In the circles that I rolled in back in my on fire days, there was a method to a good “quiet time” or “devotional time” or — wait for it — “date with Jesus” (I wish I were making that last one up. I’m not).
If you were going to spend time with God, it involved “getting into the Word” or, if you were extra serious, “digging into the Word.” It involved reading through the Bible in a year or at least reading a little bit every day. And it involved coming away from that reading with some new flash of insight that you could apply in your daily life and wax ad nauseum about during student-led Bible study.
A good “quiet time” involved an uninterrupted half hour or hour and prayers that were structured around acronyms. (A.C.T.S., for example, so your remembered to get all the ingredients in: adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.) And always The Bible. That instruction manual, that love letter from God, that holy, mysterious book.
Here is a thing that I actually used to say back then.
Yeah…I’ve been spending too much time reading books about the Bible, and not enough time reading the Bible itself. I really need to get back on track.
Like, really — what?!?!
My husband, Andrew, loves reading the Bible. Loves it. His favorite studies are the kind where they go through some book of the Bible verse by verse and talk through the history, the cultural context, and the theology of it.
He likes to figure out the wiring of the thing — the ways that this miracle that Jesus did over here connects to that prophecy there and that verse there. He opens the whole thing up like a surgeon, and he looks at the guts of it all working together, and he gets a rush. A high. He comes away from those times feeling full to the brim with God.
It’s taken me about a decade to admit it, but here it is: I’m not wired like that.
I love the Bible. I do. But the truth is that most of the time, I feel overwhelmed and unmoored when I’m dropped smack-dab in the middle of that big book.
I told you last week that I’ve been reading Emily Freeman’s upcoming book, Simply Tuesday over the past couple of weeks. I’ve been reading it slowly, one chapter at a time, first thing in the morning when I should be “getting into the Word,” having my “quiet time,” et cetera, et cetera.
And that’s okay.
I’m realizing that, more often than not, I need a gentle voice to guide my meditation. I someone to speak the liturgy out loud so that I can repeat it. The metaphors and insights into the Bible that other writers offer in their books make me feel less alone. And by ushering me down the roads of their own faith journeys, they give me the courage to keep moving toward God.
This past couple of weeks, Emily Freeman has been that for me. She offers her insights about God so sincerely and gently that I’m put off guard immediately. (And that’s not an easy thing to do for this long-time cynic.) And it’s not less spiritual because I’m not opening my old, black leather Bible itself. It’s manna. It’s daily bread, offered in a way I can take it.
Here are a few books I’ve been keeping on the end table in my office for when I struggle to read my Bible. A couple of other voices that have ushered me over the hump of my own baggage. I hope you find a few friends here too.
Dave Harrity’s Making Manifest: I’ve written about this book before, but it’s such a valuable tool to me that I have to mention it again. This 28-study does a better job of anything I’ve ever seen at combining spiritual depth with the creative practices. Each day has a short (but poetic and poignant) meditation that invites you to respond, not by filling in blanks, but rather by free writing responses. I’m on my second read-through of this book, and I find something new in it every time I open it.
Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours: I love liturgy, but as a lifelong evangelical, the regular Book of Common Prayer still feels difficult for me. But Phyllis Tickle offers a contemporary version in three parts (Springtime, Summertime, and Autumn and Wintertime) I love it. It’s mostly really big swaths of text from the Bible, but it’s easier for me to read the verses when I know where and what to read and am guided through it day by day.
Denise Levertov The Stream and the Sapphire: I discovered Denise Levertov’s poetry a few years ago and absolutely love it. This little book is a compilation of her “pomes on religious theme.” It’s gorgeous.
Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith: This book is a more intense, wise, beautiful version of this blog, back when it was “How to Talk Evangelical” and I focused almost entirely on redefining religious language. Because it’s organized by terms instead of by chapters, it’s easy to dip in and read on just one. This book played a defining role in my own faith changes, and hers continues to be a voice that helps me to disentangle the culture behind faith language with the true beauty of it.
Kelly O’Dell Stanley’s Praying Upside Down: This is a new book, just out this year, but I love the creative way that Kelly approaches prayer. This isn’t a “dip-in” kind of book, but you can definitely read one chapter at a time…and each one has unique, beautiful exercises to get you approaching prayer in different ways. As someone who has always struggled mightily with prayer, the playful, creative, faith-filled way that Kelly writes about it is inspiring.
Frederick Buechner’s Listening to Your Life: Frederick Buechner is one of my all-time favorite spiritual writers. (His Telling Secrets is one of the books that pushed me toward memoir writing.) This is a compilation of his work, broken into bite-sized bits — one for each day of the year. I’ll be honest, the excerpts of his novels that appear along the way don’t resonate with me like the essays and memoirs…but that could be because I’ve never read them. Still, he has been a faithful guide to me through the years, and his voice is one that I trust to lead me toward God.
Heather Caliri’s Unquiet Time (not pictured above): This is a quirky little book is almost like a little homemade art journal. The questions Heather asks are insightful and get beyond the typical churchy questions, and the format of the book invites doodling, free writing, and figuring out.
Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader (not pictured above): I love everything that Henri Nouwen writes, but this little reader features little bite-sized bits of his letters and writings that are perfect for reading over a cup of coffee. His stuff on community, silence, and vocation have been game-changers for me.
What about you? What voices bring you closer to God?