Remember that prayer closet
I made last spring? Like many other things, it hadn't been a consistent part of my day, but that changed over Advent. Something about the newness of the church year that invites me in, as if beginning an adventure (pun not intended). Every year I am more eager to take the familiar journey through the life of Christ and see where God leads me this time.
Before I was introduced to all things liturgical - so basically the first 35 years of my life - I found a similar kind of grounding when I read the Bible. Revisiting the same passages I had read many times before, they would always spoke something new to me, even the times (more than I care to admit) when I just flipped it open and turned to a random Scripture. Randomness, though, turned to staleness over the years. There was no rhyme or reason to my reading of the Word, except in community settings (church, small group) where we might be going through a particular book of the Bible or a topical study. So when the intense child bearing season hit, I abandoned my lifelong practice - which had become more of an obligation - of reading the Bible every day. I felt both free and fearful. I believed that my desire for the Word would return to me but I also felt some guilt and fear. I began to experience a sort of quiet spiritual r
enewal as I learned more about the seasons of the church year. I was drawn to the beauty and mystery of the symbolism and patterns. When we came to our church four years ago this spring
- the only evangelical liturgical church in our area - it was like finding the final piece of the puzzle I didn't know I had been solving. Since that time, I have used a lot of church year resources to guide my time alone with God, but I have yet to follow a consistent Bible reading plan. Last Advent, I planned to start the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer (Anglican but used by PCA churches like ours), which would go on for the next two years. I didn't do it, and though I could have picked it up at any point, I was resistant. I came up with other creative reading schemes which I never implemented. I had amassed a number of books (which I will list in this post) that offer various plans for daily Scripture reading connected with the liturgical year, but despite that tie-in, they all felt disjointed to me.
A funny thing happened to me when we began homeschooling five years ago (this month). I became completely obsessed with chronological order. You see where this is going. Well, it's not exactly novel to begin in Genesis in January with the goal of finishing Revelation at the end of the year, but I didn't want to read the Bible straight through - I wanted to read it in order of history. So a year ago at this time, I printed out a plan for doing that and I got started, but I found myself slogging through Genesis and Job, scratching my head at things I had read all my life, but which now suddenly didn't make sense to me. That kind of "I need to go to seminary" angst was just too much for me to handle while having a marriage, raising kids, homeschooling, managing our finances, etc. So I dropped my Bible reading...again. I decided to give up my chronological OCD and just start year two of the Daily Office beginning in Advent.
When November rolled around, I started having doubts - as much as I love the liturgical year, the idea of reading in three or four different parts of the Bible simultaneously, not chronologically, and not even whole books at a time (well, sort of, but with sections skipped) just felt too choppy to me. On the other hand, reading the whole Bible in one year didn't appeal to me either. I also didn't want to totally drop the liturgical connection.
During Advent, I decided to just do the readings that correlated with the season, and (as usual) wait until January to start something more comprehensive. In the process, I realized I really liked meditating on the Sunday passages from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) throughout the week. If I could do that and also read through the Bible chronologically, that would be the best of both worlds...so that's what I decided to do. I would be consistent but not a legalist. I would vary my spiritual diet by making it a buffet, but with the same menu for me to pick and choose from each day. Yes, I have finally arrived at the point of this post (kind of like how long it took me to get here in life!).
So when I enter my prayer closet every day (the goal but not the rule) at the start of my kids' room/rest time, with my cup of tea, I can either get studious and pick up where I left off in my chronological Bible reading (with commentaries to help) or opt for a more reflective time and meditate on one of the brief passages from the RCL...or even do a little of each.
Here's what's on the books section of the menu (only the first two are new purchases - I've collected the other Bibles over the years), starting with the "study" aspect:The Daily Bible
It's designed to be read in one year, but I am reading it at my own pace (just ignoring the dates). I chose this particular chronological Bible because it's the highest rated and I liked that it merges all four gospels into one narrative. The editor, however, is staunchly anti-Calvinist, so when I read his devotional commentary (which I'm mostly skipping), I keep that in mind. Archaeological Study Bible
"Articles (520) covering five main categories: Archaeological Sites, Cultural and Historical Notes, Ancient Peoples and Lands, the Reliability of the Bible, and Ancient Texts and Artifacts" This resource provides historical and cultural context (the world scene), as well as some apologetics, which especially helps with some of the stickier parts of the Old Testament. Homeschooling and a "larger story" (is there a theological term for this besides "gospel centered"?) theology have turned me into a history nut.
(Finally finishing this post 2.5 weeks after I started it, so I'm not taking the time to put in the other links)Essential Evangelical Parallel Bible
(ESV, NKJV, NLT, The Message)
This one is especially good for meditation on a verse or passage. While one word or phrasing may not jump out at me in one translation, it may in another. It helps to create an overall impression of the chapter by reading it repeatedly in the different versions. And it's useful for clarity/understanding. I wish it had the NASB or NIV instead of The Message.ESV Collection
(went a little crazy when that translation first came out!)ESV Study Bible
- the best of the threeReformation Study Bible
- hit or missLiterary Study Bible
- ironically, this is my least favoriteOther Bibles
(not listing them all because that would be embarrassing)Orthodox Study Bible
- love the metaphorical interpretations, patterns, symbolism in the commentaryKJV Devotional Bible
- for when I want to hear it in the King's English and maybe get a profound quoteMosaic Bible
(NLT) - this comes more into play in the next section, but basically it takes about passages from all three years of the RCL, creating a theme for each week, with artwork, prayers and devotions (that part is the front of the Bible, while the Bible itself is in the back - it's nice because they put page numbers next to the scriptures to look up).
...Now for the more "meditative" resources...Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)
Every week there is a passage from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and two scriptures in the New Testament. I don't usually get to all them each week, and since I'm in the Old Testament in my (chronological) Bible reading, I generally choose the psalm and NT readings. To meditate on it, I may use Lectio Divina (doesn't come naturally to me but I keep trying) or use one or more of the following books (all but Living the Lectionary have a daily Bible reading plan and other resources, but I mostly just use the RCL related material):Mosaic Bible
(see description above)The Bible Through The Seasons
by Nicholas Connolly Living the Lectionary - Year A
by Geoff Wood A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants
(Upper Room) More Liturgical ResourcesBread and The Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter
(Orbis Press) Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas
(Orbis Press)Eternal Seasons: A Liturgical Journey with Henri M. Nouwen Living the Christian Year
by Bobby GrossThe Liturgical Year
by Joan Chittser ...then there is the "theme" for the year, which I will share about in a separate post, and that has its own books, but I'll just give you a taste of it: God as shepherd and as Lamb of God. Other reflective type books I'm reading this year so farSoul Feast
by Marjorie ThompsonThe Celtic Way of Prayer
by Esther De WaalSoul searching type books I'm also readingInside Out
by Larry Crabb - read this back in my early 20s, and it was profound, so I'm revisiting itStoryline
- doing this workbook style "narrative of my life" with my church community group
There you have it - my spiritual menu for 2014, subject to seasonal change (sorry, I couldn't resist). I can tell you I got off to a good start and then hit the 20 minute...er, two week lull. So I - gasp - haven't been in my prayer closet in a week in a half! The good news is that there is no pressure. God is not in a rush, so why should I be? He is always with me whether I'm in my prayer closet or not. I am growing whether I read any or all of the above good stuff every day or not for a few weeks. But I do notice the difference when I take that time out. I crave it. I get kind of cranky without it. Over time, that does cause problems. So there's no deadline on any of the above, but there are many good reasons to race to my father's arms and sit awhile in His presence, feasting on His goodness.
(Note: I really did eat the food in the picture, and it was all very good. My mom and I went to lunch at Park 121 in Sonoma. If you're ever in Wine Country, you should try it. )
So for Lent this year, I'm giving up alcohol, white sugar, and white flour...except on Sundays...which my dear orthodox friend thinks is cheating. I told her and I'll tell you (in case you don't already know - I didn't, being newish to all things liturgical) that in the Catholic and Protestant traditions, there are actually 46 days of Lent - 40 days of fasting and six Sundays, which are feast days, because they represent Resurrection Day, so they are thought of as little Easters. When I've fasted from things before (food or the internet usually), it's always been for a whole season, so that's made me either more timid in my fasting (i.e. giving up less hard things) or I've failed (tried to go gluten-free last Lent, lasted two weeks). Getting the seventh day reprieve feels doable, and if it goes well, it may even extend past this season, becoming a way of life, because it's sustainable.
Besides the Sunday exemption, I am creating another modification - let me pause for a brief aside: none of this is mentioned, let alone mandated in Scripture - it's all manmade tradition, so it should especially be bathed in grace, without any hint of legalism. The point of following the church year and using these kinds of liturgies is to draw us closer to Jesus, to help us grow spiritually, and to be more like Him. It's not about shoulds and oughts and rules and regulations - that was the old covenant...so it's kind of ironic what I'm going to say next...
In recent months, we've been studying the fourth commandment, to honor the sabbath and keep it holy. My husband and I have been reading books on the subject and trying to implement sabbath keeping. We decided to begin our sabbath on Saturday nights and conclude them on Sunday nights. There is an opening ceremony in which we light candles and say blessings over the bread and the fruit of the vine and the children and each other (our sabbath table is pictured above). So...if Sundays are the exemption days to our fasting, that would mean no challah (unless I make it whole grain) and no wine (unless it's grape juice), so my idea is that to make sabbath keeping and Lent work together, "Sunday" will actually be the duration of our sabbath, so Saturday night to Sunday night, meaning we can have wine, bread, sweets, etc. from Saturday dinner until Sunday dinner (not including it).
In addition to the fasting and feasting of this Lenten season, I want to add something to this time, to make the fasting meaningful by replacing those comfort foods with soul food. And not just to feed myself, but others. The way I've always done that best is through writing. I've been hoarding my insights in my private journal or squandering them through social media. As I am more intentional in spending time with God and consistently reading his word (I'm beginning the daily office of the lectionary in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer
), I want to share what he gives me with you. I also want to post some of the things I've already written, both in recent times and from the past. My plan is to post at least once per week - I'd say more but I don't want to set myself up for failure or feel pressured.
I'm excited...and honestly, desperate....for the new thing(s) the Lord will do in the next six weeks. I'm not expecting any kind of emotional thrills - I just want to hear that still, small voice instead of all my noisy self-centered thoughts. My prayer is to earnestly seek to follow what Jesus said were the two greatest commands - to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself, to live 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
because I believe and receive 1 John 4:7-19
I love it when God speaks to me through a serendipity. He often does it through repeated words or phrases that reappear in pairs or clusters - for a day, a week, a season. Some people might argue that my experiences are coincidences or that my mind is finding patterns because that's what it's hard wired to do. Oddly enough, that's exactly what makes yesterday's serendipitous moment profound to the point of transcendence...because it was all about the brain and spirituality, or as the book that started this whole thing calls it: "neurotheology."
About three weeks ago we were on vacation and stopped into a thrift shop where I found a copy of Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning about the Brain and Spiritual Experience
by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. I vaguely remembered having read about it and being intrigued, so I was pleased to score such a deal on a relatively new book. Initially, I was captivated, both by the subject matter and the author herself - a "mainstream Christian" (whatever that means) NPR religion reporter on a paradoxically personal and objective quest to explore the relationship between the brain and God.
About halfway into it, though, I struggled with going forward. Two things were happening: 1) my specific belief system was challenged (much like the author herself) by the fact that people of all religions have the same kind of brain activity when meditating or praying; 2) spirituality was defined as having mystical experiences, even though that is not the stuff of day-to-day faith, nor do most Christians (pentecostals aside) have other worldly conversions or supernatural seeming encounters. In fact, many never do.
Still, it was a fascinating topic and I wanted to finish the book, so I kept reading. Yesterday I read about brain scans that scientists studying neurotheology performed on "spiritual virtuosos": Newberg found another peculiar similarity. With both the nuns and the [Buddhist] monks, the parietal lobes went dark during deep prayer and meditation.Newberg calls this "orientation area" because it orients you in time and space: those lobes tell you where your body ends and the rest of the world begins. That is why Sister Celeste (and countless other mystics) described a unity with God, or as she put it, 'God permeating my being' It was the neurological reason that Michael Baine felt a "deep and profound sense of connection to everything, recognizing that there was never a true separation at all."
Later that day, I received some books from my Amazon wish list that I had ordered using a gift card from my birthday. It was a little like Christmas, getting these packages several days in a row. That night, I took a stack of my new books up to bed, and decided to a read a chapter from each - sort of a literary nosh, if you will. In the introduction of one of them, SoulTypes: Matching Your Personality and Your Spiritual Path
, I read this passage: A group of scientists interested in exploring whether there are brain-based differences that determine our religion are using the type of prayer described there to define who is and isn't "spiritual." In all religions, these neuroscientists say, mystical, spiritual moments happen when parts of the brain (parietal-lobe circuits) go quiet, turning off your ability to distinguish between the body and its surroundings. Without sensory data, you feel a sense of being part of infinity or, for the religious, being "one with God." They use SPECT scans to determine whether the person is having such an experience. Building on this research, books such as The God Gene describe how we either are or aren't wired for faith. Kenneth L. Woodward, a religion journalist for Newsweek, points out the problem with this approach:"The chief mistake these neurotheologians make is to identify religion with specific experiences and feelings. Losing one's self in prayer may feel good or uplifting, but these emotions have nothing to do with how well we communicate with God. In fact, many people pray best when feeling shame or sorrow, and the sense that God is absent is no less valid than the experience of divine presence."
As I read that, I had an emotional experience - not of the presence of God, but of excitement over him having clearly communicated with me. He didn't do it through my feelings, an audible voice, or a supernatural sign - he did it through my life. He did it by leading me in one day to two books dealing with spirituality, which otherwise were totally unrelated, yet intersected at this one specific point, from whence they each went in very different directions. God used the second book to reassure me by validating/confirming the very thoughts that had come to my mind while reading the first book. It was especially powerful because it was merely a sidebar, so to speak, in the second book, and I therefore had no way of knowing that topic would be addressed, let alone that I would discover it just at that time!
Eleven years ago I began reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. That spring, my literary and spiritual appetites had been whetted by my time at the Mount Hermon Writer's Conference in the sanctuary of the Redwoods along the central California coast. God speaks truth through beauty and I had heard Him there, so I went searching for more in my favorite place to look - books. In the fall, however, he met me in an altogether different way. My heady reading fell to the wayside when I was led into the children's literature section at Border's on my first date with my husband, who read me aloud, "Oh, the Places You'll Go" by Dr. Seuss. What a prophetic moment that turned out to be. Instead of embarking on the path of disciplined grace, I was swept off my feet and carried away to the manic maze of marriage and motherhood, all but erasing from my memory banks the first four chapters of Celebration of Discipline and 200 pages of War and Peace. There was much celebrating and warring over the next decade, but not much peace or discipline (except of my own children).
Grace abounds even when we are not pursuing it fervently. That is how I have survived this induction into domestic life and now homeschooling. Lately,though, I have sensed that it's time to start moving from functioning by grace to gracefully functioning. Others farther ahead on the path have confirmed that there will be no reprieve during this season for me to enter a period spiritual retreat and renewal. If it's going to happen, it will be between meals, lessons, sorting out sibling squabbles, emails, exercise, TV shows, park days, bedtime reading...you get the picture. Thankfully, since they were young, I have (and this I see as another act of God's grace) trained my children (and they have cooperated with it) to transition from napping to a quiet time. So most afternoons, I have an approximate two hour block of time to be alone. As an introvert, that has kept me sane. It has also enabled our girls to read on their own while preschoolers (other contributing factors were literary genes and Baby Einstein, but when it comes right down to it, I say that God taught them to read).
So eleven years later, I find myself once again picking up Celebration of Discipline (War and Peace will have to wait), finally responding the Spirit's invitation to the path of disciplined grace, in hopes of it leading me deeper into the presence of God, of receiving more of his grace and overflowing it to others, but Foster articulates it more clearly:
"God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.
The apostle Paul says, 'he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Galatians 6:8).' Paul's analogy is instructive. A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines - they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The Disciplines are God's way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God's means of grace. The inner righteousness we seek is not something that is poured on our heads. God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we place ourselves where he can bless us.
In this regard it would be proper to speak of 'the path of discplined grace.' It is 'grace' because it is free; it is 'disciplined' because there is something for us to do."
Did you know your church has a personality type
? Chances are, it's similar to yours. Also, some of you missed the memo from way back about the Transformations videos being debunked
. What you should be showing your congregation is Lord, Save Us from Your Followers
(it's also currently on Netflix instant play). If you really want to see revival, then find out what it means to be missional. It's not just another Christian buzz word.
Some weird and dangerous stuff has been creeping into your church via well meaning but misguided homeschooling families who have been influenced by "family" ministries like Vision Forum
, No Greater Joy
, the Duggars, Bill Gothard
(yeah, he's still around) and others who subscribe to a hyper-patriarchal theology (a.k.a. patriocentricity
) that teaches legalism, authoritarianism, and the quiverfull philosophy
of limitless childbearing.
And another thing--please leave politics out of church. We're not all republicans (or democrats). We're certainly not all fans of Sarah Palin.
I may elaborate on these and other church-related topics in the future, but in case it's a while, I needed to get it off my chest now...and get the word out. So pastors, please do your homework and encourage your flock to do the same. It's an uncomfortable place sorting through truth and error within the larger church world (and there are those who are overzealous and hyperjudgemental - I'm not advocating that), but please let's not turn a blind eye to, or unwittingly promote theologies which are unscriptural and abusive. Let's examine our own hearts - as leaders, as churches, as individual Christians who are, as the old saying goes, the only Bible some people will ever read
One last thing...let your people go, and even tell them to leave
, when necessary. After all, they're not really yours anyway. They're God's. And where they go, they are still part of the body of Christ, so please don't act like changing churches is akin to spiritual adultery. That's not Biblical. It also divides and wounds. Wouldn't you rather have them growing elsewhere than withering in your care?