my first lent

Lent begins tomorrow. I’ve never done anything for Lent before. My churches have never observed it. Actually, I thought it might have a whiff of legalism and ritualism to it.

But seeing as it’s been practiced by Christians for centuries (our first record of Lent goes back to Irenaeus, who died in AD 203 – see a short history of lent), I now suspect there might be something to it. I suspect it might be a season of reflection and growth for many people.

So this year I’m giving it a go.

Simplifying_the_SoulI planning on working through a book I heard about from Anna Blanch’s blog, ‘Simplifying the Soul‘, by Paula Huston.Huston is Catholic, so the approach is a bit different to what I’m used to (thought, the more I learn of Catholicism from Catholics themselves, the more I respect it). The tagline is ‘Lenten practices to renew your soul.’ I struggle to pray. I struggle with doubt and disillusion. Renewal. This sounded like the book for me.

Each day  has a suggested practice, along with a verse and meditation  to guide your thoughts and prayers through lent. The weeks are themed – money, the body, the mind, the schedule, relationships and prayer – with Sundays off because they’re days of celebration. Over the next month I’ll have a go at:

  • clearing out a drawer of junk
  • praying on my knees
  • wearing my oldest clothes for a day
  • covering all the mirrors in my house
  • visiting someone in hospital
  • giving to charity
  • walking instead of driving
  • turning off my mobile
  • spending an hour in solitude
  • sitting in silence with a friend
  • praying for strangers I see

The aim is not to get holy points with someone: not you; not God; not even myself. Huston explicitly warns against that kind of approach.

This book is not meant to be a spiritual version of the Girl Scout honour badge programme, and if you look upon it as a handbook for self improvement, you’ll more than likely become frustrated and disappointed.

It can’t be like earning Brownie badges because the point, she says, is to learn humility.

I’m doing this because I believe there’s a difference between storing information in your head, feeling something in your body and knowing it in your heart. I hope, by giving my body a chance to feel things as I work through these practices, that God will be teaching me a bit more humility, a bit more patience, a bit more compassion, or maybe a bit of something else I can’t even predict. I hope I’ll slow down a little and notice the ways God has been good to me in the small and the big things.

Are you doing anything in preparation for Easter this year? What have you done in the past? Will you join me?

on not resolving to do quiet times

My new year’s resolution for 2013: wear suncream every day.

That’s it.

This is quite the revolution, because my resolutions have traditionally been the the same every year:

  1. Get fit. Exercise three times a week.
  2. Do quiet times every day.

There’s been a few others which came and went from the list at various times.

  1. Do some kind of detox (postponed until March while a uni student – what’s the point of detoxing before O-Week?).
  2. Care less about not having a boyfriend.
  3. Try not to whinge so much.
  4. Become an evangelist.

But the first two (fitness and quiet times) never went anywhere. They remained top of the list every year, which suggests that the annual resolutions never worked.

I had two golden years of quiet times. Years where I actually read the whole Bible in daily chunks early in the morning. The first time I was still in school and there were some parts of the Bible I had never read. It was exciting. It felt like an achievement. The second time  was the year I was blessed with sleepy housemates who got up 10 minutes before class. There were two hours of silence every morning with the house to myself.

That all fell apart when I got a job and a fiancee (the end of resolutions about boyfriends). Talking late into the night, leaving for work early in the morning killed the quiet time. It’s never quite recovered.

So I feel guilty. I feel like a slacker.

I swing wildly between declaring on the one hand that quiet times are unnecessary and, on the other, suspecting they might be the key to Christian growth. ‘They’re a human construct; helpful but not compulsory,’ I remind myself. But then someone asks ‘how are your quiet times going?’ and I weakly tell them ‘oh, yeah, ok,’ never brave enough to say that they’re not happening much and I’m not sure if that’s even a problem.

Greg Johnson’s article Freedom from Quiet Time Guilt gives a pretty good diagnosis.

When I look upon the evangelical world today, I see millions of sincere believers who are loaded down with false guilt by teachers who fail to grasp the basics of biblical prayer. To sharpen the point slightly, Christ’s sheep have been lied to. They have been told that prayer is a work that we must perform in order to get God to bless us. As heresies go, this one is often subtle. Prayer has become a work rather than a grace. The result has been a loss of joy in prayer.

And prayer is not the only grace we’ve turned into a work. Personal Bible study has become a source of bondage as well. A whole generation of Christians has been told that God will bless them if they read their Bibles every day, as if the act of reading the Scriptures were some kind of magic talisman by which we gain power over God and secure his favor. This is not the religion of the Bible. This pervasive belief that God gives us grace as a reward for our devotional consistency is antithetical to the religion of Jesus Christ. Prayer and Bible study—what evangelicals for the past century have called the “quiet time”  have become dreaded precisely because they have been radically misunderstood.

It’s ironic, but the Quiet Time has become the number one cause of defeat among Bible-believing Christians today. At one time or another, nearly every sincere believer feels a deep sense of failure and the accompanying feelings of guilt and shame because he or she has failed to set aside a separate time for Bible study and prayer. This condition is called Quiet Time Guilt. And it’s a condition with many repercussions. The shame of Quiet Time Guilt manifests itself in even deeper inability to fruitfully and joyfully study Scripture. Prayer becomes a dread; Bible study a burden. The Christian suffering from Quiet Time Guilt then despairs of seeing God work in his or her life, until finally he or she simply gives up. He may continue outward and public Christian commitments like church attendance, but secretly he feels a hypocrite.

His radical conclusion? The quiet time is optional. 

Does the Bible instruct Christians to call out to God in prayer? Absolutely. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:16-18). But this isn’t a command to set apart a special half-hour of prayer; it’s instruction to continually call upon God. Elsewhere the Apostle calls us to pray: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God…” (Phil 4:6-7). But notice that the focus here is not on the performance of a devotional duty, but on approaching God for grace—for our hearts and minds to be guarded by him. Paul’s burden is that we would rely upon God in every circumstance and therefore have peace, rather than relying on ourselves and finding ourselves captive to the anxiety that accompanies self-reliance.

Does the Bible command us to read our Bibles every day? No. Not really.

What Scripture actually instructs is that we meditate on God’s word all the time. Consider the godly man in Psalm 1. “His delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps 1:2). This is not exactly the same thing as reading the Bible every day. Personal Bible reading is one—and only one—way we to meditate upon God’s word…

It may surprise you to know that the concept of the quiet time as a command is a modern invention. It’s only in recent centuries that Christians have been able to actually own Bibles—the printing press and cheap paper have given us more options so far as biblical meditation is concerned. But remember that most Christians throughout history have not owned Bibles. They heard the Bible preached during corporate worship. They were taught the Bible in the churches. They memorized the Bible profusely—a first century rabbinic saying stated, “If your rabbi teaches and you have no paper, write it on your sleeve.” But for most Christians through history, biblical meditation took place when they discussed the Bible with family and friends, when they memorized it, when they listened very carefully to God’s word preached. The concept of sitting still before sunrise with a Bible open would have been very foreign to them.

We have so many options today, why do we get hung up on the quiet time? Listen to Christian teaching tapes. Invest your time in a small group Bible study. Have friends over for coffee and Bible discussion. Sing and listen to Scripture songs. Read good theology. Tape memory verses to the dashboard of your car. And pray throughout your day. I always reserve the drive to church on Sundays as a time of uninterrupted prayer for my pastors and elders, for those leading worship, and for the peace and purity of the church…

If you have a regular quiet time, don’t stop. You’ve found a wonderful way to meditate on Scripture. You’ve set aside a specific time to call upon God in prayer. But if the quiet time doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. You should not feel guilty since you have not broken a commandment. The quiet time is an option, a good idea—not a biblical mandate. If the quiet time isn’t working for you, there are other options as well. All of them are good ones. The key is to rely on God to accomplish his plans, a reliance expressed in prayer and fed in Scripture. You have all kinds of opportunities to call upon God in prayer and to meditate upon his word. He loves you and delights in your expressions of weakness and dependence. He is glorified in your weakness.

I can still see the benefit in pursuing regular quiet time. I believe discipline is a virtue which can be overlooked when we have a immature understanding of grace. I want to grow in holiness and maturity and regular private reading of scripture would surely help.

But then again, reading the Bible alone every day is not, on its own, how we grow in knowledge of God. The quiet time is not our salvation, nor is there anything especially spiritual about reading and praying privately. Johnson makes a great point about all the other ways we can meditate on scripture and pray to our God.

So I’ve resolved not to feel any more ‘quiet time guilt’ this year but to endeavour to meditate and pray in all types of ways.

And to wear suncream.

Happy New Year to you too.

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singing with Mary

I know I’ve got issues with Christian music. I whinge. But it’s not all bad.

My husband and I were familiarising ourselves with Rob Smith’s new song Great Things to play at church on Sunday. Honestly, it’s not my favourite type of music, I wouldn’t normally listen to this. But the song’s power isn’t in the guitars or the melody (or else it might have lost me!). It’s powerful because it’s Mary’s song.

It’s not actually a new song at all. It’s a re-singing of a song Christians have been singing, in various languages, in various styles, for centuries. It’s Mary’s song.

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

When we sing this song, we’re not singing alone, we sing it with generations who have tasted God’s mercy and know his concern for the humble. We sing with them. And people will continue to sing this song for centuries to come, with instruments that haven’t even been created yet. We sing with people who are yet to be born, with people across the world, through the ages, with Mary.

The most beautiful singing of Mary’s song is Arvo Pärt (sorry Bach. better luck next time with BWV423). He wrote it in 1989 (musically, can anything good come of of the 80s? apparently yes) but it doesn’t sounds like it’s out of the 80s. It sounds ageless, fitting for a song thousands of years old.

Magnificat anima mea et exultavit quia respexit ecce enim. Quia fecit qui potens est et sanctum et misericordia. Fecit potentiam dispersit superbos deposuit et exaltavit esurientes et divites. Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus sicut locutus Abraham et semini. Magnificat anima mea Dominum.

Thank you Google Translate, good enough for me:

Because he hath regarded: for behold, my soul doth magnify the glad and hath rejoiced. For he who is mighty and holy and mercy. He has shown strength hath scattered the proud and the rich he took down the hungry, and hath exalted. He hath received Israel his servant, being mindful of, as he promised to the seed of Abraham, and the. My soul magnifies the Lord.

What I recommend is that you don’t watch the video. Instead, lie on the floor (do it!), close your eyes, listen to the music. As the choir sings, meditate on God’s faithfulness, his compassion and his love for the poor and humble from generation to generation.

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a prayer for the blog

Jesus,

Use this blog to bless your people.

I don’t want to delight in evil, but to rejoice with the truth;

So protect me from gossip, cheap-shots and cruel jokes.

Don’t let it become an excuse for  my pride,

or for my insecurities.

I want joy, refreshment, creativity,

ideas, delight even disagreement,

discussion and growth.

Keep us humble, keep us learning.

Use this blog to teach us many things.

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