Devotional Bible Reading
Bible reading takes you out of your own era and into the sweep of history. And then, beyond even that! Beyond, into the time before time, to the beginning of all that is. Beyond, into the times yet to come when God's reconciliations will be completed.
Private Bible reading is intimate and personal, like prayer. It's also like exploration - it takes daunt and derring-do to dare to do it right. Let the text lead you to the questions, but be absolutely fearless in asking God to show you. For the very act of telling God about it turns even your bitterest thoughts into a strange kind of prayer. God's seen much worse than what you're thinking; you won't be struck by a lightning bolt for having even thought of it. The decision to trust God with the matter turns the strongest doubt into an act of faith, and the most stubborn question into a plea of faith.
A personal devotional discipline of Bible reading is the prime setting for the Spirit to speak through Scripture in a way that's addressed to you. God's promises, God's standards, God's way of doing things, all get focused down to you and how it is to affect your life. But we need to give ourselves the time in which this can happen, so don't rush.
One way to tie Bible reading to worship services is to read the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday. It adds to the impact of the sermon and the worship service itself, and the sermon and service act as a reality check on our own reflections.
Also, worship books, and many booklets available from teaching and radio ministries, provide daily Bible reading resources. These select specific Scriptures for the day, and usually share a thought or two about it. These daily reading lectionaries are a good way of pacing yourself, of doing the Bible readings as a steady discipline rather than a streaky, hot-or-cold thing.
Even though private Bible reading is personal, we ourselves are part of communities: the world, our nation, our neighborhood, our church body, our congregation. Most of the Bible was written to be read to communities, and even when it is intended personally it is about living in the community and done for its benefit (that's why it was made public). The Scripture is God's Word to the whole Body of Christ, not just to oneself. So there needs to be a communal dimension to devotional Bible study. Ask yourself: what does this mean for the way I see what goes on in the world around me? What does God bid me to do or not do? Keep the focus on how you are to take the Word, for you are responsible to God for your own response, not everyone else's.
Bracketing is when you set yourself and your opinions to the side, temporarily.
- without it, we are tyrannized by our own thoughts. They stuff up our ears so it's hard to hear others' voices. They block the way to what we were made to become.
- it's only temporary : so we can bring the new to our old, helping us lose the old that we ought to lose (hopefully, only that).
If we forget to un-bracket, we lose our identity, our bearing, our purpose; we lose that which endures and marks us as ourselves. Or, we become superficial, leaving the core of ourselves untouched while letting everyone else determine what we seem to be and what we act like. If we forget to bracket, we strangle our identity and choke off our purpose, putting our minds in a straightjacket. We end up collapsing in on ourselves.
Keith Miller, in his book *A Hunger For Healing*, spoke of a process he learned from Twelve-Step programs, which he called 'denial detection'. It's a way to teach ourselves to stop clinging to control of our lives, and be open to the changes God wants us to undergo. (In Twelve-Step lingo : what you're denying is the fact that your life is out of your control, and that it will take the Higher Power to set it right.) Miller writes :
"After having committed my whole life to God in the morning, I make a list of the things I still worry about during the day (the things I still worry about are obviously things I did not commit to him after all). The next day, I surrender the things on my list specifically. ...I've stopped saying 'God, give me the power to overcome these'. Instead, I say, 'God, I'm entirely ready to let you remove this worry about this child or this need to justify myself to this person, or this frantic worry about my financial life."(p.188)
SING! SING! SING!
Singing Scripture, hymns and other songs help to fill the mind with God's word. In Ephesians 5:18-19, it says that this is one way the Spirit fills us.
When someone sings, they're involved, even if in just reading lyrics or hearing accompaniment. One can't sing without taking part, so automatically the person is engaged in the act of praise or mourning. It then connects with the feelings, the thoughts, the history, the subconscious. It ingrains the lyric in the mind, so it is remembered when it's needed. It can be done anywhere at just about any time. Clap, sway, even air guitar. Do it alone; do it with close friends. (They'd better like you a lot, or they might think you've gone crazy...)
Doing Simple Good Things
When most people think of 'Christians', they have several images that pop into their head, often at the same time. One is of tract-passing judgmental folks that are happy to tell you that you're damned to hell unless you become like them. Another is the St. Francis - Mother Theresa - Dorothy Day supremely sacrificial type that is great for a chosen few, but the rest of us would never let ourselves be like that. But a very common image, especially to those over 40 years old, is that of someone who does plain ordinary good toward all. There is still the vague memory of being told how Jesus fed, healed, and taught without charge to those who were where he was, how he washed the feet of his disciples and told them to be the kind of person who washes people's feet. (They may not remember the specifics, or the rest of the important stuff that went with it, but they remember the image.) They still think that being Christian is about being good people.
Strange that this image stuck with people who have long since lost any other sense of what 'following Christ' is like. Could it be that people like being valued and treated kindly, even in little ways, and that they like to be around people who treat them that way? Truth is, they still expect just a bit more kindness from Christians, and are disappointed and even angry when they don't get it. One gets the sense that this lies behind much of the younger generations' negative vibes about organized religions. As a human being, I will not and should not live according to others' expectations, and can't even if I tried. But aren't they at least partially right? Why am I not more loving toward each person, why am I not doing kind things? Why isn't that dimension of Christ showing itself in me?
There is no full remedy for this; you're a human being, sinful and prone to the temptations and mood swings and troubles that all human beings are. Bible study, prayer and other spiritual practices can help you search yourself so the Spirit can reveal what you're still holding back from God, or holding against other people. You can turn away from specific instances of unkindness, ask for forgiveness, and even try to repay with kindnesses and an open heart. All that is good, but I know for myself that it's not enough. I need to do more than wear a funny smile. I need to do something with it -- loving others in some way that will actually do them some good. Love then becomes more than warm fuzzy feelings. God did call for loving actions from His followers, not just in the New Testament, but also in the Old. Practicing Jews today do good deeds as they go along their daily lives mainly because this is what God wants them to do. To them, doing good for others is more than a duty, it's a prayer and a devotion. One of the main things Christ did was teach us about what lies behind the commands. Jesus died because he loves each person and wants them to be able to take their full place in the Kingdom of God. The Spirit was sent to give us Christ and to develop us into people who love as Christ did. The Spirit moves us to love, and it must show. The Spirit moves us to want everyone to be citizens of the Kingdom, and that too must show.
I'm not exactly talking about random acts of kindness, though randomness can be helpful when we're too caught up in rationing love as if it were in short supply. (Love is abundant; it just lacks distributors.) Some need the love more than others -- those who are abandoned, alone, poor, shunned, oppressed, mentally ill, satanically deceived, or just exhausted from the tumult of life. It's for those who are reaping worse than they had ever sown, and those who are only now discovering the horrors they had sown. But everyone could use some. Some say we must love them for who they are, and that's true. But also, love what they can be. One cannot love the drug addict and still be content with their addiction. And, as old-fashioned and as narrow-minded as it may sound, one is not really loving those who don't believe in Christ if they do not in some way help them find out whose love this is and that this Lover-God can live in them. It may be just subtly planting a seed others will tend, or leading a broken heart to its Healer. It may not even be directly expressed all the time. But it needs to be there.
Doing good things and being kind are ways to treat people wherever you are. But what does that look like on the ground you see as in some way your own, that you have say about, that you or your family or your group owns or operates? What's it like when it's being done where you live? Doing good and being kind there is in the sphere of hospitality. Yes, it is welcome, but it is more than just taking them in and allowing them to sit there. Hospitality is actions that cause someone to feel welcomed. Inviting them over your house, especially for dinner, or to watch football with you and your friends, or for a game of cards or a board game, or having the kids play together. Letting them sit in and watch as you do a task, maybe even letting them try their hand at it or teach them about it. Meals make an especially rewarding time for hospitality, to be celebrated with someone you don't know or barely know. While hospitality is for just about anyone who is not usually on your home turf, in Christianity it is especially meant for strangers, for the oppressed, and for the refugee - the ones that others are expelling. This is rooted in the relational nature of a Trinitarian God, who through Christ has invited us into the divine home, where a place has been set for us, and a banquet prepared. It is also rooted in what Abraham did for three visitors, and in the experience of the Hebrews as strangers in a strange land, which is meant to teach them how love is the best way to treat travelers and strangers. Hospitality is reflected in the Jewish practice of inviting a non-Jewish neighbor or colleague to seder. Thus, hospitality is kindness up close and personal, even with all the risks that may come with it.
A link on more deliberate approaches on acts of kindness for congregations and church groups:
Please note that these are not designed to be excuses for stuffing tracts or making pious talks. As ChurchNext put it, "no strings attached", for we know Who will grow the seeds.
Questions on spiritual attitudes
some things to think about
(Print it out and have your pads and pencil ready.)
#1 : Are You Predisposed To Dispose?
Think of the times someone treated you as disposable in their lives, or perhaps as a replaceable part or plug-in. List them out. Then, think of some times you may have plugged-out someone and plugged-in someone else, thinking of them in terms of their role and not as people. Name at least two relationships in your life for whom you couldn't 'plug in' someone else.
#2 : Ad Hominem (or, when anger gets personal)
Think about a recent argument you had, or catch yourself when you're arguing with someone. Think a moment : are you exaggerating? Or making the attack personal? Vigorous dialogue (even arguing with passion) can be good; it can lead to vigorous action that brings your passions into the mix. But exaggerated or personal attacks are harmful. Anger feeds anger, which begets hate and bitterness when left to itself. Responding in anger was not Jesus' way; neither is it the way to follow Him.
#3 : Pleasure, fun, and joy
Does your sense of pleasure depend on what is new? Different? On-the-edge? Bigger? More? How often do you find pleasure in things that last, or take time to develop, or are part of a standing tradition, or are part of what is in common between people?
What is the difference between 'joy' and 'fun'? What brings you joy? Who do you have fun with, and why? Which do you seek more? Which do you get more?