages on it?
2. What do you think that the dove represents?
3. Why is the world in the dove’s wings?
4. Whose hand is that?
5. What about the star? What do you think it means? (FYI, this was a painting created during an Advent service.)
Discuss their reactions and spend some time reflecting together. The students in my group really ran with this, connecting the Scripture passage with other parts of the Bible (like Noah or the Baptism of Jesus because of the Dove, for example) and using those connections to understand the Scripture — and what we mean by peace.
Return to discussing the initial questions: what do we mean by peace? What have we learned about peace from our reading and exercise today? What does that mean for your life and your community?
I did this exercise with high school students, but it could work with a variety of ages (even if it needs some slight modifications) from children to older adults. You can also adapt the method to work with any topic, Scripture, and work of art. I hope you enjoyed it!