It was J. I. Packer who made an Anglican out of me.
Although I had attended a student-led Anglican service when I first became a seminarian at Regent College, it wasn’t until I moved to the Anglican church that Dr. Packer attended (and at which he sometimes led liturgy) that I was struck by the beauty and majesty of Anglican worship. It was like having a five-course spiritual meal every Sunday morning, complete with music, preaching, liturgy, Eucharist, and fellowship.
In hindsight, I find it interesting that I was never really taught how to live like an Anglican during the week instead of just on Sunday mornings. Or maybe I was, but I just didn’t pick it up.
The rhythm of the Daily Office
In any event, it was many years later, when I attended the residential portion of a liturgy course at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin, that I encountered the rhythm of the Daily Office. I was immediately drawn to that rhythm and to the Benedictine lifestyle of Ora et Labora (prayer and work) in which it was embedded.
When I got back to my home state of New Mexico, which is blessed with a number of monasteries, I visited every monastery that I knew about in order to perpetuate the same rhythm that I had experienced at Nashotah House. I eventually settled on the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, at which a fellow Anglican priest named Thomas McKenzie (who is no stranger to the pages of Anglican Pastor) had become an oblate—an affiliate of a religious community.
After several visits, I decided to become an oblate as well. I spent a year as an Oblate Novice before making my final vows. Christ in the Desert observes seven Daily Offices as well as daily Eucharist, and all music is notated as Gregorian Chant. As a result, functioning as an oblate at the monastery required a steep learning curve, which can initially detract from the spiritual focus of the Offices.
The Office of Compline became a favorite of mine, and I practiced it frequently at home right before bedtime, even in chant form. Since about half the time the Office of Compline seems to be canceled at the monastery, I began to take the Daily Office Booklet produced by Anglican Pastor to pray Evening Prayer in my guest room before I fell asleep.
The Daily Office is not enough.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because it’s possible to be seminary-trained, ordained (I am a bi-vocational priest in the Anglican Church in North America), and drawn to the Daily Office, and still overlook the voice of God speaking directly and personally. In fact, for too much of my life, I was a poster child for such avoidance of the voice of God. My Regent College experience was wonderful in many ways, but for me, it was largely an academic experience instead of a fundamentally spiritual one.
Even the practice of the Daily Office can become a rushed ritual instead a divine encounter, just like Anglican liturgy itself can become an exercise in Anglican aerobics (when to stand, sit, kneel, read the Bible, read the Prayer Book, read the service bulletin) instead of a deeply personal experience of the mystery and majesty of God.
In my own case, the problem started early.
I was blessed to grow up as a Christian in a Christian home, and I worshiped in a tradition that valued Bible knowledge. I excelled at “Sword Drills” (timed contests in looking up Bible passages) and Scripture memorization. I led Bible studies as a teenager, served as a counselor at a Christian camp during the summer, and attended a Christian liberal arts college.
I was exposed to the practice of a “Quiet Time” both at camp and from a youth pastor with whom I met regularly. Yet any instruction about how to have a Quiet Time was largely ad hoc and anecdotal instead of systematic and procedural. My experience of the Bible remained an opportunity to expand my mind instead of to encounter God, feed my heart, and motivate my hands.
Since I was raised in an academically oriented family, I carried on the family tradition by pursuing several Master’s degrees and eventually a Ph.D. Though I taught classes in a Bible college and helped out with youth groups at various churches, my conception of the Christian life as a largely academic pursuit persisted.
It wasn’t until I experienced a health crisis that turned into a spiritual crisis (ironically, as I was writing my dissertation) that my worldview started to change. In the economy of God, he used that health crisis to call me to preach, to prepare for ordained ministry, and to start a relationship with the woman who is now my wife.
I also had to reconstruct what it meant to study the Bible devotionally and hear the voice of God. I turned my attention first to the Quiet Time, then to Spiritual Journaling, and finally to Lectio Divina. I took a keen interest in such practices because all of a sudden, devotional Bible study meant something to me personally; the Bible wasn’t just for academics and professional clergy anymore.
Eventually, I started looking for ways to pass some insights on to others.
When I contemplated how I might write a book to pass these insights on, the vehicle of story seemed like a natural medium for several reasons.
Our postmodern age is often allergic to proposition or dogma but is disarmed by story; cognitive shields go down instead of up when a story is told. Story can even be subversive and smuggle absolute truth inside the relativistic-sounding Trojan Horse of a compelling narrative.
Humans live in a stream called time and are wired to retain information organized in a temporal sequence. And my time in the business world had exposed me to several so-called “leadership fables” that imparted leadership and organization principles through the medium of story. I am thinking of the leadership books by the Arbinger Institute, such as Leadership and Self-Deception, or the saga of an agile software development team in The Phoenix Project, or the several books by Patrick Lencioni (perhaps most notably The Five Dysfunctions of a Team). An earlier example is Who Moved My Cheese?, which is a parable about how individuals react to change.
I was somewhat surprised that I had not encountered the same genre in the Christian world, at least in the areas of spiritual formation in general and the devotional reading of the Bible in particular.
Discipling through story: Meeting God in the Bible.
So I crafted a story in which the two main characters represent the two primary audiences I anticipated for the book: new Christians and seasoned Christians who had lost the habit of meeting God in the Bible.
The narrative backbone of the book, which is entitled Meeting God in the Bible: How to Read Scripture Devotionally, is the long-term discipleship process between a pastor’s wife named Sharon and a new believer named Victoria. They meet over an extended period of time both in a coffee shop and in Sharon’s home, and Sharon teaches Victoria how to have a Quiet Time, then how to create a Spiritual Journal using the SOAP method (Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer), and finally how to practice Lectio Divina.
But as I was writing the book, it became increasingly apparent that these three devotional Bible study methods do not exist for their own sake. Instead, they are simply part of the lifelong process of spiritual formation, which is ultimately an act of worship as we increasingly reflect God back to himself by life and by lip.
So I integrated other spiritual formation practices into the book as components of the discipleship process, such as Scripture memorization, a theology and practice of prayer, how to handle temptation, how to interpret the Bible, and how to discern God’s voice.
As befits the role of Anglicanism not only as a via media but also as a bridge toward Christian unity, I consciously attempted to include ancient and modern spiritual formation practices that span Christian traditions. The ACTS Prayer and Spiritual Journaling using the SOAP method are relatively recent (at least in those particular forms), while the Jesus Prayer and Lectio Divina have a long history in the Church.
My publisher (Fontes Press) and I attempted to create an entire system both in and around the book to facilitate its use by groups and individuals.
- A Study Guide with at least four questions for each chapter is an integral part of the book.
- Two appendices are included; the first distills the insights of the entire narrative by topic in list form for handy reference. The second provides a theological justification for the medium of story and is subtitled “Toward a Theology of Story.”
- A Further Reading section provides a short annotated bibliography of books that could profitably be read next.
- The Dove-award-winning Gospel recording artist Fernando Ortega graciously provided a beautiful and vulnerable Foreword to the book.
- And the book is supported by a continuously evolving Web site that contains a host of additional resources and related topics by book chapter.
How to integrate the Daily Office with devotional Bible reading.
Given its intended purpose as a mechanism for lifelong spiritual formation, if the voice of God speaking personally is not regularly encountered in the Daily Office, then the Daily Office is not enough.
So how can the disciplines of the Daily Office and devotional Bible reading best be integrated? In the same way, I believe, that a systematic Bible reading plan and devotional Bible reading can best be integrated, by considering them as two separate but related things instead of as the same thing.
Too often, in the press of time and the busyness of life, we rush through our daily Bible reading assignment or the Daily Offices and consider that our “devotions,” even though we haven’t met God personally or heard his voice speaking directly to us during those devotions.
My suggestion is that we treat such practices as complementary but different, and that we select a single passage of Scripture from the lectionary readings for Morning or Evening Prayer to focus on devotionally at another time during the day. That passage can be the basis for a Quiet Time, or Spiritual Journaling, or the steps of Lectio Divina.
If you are an evening person, perhaps you could do so during the Daily Office of Compline, which does not have lectionary readings associated with it. If you are a morning person, perhaps you could do so during the Daily Office of Midday Prayer, or during another time slot or schedule break in the morning.
The ultimate goal is to meet God in his Word and be blessed and transformed in our head, heart, and hands by that encounter. God has made us for himself, and the conscious cultivation of a lifelong habit of devotional Bible reading can deepen your journey toward the intimate communion with God that you were created for.