Again, we preach best to ourselves, not that one lives up to all that one aspires, and yet there’s value in reminders of the sorts of things most people already know.
The Life of Devotion
Powerful corporate worship hinges upon vital private worship. Jesus departed from the crowds many a time to pray. Think of it; if Jesus set aside times for prayer, how much more ought we to do the same? No deep life of the Spirit, no empowerment from the Holy Spirit, no effective imitation of Christ is possible without cultivating a meaningful life of devotion. And yet, we find it all too easy to pass it over, looking for something more “relevant” or “practical” to be doing. But nothing is more practical or relevant than spending “useless” time with the Master. Between the busied industry of Martha in serving the Lord and the unhurried desire of Mary to spend time with the Lord, the example of Mary is credited in Luke 10:42 as the better way. We might be impressed at the energy and spiritual vitality of George Fox, as though he were exceptional, but William Penn understood the secret of his empowerment:
Above all, George Fox excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behaviour, and the fewness and fulness of his words have often struck even strangers with admiration as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverend frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say, was the prayer of George Fox. And truly it was a testimony. He knew and lived nearer to the Lord than other men, for they that know Him most will see most reason to approach Him with reverence and fear.
But how do we enter “excel in prayer,” develop “weight of spirit,” express a “fewness and fullness of words,” and “live near to the Lord” in ways that are life-changing for ourselves and reaching others with consolation? Part of it comes from simply following our desire for God and privileging spiritual hunger and thirst over others. As the Psalmist says, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” (Ps. 42:1) Then again, any sustained endeavor requires devotion and preparation, yet how do we embrace or celebrate a spiritual discipline without becoming slaves to routines and methods? While each of us has must adopt an approach that fits our lives and demands most effectively, Friends have discovered several principles that may help. These are by no means unique to Friends, but they are indeed part of a long heritage of spiritual formation that deepens any who choose to travel the path. Consider a few guidelines:
1.) Make your walk with Christ the center of your life and the priority of your day. If you were to accord equal weight to the life of the Spirit as you do other ventures of life, how would that affect the order of your day? Do you find time to eat? Do you make time for sleep? Most of us can do so, at least if we have the luxury to choose. And yet, when we consider our spiritual needs, how meager we tend to be in the apportionment of our time and energy toward sustaining and deepening the life of the Spirit! All hunger and desire are shadows of the more basic human desire, which is for relationship with the Divine. Paltry apportionments of time and energy for cultivating the life of the Spirit reflect not an ordering of our lives according to our true needs, but a lack of awareness of our most basic needs, central of which is the spiritual.
If making our walk with Christ were to become the priority of our day, what would that mean for the ways we use our time and the quality of our attentiveness to the life of devotion? It could involve some radical changes if we made it a priority. This foundational step is far more important than selecting a particular plan or a method. As one becomes given to Christ, totally and unreservedly, ways of deepening that relationship tend to emerge as we become mindful of our conditions and what we truly need. As St. Augustine reminds us well in his Confessions, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
2.) Set prime times for prime tasks. Each of us has a unique set of energy rhythms and scheduled demands, and we should plan our lives accordingly. These realities get considered as we sketch out daily schedules and routines, but they also should be taken into consideration regarding spiritual exercises. For instance, if one needs to be able to concentrate on reading the Bible or serious study, the morning hours may be most conducive. On the other hand, if one is reading the Bible for inspiration or memorization, reading the Bible in the evening may be profitable. Likewise, praying at the beginning of the day allows one to forethink and foresee the day, lifting its elements to God; evening times of prayer may be more conducive to personal reflection. So, depending on the nexus of one’s obligations and the rhythms of one’s day, setting prime time for prime tasks, and even changing things up to fit one’s personal rhythms and the day’s elements, works well.
Sometimes ways we structure our approaches are more ordered by the demands of the day. Parts of our schedules over which we have no control may provide their own “windows” into the life of devotion, and these can be approached opportunistically. An extra few minutes at lunch, or a brief time before other routines of the day get going—or after they wind down—all of these become windows into deepening the life of the Spirit. So feel free to adjust and seize upon opportunities as they present themselves. And, settle for small and apparently insignificant advances now and then, as well as larger ones, in seeking to deepen the life of the Spirit. Small pieces of thread do indeed a glorious tapestry weave.
3.) Approach the life of devotion with a sense of adventure! Few things kill a venture like the bondage of obligation. Remember, the goal is not to set up a strategy; the goal is to go deep into the rivers of living water and to become a useful conduit of God’s healing-redeeming work in the world. That’s why the preparation is vital. So explore many ways to get there, not just a few. Be courageous! Bold! Risk failure, especially if you can learn something from it. If (no, when) following a discipline falters, waste no time or energy with discouragement or lament, simply pick up where you left off and tune in again to God’s presence and grace. That’s the real goal, which our devotion aspires to prioritize, and yet it also is rooted in grace—not works.
Let your life become a living experiment in the Way of the Spirit, and then be a steward of your discoveries. This is what is behind the spiritual discipline of keeping a journal. One records one’s hopes, disappointments, discoveries and reflections along the pathways of the spiritual adventure with Christ. One’s learnings then become the stuff of experience to offer others, and in reflecting upon the walk of faith, ideals get ground up and tested in the crucible of everyday realism. This is part of what changes a valued notion to a life-changing conviction.
We also seek to learn from others, and the devotional writings and journals of those who have gone on before us bear testimony to their ventures and the faithfulness of God. We do not travel this path alone! Here we can choose as our partners along the way the great devotional giants of the ages, and their learnings become our own as we read the devotional classics. But nothing speaks with quite as much clarity and authority as the personal testimony of God’s leading and convicting work in our lives. Obviously, the focus must ever be on God and what God is doing, and yet we discover a story to tell in the process. The focus, however, is not ourselves, but on the life of the Spirit into which we are extended the remarkable invitation to be agents of primary research. The laboratory is our lives and the world around us, but the subject being engaged is the transforming love, power, and presence of God.
4.) Read the Bible and steep yourself in the devotional classics. Reading the journals of Fox and Woolman makes it obvious that God’s address through inspired Scripture was absolutely foundational to the spiritual formation of these giants. Likewise with Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and so many others! What we find when we read the Bible is that the same Spirit who inspired the writing of the Scriptures also inspires us as we read them. At key junctures of our lives, memorized Bible passages become the source of genuine, divine guidance. And, it is self-obvious that ideals developed through early reading of Scripture, as well a pattern of life developed out of adherence to biblical themes, become the stuff of later direction and conviction. If Woolman and Fox had not steeped themselves early on in the Scriptures, the history of the world would have indeed been different!
So how do we get into the Bible? Many good ways abound, but the most important thing to remember is simply to do it. Read. Whether spending a good deal of time to focus on a narrow passage, or whether reading broadly—getting a sense of a larger unit, the most important thing is to become engaged with the biblical text tself. I like to take a smaller unit, such as a chapter or a few paragraphs a day, and having read it thoughtfully to ask: “What does God want to say to me through this passage today?” Applications always come, and they often form the nuance and direction of spiritual impressions throughout the day.
Another approach is to read an entire book or a larger portion of a book in a single sitting. Time may force this to be a weekly exercise rather than a daily one, but getting the sense of a writer’s larger message and concern is always helpful. You find themes recurring and issues being addressed from more than one angle when you do this. Further, you get a better feel for the particular message of that part of the Bible, and you become sensitized to its distinctive voice within the larger whole. Getting the sense of the larger message of a biblical passage lends one greater interpretive authority than simply appreciating how it speaks to the individual. In the former instance one can say, “the Bible speaks to me…”; in the latter one can say, “the Bible says…”.
Take notes. Read a variety of translations and paraphrases. Learn Greek and Hebrew if you can; George Fox began learning biblical languages in his adulthood in order to get a fuller sense of the meaning of Scripture despite his concerns over the professionalization of theological study. Consider the context in which the original messages developed and were written, and learn as much as you can about ways the human authorship of the texts converged with the divine inspiration behind them. Learn to discern the heart of the biblical message over and above time-bound setting—in order to better apply the principles and patterns to our time-torn lives today. When that happens, application becomes exhilarating, and God once again speaks.
5.) Get a balanced diet of prayer. Prayer is not simply talking to God; it especially involves our listening to God. It is a response to the saving-revealing initiative of God, and therein lies its mystery. Jesus invites us ask, and yet, even our requests are already a reflection of our sensing of need—a sensitivity rooted in what God is doing first and foremost. Sometimes our prayer lives are exciting and life changing; sometimes they seem dull and drab. Is God at fault? Probably not; the “dark night of the soul,” to use the language of St. John of the Cross, is often a reality for the Christian, calling us to press on in faith, but it is never without the hope of dawn. In the life of prayer, getting a balanced diet may help.
The Bible describes several types of prayer, and yet all of them involve some aspect of the human-divine dialogue. Words may be used if helpful to us, but God looks upon our hearts, and the communion that happens between ourselves and God is itself too beautiful for words. Paul speaks of “unceasing prayer”—that intercessory fluency empowered by the Holy Spirit—describing it as groanings beyond what words can express. Indeed, we are invited into an ongoing relationship with God within which we go through the day immersed in prayer, but also carrying on the business of the workaday world.
6) Develop a meaningful approach to the devotional life as a family or in community. If you live within a family or a community, feel the freedom to develop meaningful corporate devotional experiences. Or, develop a small group or prayer partners in your life that you can support and from whom you also receive support. A family prayer time or a family Bible reading time becomes a foundation for faith development in the formative lives of children, although our fractured schedules make it increasingly difficult. John Woolman’s family used to read the Bible and other good books on Sunday afternoons as a part of their family’s regular schedule, and it was during these times of reading and reflection that Woolman reports having developed a vision of what the people of God should be like—in his sixth year! Also, George Fox studied the Bible extensively, and William Penn declared that if the Scriptures were lost, Fox would have been able to reproduce them from memory. The day of “small things” should not be neglected. Upon these foundations great endeavors are established.
7) Prepare for the meeting for worship throughout the week. The personal life of devotion deserves to be accompanied by regular participation in a community of worship, but participation should not just be haphazard. During the week, preparation for the gathered meeting for worship should be performed conscientiously. Reflecting upon the previous meeting for worship and anticipating the next helps one with this venture, and preparing on Saturday evening for worship the next day quiets the mind and readies the heart for full participation. Developing an attitude of readiness for worship also allows one to make good use of any worship form, or the lack thereof; one of the greatest signs of spiritual maturity is the ability to enter into a meaningful worship experience, whatever the venue. In all the ways mentioned above, the life of personal devotion cultivated during the week enhances one’s capacity to be involved in meaningful corporate worship as a participant, not just a consumer. In so doing, we follow not only Jesus’ example; we also become better prepared for following his leadership in the spontaneity of the present moment.
8) Set aside times for spiritual retreat and Sabbath reflection to reset your priorities and re-orient your life. In addition to participation in weekly meetings for worship, spending time in solitude on a regular basis allows us to reflect on our lives and make adjustments as needed. Callings become refreshed and priorities clarified, and the many obligations in life become reordered as we offer them anew to God and allot concerns and commitments their proper place. On monthly, quarterly, and annual bases, time apart for prayerful reflection becomes a means of personal renewal and spiritual refreshment. Bible reading, prayer, journaling are all valuable components of spiritual retreat—contributing, of course, to spiritual advance.
One of the exercises that can be helpful involves writing a list of one’s priorities in a column: God, family, work, education, church, community, hobbies, projects, civic or social involvements, callings, etc. On the left side prioritize them beginning with the highest priority to the lowest; on the other side rank-order them according to the time and energy that you have put into each over the last two weeks or so. Then, note any discrepancies; if family is ranked second priority, for instance, but it ranks fifth in terms of recent time and energy invested, you have a decision to make: either lower the priority or find a way to increase the time and energy invested. Circle any discrepancies that require adjustment and write in the margin how you, with divine assistance, will make changes to reconcile your perceived and actual priorities. Then, make a new column with your re-ordered priorities, and adjust your schedule and obligations if you can in order to live into the life you feel is pleasing to God—our “ordered lives” confess the beauty of God’s peace. With John Greenleaf Whittier,
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow Thee.
O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!
With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!
In sum, the life of devotion is one of the great ventures of following Jesus, and it is essential to vital Christian faith and practice. Like daily-given manna in the wilderness, the bread which Jesus offers must be gathered daily, lest it spoil and cease to nourish. It is not the result of baptism; it is baptism—spiritual immersion in the life-Changing Spirit of Christ. It is not the foundation of communion; it is communion—spiritually lived out in unceasing prayer. And yet, as important as the life of devotion is, its value is facilitative, not ultimate. It deepens an intimate knowing God and likewise being fully known. And that relationship is the priority of life itself!