Ten Pointers for Building a Bible Reading Habit

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Comedian George Carlin joked, “I was thinking about how people seem to read the Bible a whole lot more as they get older. Then it dawned on me – they’re cramming for their final exam.”

That may be true. It’s definitely funny. But it is misguided, at least insofar as it suggests there may be an entrance exam for eternity, or a minimum Bible reading requirement. God measures us not by what we know but who we know, by how we know the Father, and Jesus, the Son who was sent. We’re justified, or declared righteous, by faith in Jesus. But if we know him, God should see evidence of that relationship reflected in the content of our lives. The Bible is one resource that helps us know God better, so that we might walk with God more faithfully.

Many friends that I’ve made through the years have expressed interest in the Bible. They’ve been encouraged to read it. They’ve wanted to learn what is there, to understand the text, and to allow it to enrich their lives. But they’ve struggled to begin, or, once begun, they found it difficult to continue, or confusing in content. They understood that the Bible can help them grow in their spiritual life, but they struggled to understand how. And because they were unable to read the Bible profitably, they failed to make Bible reading a habit.

But that doesn’t have to be the case.

So how do we make it a habit? How can we read the Bible routinely and profitably, not only for knowledge of what it contains, but for knowledge of God?

I’m going to share ten pointers that have helped me. Throughout my years of study and in my practice of ministry, I’ve read the Bible from beginning to end a handful of times, and I’ve read select books more times than I could count, either for personal study or in preparation to teach. I’ve become more and more familiar with the story of Scripture by listening to sermons, reading books, and attending classes by learned instructors who  helped me understand what I found in Scripture. I’ve also been to church as a matter of habit and through sermons, the public reading of the Bible, and in small group settings (like a Sunday school), I’ve been equipped to read the Bible with a measure of understanding.

I’m not done learning. But here is what I’ve learned, so far.

1. Acknowledge the Bible is not an Easy Book, but it is Understandable

The Bible is a collection containing sixty-six individual books–thirty-nine books in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, or First Testament) and twenty seven books in the New Testament. There are a number of genres among those books, including narrative, history, genealogy, poetry, allegory, apocalyptic, epistolary, prophetic literature, and wisdom writings. There are various authors, some known, and others unknown to us. These books span centuries. The Old Testament was written hundreds of years (or more) before the birth of Jesus, while the books of the New Testament were written between the 40s or 50s (at earliest) to the 90s (arguably) of the Common Era.

When you read the Bible you are reaching back across history, trying to understand language, culture, idiom, geography, and context that is different from our own. The Bible is not an easy book.

But it is understandable. Through reading the Bible we can access the thoughts and stories of those who recorded their experiences with God, and we can learn from those experiences. We can learn what God is like, how God relates to humankind, and how we are called to live in light of the reality of God and what has been done in and through Jesus. We can also learn a great deal about what we are like, how God has made us to reflect God’s image, how we have been broken by sin, and how God has worked to redeem us through God’s action in history.

The Bible may not be an easy book, but it is an understandable book.

2. Join a Community of Interpretation

In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote in his treatise Against Heresies I:10:2-3:

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it.

Nor will any one of the rulers in the churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these, for no one is greater than the Master; nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

It does not follow because men are endowed with greater and less degrees of intelligence, that they should therefore change the subject-matter [of the faith] itself.

Irenaeus believed that the Christian faith was a received tradition, one that was passed down carefully from one generation to the next, without change or adaptation, tracing itself back to the teachings of the Apostles. This idea traces back to the Bible. In Titus 2:1, Paul exhorts Titus, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” Paul wants Titus to pass on what he has been taught.

In 2 Peter 1:12-15, we find another example that shows early church leaders passing down a received set of teachings. Peter writes, “So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.”

In early Christianity, we find evidence that the earliest ideas and teachings were contested. But there also appears to be a solid core that emerged as normative for Christian faith and practice. A canon of texts and a tradition of interpretation became established, and while the canon has remained, the interpretative tradition is more like an ongoing conversation. Some aspects of the tradition are firmly established. Others continue to be debated.

Today, there are a number of established traditions, the oldest of which is found in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. The Protestant traditions are more nascent, but nonetheless they are well developed, and in their beginnings sought to return to apostolic or primitive Christianity, returning the church to the Bible and the teachings of the Apostles themselves.

Whether you are a Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal, or non-denominational Christian (or some combination thereof), solidify your ties to a community of interpretation. Learn from others of like conviction who have read the Bible and offered an interpretation of its meaning. Discover where you agree and where you disagree, as well as where the tensions rest. Uncover what unites the Christian tradition, and where traditions differ. Learn your own tradition’s weaknesses, and come to respect other traditions’ strengths. Stand firm on your convictions. But also have humility concerning the claims you make. You may be wrong, even if you doubt it.

3. Clarify Your Reason for Reading

Why do you want to read the Bible?

In John 5:39-40, Jesus said this to the religious leaders of his day, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Jesus points to motive. He observes that while his opponents read the Scriptures, they did so in a way that led them to miss the coming of Israel’s Messiah. Jesus suggests that if they read the Scriptures to encounter God, and not as an end in itself, then perhaps they would have recognized him for who he was and they would have found eternal life in him.

If you want to read the Bible to win arguments, to appear knowledgeable, to impress God, or because you think reading the Bible may result in God granting you blessing or favor, perhaps you should revisit your motives. Do you want to read the Scripture in order to know God, to meet Jesus, to become better acquainted with the provocations of the Spirit? Do you want to grow in holiness, flee from sin, increase in love of neighbor, learn compassion for enemies, and more? Do you simply want to be the person God created you to be? What’s your reason for reading?

N. T. Wright said, “The Bible is the book of my life. It’s the book I live with, the book I live by, the book I want to die by.” Wright regards the Bible as a companion resource for life, a guide, and as instruction to prepare for death. He trusts that in and through it, God has spoken and that God speaks.

Why will you read it?

4. Acquire a Good Bible and a Few Study Tools

If you’re going to read the Bible it is a good idea to have one that is readable and accessible. All you may have is an old King James family Bible, its pages worn and hard to read. That’d be a start. But if you’re not familiar with ye Olde English, it might prove challenging.

I recommend Zondervan’s NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible (New International Version) or the NRSV Life with God Bible (New Revised Standard Version). At present, I’m reading Holman’s CSB Reference Bible (Christian Standard Bible) for my daily study, along with Crossway’s ESV edition of The Psalms (English Standard Version). I love the feel of my leather bound edition of the Psalms. It is pleasing to the touch.

The important thing is to get a good translation that you enjoy reading, and to do it. Here are a few other tools you may want to have one hand:

  • A Bible dictionary, like the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary. A Bible dictionary includes entries about geography, people, nations, artifacts, festivals, and more.
  • A Bible concordance, like The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. You can look up any word in a concordance and find where else that precise term appears in the Bible, which allows you to broaden your understanding of the word and mine the depths of its range and nuance.
  • A Bible commentary, like The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary. Commentaries come in multi-volume sets, and there are several good, reliable series. But having a one-volume commentary can come in handy, especially if you’re just beginning your study of the Bible and are building your theological library.
  • A Bible atlas, like the Zondervan Atlas of the Bible. A good study Bible will have a few maps, but an atlas will offer more information.
  • A Bible handbook, like Stephen Miller’s Complete Guide to the Bible. Zondervan also produces a Bible handbook; there are others. But Stephen has always been kind to me, and I count him as a friend.

5. Ask God for Help and Honor God’s Leadership

A. W. Tozer wrote, “The Bible is a supernatural book and can be understood only by supernatural aid.” That is true, to a point. All people can profit at some level from the reading of Scripture. But those who profit most will do so by seeking first to know God through the Bible. Any knowledge of God that we obtain is always a work of God’s supernatural grace.

That’s why you should ask for help. Pray while you read, and earnestly and simply ask God to enlighten your mind and enable you to understand. Apply what you learn. And if you ever feel challenged, that’s good. Maybe God is unearthing something that needs to change. Honor God’s leadership.

6. Adopt a Method for Reading

In the preface to his Standard Sermons, John Wesley wrote:

To candid, reasonable men, I am not afraid to lay open what have been the inmost thoughts of my heart. I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri (” a man of one book”).

Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: Only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: – “Lord, is it not thy word, ‘If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou ‘givest liberally, and upbraidest not.’ Thou hast said; ‘If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know, thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”

Wesley had a method. He entered solitude, welcomed God’s presence, opened the Scriptures, asked good questions of the text and of himself, lifted his heart to God and asked for help, read comparatively, meditated on what he had read, sought counsel from others, studied other books, and taught others what he had learned.

I read devotionally and acquisitively, and most often I employ the inductive Bible study method, which you can read about here.

7. Formulate a Plan for Study

Looking for a Bible study plan? Here are several. Here are others. If you have a study Bible, open it up and browse the introductory material. There is likely a plan there.

You could study one book of the Bible per month. If you did that for every book of the Bible, you could read the entire Bible in five and a half years. I read four chapters each day, plus a Psalm. I underline as I go and make notes. When I finish, I’ll choose another copy of the Bible and begin again. That’s my plan.

What’s your plan?

8. Set a Rhythm

I begin each day with Bible reading and prayer. That’s my rhythm. I have a daily reminder in my tasks, which helps me to stay on track.

Set an appointment on your calendar. Make it a daily task. Recruit a trustworthy friend to ask you if you have been routine in reading.

9. Let the Bible Read You

In Psychology and Spiritual Formation in Dialogue, C. Stephen Evans helpfully applies the wisdom of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard to our reading of the Bible. Kierkegaard’s reading of James 1:22-27 led him to conclude that Scripture is like a mirror, reflecting God, reflecting itself, but also reflecting us. Evans observes, “One way we can go wrong is by making God’s Word simply an object of scholarship to be studied rather than reading it to hear God speak to us.”

In Self-Examination, Kierkegaard offered this advice in reading the Scriptures, “Remember to say yourself incessantly: It is I to whom it is speaking; it is I about whom it is speaking.” Through the Bible, God addresses us. When you understand the Bible, apply it. Put it into practice.

10. Stick With It

C H. Spurgeon said, ““Bible study is the metal that makes a Christian,” and A. W. Tozer remarked, “Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian.”  Once you begin, stick with it. Don’t quit. And if you do stop for a while, don’t be overwhelmed by guilt. Begin again.

If it helps, bring to mind the words of Psalm 19:7-13, which says:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.

I’ve given up more than once. I’ve bogged down in the commandments. I’ve gotten lost in a genealogy. But I’ve come back. I’ve made a new beginning. I’ve kept reading.

And it has been worth it.

Resolutions for Each Day

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Jonathan Edwards is one of the greatest minds in American history. He is most well known as a Puritan minister, particularly for his role in the First Great Awakening, and is still read in literature and history courses for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Though known as “America’s Greatest Theologian,” his theological work also has significance for philosophy, particularly metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory.

Edwards is someone I have read, but not as closely and carefully to this point as I one day aspire to. But one document I have read is his “Resolutions,” which begins, “Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.” He sets a guideline for himself, “Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week.”

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • 1. Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.
  • 5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
  • 9. Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
  • 13. Resolved, to be endeavoring to find out fit objects of charity and liberality.
  • 17. Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.
  • 24. Resolved, whenever I do any conspicuously evil action, to trace it back, till I come to the original cause; and then both carefully endeavor to do so no more, and to fight and pray with all my might against the original of it.
  • 25. Resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it.
  • 28. Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.
  • 34. Resolved, in narrations never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity.
  • 37. Resolved, to inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent, what sin I have committed, and wherein I have denied myself: also at the end of every week, month and year.
  • 42. Resolved, frequently to renew the dedication of myself to God,
    which was made at my baptism; which I solemnly renewed, when I was received into the communion of the church; and which I have solemnly re-made this 12th day of January, 1722—23.
  • 47. Resolved, to endeavor to my utmost to deny whatever is not most agreeable to a good, and universally sweet and benevolent, quiet, peaceable, contented, easy, compassionate, generous, humble, meek, modest, submissive, obliging, diligent and industrious, charitable, even, patient, moderate, forgiving, sincere temper; and to do at all times what such a temper would lead me to. Examine strictly every week, whether I have done so.
  • 52. I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again: resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.
  • 56. Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.
  • 67. Resolved, after afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them, what good I have got by them, and what I might have got by them.
  • 70. Let there be something of benevolence, in all that I speak.

A close examination of the document shows that Edwards added to his list over time. His first list of resolutions was not his final list. He found room to grow, new resolutions, new matters of focus for his life with God.

Such a list clarifies convictions. It offers a helpful guide, a standard, and a rule for living.

These are not resolutions for a year, but for a lifetime.

Do you have such a list?

How to Develop a Prayer Habit

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Anglican priest and poet George Herbert said, “Prayer should be the key of the day and the lock of the night.” Martin Luther once remarked, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”

But I’ve concluded that though people try to pray, want to pray, and desire to pray, they still wonder if they are doing it right, enough, or correctly. Countless times I have heard people say that they want something more. Friends have also shared they wish to be more disciplined. The longing, the hope itself, is a gift from God, a sign of God’s work, and a wonderful beginning.

If you want to develop a prayer habit, firstly take heart. The evidence of God’s activity and grace is found in the desire itself. God is drawing nigh to you. Draw near, then, to God.

Where Do I Begin?

In Luke 11:1-13, we are told Jesus was praying, and when he finished his disciples made a request, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

Jesus then offered his friend a set of words. In Luke’s account, it is a version of the Lord’s Prayer, the more familiar form of which is given in Matthew 6:9-13. Jesus tells his disciples to address God, to ask that God’s kingdom come, to provide for us, forgive us, to help us forgive, to free us from temptation, and deliver us from evil. If this was all we had to go on when it comes to prayer, this alone would be a mighty foundation.

But again in Luke, Jesus follows the words of a prayer with instruction on the character of God. Jesus tells stories to illustrate. Read the passage. Jesus says that when we pray, we should be persistent and audacious, and that God will honor the bonds of friendship. He is even more faithful than the neighbor we might disturb in the middle of the night. Jesus encourages us to ask, seek, and knock.

Finally, he illustrates God’s way of relating to us like a parent by making a comparison to earthly parents. People give good gifts to their children, even though they are inclined toward evil. God, being good, certainly exceeds us in the capacity to provide good things, in a good manner. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask, not only for things, but for the Holy Spirit, who indwells those who trust in Christ. God not only provides what we need when we ask, but gives us God’s very self, which is, in fact, our greatest need.

If you wish to begin a prayer habit, be like the disciples. First, ask Jesus to teach you to pray. Then, pay attention to his teachings. Memorize his words. They can help you tremendously. Truly think and meditate on the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray. And as you do so, consider the character of God. Is God someone that you really want to know?

Generally speaking, we enjoy being with those we long to know better. We soak up the moments. We cherish common experiences. We tell stories. We share. It can be likewise with God, if only you give thought to who God is, and how among all beings who have ever existed or ever will exist, God is unsurpassed. God is the fullness of beauty and truth, the wellspring of grace, the font of wisdom and the source of all knowledge. God is always out for our good, and is the source of all love. We do not have to spend time with God, but God extends us the privilege. And God, being all-good, all-powerful, all-wise, and all patient, joins us in our concerns, whether large or small.

When, Where, and What Do I Pray, and How Do I Grow?

Prayer is presence and conversation, being with and talking with. It is a posture, an inclination, a disposition. Prayer is a way of speaking and listening. It is also a habit of heart and mind.

When, where, and what do you pray?

The answer: you are invited to pray always, in all places, and concerning all things.

God is concerned with your life. Not only your manner of religious devotion or even simply in your wants. But with you. God wants you to know him, and God desires to become an intimate friend to you. This means you are invited to pray throughout your day, wherever you are, and in whatever you are doing.

It is as Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray continually.” In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul adds, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

That’s the challenge, isn’t it? We’re invited to pray always, in all places, and concerning all things. But we find that we pray seldom, perhaps (hopefully!) in church, and concerning what we may consider small, self-focused matters–things we worry God might not care much about.

But God does care about those small things, and the things we ask in boldness–the “impossible” things. God cares, and is concerned, because we care and are concerned. God’s all surpassing goodness, power, mercy, and grace mean that it is well within God’s means to meet us exactly where we are and to provide for us in the exact manner that we most need.

In reading this you might feel guilty or overwhelmed. I understand. So let’s back up. The invitation to pray moves us toward an ongoing presence and conversation with God that concerns the totality of our lives. But in order to arrive there, we must start smaller, think incrementally, and, finally, act with consistency over time.

First, start small. If you want to develop a prayer habit, set aside one to five minutes a day to pray. Designate a place. I often pray at my desk with my morning cup of coffee. I keep a list of concerns, written in a notebook, that I have tabbed so that I can easily turn to the names and circumstances I want to remember before God. For many years, my prayer dwindled to, “Lord, teach me to pray.” Or, “Help.” Or, “I’m hurt.” Or, “Remember your promises!” Or, “Thanks.” God honored each prayer, I think, and my short prayers were a small enough act to keep me going, to keep me on the path.

Second, think incrementally. You may begin with a short prayer. You may begin with a short list of concerns. But that time you spend in prayer, and those concerns, may grow. You may want to begin memorizing Scripture, praying God’s words. You may want to routinely read one of these great prayers from the Bible:

Remember, you can make the words of Scripture your own. You do not have to pray “original” prayers. You can borrow words. There are other prayers in the Bible, and other passages. You may want to chose a verse that is meaningful to you and bring it to memory, like John 3:16 or Romans 8:37-39.

You may also want to buy a book of written prayers, those that either point you to daily Scripture readings or offer you other devotional material that can structure your time with God. I’ve used the following:

There are other helpful guides out there. Keep your eyes sharp, and your ears open. Another possibility is to download the Bible app from YouVersion and sign up for a reading plan.

Third and most critically, act with consistency over time. It has helped me to set daily reminders to review my prayer list, memorize Scripture, and to set a top priority. This is a list I consult at the beginning of each day. Doing each of these has become part of my morning routine, as has reading four chapters from Scripture and praying a selection from Psalms with my spouse.

Have I missed my appointment? Yes. Have I fallen behind? Yes. But then I start each day new. Don’t let guilt weigh you down. Remember God’s grace.

How Do I Remain Disciplined?

One of the greatest aids in remaining disciplined is to be extremely clear on the reason you began in the first place. One of the Desert Fathers, Abba Anthony said, “Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an ax. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labor in vain.”

In Luke 14:28-33, Jesus put it this way:

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you,  saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

In Luke 14:27, Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” To follow Jesus, you give up everything. But consider what you gain! You gain him, and the life that he has promised. Therefore, whatever it is you give, what you will receive from God will be immeasurably greater, and definitely worthwhile.

Why do you want to pray? To impress God? No. Hopefully not. But if you to become more like Jesus, grow in holiness, and walk the path of discipleship, if you want to open the possibility that you will transform and change and become more like the person God designed you to be, then you’re more likely to remain disciplined, to stick with it.

Moreover, if you want to know God, prayer will lead you into a space where this is possible. That relationship, above all, is a treasure beyond compare.

How Does Prayer Shape My Life?

Mother Teresa said, “For prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.” She also said, “God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer,” and observed, “The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace.”

Psalm 145:18 says, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” Call on the Lord. Live as God’s friend. Serve others in the name of Jesus.

Prayer will shape you, will conform you to the image of Christ, Christ in you.

 

A Rhythm of Practices

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Ken Shigematsu writes:

There is no such thing as a “magic pill” that can make you a great athlete or an accomplished musician, a master carpenter or a wise parent. We all know people who have an amazing talent or aptitude but have not realized their potential. The path to greatness, whether pursued consciously or unconsciously, is one that requires a rhythm of disciplined practice.

In the same way that no one becomes a great athlete or musician on the basis of a special talent alone, no one becomes like Jesus on the basis of a special gift from God alone. People grow–they become who they are–not because God zapped them while they walked across a field but because they make a conscious effort to respond to the grace of God and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, cultivate the gift they have received. Those who flourish in their lives with God have a Spirit-initiated rule of life, a rhythm of practices that enables them to welcome and respond to Jesus.

God in My Everything: How an Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God, 22

We grow via a Spirit-empowered and initiated response to the availability of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. For any positive change we experience, for any sign that we have become more like Jesus, praise be to God, for God is the initiator, the author, and the guide on the path of holiness. But to the degree that we are conscious of God’s work, we should also become consciously willing to take another step, to continue along the path, to grow in trust, to be sanctified in truth, and to answer the calling of Jesus, “Follow me.”

As Shigematsu says, flourishing in our life with God is fostered and supported by “a rhythm of practices,” or a way of life, a way that is flexible, life-giving, and grounded in God.

Does your spiritual life supported by a rhythm of practices? What are those practices?

February Book Notes and Kindle Deals

If you know me, you know I love books. Last week, I finished Jeff Pearlman’s Football for a Buck, which tells the story of the United States Football League. Pearlman is a great writer, I’m a sports nut, Donald Trump is part of the USFL’s story, and that made this interesting book more timely that it otherwise would’ve been. I also finished Michael Connelly’s latest Bosch and Ballard novel, Dark Sacred Night. I read everything Connelly writes. He’s a master of crime fiction, and Harry Bosch is one of my favorite characters in literature.

Amazon’s released their February Kindle deals. Here are a few notable books:

These are all either two or three bucks. The Name of the Rose is a detective novel, set in a monastery. I read it about ten years ago and enjoyed it. We’re using the Shigematsu book in my covenant group at Truett Seminary, and I think it is excellent. If you’ve struggled to formulate an approach to the spiritual life that works (meaning, in the past you’ve tried, got frustrated, and felt like you failed), you might want to check it out. I’ve enjoyed reading Henry Cloud, and thought those topics might be relevant to a few of my friends. Sider, McKnight, and Merton are authors I appreciate.

Happy reading!

The Restorative Power of Art

I’m reading Jeff Tweedy’s memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back Again) because of my decade long listenership to Wilco. The book was a Christmas gift. My fascination with the band began with a friend named Clint Newlan, who was a shift manager and fellow barista with me at Starbucks in 2005-2006. I saw a Wilco show with Clint at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City on March 21, 2006, saw them again at Crossroads KC with my friend Mike Hibit on October 6, 2009, and then went to see them with Molly at Bass Concert Hall in Austin on October 1, 2017. I’m a fan.

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Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

In the book Tweedy comments on the purpose of art, and expands his thought by reflecting on art’s restorative power. He writes:

I think that may be the highest purpose of any work of art, to inspire someone else to save themselves through art. Creating creates creators. When I was in the hospital going through treatment for addiction and depression, they would have everyone in my group do art therapy. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen was watching a catatonic sixty-three-year-old woman who had been hooked on heroin for close to thirty years become human again by holding a pencil and being asked to draw. I’m an agnostic by nature, but seeing that made me believe in staying close to the notion of a creator. The one we identify with most easily by finding it in ourselves.

I think that is about right. Art puts us back together; creating heals, connecting us with something that is elemental to being human. Art is not a self-salvation project, as Tweedy suggests, but it does have restorative potential.

There is a theological dimension to Tweedy’s observation as well, one Christian theology affirms. The Apostle’s Creed begins with the words, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and when God gets around to creating humankind in Genesis 1:27, we read, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

While Tweedy is an agnostic, his impressions point him toward a truth that Christians agree with: “Creating creates creators.” Human beings, created in the image of their Maker, make.

The creative impulse is stamped upon us, and creativity takes many forms. When it finds outward expression it is not only revelatory of something within, but also something without–the existence of a Creator who first created, making creatures who then, in turn, create.

The Magnificent Journey is Magnificent

One of my favorite books of this past year was The Magnificent Journey: Living Deep in the Kingdom by James Bryan Smith. Journey is the second in Smith’s latest trilogy of books, preceded by The Magnificent Story (2017) and to be followed by The Magnificent Mission, releasing in fall of 2019.

The Magnificent Journey addresses a lack found often in Christian history, but particularly in our moment: among those professing faith in Jesus, too few embrace discipleship to Jesus, which is learning the way of life with Jesus. Smith uses the metaphor of journey to remind us that in the kingdom of God there is always a sense that we are on the move, keeping in step with Jesus as he calls to us, “Follow me!”

If Jesus is leading, then we are following. We are not “in charge.” Obedience is part of this way of life, and one of Jesus’ commands is to take up a cross. The Christian life, paradoxically, involves death to self in order to find life that lasts, a life fully alive to God. We must “surrender,” but not only once. Smith explains that surrender is not only an action taking place at conversion, but that surrender is also a way, a daily decision to yield oneself to God, to trust, and to follow.

Smith expands this idea to show that it is through surrender that we learn “to grow in the grace and knowledge of God.” In other words, by surrendering our faith grows. We learn, through experience, that God is good and can be trusted. This is not always easy.

Life involves suffering. Sometimes we experience tragedy. Smith is no stranger to this truth, and he tells of how God has used his own heartaches and heartbreaks in life for good. Smith does not minimize the magnitude of pain, nor deny the depth of our wounds, but instead points to Jesus and reminds us of the comfort found in worshiping a God who is well acquainted with grief, suffering, and death, yet who overcame those realities in the resurrection, and who promises us everlasting life.

The remainder of the book expands on this idea: that through surrender to Jesus we are led to experience life as God intended it for us. The way of surrender calls us to live our lives “from above,” or from the perspective and power of God and the everlasting kingdom. As we do so we learn to listen to God first (and, consequently, to others more carefully), to develop a deep, abiding trust by walking in faith, to live with hope, to demonstrate love, and to experience deep joy. Smith contends that this is the life God has for us. It is the life Jesus came to demonstrate for us, and to deliver to us. It is a life we receive through faith, by grace, so that God can use us for good.

Smith’s greatest authorial virtue is found in his gentle, pastoral style, with which he effectively conveys historical, biblical, and theological insight. Professor Smith has clearly spent time listening, observing, and tending to those around him, beginning with his family, church community, students, and those who share his cultural moment. He has identified many of the ideas that keep people from embracing God, from responding to the love of God extended to us through Jesus Christ. I have long admired this quality in Smith’s writing, speaking, and teaching ministry. Smith displays this virtue in this book.

Of all Smith’s books, this is my favorite thus far. I recommend it.

Go Ahead and Work With Happiness

The main thing is never to get discouraged at the slowness of people or results. People may not be articulate or active, but even so, we do not ever know the results, or the effect on souls. That is not for us to know. We can only go ahead and work with happiness at what God sends us to do.

– Dorothy Day, The Reckless Way of Love, 63

I used to believe this to be true because I had found it to be true in my work with children and youth. But now I believe it to be true in all of ministry, in all of life.

Observing positive results and good fruit is a blessing, so never forget to rejoice. But when you see little yield, do not lose hope. The harvest belongs to God. Maintaining trust, and practicing obedience to the command to love one’s neighbor, is an expression of faith.

Tallying Family Values

We live according to our values and priorities, and, as Greg McKeon has observed, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

Our family has a list of values. They are:

  • Faith.
  • Hospitality.
  • Joy, Celebration, and Fun.
  • Strong, Healthy Bodies.
  • Creative Expression and Intellectual Pursuit.
  • Simplicity.
  • Togetherness.
  • Appreciation of the Natural World.

How do we know when we’re living according to our values? It is hard to measure something like “togetherness,” and I didn’t think a scoring system was proper. So I derived a few true/false statements that could help me have confidence we were hitting the mark. We are living according to our values if:

  • We have peace at home.
  • We are secure in one another’s love.
  • We are not in a hurry.
  • We are well-practiced in saying no to the nonessential so we can say yes to the essential.
  • We establish sustainable rhythms of work and play.
  • We challenge one another and know it is safe to take certain risks.
  • We make the lives of those around us better through service.
  • We honestly evaluate how we are doing and make course corrections as necessary.
  • We celebrate small wins and big accomplishments.

I wrote these things down at the start of 2017. We had been in Waco for six months. While most of our values were pretty clear, it was helpful for our family to write them down and to think about what I wanted to pass along to my children as the years passed. The true/false list helped as well, not only when evaluating how we’re doing, but also when making decisions.

Living our values and our priorities begins with our family, which is why “peace at home” is a critical marker for how we are doing. “Peace” involves each person and the entire unit. We have to evaluate how we are doing physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. And peace begins with me.

One of the questions I ask each week is this: “Is your family happy and thriving? Can you help them in any way?” This requires that I act as a peacemaker. Peace isn’t just the absence of conflict. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. Peace, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, suggests completeness and wholeness. As God’s agent, I am called navigate conflict peaceably and seek the good and right in all circumstances. That’s not always easy.

If we have peace at home, we’ll be secure in one another’s love. We will know that we are loved. And from that place of security, we can find courage to be the people God has called us to be.

We go through seasons where we are busy. To be busy is acceptable. To be in a hurry is not. We want to be good stewards of the life we have been given by God; we want to use our talents in a manner that is pleasing to God. This relates in obvious ways to the next two evaluative statements. We have to say no to many things so that we can be free to say yes to the best things. We also have to take a wide angle view of life, seeing that there are many seasons we pass through, and therefore we must build in rhythms of work and play. We begin small, week by week. We practice sabbath. When it is time to work, we work hard. When we grow tired, we plan for a break.

My two children are different. Both, in their own way, have moments when they try to play things safe. They need to be nudged, pushed. So does Molly. So do I. Therefore, we encourage one another to take risks from time to time, to do something creative, to open ourselves to the possibility that we will fail. We remind one another that it is safe to fail, for there is no failure that will cancel out the love we share and the love we know that is ours in Christ.

Our faith leads us to value service, and we want the world to be a better place because we passed through. Therefore, we remind one another that we are helpers, and pitch in when we can in ways large and small. We do good works. We are also generous with our resources, including our money.

I apply this principle to myself first. I’m a servant of my wife and my children. I want them to experience joy and success and the good things life has to offer, and I am willing to give of myself in order to increase their chances of growing, thriving, and finding success.

We don’t always get it right. So when we are missing the mark, or when we outright fail, we begin anew. God’s mercies are new each morning. We learn from our mistakes and correct course. We start over, if necessary. For this to work, we have to be honest. An old proverb says, “When the horse is dead, dismount.” If our present course is the wrong one, we face it together, and change direction.

When we do get it right, we celebrate. Whether it is a small victory or or a big win, we party. Celebration is a discipline; joy is something you can grow. I want my children to experience life at home as a place of happiness, encouragement, and fun.

Whether you are a married or single, have a big family or no children at all, you might find it helpful to define your values, to think about how to live a life you intend. Your children may be grown. You may be old. But there is still time left. Live your days well.

Must Secularism Increase?

On a recent flight I finished reading Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in Distracted Age, which is a really smart book that addresses ways modern American evangelicalism has been shaped by the forces of a rising secularism, and outlines how Christians can respond.

Noble’s analysis draws on the philosophical work of Charles Taylor, who in his mammoth, classic work A Secular Age examines our movement in the past five hundred years or so from living in an enchanted world where most people took God’s existence for granted, to now living in a disenchanted world, where thoughts of God are almost unnatural. Modern life places us in a “default mode” where God is obscured. Taylor calls this “the buffered self.” Modern rationalism, materialism, and scientism form in us ways of thinking that marginalize, if not outright exclude, the spiritual.

As Noble explains the challenges “a secular age” presents for the church and Christian witness, he makes an offhanded remark: “Rather than reverse secularism (which I don’t think is possible until the Lord returns), our task is to identify the harmful outcomes of secularism and reject them.”

While I agree with the task Noble identifies, my larger question is this: Must secularism increase? If it cannot be reversed, can it be checked? And if it can be checked, is it then possible that it could, in fact, be reversed? Theologically speaking, is our only eschatological option one that sees Christianity becoming further embattled (as Noble seems to suggest)? Or is it possible for Christians to realize, once again, that we have the resources to be patient, to wait on the Lord in the midst of the grandest of cultural and intellectual challenges?

Taylor’s observations in A Secular Age show us that the world over a five hundred year span has become less religious, at least in a formal sense. And much of our intellectual and cultural undertakings are now conducted without an acknowledgement, or even a quiet acquiescence, to God or “gods.” But it should be remembered that it took us centuries to get here. Ideas have coalesced in such a way as to cut out the realm of the spirit from public and intellectual life. It has not always been so.

And it may not be so forever. God is steadfast, faithful, and constant, and Christians have all the time they need to continue working out our collective calling as disciples of Jesus. Who is to say what America, not to mention global Christianity, will look like in another five hundred years?

It may be the case that our epistemology, or way of knowing, may shift in such a way as to make room for the concession that there is more to reality than the material. This premise, if accepted, may shift the paradigm, exposing cracks within the prevailing hegemony that dominates intellectual life. And whether by a slow, rising tide or by the in-breaking of a torrent, our way of thinking and experiencing reality may shift. Suddenly, it may not be secularism that is Christianity’s greatest challenge, but rival spiritualities.

In either case, the calling of Christians will remain constant: to continue giving faithful witness to the reality of God as revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not only in our preaching, but in our habits, demonstrating holiness in heart and life.