Thursday, March 13, 2008

My Challenge

So I have a problem. I know the following admission may be startling coming from a pastor, but I don't know how many of my parishioners read my blog anyway, and I know that none of you will tell them.

What's my problem?

My devotional life. But maybe not for the reason you are thinking.

I don't know about you, but I have struggled to find that devotional experience which has lifted my spirits consistently into heavenly places. And the devotional experiences that do excite me I have been told are "wrong."

For example: in the Seminary - and other places that talk about one's devotional life - we are told in our Spiritual Formation class that we are supposed to have devotions that are purely, well, devotional. So when I read from the Bible, I am not supposed to worry about Hebrew or Greek or the true meaning of what someone is saying. I am supposed to read from the four Gospel accounts and imagine each scene, soaking in the imagery, the sights, the smells, the sounds.

The problem is, such a devotional experience doesn't do much for me. I am going through Luke right now and, although there have been moments of bliss, those moments have been few and far between. Part of that has to do with familiarity, I believe, and the fact that a lot of the stories I have read over and over again.

Such thoughts have made me feel guilty. "What's wrong with me?" I wonder, "Why can't I just read a passage from the Gospels and feel like I'm on Cloud Nine?"

And then I came to an interesting realization: when it comes to Ellen White as well, I am much more blessed by Steps to Christ than The Desire of Ages. In fact, I read Steps to Christ over and over again and am blessed afresh every time I read it. Similarly, when it comes to the Bible, I have enjoyed delving into Paul's epistles more than the Gospel accounts.

Why is this? Because I enjoy theological concepts and discoveries more than I do stories - which is somewhat ironic because I really do enjoy stories and I often fill my preaching and writing with them. But I much prefer digging for theological truth in the Bible than engaging in an exercise in futility where I am mindlessly trying to come up with some type of mystical feelings that derive from a "devotional" reading of a parable or story.

Does this make me a bad person? I hope not; otherwise, I'm in trouble. The reality is, everyone relates to and delights in God differently. And I, for one, think it is very damaging when people insist - whether explicitly or implicitly - that we should only go about our devotional time without trying to discover some deeper theological truth. This is honestly what people have told me in the past.

So this morning I set aside Luke for a little while and I decided to simply start in the book of Psalms and read it through in Hebrew. I only read chapter one, but what a blessing! There is something about reading scripture in the original languages that totally excites me. It opens up a whole new world and allows me to go deeper. And if devotions are supposed to be "shallow," then I am not sure I want anything to do with them.

I would love to hear anyone else's thoughts on their devotional experiences. What do you do that excites you?


holamickey said...

Alright Shawn... interesting. I read most of my devotions in spanish and your blog helped me understand why I enjoy it - finding new little nuances. Reading the Psalms in the same language just allows too much to go unnoticed.
I think we must have ADD -

Dingo said...

Thanks for putting your finger on the issue of back-seat devotions. Lots of people want to tell us how to drive our devotional car. but there can be only one Driver and often only one passenger.

At various times, I have been told 1. that faith was not an emotion, so that if my devotions gave me warm, excited feelings that it was fanaticism. 2. that I had to get into the word and study or the devotional time was wasted, the Lord couldn't speak to me. At various times, people have given me laundry lists to check off in order to make my devotions "work". Must always praise first, then thank, or God won't stick around for your devotions.

What works for me is to play follow-the-leader with the Spirit. Often that takes the form of a mini-series, like studying a gospel or a few chapters in depth or looking through for praise texts each day and praying them for a while. sometimes, there are days when i just can't pull myself together, and God leads me to browse prayerfully. He always shows me something that nurtures me when that happens. sometimes, I'm just led to take a text and sit with it for a while.

Devotions for me are being devoted enough to the Lord to enter into a sacred space with Him each day and wait to see what the conversation will be about.

Andrew said...

To be honest the problem is not with you, but with what you've been "told".

I can't believe that in a seminary you weren't told that we all have different spiritual pathways and that we all have different devotional styles (speaking tongue in cheek I'd ask for a refund and worry what else they got wrong...).

In my Masters level class on spirituality at Newbold it was we were exposed to many different styles of spiritual exercises/devotional/spiritual themes, and expected to challenged and to grow as we found something suitable. Another of my lecturer's there even ran a seminar where you could discover what your "spiritual pathway" was (if you hadn't already worked it out) and then help with a devotional style that fitted.

What "does it" for me? Well that depends. I find that as i tend to be too "intellectual" about reading/listening/etc, that I need to have an element of physical participation in whatever I do. So I'm rediscovering some of the ancient christian spiritual exercises which seem to have stood the test of time!

Shawn Brace said...

Thank you for your feedback, folks. Let me address each of you individually:

Mike: I don't think we have A.D.D. At least I don't! I can't speak for you, I guess. I think I just have a desire to go deeper - and I'm sure the same is true for you.

Dingo: Thank you for your thoughts. I like the idea of playing "follow-the-leader" with the Spirit. Similarly, it's always encouraging to remember that Christ is actively searching for me in my devotions, and He already has a planned route for the day. I guess my "job" is to discern where He wants to take me that morning.

Andrew: Long time no talk! How are things going with you? By looking at your blog, it looks as though you have fallen upon tough times. I'm so sorry about that. I hope that your health improves.

I must clarify that no one ever explicitly told me that what I was doing was "wrong." I just feel like that.

I must admit that for me, personally, though, I am not as much into the "physical" exercises. Give me pure, unadulterated theological exploration where I am actively discovering some nuance of scripture, or seeing a passage in a new way, and that brings me into heavenly places!

Rich blessings to all of you!

Lorie said...

Haven't we all felt that way? I don't think we are promised that rapturous illumination every time we open the Word, and we set ourselves up to expect it. What we are promised is His presence, the immeasurable counsel of His Spirit, and that somehow He uses it all for His glory in His time. We are to just be prepared - oil in the lamp.

Have you read Mulhuland's book, "Invitation To A Journey"? It speaks to our individual personality types playing into the life breath of our disciplines. Also, I've just read Eugene Peterson's book "Working The Angles" - WOW! Read what he has to say to pastor's about prayer!

I'm reading "Company of Rivals" as well. Good book!

Shawn Brace said...

Hi Lorie,

Thank you for your thoughts. I think you are right. It is naive to think that we will experience "ecstasy" every time we have our time with the Lord.

I have not read that book by Mulholland or the one by Peterson. I've read one book by Peterson (besides The Message, of course), and enjoyed it. My dad has read five or six books by him, though, and thoroughly enjoys his writing.

Right now, I have a stack about 12 books high, though, that I need to read!

Kyle said...

Shawn I know that we'vve talked about this subject many times and I too share many of your concerns. I just want to say I'm impressed that you can still read through a Psalm in Hebrew. Also I agree with your desire to go deeper and Lorie's statement that we have been conditioned to believe that every devotion will be bliss. You know I'm reminded of the story about the pastor and the parishioner. The parishioner stated "pastor I can't remember what you preached last month or the month before that, etc." The pastor responded "Let me ask you a question. Do you know what you ate last month or the month before that." The parishioner responded no. The pastor then said "In the same way that you can't remember what you ate but it still nourished you so too is the word of God." I would also add to this story that often what we come across in our devotion may not give us strength at the time but it will later be called to our minds.

Shawn Brace said...


Thanks for your thoughts, buddy. My Hebrew is so-so, but I am definitely trying not to lose it.

I remember you often sharing that thought about the sermon/food. Good stuff.


Anonymous said...

Devotional time is purely the time you spend with your Friend! What that Friend wants is you! You have different emotions and moods on different days, and that matters to Jesus! He meets you where you are and He is glad that you spend that time with Him! The effects of that time aren't necessarily felt at the moment. Sometimes the effect trickles-down throughout the day or throughout the week. As we spend the special Time with God/Jesus/HolySpirit, we are changed! Take the guilt and duty out of devotions! It is special time with the Lover of our Souls! And we are transformed by being with God3! or so it seems to me!

Rachel (having trouble getting this to publish, so I'll try being anonymous)

Shawn Brace said...

Hi Rachel!

Thank you so much for your reflections. I think what you have said is completely true. I try to keep these things in mind.

Gary said...

Meaningful devotions has always been a struggle for me. Not a struggle to have them, but a struggle like you have in having them "meaningful" to my spiritual life. Like Rachel, I have found the just spending time with God is most beneficial. Several years ago after my mother died, I was looking at her Bible and noticed that she had read it through...something that I had never done. So, not to be out-done by my mother :), I started on the journey of reading through the same bible she read through. 9 months later by the time I finished, I couldn't wait to start all over again because the time I spent reading His word every day was time I was spending with Him and He was touching my heart in ways that He never had before.
Now, 5 trips through the Bible, and one with my current SS class, I have come to realize the importance of just spending time with Him and getting to know Him better and allowing time for Him to speak to me.

Shawn Brace said...

Thanks, Gary!

Reading through the Bible from cover-to-cover was one of the best things I've ever done. Unfortunately, I haven't done it in a while because the times that I have attempted it again, I get side-tracked in the usual places!

Plus, I am always tempted to try to rush through it so I can get to the end. That's never good.

By the way, HMS Richards used to read the entire Bible from cover-to-cover in one month every year - in January. He rushed through it, but he thought there was something extremely beneficial about getting a bird's-eye-view.