As 2014 draws to a close, I’m looking ahead at ways in which I might strive to be a better person next year. Sanctification is the Holy Spirit’s purview, but according to the Heidelberg Catechism, it’s evidence of thankfulness to cooperate. My customary resolution – losing weight – has dwindled markedly in its capacity to excite motivation as I face turning 60 next year. Past experience, several decades’ worth, has more or less resigned me to who I am physically.
Another resolution has a similar pattern of failure – the determination to “do devotions” more faithfully. I’m humbled by the example of Anglican theologian John Stott who rose daily at 5:00 a.m. to read the Bible and pray for hundreds of people before breakfast. Stott had this to say about prayer: “In prayer we do not ‘prevail on’ God, but rather prevail on ourselves to submit to God. True, the language of ‘prevailing on God’ is often used in regard to prayer, but it is an accommodation to human weakness. Even when Jacob ‘prevailed on God,’ what really happened is that God prevailed over him, bringing him to the point of surrender when he was able to receive the blessing which God had all the time been longing to give him.” Stott is renowned for his influence on evangelicalism – he was a major architect of the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 – but this description of prayer strikes me as wholly Reformed. Prayer is not about me coaxing God to change things, but God’s strategy to get me to change. This insight adjusted my prayer posture from a petulant “God, transform this world right now; here are some suggestions to get you started” to a more compliant “Your will be done.” But my devotions are not as regular as Stott’s, that’s for sure.
Don’t misunderstand. Spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible reading are to be commended. My parents followed the traditional practice of devotions at mealtime and bedtime. That undoubtedly contributed to my biblical literacy and faith formation. But, in my own family, I couldn’t sustain the practice, though I tried. My husband wasn’t supportive. The kids got older, got part-time jobs, got rebellious. The whole enterprise devolved, contentious and trivialized to the point where it did more harm than good. I gave up. Divulging that? Hurts.
Of course, as a teacher in a Christian school, there was a routine of staff and student devotions that was spiritually nourishing throughout my career. That may have been another contributing factor why I failed to establish a rigorous schedule of independent Bible reading and prayer. The very scaffolding of my work week was devotional.
I thought I’d finally be able to commit to a serious program of lectio divina when I retired. I began an ambitious project of journaling through the Bible. Got halfway through Genesis. I used the Today devotional booklet, but found myself reading a whole month’s worth of meditations in one night. On the other hand, during my brother-in-law’s cancer journey, I faithfully wrote a prayer for my sister for 462 consecutive days.
I’m becoming more or less resigned to my own devotional rhythms, furiously haphazard as they are. Actually, I’m tempted to simply label all my reading and writing devotional. Any book qualifies if it pushes me towards God, to wrestle with him like Jacob, jabbing an angry index finger into his inscrutable chest, or if it compels me to fall prostrate before him, adoring his profligate mercy, hands cupped to catch undeserved blessings. Everything I write underlined by consecration.
Can devotion really even be divided into segments? God inhabits my waking moments relentlessly. Like some incognito mystic disguised as sedate grandma, I can scarcely stop myself from contemplating every moment how the sacred clings indivisibly to everything earthly. G.K. Chesterton’s declaration resonates with me: “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
A copy of Seeking God’s Face is on my nightstand. In January, I’ll try once again to inculcate a devotional habit that resembles Stott’s dedication. But if it doesn’t stick, I refuse to castigate myself. In 2015, I’m defining my whole life as devotional, no tallying required – of verses memorized, chapters read or prayers uttered. Gratitude for every single God-infused breath inhaled, exhaled. Sanctification ever materializing.