Some people prefer structure. Others prefer spontaneity. But our preferences aren’t the whole of us. Being a structure guy myself, I’ve found that a willing embrace of spontaneity has been an important pathway to growth and freshness. Often, embracing what isn’t our preference is critical for spiritual progress. Embracing life-giving structure can be very good for the more free-spirited, spontaneous approach.
As for formulas, this is one of the banes of USAmerican thinking. We tend to take what is organic and vitally alive, then process and package it for mass consumption. Like with food, a lot of the nutrients get lost. We might sell a lot more of it, but is it all that it could be anymore? And formulas tend to forget the mysterious reality of God’s grace, God’s initiative, and God’s empowering presence. You can’t package those!
And as for the practice of “devotional time,” yesterday I joined a group of about 100 church leaders who listened to Jack & Anna Hayford share their lives. He talked about the regularity of his time with God, but that sometimes it was two minutes and sometimes two hours. The focus isn’t on a formula, but on God Himself. I’m not seeking to be faithful to some system of practices, but to a personal, interactive, conversational relationship with my heavenly Father. (But I often catch myself turning my gaze from His face to my practice all the time). Spiritual disciplines are a way of making more unhurried time and uncluttered space to listen for God, watch for God and notice Him. They are not good things I do to gain favor with Him.
Finally, I’ve been discovering interesting evidence of regularity in spiritual practices in the early church. It appears that the earliest Christians may well have continued the prayer rhythm of the temple (morning, afternoon and evening), either in community or individually, but at those times. It is an embryonic version of what would later become more formalized in monastic communities as the daily hours of prayer. (You can read a great summary of this in the introduction of any volume of Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours. I’ve include a link to the Wintertime/Autumn volume here.)
In his book, Subversive Spirituality: Transforming Mission Through the Collapse of Space and Time, Paul Jensen has done a masterful job illustrating the rhythms of spiritual disciplines and ministry disciplines of
- Jesus Himself
- the first Christians (Acts)
- the church of the first two centuries (apostolic fathers)
- the church of the modern age (1450 to mid-twentieth century)
- the church of the postmodern age.
It is, from my biased perspective, a priceless resource along these lines. I’m on my second read already.