For my contextual leadership class we were to take up a spiritual discipline and at the end of the term write a reflective paper on the experience. What follows is the paper.
At the beginning of this semester we were asked to choose and practice a spiritual discipline which was new or had been practiced in the past, but had been abandoned. In my Christian Reformed tradition we do not often talk about “spiritual disciplines”. The whole idea of disciplining myself around some practice, some work, feels just a little bit Armenian. We would certainly promote the regular reading of the Bible and prayer, but would likely see those as a regular Christian practice rather than elevating it to the category of Spiritual Discipline. A survey of Further research on the concept, however, would suggest that this regular practice, depending how it is being done, is likely just that. Spiritual Disciplines are defined by some as “patterns of thought and behavior that draw us away from an improper focus on ourselves and the world to a proper focus on God and his Word” (Eyre, 1992 p9). That could be regular Bible reading and prayer.
I struggled a little bit at the beginning to figure out what practice I should take up. My level of regular Bible reading was likely not what it should be. I recognize that reading textbooks and Bible passages for classes does not equal a Spiritual discipline, but, I was finding myself quite overwhelmed with those readings and my Bible was not being opened for anything outside class work and sermon preparation. So, I decided that becoming disciplined in Bible reading would be my first goal.
In many cases, I read passages, but, comprehend very little of what I have read. Writing something about the reading helps me with comprehension. I considered the idea of journaling and quickly realized (before actually starting at it) that I would likely be unable to maintain that over any length of time because there was no source of regular accountability. Accountability can be a double edged sword. To be truly accountable, someone else should be able to have access to my journal, so that my time with it is transparent. That sort of sharing, however, takes away some of the real open hearted sharing with yourself that could happen in a completely private journal. Some things may just be too private to say or write if others have access.
I decided to take the route of anonymous accountability and give up some of my ability to share my inmost thoughts by working in the format of a blog (psalmthoughts.wordpress.com). I already had two other blogs and enjoyed the format of writing there. In general, my readers are somewhat anonymous and while I do have a counter on the site, and can track traffic to a specific IP address, I really don’t know who is reading my postings, when they read them, or how often they check the site. I do know that if they come to the site, they are likely to read the “about” page and find there this statement of purpose:
“Over the next months I plan to work through the Psalms on a daily basis. My plan is to read the psalm at some point in the morning, hopefully first thing, and sometime later in the day (likely evening) write a short reflection of it.”
By stating this purpose on the page, I have given myself the accountability to keep at it. I know that there are folks out there who have subscribed to this blog and receive my posts daily. Knowing that they are there is enough to keep me going, to keep me to my goal of reading and posting daily. Missing a day now makes me feel like a failure.
I have to admit, I missed once or twice, usually by less than twelve hours, but I still missed. Carving out that regular time in the day to follow this discipline is not as easy as one might think. Early in the process it was easier, because there was a sense of enthusiasm for a new project. As the weeks go on that enthusiasm wanes and the discipline becomes more of a job. Now, seven weeks in, it is becoming more of a natural part of my day. I still struggle, however, because there is actually very little rhythm in my days. About the only thing that is consistent from one day to the next is eating breakfast and even that can vary from 6:15 am to 8:15 am. I have been able to tie the one end of the discipline to that relatively consistent anchor by trying to make the initial post for the day while I am having breakfast. The computer is normally my companion at the breakfast table in the morning as I check email and the various social media sites that I follow. Reading and posting (copying and pasting) a Psalm at that time works well. Evenings are a little more of a challenge as I try to find a regular time to hang the activity on in the diversity of my evening activities.
Overall, the discipline is more a part of my day than it was at the beginning. I have enjoyed working through the Psalms, but wonder if maybe I should have chosen another part of the Bible to focus on. The Psalms seem somewhat random in terms of any recognizable movement from one to the other and are quite repetitive. I wonder if, rather than writing my own response to the Psalm if reading one that someone else had put together would have been more effective. For now, I am going to continue on the path I have started.
There have been benefits to this disciplined activity that I have taken on. I certainly know the Psalms better than I did before. Reading and then writing a response requires a level of comprehension that was not there before. I have found myself recognizing the songs which we still sing, and are written in some way on my heart, coming out to surprise me in the words of a psalmist. Psalm 48 stayed with me for the whole day, playing itself over and over in my head
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,
In the city of our God,
In the mountain of His holiness.
Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth,
Is Mount Zion, on the sides of the north,
The city of the great King.
Is Mount Zion, on the sides of the north,
The city of the great King.
Psalms 8, 19, 42, and 43 have, in the same way, provided that real familiarity that comes from a well known and well loved song.
While I have, at some point in my life, likely read all of the Psalms, recent years have seen me go to this part of the Bible for an appropriate passage for the beginning of a church council or elder’s meeting, or a rousing Psalm to use as a call to worship on a Sunday morning. I have never spent much time reading laments. A large proportion of the Psalms of Lament appear in the first third of the book, so, I have to this point read a lot of laments. (as of today I am to Psalm 52) On the one hand they seem very repetitive; however, once I started to build a tag cloud on the blog, something that I started part way into the project, I found that I needed to add new tags for almost every Psalm. They are the same, but different. Each one points us to the suffering of the world, calls out to God to answer, and ends with an affirmation that God will continue to be faithful. These Psalms of Lament are real life stuff, suffering, crying out to God, realizing that He is our source of hope.
This project has been good for me. I intend to carry on with it at least to the end of the Psalms. I’m thinking that it may be of value to just rotate back through them again, editing and rewriting the posts as new insights are found. I have found that spending time on spiritual things in a somewhat structured way is necessary rather than just doing the reading and responding because it is required for a course or some other task.
This Spiritual Discipline could over time become a source of self care as the activity will eventually have nothing to do with the issues of the day, but rather, give an opportunity to put aside the troubles of today and just spend time in God’s word. Unfortunately, since this activity was assigned as course work and carries with it the baggage of being required to finish a course properly, it did not entirely fit the definition of self care. It does not totally allow me to step outside of the pressures and requirements of today, of this week, of this semester and focus on my inner self. Next week that will change and I will carry on reading and blogging the Psalms for no other reason than to come to know them, and my God better.