Monday, November 14, 2005

Personal Worship

Tim Challies is stirring up discussion on the subject of personal worship. I was interested to see the similarities and differences between his approach and mine to personal time of worship.

Mine usually starts near one of my favorite icons on my wall, the crucifixion. (I'm a member of a Lutheran church, and I hold to the original Lutheran tradition of not being an iconoclast. I don't really see much difference between having an icon of Christ on the wall and having a modern-art painting of Jesus on the wall, except that the icons aren't painted in those annoying cloying pastel colors and instead are rich in both color and theological symbol.) I approach God through Christ as Peter says. Typically my worship is late in the day, and I begin on my knees with regret for whatever acts of apathy and lovelessness, anger or selfishness or pride that I have perpetrated in the day. As I work through admitting them before God, the prayer is just the simple, "Lord, have mercy."

Depending on how much of a beast I was that day ("simple" repentance can take me awhile) and how exhausted the day has left me, I may or may not get much further than that before closing out with the Lord's prayer. If I'm struggling with pride, I fix my eyes on Jesus' humility and how that is the true way to approach God, love God, and serve God. If I'm struggling with parenting burnout or frustration, I pray for my love to be renewed and for me to see my children as God sees them. If I am discouraged by things around me, I fix my eyes on the promise that in this world we will have trouble but Christ has overcome the world. If I'm struggling with apathy, I stop to be glad of God.

Now all of this makes me sound much better than I really am. Many days I crawl into bed tired and cranky, with "Lord have mercy" and "May your name be kept holy" as the most prayer I can manage before I fall tiredly asleep. So I don't want to paint the picture as if I manage as much worship time every night. But there are nights when I manage better, and if we're to encourage each other then it's worth sharing the best of times as well as putting them in perspective against the fact that I'm at least as much sinner as I am saint.

So where I was before the perspective-check: I hold tight to what I've been taught, "The joy of the Lord is our strength." If I have no strength, usually at the root I find that I have not taken time or thought for joy. If it's daylight I just open my window and am still and am glad for the world. David said "He restores my soul" about God making him spend some quiet time in a beautiful place. Sometimes my soul needs restoring, and that's the best way I've found to do it.

For Bible study, sometimes I read a short section (up to several chapters) several times over to make sure I'm following all that's being said. Some nights I'll read one of the shorter letters a few times in a sitting. I read prayerfully, by which I mean roughly what the hymnist meant when he said "while I breathe I pray", being mindful of God's presence in his Word. There are times when I'll work through just a paragraph or two, going over the text a dozen times, making sure I have understood and really considered exactly what is being said. I look for what the author says his topic is, and how the supporting points tie back to the central point. I look for how God is praised and honored, and how his love is shown. I look for truth, for gladness, for the many surprising references to Jesus scattered throughout the Old Testament. I look for verses that can be a strength in time of trouble, or (even if abrasive) can scour away some of my more stubborn faults or dark spots.

The Bible has such rich depths. It's a bit of a peeve of mine when people look at it for knowledge and instruction alone. Of course it has those; but God's word is spirit, it is life, it makes us clean, it transforms us, faith comes by hearing it, it feeds our souls, it's our food, it's our bread. It's not information alone, it's also strength and nourishment. When people complain of not wanting to read a certain passage of Scripture again because they've read it before, that makes about as much sense to me as not wanting to drink water again because of having had a glass of it once before. The point of drinking wasn't for the unique experience, it was to strengthen and refresh.

When I get to prayers for people I know, the only thing that is much consolation is the cross, which fortunately I have visually right in front of me on the icon. For my children when they are still not treating each other decently? That's what forgiveness is for, that's what God's love is for. For my neighbor who is throwing her life away with bad choices? The cross is the only hope radical enough to reach that depth of despair that she's going through. For my friend whose husband is dying of cancer? The cross again is the only thing that can reach that. The cross and the empty tomb, that is what gives us rational hope, gives us justified courage to keep going. And again a lot of times with all those thoughts flying through my mind, the only prayer I manage is "Lord, have mercy." I figure that's ok; that's the basic essence of prayers that ask something anyway. There's no shame in keeping it simple.

The one pastor who was most like a spiritual father taught me about the Lord's prayer, that the more we mature as Christians, the more that prayer is our heart's prayer. It's not every day that I can truly say that God's honor instead of mine -- the honor of God's name -- was really at the top of my heart's desire. I could go on about how this prayer humbles me and challenges me and teaches me. And when I let it, that's what it does.

But again the perspective-check: often enough, I crawl into bed exhausted from a long day and just manage, "Lord, have mercy."

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