Playing Jesus

I spent hours last week pretending to be Jesus.

If you grew up in an evangelical tradition of the Church like I did, particularly one that unfolded in or around the so-called “Bible Belt,” you probably remember a little thing called Vacation Bible School. Granted, it is an understatement to call this old standard of summer children’s ministry a little thing; anyone who has worked the VBS of even a small-to-moderate-sized church knows it often commands the attention of dozens, if not hundreds, of church members. Even before the actual event arrives, it’s all-hands-on-deck. There are materials to organize, rosters to assemble, costumes to distribute, sets to build, and a plethora of decorations to plaster in every nook and cranny of the church campus.

I was volunteering with Vacation Bible Schools  – whether willingly or compulsorily – well before I ever chose to enter the ministry. Over the years, I’ve contributed in a variety of areas: registration clerk, recreation leader, classroom helper, recreation leader, drama team member, recreation leader, and storyteller. Oh, and recreation leader. If you work in VBS long enough, you will find yourself donning a variety of hats. I mean that literally. You will end up sporting some of the most ridiculous and unnecessary headgear you’ve ever seen, all in service of the event’s exuberant, almost manic atmosphere.

jester's hat

VBS: the only week of the year a senior pastor can wear shorts, sandals, and a jester’s hat and nobody complains.

This year, though, it was determined my headgear should emulate none other than Jesus of Nazareth, or as stereotyped a version of our risen Savior one might expect to find within a suburban Baptist church’s Vacation Bible School. Now, having spent years in silly period costumes – playing everybody from Noah to St. Peter to a Roman centurion to a wise, old Bedouin shepherd I ignorantly named Apu Nihasapiddananajada – I wasn’t immediately phased by the thought of putting on a fake beard and long-haired wig and, four times each day, portraying Jesus to an auditorium full of elementary-aged children. After all, I hammed my way through countless Bible dramas throughout high school and college, and, as a twenty-something youth pastor, directed just as many groan-worthy yet well-intentioned productions. So, I was no stranger to playing the Son of God.

bedouin

Seriously, guys, I really do apologize for that name. I was 25, lazy, and I’d never traveled anywhere farther than southern Québec.

It wasn’t until I’d struggled through the first day of VBS that I realized I may have finally taken on a role that was over my head. I had never portrayed Jesus to children, let alone in such a wide-eyed, jovial, and interactive manner. I’d never had to go sans script and improvise my way through an entire performance, all the while happily acknowledging eagerly raised hands and the astonishingly perceptive questions that followed.

Why do your sandals look like my daddy’s flip-flops?

How did you get here from heaven? Did you fly?

If you were nailed to a cross, why aren’t there holes in your hands?

Do you know my grandmother? She lives in heaven, too.

I never thought I would envy the people who wrap themselves in long underwear and furry red and white coats every December to play Santa Claus. At least the people portraying Kris Kringle are working with an easily malleable mythology; when your backstory includes a fabled home at the North Pole and a perpetually efficient labor force of elves, what harm is there in adding the occasional fabrication?

Elf_039Pyxurz

Like the fact that, for some reason, the guy who knows every address in the world doesn’t even attempt to find baby Will Ferrell’s correct residence…

But when you’re playing Jesus to children (and you also hold a masters degree in biblical theology), the last thing you want to do is stretch the truth about God’s Son, or satiate them with a spurious answer. I didn’t want some unbiblical exagerration imbedding itself in their brains for years to come. By the same token, I didn’t want to be dismissive of their questions, either. I knew these kids weren’t asking merely to humor me. They weren’t simply playing along. Each concern was genuine; each child expected an answer.

I remember having several conversations during my years in seminary regarding the alleged “age of accountability.” The essential question went like this: At what age is it appropriate to encourage a personal response to the gospel message? Few of my fellow grad students debated whether it was all right to teach kids the story of Jesus, even the grisly and mysterious details of his death, burial, and resurrection. After all, most of them had heard the story themselves since before they were even out of diapers. However, plenty of them differed on what age children must reach before they can genuinely respond to the inherent truth of that story – when they can be expected to actually understand what it really means to “admit, believe, and confess.” Five years old? Seven? Ten? How about a wise-beyond-their-years six? How about an eight-year-old who always makes the Honor Roll?

I had my own opinions. When I became a father, those ideas didn’t change all at once, but the older my children get, the more sheepish I feel about how uncompromising I used to be. I used to answer decisively to the age of accountability question.

Lately? Not so much.

Plenty of people who reject the teachings of Christianity are quick to label things like Vacation Bible School nothing more than manipulative indoctrination of the young. And I will abashedly acknowledge there is plenty of misguided and even damaging manipulation alive and well in our churches today (and not just with the young). However, as I struggled through four days of Good Shepherd performances, inundated each day with questions upon questions, one thing became clear to me. It is a fool’s errand to definitively apply, across the board, an age of accountability for children hearing, and reacting to, the gospel.

While Christians may disagree on what exact moment in a person’s salvation experience the Holy Spirit spurs his insight, even more mysterious is the vast array of ages that receive his prodding. It can take a lifetime for the truth part of The Way and The Truth and The Life to resonate in some folk’s minds. And yet, sometimes the Spirit will choose to illumine the path of salvation to a child who hasn’t yet mastered the “loop-it-swoop-it-pull” method on their sneakers.

shoes-for-kids-930176_960_720

Who’s got time for laces when you could be reading the collected works of Kierkegaard?

Throughout this past week, I was regularly reminded of the moment I awkwardly stepped onto the trailhead of my own spiritual journey. I was only eight years old when, one dark night beneath the bed covers, I whispered the Sinner’s Prayer. My sister had died less than a year earlier, in a freak accident on a church youth group outing. Prior to that moment, I hadn’t given much thought to death – the how or the why of it – or what exactly the afterlife might be, if there even was such a thing. I was just a kid who liked marshmallow cereal, Saturday morning cartoons, and Voltron. My acquaintance with Jesus was through the handsome, white-robed depictions on Sunday School room posters and storybook Bible covers. I knew he was the guy all that Sunday morning stuff revolved around, and that he somehow related to the Sandy Patti and Amy Grant songs my mother listened to on our car’s cassette player, but I couldn’t have articulated that connection in any coherent way. Still, I believed in God because I was told he was real, and because we bowed our heads before every meal, and because there were at least a dozen churches in my tiny, bucolic town and how could every single one of them be wrong? It just made sense to believe in God.

But after Katy died, it stopped being enough for me that God’s existence made sense, that Jesus was a nice guy who wanted you and me to be nice, too. In the void left by the passing of my only sibling, I was curious for more than logic. I didn’t realize it until much later, but what I was really interested in was hope. So, I responded to the gospel because, alone in the dark beneath the dubiously protective shroud of my covers, I decided there must be more to Jesus than niceness. Something about the combination of his cross and his empty tomb offered possibility, a semblance of hope beyond the dark finality of death. I didn’t have the whole equation worked out yet, but what I did have was the memory of a simple prayer our pastor had taught a sanctuary full of wiggling grade-schoolers a few weeks earlier at the annual Vacation Bible School.

That patchwork prayer was the first meager offering I brought before the God of the Universe.

There are some who could no doubt point to that moment as yet another example of indoctrination – the actions of a child who had been subtly brainwashed to interpret a recent tragedy, and his own connection to that tragedy, all according to something that amounted, ultimately, to little more than a fairy tale. If I consider things from their perspective, I can understand where they’re coming from.

Bernie_Sanders_2014

I don’t blame you, Bernie. If I were you, I’d probably think it sounded crazy, too.

And, of course, there is much more to salvation than the articulation of a prayer. More than human cognition and abstract thinking. Because just like the kids at last week’s VBS who prayed such a prayer to God for the first time, eight-year-old me didn’t understand everything about what I was praying. I couldn’t fully comprehend the ramifications of what I was saying to God. But, oftentimes, understanding comes later. If we Christians are honest, and we certainly should be, we will admit that genuine understanding takes longer than even a lifetime allows. As Rich Mullins once said, “We never understand what we’re praying, but God, in his mercy, does not answer our prayers according to our understanding of them, but according to his wisdom.”

All I know is what I have become. All I know is that from time to time I have found another couple of crumbs scattered along this path. Not every day, of course, but every season. If I keep my eyes peeled, eventually I spy yet another modest clue that leads me onward. Perhaps one day I’ll discover that they were all incidental, and this path I have chosen has lead me only to a dead-end. Or, perhaps I’ll come to the termination point, push back the undergrowth of weeds, and behold a wide and magnificent river.

Several times during their handful of years spent together, Jesus’ disciples would ask him what it really took to be considered “great” in the heavenly kingdom. On one of those occasions, Scripture says Jesus called a little child over and had him stand in front of the disciples. “Unless you become like this little guy,” he told them, “you’ll never even get a look at the kingdom. And whomever makes room in his life for children just like this one is the one who makes room for me.”

I don’t know if the children who encountered this freckled, fake-bearded Caucasian Jesus last week received from him any great truth. Then again, maybe they weren’t the only ones the Spirit was interested in teaching.

coach jesus

I know, I know. Look, it was a sports theme, OK. So, yes, I was “Coach” Jesus, and, yes, I wore a whistle and I had … oh, never mind.

On Meditation (Lenten Reflections, Week 5)

Meditation has fallen out of fashion in Christianity these days. Sure, there are segments of Christendom that still practice this ages-old discipline, but when it comes to the evangelical tradition of the Church in America, practicing meditation makes Christians uncomfortable. To a lot of well-intentioned disciples, meditation has become synonymous with Eastern mysticism, New Age spirituality, and other religious traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism. A lot of evangelicals would be at a loss to understand its place within the Christian faith.

That is not merely disappointing. It is profoundly tragic.

If you have been following along with these “reflections” throughout the season of Lent, you know that what I have been endeavoring to describe is the internal metamorphosis that a follower of Jesus experiences when he or she submits to the soul-restoring work of the Holy Spirit. The metaphor I have been using to loosely explain this process of transformation is that of renovating an old, rundown house. Taking something that has fallen into disrepair from both seasons of suffering interior neglect and weathering exterior storms, and returning it to something even more beautiful than it was in its earliest, most innocent years.

So, imagine you began all the dirty work of ths renovation: evaluating the broken places, cleaning out the junk, and tearing out the shabby, damaged remnants of old construction, and then, before you set to work restoring and rebuilding this old house, you blacked over all the windows and sealed up all the doorways, never to uncover them again. It’s absurd, not only because any beautification of a home demands the influence of natural light from repaired and cleaned windows, but because you would essentially be going about your renovation work in a cave.

This is what spiritual formation looks like devoid of meditation. Or, to put it simpler, when we remove the practice of meditation from our prayers for transformation, we end up stumbling around in the dark. We fail to see the extent of decrepitude in our souls because we have shut out the Light that illumines these dark places, that reveals them to us so that we might either tear them away or restore them. And we fail to find joy and freedom in the removal of our selfish narratives because we are not considering them according to God’s redeeming wisdom.

In my previous post, I wrote about the process of katharsis, the willingness to delve into the dusty corners and shadowy spaces of our souls in order to get to the root of the problem, to address not simply our sinful acts, but rather the sinful conditions, or habits, that cause these behaviors. To find and treat the deep-seated wounds that influence our self-destructive narratives. But katharsis done with our backs turned to God’s searchlight will never be effective in transforming us, and will only be a miserable experience of identifying the many core failures and doubts that have burrowed too deep for us to reach.

Many Christians fear the concept of meditation because its fundamental aspect is shutting up and being still. It is willingly opening up our dark, dilapidated houses to the Spirit’s sweeping, comprehensive evaluation of our condition, and He doesn’t miss anything – any cracks in the drywall, any warping of the floor, any unswept chimneys. As the Apostle Paul writes about the perfect wisdom of God’s Spirit:

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God… The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things…

1 Corinthians 2:10-11, 14-15, NIV

While meditation in other traditions of spirituality may be more concerned with emptying one’s mind and contemplating some innocuous, external concept of truth, Christian meditation is about looking inward, following the Spirit of God as he advances through the corridors of your soul, shining God’s steadfast light of wisdom and truth – the truth of His unconditional love and desire for you to be made whole – into every space.

“Be still and know that I am God,” insists Psalm 46; “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in all the earth.” This is a call for meditation not on some innocuous, external truth, but on an intimately powerful truth that doesn’t empty us of our personalities and individual passions, but refines them according to God’s perfect purposes. But we will never experience this refinement, or comprehend His purposes, if we don’t allow the Spirit in – if we don’t cease our own strivings and allow the home inspector into our spaces to further illuminate what must be done.

In meditation, we momentarily stop praying about what we think our problems are and how they should be fixed. We fall silent. We breathe deeply. We remain still, and with inwardly turned eyes we consider what lies at the root of these issues. We wait on the Spirit to stimulate our minds, revealing just how deep our rebellion goes. We do not fear this revelation because it is done in the light of a great love. And in the strength of His mercy, we begin to address these deeper blights on our souls. We do not wallow or mope in guilt; instead, we celebrate that God’s light is reaching deeper and deeper into the core of who we are. Through it all, we remember the Great Truth:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

John 3:16-21, NIV

So, may you not misunderstand meditation, and may you not neglect it. May you experience the excitement and abiding peace that comes when you allow God’s Spirit to walk through the many rooms of your life, loving each one, seeing in them a beauty you have never permitted yourself to see before. May you bid farewell to the roots of selfishness and celebrate the planting of holiness, and may you bask in the golden light that fills a soul made new.

On Confession (Lenten Reflections, Week 4)

Now pride and hate, they live inside me
I need your love enough to guide me
Help me walk across these borders
I’m a pilgrim in deep waters

Faithful God, like faithful sunrise
Help me break from all these old ties
Lead me all to that is holy
Break these chains, but break them slowly

from “Mansions” by Burlap to Cashmere
from the album, Anybody Out There?

Confession is both an instinctual mode of prayer – what I like to call a posture – and also a spiritual discipline.

A mode, or posture, of prayer refers to what a follower of Jesus prays about. Confession is part of an “inward” posture. It is the kind of prayer that gazes not upward at God’s majesty, nor outward at the needs of others, but into the depths of our individual selves – and into the darkening residue of grime that accumulates the longer we tarry in this present world. It is a means of katharsis, the essential first step in spiritual transformation that I wrote about in last week’s post. Confessional prayer is the way we gather up and expel the junk that piles up in our souls. Prayer by prayer, we identify the rust and rot of self-centeredness and we tear it out, clearing our houses, preparing them for further renovations courtesy of the Holy Spirit.

But confession is not simply a type of prayer. It is also a spiritual discipline – that is, something we apply ourselves to. Something we work at. Something we strive to improve in, even master, in our pursuit of purity and blamelessness (a pursuit that often takes a lifetime for a devoted follower to experience, as Paul infers in Philippians 1:9-11).

There is a reason why Catholic churches include confessional booths, and why their spiritual leaders insist parishioners visit them regularly. Despite the way pop culture treats these little closets as either priestly power plays, impromptu counseling centers, or ineffectual shrines to narcissism, very early in to this whole Christianity thing the Church recognized that the act of confession is not simply a one time statement of belief in the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. Rather, it is a necessary practice of prayer – something anyone who desires to follow the Savior’s way must make room for in his or her life.

In the evangelical tradition – which is, sadly, becoming much more scattershot and tangled in the poison of partisanship and nationalism – we don’t always do a good job of teaching confession as a discipline of prayer. (Truth be told, we don’t do a good job of teaching the disciplines much at all anymore.) We tend to refer to prayer in primarily general terms, I think because, deep down, we feel like going into detail about its many, many different methods and disciplines and techniques will end up confusing people. There may be some truth to that inclination, but the problem that inevitably arises from generalizing prayer is that generations of believers grow up within a faith tradition that fails to train people how to pray.

As such, when a run-of-the-mill evangelical believer hears the word “confession,” he will usually think of one of two things. One, the stereotype of a confession booth, or, two, the moment a person professes Jesus as Savior. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord,” the Apostle Paul writes to the believers in Rome, “and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

But that is only the start of the discipline of confession. It is an extraordinarily powerful first confession, for sure, but it is certainly not meant to be the last. Not because forgiveness is contingent upon our actual naming of each sin we have committed, but rather because it is through confession that we continue to identify not merely our sinful acts but even more the selfish inclinations and lingering weaknesses weighing down our souls. In other words, when you “invite Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior” as the saying goes, this act breaks the stranglehold of sin on your life; it does not, however, eradicate your selfish nature altogether. You are just as susceptible to act selfishly as you were before you first confessed Christ as Savior.

Confession, then, is the discipline that teaches us just how far God’s forgiveness reaches. As we seek to live as renewed, repurposed children of our heavenly Father, we engage in the process of katharsis, and, by confession, we continue to clean house of all those old, imbedded wounds and the deep-set tendencies to assert our own will over the will of the Great Architect.

When we pray our prayers of confession, we are not informing God of our wrongdoing and wrongbeing. What we are actually doing is agreeing with him that, yes, our flesh is indeed corrupted by worldly obsessions. We are not telling God anything he doesn’t know, but just because God knows it all doesn’t mean there isn’t profound power in naming these things before him. Confession has always been more for us than it is for God.

Lastly, it is important to remember that there is more to the discipline of confession than merely through listing off our individual sinful deeds, as if we are simply taking a depressing, masochistic inventory of all our bad behaviors at day’s end. On the contrary, time spent in confession should leave a follower of Jesus rejuvenated rather than drained. Filled with a sense of freedom and peace rather than sorrow and guilt. Confession begins heavy, but it ends light. In confession, we identify healthy practices that must replace our sinful habits. We take comfort in God’s mercy, and find confidence in his grace to commit again to obedience and purity. We marvel at the endless reach of his perfect, healing love.

So, may you not shy away from the act of confession. May you make it one of the good habits that replaces the self-centered clutter littering your soul. May you run desperately into your moments of confession, eager for the cleansing that it brings, and the peace that sweeps through you like a cool wind in the heat of the day. May you confess your brokenness in such a way that you cannot help but lift up praises to the One who holds the power to put all things back together again.

Lauds

A period of silence may follow.

The prayer book prompts me to be silent, and so I take a breath and close my eyes and go to where the silence is. Outside is the click of the ice maker, the low hum of the refrigerator, the faint gush of air through the ducts of this aging house. The baby monitor elicits the sound of an artificial womb, the volume raised just enough to perceive a pre-dawn cry. Beyond the window in the darkness, a morning bird too eager for the break of morning decides to test its call.

Outside, there is a beating heart, a yawn, a subtle pop within the stiffened neck of this aging body. The shift of the couch cushion. The gurgle of an empty stomach accepting hot coffee.

I go inside. Inside is the soul, and thus, the silence. Inside is where the Spirit of God has made His dwelling place. Some mornings, He seems a next-door neighbor; other mornings, it is a long journey to His abode, down the narrow path of sluggish contemplation that winds through the wild interior woods where if I turn to look I will see the watchful eyes of dark shapes surveilling me from the shadows. The path empties into a clearing, in the center of which is a quaint cottage. A thin line of smoke whispers from the little chimney – He always has the fire kindled in His hearth – and the morning light spills across the garden plots that surround the cottage.

Some mornings I find the Spirit tending these gardens: aerating the soil, assessing the strength of the stalks, inspecting the budding fruit. He greets me with a smile and a kind word, and there is always a look of pleasure on His face. He is proud of His gardens, of the fruit that has been born and is slowly growing. On other visits, I have found Him relaxing on the little front porch. He rocks back and forth slowly, and as I approach He gestures to the other chair next to Him. “Sit for a moment,” He says. “Enjoy the view with me.”

Once, I found Him inside by the fire, and I asked Him why He was not tending the gardens, and He told me that He was, that resting is also part of gardening, and the fruit He has planted responds as much to this as any other act of cultivation.

I feel safe in the clearing. I am aware that eyes remain on me, that there are dangerous things in the woods, but the Spirit says He is unafraid of these wild things and I should be as well. Standing there next to Him, it is hard not to feel safe. Still, I tell Him that the things in the shadows want to ravage His gardens, and He nods His head as if this isn’t news to Him. He tilts His gardener’s hat back, letting the first rays of the morning splash His face. “Of course they do. This used to be their territory, like the rest of your soul. A completely lawless place. But then you invited Me to live here, and together We have tilled gardens for My fruit – good soil beneath warm sunlight – where before had been only overgrown wilderness, brambles and thorns.”

“But what if they get in?”

He looks at me. “That’s up to you. But I can assure you that they won’t run me off. I will go on tending these gardens, and if you will keep visiting Me, day after day, they will stay in the shadows. And, eventually, you will not only see the fruit; you’ll get to taste it, too.”

The clearing fades away. I surface from the silent depths. I come out from within my soul.

A period of silence may follow, the prayer book says, and I wonder if what I have seen… or imagined (what’s the difference, really?)… will suffice for practicing the discipline of silence. I move on in the prayer book: I read from the Psalter, then the Gospels, and then I offer prayers for myself and others, and it is within these free-form supplications that I often find myself saying, “Holy Spirit, cultivate the gardens of my heart. Let the harvest of Your fruit be bountiful.” In my mind’s eye I see the Gardener standing by the garden plots. He tilts the brim of His hat. I pray to know love, to experience joy, to feel peace, to have patience, to show kindness, to exemplify goodness, to learn faithfulness, to exude gentleness, to practice self-control. I pray the same fruits would be tended by the same Gardener in the souls of others.

Then I pray the way the Savior taught His disciples, and, at the end, as the black of night gives way to the gray of dawn, and the lone birdsong becomes a chorus, and the baby mutters and shifts against the weakening grip of sleep, I conclude with the Collect: Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day…

Has Your Quiet Time Become a Burden?

As I close in on the end of this series about daily quiet times, I feel the need to address a particular concern.

I recognize that much of what I have written in the last few posts regarding traditional quiet time methods has been primarily cautionary and negative. I haven’t written much about the benefits of keeping daily quiet times, but focused almost exclusively on the pitfalls and problems of them. The last thing I want is for my readers (meaning you) to think I am advocating for the abolishment of personal quiet times.

Because I’m not.

I am, however, troubled by what I see as rampant naiveté in many Christians’ lives when it comes to the keeping of a personal “time with God.” As my previous posts have pointed out, we often go about these times all wrong. Either we force ourselves to keep certain disciplines that our personalities, thought-processes and specific backgrounds naturally oppose, or we treat our devotional exercises like corporate grunts dutifully paying our dues in order to attain a promotion.

"Well, Mr. Bowen, you seem like a hard-worker, but we find it discouraging that you only have 5 psalms memorized. You need at least 25 to be upper management material."

“Well, Mr. Bowen, you seem like a hard-worker, but we find it discouraging that you only have 5 psalms memorized. You need at least 25 to be upper management material.”

So, before I leave behind the negative aspects, let me offer one more note of caution. While any time spent with God comes with an element of sacrifice (because, c’mon, there’s always something vying for our attention besides God), the goal of a quiet time is not to fix us up into a more presentable version of what a Christian should be. The various exercises and disciplines inherent in a daily devotional time don’t fix us at all; what they do is open us up for the Holy Spirit to enter our hearts, minds, and souls and do his work, in his way, according to his timing. It’s like taking your car for regular tune-ups. Your main role is to hand your keys over to the mechanic – he doesn’t need you rolling under there with him and giving him advice on what needs to be done.

Maybe get some newer magazines in your waiting room if you don't want me bugging you!

Maybe get some newer magazines in your waiting room if you don’t want me bugging you!

The work of the Spirit is key to grasping the purpose of a quiet time with God. As I wrote in a previous post: “A quiet time is meant to undergird one’s relationship with the Lord. We don’t do it so God is obligated to transform us. We do it so that his Spirit might find our hearts and minds opened to his guidance and provision. It is an expression of loyalty and love, not a set of daily chores.”

And yes, I’m aware I just quoted myself there. I’m as disappointed as you.

But let’s face facts. Three-weeks-younger Bo was right. God knows us better than we know ourselves. Therefore, he knows what to transform in us – and how to go about that transformation – better than we do. This being the case, when it comes to quiet times, sometimes “less is more.”

Well, not THAT much less.

Well, not THAT much less.

There came a point in my own struggle with keeping a quiet time that I began to question not just the method itself, but the individual value of each element. As I’ve stated before, the method that was promoted to me growing up consisted of a time of prayer, Bible study, Scripture verse memorization, and journaling. Time and again, this structure was referred to as the most comprehensive and beneficial method a young Christian could adopt. For me, though, the problem wasn’t only that this arrangement of specific exercises clashed with my natural inclinations and preferences for communing with God. It was also that I couldn’t help corrupting each individual exercise until they became hollow, futile and self-centered pursuits.

When it came to prayer, I quickly progressed from not being sure what to pray, to praying for just about everything and then feeling guilty later when I remembered things I had neglected to pray for. Consequently, I began keeping an extensive list of prayer concerns – friends who didn’t follow Jesus, family members in the hospital, church members who were struggling with some problem or another, friends of friends who were in need, the church leadership, the local community, the country’s leaders, world events, third-world strife, unsaved people groups… The list grew and grew and grew, until it not only morphed into a rote list of problems I wanted God to solve, but also became a terrible drain on my time and energy. I began to dread my prayer times, because after I finally spoke my “Amen,” I did not feel refreshed. I felt exhausted, empty.

"Seriously, these are natural. If you don't believe me, take a look at my prayer list."

“Seriously, these are natural. If you don’t believe me, take a look at my prayer list.”

As for Bible study, I did the best any young person unfamiliar with commentaries and Bible dictionaries could do, trying my best to understand what I was reading. Sometimes it was Psalms, Acts, or Philippians, and this was not so difficult. Other times, though, I’d try to get my mind around a passage in Ezekiel, Daniel, Hebrews or Revelation, only to end up shamefully shrugging my shoulders and assuming that I’d eventually break through to a deeper understanding that would accommodate such perplexing writing.

Besides, my goal wasn’t contextual comprehension, but rather the drawing of modern-day applications from the text. My focus was, What can this passage mean for meNo one ever told me I should concern myself with the historical context, the nuances of the language, or the original purpose of a story. There’s nothing wrong with looking into Scripture for personal direction, but if the entirety of your Bible study – both individual and in a group – is focused on personal application, you’re missing an incredibly intricate and rich tradition that carries a far greater purpose than helping you manage stress or know what kind of girl you should date.

"You're so Proverbs 31 and you don't even know it!"

“You’re so Proverbs 31 and you don’t even know it!”

And as my Bible study became more about me, so did my selection of Bible verses to memorize. I chose the ones that resonated with me, treating particular sentences with hardly more respect than fortune cookie aphorisms. To this day, I still use the little Bible I had when I was in high school, and every day I see verses highlighted in yellow – the ones I attempted to memorize a decade and a half ago. I’m not sure what motivated me to commit some of those sentences to memory. However, what bothers me more than my adolescent selectivity is that many of those verses were abducted from healthy contextual homes meant to provide sound interpretation.

For example, one of those verses I carried around with me, like a trimmed photograph inside a locket, was the second half of 2nd Corinthians 10:5, “…and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” I remember quoting that one often, always regarding the importance to think before I spoke – lest I utter a swear and “hurt my Christian witness” – or felt an urge toward angry or lustful daydreaming. Unfortunately, while that probably is good advice, it wasn’t Paul’s intention when he wrote those words. He was referring to how we deal with heresy – that we examine all spiritual teaching in light of Christ, which was something the Corinthians were failing to do with the false teachers in their midst.

"Dear Corinthians, I'll give you something to memorize..."

“Dear Corinthians, I’ll give you something to memorize…”

And I shan’t forget how efficiently I corrupted the exercise of journaling. If drawing personal applications from my Bible study bordered on self-centeredness, what found its way onto the pages of my journals was downright narcissism. Writing down thoughts doesn’t always provide perspective and guidance like we might expect. Sometimes all we end up doing is indulging in either self-pity (Why am I so incapable of __________?) or self-advancement (Realizing _________ shows how awesomely God is blessing me.) Sure, there are certain journal entries I can look back on today as documentation of major life decisions and important new shifts in understanding, but they are hidden within a sea of pages full of overwrought self-reflection, all of which serves as evidence that I refused to heed one verse in particular: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

There’s nothing wrong with journaling, setting down all your thoughts and fears on the page, as long as you have first relinquished control of those things to the Savior who reminds us that following him requires the denial of self, not the promotion of it.

"Blessed are those who keep diaries, for their sparkly pink pens shall never run dry."

“Blessed are those who keep diaries, for their sparkly pink pens shall never run dry.”

So, what’s the point of all this?

Simply that there exists no magic combination of exercises or disciplines that will make you into the kind of Christian you hope to be. There is no specific pattern or method that works perfectly for everyone. As we grow, learn, and mature, our personalities and interests and abilities shift in subtle yet profound ways. The way we interact with God has to grow and shift with that.

The good news is that the God with whom we seek to commune is abundantly merciful and infinitely patient. He doesn’t keep a short list of only three or four ways to connect with and inspire us. He is always with us – his Spirit indwells us, going where we go, whispering his truth throughout our days, whether we have our Bibles open and our highlighters uncapped, or we’re waiting in line at Chick-Fil-A.

Where real Christians go to love God and waste gas.

Where real Christians go to love God and waste gas.

I still have one more thing to say about personal quiet times – specifically about an actual biblical mandate for how to spend time with God – but I’ll save that for next week, and the final installment in this series. In the meantime, I encourage you to examine the things you do to commune with God and grow in his truth. Does it keep you grounded in his will and his sovereignty, or have you made it all about you? Don’t be afraid to change things up, because God’s fervent desire for a relationship with you never changes.

Are You Doing Someone Else’s Quiet Time?

This is the second post in a five-part series on the problems with keeping a personal, daily “quiet time.”

We started doing something at my church recently that I think is incredibly important.

No, not that.

No, not that.

We enhanced our process for new members, not by adding more prerequisites to being one, but by inviting them to a carefully designed gathering in which we encourage them to recognize how their individuality should influence where and how they get involved in the church.

Some people know how to say no. But many others do not, and when ministers and lay leaders start getting desperate to fill spots in their volunteer base, we’re rarely concerned with whether or not someone is particularly gifted for those jobs.

"It's okay if you can't sing. We usually just move our lips while the tech guys play something from Hillsong."

“It’s okay if you can’t sing. We usually just move our lips while the tech guys play something from Hillsong.”

Unfortunately, that’s no way to find fulfillment as a church member. To be a disciple of Jesus means to surrender our lives in worship and service of our Savior. But it does not mean we are supposed to conform to one particular way of living out our devotion. God designed you in a unique way, with a compilation of emotions, inclinations, abilities, and interests that are all your own. Why would he want you to neglect this design plan in your relationship with him? If you want to be unhappy in your church, serve on a committee or in a ministry that does not utilize your gifts or jive with your personality.

The same is true for your method of quiet time with God.

When people come to me for advice because they feel dissatisfied or frustrated with their walk with Christ, the first question I ask is, “Are you attempting anything that isn’t you?”

"Well, Jim, for starters, it says here this translation is in the Transylvanian Saxon dialect of Romania, and you've never even traveled outside of Indiana."

“Well, Jim, for starters, it says here this translation is in the Transylvanian Saxon dialect of Romania, and you’ve never even traveled outside of Indiana.”

It took a long time for me to accept this as truth, but after years of discontent with the traditional quiet time formula handed down to me by my Sunday School teachers and youth camp counselors, I finally realized that what bothered me most was that the method didn’t stimulate my heart and mind according to the unique way God made me.

We’re all wired in a one-of-a-kind way. Sure, there are common practices and activities that the majority of us enjoy, and there are also common disciplines every Christian is expected to engage, but God is well aware that no two people are exactly alike. He designed us that way. We have differing personalities, our minds develop differently and at a variety of paces and speeds, and some things that interest you will never fascinate me. Moreover, we also grasp concepts in diverse ways, according to different stimuli, and a particular truth might not resonate with me at the same time or in the same way that it does with you, based on the variety of emotions, passions, and experiences we bring to the table.

Now, let’s take the truth about individuality to its logical conclusion. If it is true that God uniquely creates each person, then it is also true that every relationship between two people is also unique.

Checkmate.

Checkmate.

Anybody who has read a book on relationships can tell you that while some advice might have been helpful to his or her own relationship, not everything in the book was applicable. That’s because there is no perfect formula to a successful relationship. A relationship is not a binding contract; it’s a decision of intimacy between two individuals who, whether they are aware of it or not, bring their own ideas, ambitions, ideals and temptations into play. A healthy, successful relationship is an intentional and careful commitment to interact with each other’s idiosyncrasies, rather than denying their influence.

For example, my wife and I have a relationship that is unique to us. One of the things we’re still learning but know is important is not to force one another to speak or act in a way that is contrary to our designs. This doesn’t mean we don’t strive to connect with one another, nor does it mean I don’t adopt certain behaviors that support my wife and give her pleasure. However, pretending to be someone I am not is no good for Leigh, and vice versa.

How many times do I have to tell her that doing the dishes isn't my spiritual gift?

How many times do I have to tell her that doing the dishes isn’t my spiritual gift?

Now, if a quiet time is what a Christian does in order to experience a vibrant, intimate, and healthy relationship with God, then it stands to reason that conforming to a certain way of thinking, reading, and praying might not be the most beneficial way to deepen or strengthen that relationship. Just because God is a constant in the equation doesn’t mean each Christian must commune with him the exact same way. One of the most well-known statements of the late Brennan Manning’s is, “God loves you as you are, not as you should be, for no one is as they should be.” If I believe this, then the last thing I would want to do is pretend to be someone I am not in my relationship with God.

I love the looks on people’s faces when I suggest that, given their individual passions and interests, they might consider a solitary hike in the woods to be their quiet time, or gardening, writing poetry, even preparing a meal. Sure, the reading of Scripture is important and should not be neglected, but God is able to move in a million more ways than the standard methods so many of us so often conform to. Rather than slog through a formula that squelches your individuality, why not seek out the methods that stimulate your own peculiar composition?

As we continue in this series, I will cover the biggest dangers of conforming to a formula rather than creating one that works with a person’s God-given uniqueness. Above all, we should always remember that a quiet time should awake one’s soul, not burden it.

Bedtime Prayers

I became a Christian because I was afraid of hell. I was afraid I would die before I woke. I was afraid of where I might end up if I didn’t pray a special prayer that assured my protection.

As a kid who already struggled with a plethora of nocturnal fears – of monsters and ghouls and all manner of wicked-faced, sharp-toothed frights – the last thing I needed to fixate on at eight years of age was the dreadful image of an eternal, fiery torment. I had enough trouble falling asleep as it was. So, one night, moved as much by an overactive imagination as by the Spirit, I prayed a patchwork sinner’s prayer – penitent phrases I had gleaned from church services and Vacation Bible Schools and stitched together by my hushed lips mumbling the words into my pillow.

Beside my bed, a Voltron nightlight projected the blazing image of a robot protector on the ceiling of my bedroom. In hindsight, I realize that the image wasn’t a far cry from my theology at that time – that God was an all-powerful being who watched over the weak. Something invincible that could vanquish the terrors that slithered out from a dark realm. But, as I understood it, if you had not acknowledged his all-powerful-ness and verbally professed your belief in his invincibility, you were bound for that dark realm, where you would suffer forever and ever. And so, I prayed.

It’s been twenty-six years since I lay in my childhood twin bed and whispered a desperate prayer for, among other things, peace of mind at bedtime. I’ve grown quite a bit since then, in every form of the word. I’ve learned quite a bit about God and Jesus and salvation and faith and grace, not to mention about sin and hell. I’ve been baptized. I’ve led Bible studies and taught Sunday School classes. I’ve obtained a seminary degree. I’ve been ordained into full-time church ministry. I’ve worked in many different churches and organizations in which all of the above beliefs and experiences have been well utilized.

And yet…

There are those nights lying in bed, waiting for sleep to usher me away, when I feel surrounded by fears as irrational but as palpable as the ones that tormented me when I was eight.

I don’t fear the darkness of hell anymore, but I do fear the very real possibility of separation – of loss and abandonment. I don’t fear the agony of the fire, but I do dread physical ailments and illnesses and the cruel what-if’s they cast before my mind’s eye like a fishermen’s lures. I don’t fear the prospect of an eternity apart from God, but in the quiet of my bedroom I stress over the realization that I have not lived my life as closely to his truth as one should.

My theology has developed in countless ways over the past twenty-six years. My God is bigger than he has ever been, and he only continues to increase, emerging from the shadows cast by my limited understanding in ways that remind me he is not – he cannot be – a figment of my imagination.

But the darkness at the end of the day remains a place where doubt resides, where fear thrives. So, with the same mixture of hope and terror that I possessed when I was eight, I still speak words into my pillow. Words of trust and rattled optimism. I ask for protection. I ask to be saved.

And I am convinced that, just as it was when I was eight, there is something greater going on. Something wider and deeper is taking place – something invincible and yet as connected to me as these doubts and fears that never fail to show their threatening faces and gnash their vicious teeth when I turn out the lights. This Something is that which fulfills the words of the Apostle John, that “perfect love casts out fear.”

It is in this Something that I must trust as much at thirty-four years of age as at eight. And when sleep does usher me away, it is this Something that I still believe watches over me while I sleep, like a light on the ceiling.

I am never alone.