I serve in a seminary. How and where we teach is often conducted with methods and in settings very similar to other, more familiar educational settings. The teacher or professor delivers content, and we sit and listen, much like in a public school or a college lecture hall. We know answers to test questions are being given, and tests must be passed to move on to the next level. We take notes. We study. We produce those answers. And we move on.
This is all fine and good. We do a lot of good work. But the church is a different kind of setting, with different educational modalities and formational aims.
We have a problem when we get our wires crossed and begin thinking that the church is identical with the seminary, and how we’re led and taught effectively in one place is identical with the way we’ll lead and teach in the other. In the seminary, we’re taught all kinds of facts about the Bible, history, theology, and the practice of ministry. Those things are important. But we mistakenly assume that it is these facts, and these points of emphasis, that we’re supposed to stress while with the congregation. When we do this, there is something more central, more important, and more essential that we miss. What are we missing?
In The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes about his discovery that his educational outlook for pastoral ministry was very different than that of a previous generation of pastors, who throughout church history had learned “on the job” within the life of a parish. Seminaries, either as independent institutions or embedded within university systems, are more recent innovations. How we learn now, and how we teach, isn’t the only way to do it, nor is it the only way it has been done.
Peterson discovered both our problem and a different way to approach the pastoral task as a Christian educator. He writes:
My secularized schooling had shaped my educational outlook into something with hardly any recognizable continuities with most of the church’s history. I had come into the parish seeing its great potential as a learning center, a kind of mini-university in which I was the resident professor.
And then one day, in a kind of shock of recognition, I saw that it was in fact a worship center. I wasn’t prepared for this. Nearly all my preparation for being a pastor had taken place in a classroom, with chapels and sanctuaries ancillary to it. But these people I was now living with were coming, with centuries of validating presence, not to get facts on the Philistines and Pharisees but to pray. They were hungering to grow in Christ, not bone up for an examination in dogmatics. I began to comprehend the obvious: that the central and shaping language of the church’s life has always been its prayer language.
Out of that recognition a conviction grew: that my primary educational task as pastor was to teach people how to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical backgrounds of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. I have no patience with and will not knowingly give comfort to obscurantist or anti-intellectual tendencies in the church. But there is an educational task entrusted to pastors that is very different from that assigned to professors. The educational approaches in all the schools I attended conspired to ignore the wisdom of the ancient spiritual leaders who trained people in the disciplines of attending to God, forming the inner life so that it was adequate to the reception of truth, not just the acquisition of facts. The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did.
The educational task of the pastor is to teach, or to invite, people to be in relationship with God. It is to invite, model, instruct, and encourage them in the life of prayer. There are other facets to teaching, of course. But prayer is central.
This is a song about the lies we tell others. We also tell them to ourselves.
I’ve been a fan of Glen Phillips since singing “Thank You” in a service of worship many years ago in Kansas City. I’ve been singing that song since the day I first heard it. God’s love is everywhere.
“Nobody’s Gonna Get Hurt” is a song about the power of words and the deceptions that we persist in, the phrases we utter in our attempts to soften, dismiss, minimize, or distort the realities we face. Well meaning lies, whether meant to protect or obscure or outright hide difficult truths, nevertheless do harm, maybe not in the moment they are uttered, but in their corrosive effects over time. Sometimes silence is better, or a simple, “I don’t know.”
“There’s no price to love, there never was” are words that can only be said by someone who has never loved. Love involves sacrifice, and the deepest loves often come at the greatest cost. Look at Jesus.
“If it’s meant to be, it’s easy,” can only be said by someone who has never had to work for something eternally worthwhile. The easy things aren’t the only things that are “meant to be.” Again, look at Jesus.
“Broken hearts always mend” is a half truth. Sometimes the comfort we long for is elusive; we do not find it in this life. For Christians, hope must remain fixed on the day when God wipes away every tear. I find it interesting that in the new heavens and the new earth there will be any tears at all, but I find it more interesting that God will put a hand to cheek and wipe them away. Only afterward will God abolish death and mourning and crying and pain. Whatever caused the tears, the hurt and the pain, it is not dismissed, but met. It is met by God. Then and only then is it resolved and healed.
Our words have power. We must steward them well. Self deception, must be avoided; the first step in doing so is admitting we are prone to believe our own lies. We must also strive to tell the truth. To tell the truth one must know the truth, and be formed in such a way as to become a truthful person. For Christians, such formation is only possible through encounter with the God who is truth, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, truth in the flesh, truth for us.
“Trinity Sunday” was published in Herbert’s The Temple in 1633. Each morning I read the Bible, a psalm, the daily entry from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and a few pages from one (or more) books that I’m slowly, presently working my way through. Herbert’s poetry is a recent selection. I read at least three of his poems each morning.
“Trinity Sunday” is a very short poem, but contains a vast survey of Christian doctrine, beginning with creation and concluding with eschatological, ultimate hope. Herbert brings to memory that the story of the Bible begins with God bringing order from chaos. In Genesis 2, God forms the first human being from the dust of the ground. In the final line of the poem, Herbert asks for the blessing of union with God. What began as mud now runs and rises and then finally rests with God. Humble origins, and a heavenly hope.
Between Herbert’s mention of first and last things, we encounter the doctrine of salvation. God is the redeemer, having justified Herbert through the blood of Jesus Christ. God is also the sanctifier, the one who sets the priest and poet apart, making him holy for a purpose: “to do good.”
God is then petitioned: first to purge, then to enrich. Herbert repents, asking God to do the cleansing work. He considers his sin a “heavy” thing. Sin, transgression, wrongdoing before a Holy God most certainly is. Yet God removes the weight. Herbert vows to “sin no more.” There is a turning. Only then does he asks God’s blessing, that his “heart, mouth, hands” (his whole person) be strengthened for God’s purposes and in accordance with the classical Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (charity is the traditional rendering; we’re more familiar today with love being mentioned here).
The poem begins and ends addressing the same subject: “Lord” and “thee.” “I” and “my” appear three times; “me” is used four. There is an interplay between Herbert’s “I” and God’s “Thou.” Formed from mud, burdened by sin, Herbert looks to God as Creator, Redeemer, Justifier, Sanctifier, and Sustainer. Herbert looks upon himself, confesses his insufficiencies and inadequacies and faults, and yet he offers himself as a servant, knowing that is the reason God has redeemed and now sanctifies him. He has been caught up and brought into God’s eternal story. He can only play his part with God’s grace, God’s help. The same is true for any who would call upon God today.
I have seen the last three lines of this poem quoted. But those lines become so much richer when they appear alongside and after the first six. To ask God’s help is all the more profound when considered under the full scope of God’s person and work, and to state one’s one weakness, burden, and sin simultaneously serves to humble and uplift. Apart from God, we are quite small and frail, very lost and exposed.
But with God we are united to the source of an unsurpassed and unequaled strength, a strength that works through frailty and weakness and woundedness to make manifest the beautiful gifts of faith, hope, and charity. We are known, and found, and protected, and sent. We are lifted and carried, welcomed and restored.
Last week I began work as the Assistant Director of Spiritual Formation at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. I’m thrilled beyond measure, unfathomably grateful, excited, and deeply gladdened to enter service in the Office of Spiritual Formation, working under the direction and guidance of Dr. Angela Reed, Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Spiritual Formation. I’m also very thankful for the leadership of Dean Todd Still, whom I have become further acquainted with during the interview process and during my first few days in office.
I’ll follow in the footsteps of Bill Walker, who has been in the role for the past two years. Bill has been a tremendous friend and colleague. He has done excellent work in the classroom and behind the scenes in the Spiritual Formation office. I pray God’s blessing on him as he returns to his roots in Austin, Texas, where he will serve as Director of Vocation at Christ Church of Austin.
It’s an incredible opportunity for me that involves the sweet coalescence of personal history, hopes, passions, and aspirations. Stated differently, this is very, very cool.
So what’s the job?
All kinds of people are part of the Truett community. Some have discerned a vocation to the pastorate, others seek a deeper faith through theological education, and still others have yet to discover why God has brought them to seminary. Many are from the Baptist tradition, though not all. There are multiple degree programs and certificate programs. The seminary exists “to equip God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.” That’s a big mission that serves a broad diversity of people.
The Spiritual Formation office supports this mission. We do so by praying for the students, faculty, and staff who are part of the seminary community. We also coordinate and offer instruction in one distinct and vital aspect of the seminary’s curriculum: Covenant Group.
Covenant Groups are like small groups, and every seminarian takes part in these groups as part of their course of study. A major part of my new job responsibility is to coordinate these groups, recruit mentors, and shepherd students in meeting this requirement. The model is evolving, changes and refinements are being made. But the basic concept remains steady. When students begin study at Truett Seminary, they are placed in a small group of ideally six to eight colleagues, assigned one group mentor, and then participate together for four semesters in a course of study.
Covenant Groups receive instruction in biblical, historical, practical, and theological approaches to the Christian spiritual life. Each student is required to read assigned texts, to participate in their groups, and to practice spiritual disciplines individually and together. The groups allow space for testimony and ministry to one another, as well as for discernment and mutual counsel as each student listens for God’s will for their life. At the conclusion of four semesters together, our goal is for students to have a firm grasp on their story, to identify ways God has formed their identity in Jesus Christ, and to gain clarity in how God is calling them forward into a deeper, fuller faith as disciples, heralds, servants, and ministers of the gospel.
We also hope these groups nurture friendships, create community, and allow for collegiality to develop among our students. We hope our mentors are seen not only as guides or teachers, but as encouragers and helpful counselors. Community is indispensable for our students as they carefully study and practice the Christian life. Covenant Groups provide a space for a body within the Body of Christ, a place where the ideals we speak of concerning the church can be lived out among a small fellowship of disciples.
I’ll help recruit, train, coordinate, and support the mentors who lead these groups. I’ll also have the opportunity, in concert with Dr. Reed, to teach courses and offer lectures that are part of the Covenant Group curriculum.
While Covenant Groups are my most significant responsibility, I’ll also work with Truett’s Spiritual Direction Training program. As a certified spiritual director, I’m excited to continue that ministry within the context of this program.
I mentioned that the opportunity to join the Truett family was a “sweet coalescence” of my history, hopes, passions, and aspirations. Twenty years ago, while I was an undergraduate at Baylor University, I dreamed of one day serving in higher education. I wanted to be a Christian scholar, serving the academy and the church. I had models to follow in Dr. John Wood, Professor Robert Reid, and Dr. Larry Lehr, people who embodied ideas that I wanted to adopt for myself. There are other examples I could name. My highest hope and my biggest dream was to one day serve in this capacity at Baylor University–as a learned teacher, mentor, and friend.
Furthermore, one of the important figures in the history of Truett Seminary was a man named Paul W. Powell, who served as Dean from 2001 to 2007. Before he served as Dean, Paul was an evangelist, pastor, and Texas Baptist statesman. When I was a boy he was my pastor at the Green Acres Baptist Church of Tyler, Texas. His life and ministry had an effect on multiple generations of my family. Paul baptized me. Later, he preached the charge at my ordination at the First Baptist Church of Allen, Texas, which is pastored now as it was then by Pastor Chad Selph.
The chapel at Truett Seminary is named in Paul’s honor. I’m thankful to be serving in a place that has been marked by his legacy. By witnessing Paul’s life, reading his little books, and hearing stories about him, I’ve been deeply inspired to work diligently for the Lord while it is still day, while we still can, to do all to the glory of God, for “night cometh,” therefore “Go into all the world.”
Lastly, serving in the area of Spiritual Formation aligns with my research interests. I’ve been reading stuff in this area for years. I’m a nerd when it comes to Christian discipleship and formation. Plus, I’m a Christian educator. I want to teach what I’ve learned. I believe in the importance of an intellectually informed faith, rigorous and challenging theological instruction, the formation of character, love for God, and service to the world.
I look forward to serving the seminary community as we create an environment where students can be formed in the way and likeness of Christ. A couple of my friends know that means I will be quoting a lot of Dallas Willard, and they are right. Guilty as charged.
But that won’t be all. Hopefully, the person I quote most will be Jesus. He’s the Master. And I hope to serve him well in this new capacity of service with Truett Seminary. If you are ever in Waco, make an appointment to see me. I’d love to show you my desk, give you a tour, hear what you’re up to, and talk about all the good and great things taking place in this vibrant, thoughtful, and committed community of faith.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 ofpractices that enables them to welcome and respond to Jesus.
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?
One week ago today I visited Barnes & Noble and bought a Moleskine 2018-2019 daily planner. It was fifty percent off retail and my first major victory of the year, so I added it to my goals ex post facto: “Buy planner at discount.” That’s one way to keep your New Year’s Resolutions. Do, then record. Shoot, then aim.
I didn’t stop there, and I changed my methodology. I made forty goals. Some are very specific with measurable outcomes. Others are a trajectory. A few goals are continuations of a previous beginning; others are repeats of previous failures. As Bruce Lee said, “A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.” Bruce Lee also said, “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”
After aiming, action.
I divide my goals up into categories. The first is family. Most are simple. I plan to go on a date with Molly once per month. We have set financial goals for savings this year (and strategies to reduce expenses), as well as ways to spend time together as a family, including trips to the local zoo, using gift cards for our meals out when we have them, and going camping. I have a big organizational goal to catalogue my library, systematize my paper and digital files, and make accessible the thousands of photographs dispersed across multiple hard drives. I am fairly organized, but there is more I can do.
We know we are getting things right when we have peace at home. Our relationships to one another, to money, to our possessions, to our community, and to the natural world all require attention, each in their own way. Each relationship has bearing on the others. Peace is not only the absence of conflict, but the presence of harmony, wholeness. That’s what we want at home.
I am a Christian. As a follower of Jesus, I am called to grow, and growth involves change. There is a sense in which I will never fully arrive. The maturation process will be ongoing. But it is possible to mature. There is a process, and there is progress. It may not always be a straight line, but God brings about growth. Spiritual growth often involves three elements that I try to remember: Vision, Intention, and Means. See, decide, and do.
Philippians 2:12-13 is a helpful guide. Paul writes, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” God works in us, and we work our salvation out.
The inward changes God manifests in us take shape in our lives, and thus in the world, through obedience. Obedience isn’t such a nasty word when the one who commands is good, and the one who obeys freely wills to act, trust, and follow.
When we have a vision of who has God called us to be in Christ, we respond with an intention to follow (meaning, it is our sincere desire to become and do the things Jesus himself did and taught), and then we take up the means, or ways, God has made available to us, the same means Jesus himself utilized during his life, such as prayer, service, Bible study, solitude, silence, worship, fellowship, and others.
This year, our family has a specific target for financial stewardship as part of First Methodist Waco. Molly and I will make it a habit to read the Psalms together and pray daily. I’m reading through the Bible this year, learning to fast, teaching Sunday school, empowering others for leadership, and revisiting New Testament Greek (eek!).
I’ve shared with friends that I want to become wise, and I want to become a saint, and while I know I am a saint by virtue of my status in Christ, I want to reflect that reality more than I presently do, especially since I am cognizant there are times, moments, and maybe even prolonged interactions where I do not fulfill the calling I have as a disciple of Jesus. I want to be all God intends for me to be.
In our family we value strong, healthy bodies. In recent years we have learned about proper nutrition, wise food choices, and appropriate supplements, such as a daily multi-vitamin and Omega-3s. We’ve used Advocare products for a few years (and if you’d like to learn which ones and what we think, contact me). Have we always gotten it right? No! But have we learned? Yes.
I have set a target weight, an exercise routine, a specific number of race events I’d like to compete in this year, state parks I’d like to hike, and a way to approach playing basketball each week. My big goal in this area is fairly simple: have a healthy heart, working limbs, and the ability to enjoy time with my kids. I don’t have to be a bodybuilder, just sound and capable of fun.
Every person is creative. Some of us are just more aware of it than others. I write, take photographs, and draw. Those activities require creativity. In order to be creative in those endeavors, I need to read, learn, and grow. I plan to read sixty five books this year, take courses at the local community college in art, blog routinely, participate in a photo challenge, and be more disciplined in how I structure my work hours.
I also plan to spend more time in the kitchen and learn how to cook a few (more) things, which means Molly will be my teacher. I’m looking ahead to 2020, when I’ll attend a writers conference. That’s a sentence I never imagined myself writing.
Lastly, I have community goals. I want to be a good neighbor and grow my friendships, so I’ll put together a few poker games, work with others around me to organize a few block parties, and continue coaching youth sports. I also plan to give blood (I do not enjoy needles), but it is something I want to do, partly to honor one of my grandparents, and partly because I can and because it is right. Molly and I also plan to routinely invite friends over for dinner, to open our home and practice hospitality.
I review my goals daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually in various ways and to different degrees. If I accomplish all of my goals it will be borderline miraculous.
My greater hope is to become a better person. If I move marginally in that direction, that will be a win, and all praise, glory, and honor will be to God.
Social media has undeniably changed the way we relate to the world. Online, we each manage our “personal brand.” News networks feature the President’s tweets prominently on their chyrons. Twitter and Facebook have been scrutinized for their role in public debate, particularly in how they can effect our political discourse. And there is evidence that too much time on social media can have a negative impact on mental health.
I was an early adopter of the major social media platforms. I signed up for Facebook with my college email address, my first Twitter updates were sincerely about what I was doing (things like “taking a walk” or “eating grapes”), and I can remember Instagram before the ads, videos, and the “discover” feature. I signed up for Snapchat when my students began using it. I made some cool videos using the face filters. At least I thought they were cool.
But in more recent years I’ve sought ways to limit my social media usage. Why? Mainly because of what I’ve observed about social media’s effect on me. I’ll admit I’ve wanted to be “online famous” for my photography or writing, but thank God that never happened. I’ve gotten caught in stupid online arguments and I’ve allowed the thoughts and opinions of strangers on the internet to darken my mood. I’ve been jealous of what other people show online, whether it be their possessions or their perfectly stylized life. I’ve sought confirmation of my own biases and nurtured negative views of “those people” over there, who are often the very people (neighbors, enemies) whom I believe I am called to love in Jesus Christ.
Online engagement is spiritually formative. When social media is a habit, it becomes part of the ongoing, continuous process in which we are becoming who we will be forever. And while I’ve done my best to make social media work for me, to tailor it toward life-giving and positive ends, I’ve found there are limits to the various platforms. Each, in its own way, can yield some good, but there are negative side effects that come with daily use.
I started by deleting all social media applications from my phone, and keeping all but one application (Twitter) off of my tablet. That keeps my usage way down.
I only access Facebook on my web browser, and I try to check it only once a day, and to never scroll. I don’t want to be a voyeur, though there is an element of voyeurism in all social media. It’s like one great big never ending episode of “The Real World.” When I do access Facebook, I only peek at notifications and make sure I don’t have any new messages. I sometimes fail in the “once a day” rule, and I still think once a day is too much for me. I also fail, at times, to remain at the top of the feed. I do not like what Facebook has become, but I maintain a presence there because of the friends and family members who have connected with me on the service, especially those I’ve befriended through Christian fellowship.
Twitter is, by far, my favorite social media service. It’s how I track trends and news. But I’m not a fan of the timeline algorithm, and I sometimes get annoyed when political takes trend. I love it when I’m watching a live sporting event.
I limit updates to Instagram to one day a week. I install the application on my phone on Wednesdays, post my image for the week, and then delete the application. I enjoy photography and I have friends who actively use the service, and see the images and words I share as a way to encourage and offer a little slice of life to others.
I left Snapchat for good when my friend Oliver ditched the service. Technically I still have an account, but I haven’t logged in for over one year.
My rules are in no ways laws, and I’m constantly tweaking how I use each service. There is a part of me that would like to simply leave social media altogether, as Jaron Lanier suggests in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. But I can’t bring myself to do it. For one, I’m a writer, and social media is one means of connecting with readers. But also, there is the gravitational pull of social connections. Even though I’m Facebook friends with people I haven’t spoken to in years, I value maintaining the thread, keeping open a channel in the event that if there is a need to communicate, I can.
I also have privacy concerns about online use, or how we freely give mega-corporations information about our lives, with little idea of how that information could be used to harm or manipulate us. That’s a concern of mine, not only for me, but for my family, whom I sometimes share pictures of or stories about. Building a scrapbook, or keeping a journal, may actually be the safer and wiser path.
These days I’ve found that I’m a little more present, a little happier, and a little less anxious. I get most of my news from my local paper, the Waco Tribune-Herald. I call my mom about once a week. I spend time with a small group of friends. And when I attend a sporting event or a concert, I watch, or listen, and try to take it all in. To see it with my own eyes, hear it with my own ears, and to treasure what is happening in the moment.
I’m OK with the transient nature of the experience. I don’t have to capture it. I can just be part of it. I don’t need to tell others what I’m up to. I don’t have to always know what other people are thinking. I don’t need to try and improve my status by sharing my latest take, or my most recent witticism.
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.