Category Archives: Faith Practice, the Exercise

Bible Study in a Snap

I recently taught a class at church that started with a session on Bible study. One of the class members came back the following week asking about the SNAP Bible study plan. I didn’t have such a thing, but I did have the TRIP plan, which I borrowed and customized from the Mount Carmel Ministries Daily Texts. That plan proved to be the one he was looking for. It wasn’t the first Bible study method I ever used, but it has been one of the more enduring approaches. It all began with the little book called Daily Texts and two daily verses from the Bible.

I have used Daily Texts for more than ten years. When I started using them, I was eager to have a daily time for prayer and Bible study, but I could not see how I was going to work it in. I had just started a new job with long hours and a lot of travel. The normal stresses associated with settling in to a new job were multiplied in this one, and I was in a real quandary. I felt the need of daily time with God more than ever, and I simultaneously felt that I had less time than ever to give to that purpose. The Daily Texts were the answer for me.

The beauty of Daily Texts is that the Bible verses for each day are printed in the book itself. One verse from the Old Testament, one verse from the New Testament, and a prayer. There is a great deal more to this little book, which is printed annually, but I could start with the two verses and the prayer. I thought I could surely give the Lord five minutes at the start of each day, and that is how I began.

It wasn’t the first time I ever tried to have a quiet time. Over many years, starting in college, I had tried. I always failed, because I always started with some comprehensive plan that was hard to learn and took a lot of time. It might be a book with lessons for each day, or it might be a guide for reading the Bible in a certain amount of time, or it might be a set of questions to use with some fixed number of verses or some scheduled reading each day. I always started with the I best of intentions, but it wouldn’t be long before the time requirement seemed impossible, I fell behind, and suddenly, it felt like finals week with a lot of catching up to do. Any runner could have told me that you don’t start by running a marathon, but I thought it was all or nothing. I failed again and again, and every few years I tried again with the same result: failure.

In late 2000, when I started my new job, I committed to a plan that seemed doable on any day. Five minutes. Read the verses. Pray the prayer. Think about what was on that page. That was all. My motivation was more than a simple desire to be more spiritual. My real reason was fear. I had read a lot of books and magazine articles about the way a marriage can be stressed by travel. Since I was five years into my second marriage, I did not want it to fail, and I felt that I needed to nourish my faith in order to sustain my marriage while I traveled every week to distant worksites.

I developed the habit of setting my Bible and my copy of Daily Texts on a table beside a comfortable chair each evening before I went to bed. In my travels, I always had some sort of chair and table in my room, and eventually, I made it a habit to set those items on that table when I unpacked for the week. It became a part of my routine.

Each morning, I started coffee as soon as I got up. I got ready for work, and the last thing before I headed out the door was my five-minute routine. I learned soon that this was a bad idea. By the time I was ready to leave, I was rushing around, and it was hard to sit down and quiet down. The Lord did not have my full attention.

I made a small change that had a big impact. I made my quiet time the first thing – well, the first thing after coffee. I confess to being a coffeeholic. I get out of bed thinking about my first cup of coffee. I started sipping my coffee while sitting in the chair I had designated for my quiet time. It was early, and it was very quiet. The day stretched out before me as if it were endless. I could take five minutes to read and think about those verses and then read the prayer. I set my coffee cup down and began to read.

This small change in my routine was quite fruitful. I started wondering what it was that actually linked the verses. Sometimes I found a link; sometimes not. Regardless, I gave the verses more attention and asked myself how they might actually have meaning for my day. I prayed the written prayer, and then I prayed for strength for the day.

Soon I made another small change. When I was ready to begin reading the verses, I bowed my head and prayed, “Holy Spirit, come and be my teacher.” I read the verses more attentively, and sometimes I looked up the context. I began to see a link between the verses more frequently, and more often than not, I saw a link between their teaching and my daily life. One day I noticed that my five minutes had become fifteen, yet it seemed that I was still getting things done and getting to work on time.

This is how it began, and this approach worked for most of a year before I made any major change. I didn’t want to change anything that was working. I committed to this brief time, and I stuck with it. For me, it was like summiting Everest. By the end of the year, I was ending every day’s session with a thank-you prayer for the courage to stick with it.

In future posts I will share more about my quest for quiet time. I still haven’t told you how to study the Bible with the TRIP plan, so watch for the next installment.

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Why Don’t You Have Time to Read the Bible?

A lot of my friends accuse me of inappropriate pressure when I suggest that they should take time for Bible study and prayer. They say that I am retired, and of course I have time for such extras as Bible study and prayer. You may feel the same way. Maybe your life seems very hectic and maybe you think you already have enough demands on your time. You don’t need another thing on your daily schedule.

It is true that I am retired today, but I haven’t always been retired. I worked at some very hectic jobs along the way. I reared two children. I attended meetings, took night classes, failed to keep my laundry or housecleaning done to my mother’s standards, and yearned to read the latest breakout novel. I know what it is to think there is no more time.

Yet I observe that everyone makes time for the things that seem important. Just as people find money for the important things. If parents believe that a child has musical talent, they will find money for piano lessons and make time to drive the child back and forth. They will listen to practice sessions while making supper and they won’t complain that the recital falls on the very same Sunday afternoon as a playoff game. People make room for the things that rise to the top of the priorities in their lives.

When I was working, I had one job in which I traveled 100%. I got up at 4:00 AM on Monday mornings, even if it was raining or even if it was only 15 degrees Fahrenheit, because I had to be at the airport by 5:30AM in order to get through security and catch the first plane out. I got up even earlier if my plane left at 6:15AM. That was the way things were. I worked long days on that job, often 12 hours or more. I worked every business day of the week, and sometimes on the weekends. I was expected to put in not less than 40 hours on the projects to which I was assigned, and I was expected to be active in continuing education and personal professional development on top of those project hours. It was a challenging life.

Yet all those years, I rarely failed to start my day with Bible study and prayer. I won’t try to sound like someone who never failed in my personal devotional discipline. I am an imperfect human. I am not a machine. Sometimes I fail. But the failures were intermittent. My daily routine started with coffee, Bible study and prayer. Sometimes I had an hour for those purposes, and sometimes it was less, but always there was some time. I had time, because I made time.

My work in the area of technical support was a 24-hour responsibility. I was subject to be called or even scheduled to work at 2AM just as surely as I might be scheduled for a project meeting at 2PM, and those two responsibilities might both come on the same day. I had to make my time for work and protect my life and health without failing in my responsibilities. Yet every day, there was time for prayer and Bible study.

I am not an exceptional person. I simply have a priority. I think Bible study and prayer are important. I think I can’t live successfully without making time for these personal disciplines. In blogs yet to come I will explain myself, but today I simply want to say that you have time for whatever is important to you. When you look at yourself, you will see immediately that you make time when you need time. You may feel guilty about your priorities and you may try to keep a low profile about the way you use discretionary time. You probably feel that this issue is none of my business, and you are right.

How you use your time is completely your business. You are not accountable to me or to anyone else’s judgment of your priorities. However, I hear people express regrets that they do not know God well, or that they don’t have any peace or that they wish they had time for prayer and Bible study. I hear the regrets, but when I suggest that it is worthwhile to make time for Bible study and prayer, I am almost always accused of not understanding how busy everyone is.

Everybody is busy, and one of the biggest problems most people want to solve is how to do the important things and not feel burdened by all the other undone things. People need to feel that they are doing the right things and living the right way and acting with honor and integrity. There is a way to feel that way about life, and it starts with Bible study and prayer.

There were years in which I got up at 4AM every day, whether I had a plane to catch or not, because that was the only way for me to have time for Bible study and prayer. That discipline was hard. Sometimes it seemed quite unpleasant, and I bribed myself to stick with it by making sure I got the coffee going right away. But the most important result was a reassuring peace and a sense of the presence of God in every day that only grew more beautiful and more reassuring over the years. Today I am retired and my days are my own, more or less, but it is just as easy for a retiree to let the discipline slip as it is for anyone else. I still need to be committed to that time or it does not happen. I must make the time, or I don’t have the time. I do it, not because I am retired and it is easy, but rather I do it, because it is worth doing.

Real Prayer

I have met a lot of people who say they seldom pray, because they really don’t know how or they don’t know what to pray about. Others say that they pray on the run, but worry that they should be more other-worldly when they pray. There is a lot of confusion about prayer.

Prayer really isn’t what many people think it is. They ask, “Why pray? I never get what I want.” You would almost think that prayer is like an order to Amazon. Some people seem to think that God is in the business of customer service; if you don’t get what you want, you place your order somewhere else.

Prayer, however, is not about order fulfillment. Prayer is about becoming the person God created you to be. You may petition or intercede for others. You may grieve. You may ask for discernment. You may give thanks or praise God. You may simply wait on the Lord.

Whatever you do when you pray, it is more about entering into God’s work on earth than it is about getting what you want. You might even say that prayer is seldom about getting “results” if by results, you mean that you tell God what to do and he does it. Prayer is about getting yourself rearranged. Prayer is about finding out where you fit in God’s plan, not about fitting God into your plan.

My mother and I had a troubled relationship. The challenges continued long after my teen years. One day, after a particularly difficult disagreement, I went to my mother’s pastor for counsel. We talked for nearly an hour and then he said, “Let’s pray.” I bowed my head and waited for him to pray that my mother would be changed into someone I could get along with, maybe even please. Instead, he prayed about our differences. He asked for grace for each of us to show our love for each other. He prayed that the Holy Spirit would work to transform our relationship. Then he asked me to pray, too.

I don’t usually feel uncomfortable about praying aloud, but I felt nervous that day. Praying in front of a preacher wasn’t the same as praying with my friends. They are my peers, but a preacher is a little bit intimidating. However, I took a deep breath and began to pray. I started by describing how I felt and how my mother was hurting me. Then something happened. Words came out that I had no intention of speaking. I said, “Lord, please help me to see my mother the way you see her.”

I stopped right there. I had gone to the pastor in order to get help. I thought that the help I needed was that my mother should change. I thought the pastor could influence her to change. Even as we were talking, I had mostly focused on the hope that he could somehow motivate her to be different. I never for a moment thought about any need for me to be different. I thought I was fine. I thought I needed to ask God for results, and he needed to provide them. After all, Jesus said, “Ask, and you will receive.”

Well, I asked. But I asked for something I didn’t know I wanted. The Holy Spirit worked in me in answer to the pastor’s prayer, and I asked for what I needed instead of what I wanted. That prayer was answered. I began to think about my mother in a different way. I began to see things in her character and personality that had eluded me as long as I was focused on getting her changed so she could get along with me.

That prayer was a turning point in our relationship. It would be a lie to say that we miraculously never argued again. Our relationship was changed, but like all relationship issues, it required time and attention to bring about real healing. The big difference was in my outlook. I truly did begin to see qualities that I had failed to notice and appreciate in my mother. I began to treat her differently, because I saw her in a different light. We lived a great distance apart, and shortly before her death I visited her for a week that was truly the best visit we ever had. The last time we spoke to each other, she didn’t hang up on me. My final words to her were, “I love you,” to which she replied, “Love you, too.”

I didn’t get the “results” I wanted from prayer, but I got the outcome I needed. I asked, and I received, but I didn’t ask what I expected to ask. I received the answer to my request, not the answer to my desire. I didn’t get God to do what I wanted; I turned around and started doing what God wanted. That is the real power of prayer.

It’s Not Magic

There is a wonderful story in the book of Luke. Many people in today’s world could identify with a woman who spent all her money on doctors without getting well. Here is Luke’s record of that day:

As [Jesus] went, the crowds pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down be3fore him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. “He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”  Luke 8:42-48 NRSV

When I read this story this morning, I was struck by a question: why didn’t Jesus simply keep moving? He knew the woman was well. She knew she was well. Why did he insist on speaking with her?

Jesus did a lot of things that shocked the people of his day. He frequently spoke with women as if they had the same value as men, and that certainly shocked them. However, I don’t believe that he did any of those things for the sheer shock value. I don’t think he singled out this woman because of any social agenda.

I believe he forced this woman to come near and talk with him, because Jesus wanted her to understand that it was her relationship with him that healed her. Her faith touched him as my faith touches him today. It reached out and claimed what his presence promised.

Jesus knew people very well. He knew that she had received her healing the instant she touched the fringe of his clothing. He knew that when she told people what had happened, that detail would stand out, and many people would be tempted to wonder if they could produce a miracle, too, if they only had a little bit of the fringe from Jesus’ clothing. He wanted to prevent the woman and all the people who might ever hear her story from thinking that this was some magic trick that anybody could perform if only he had some of that fringe. Jesus didn’t want people fighting to get near enough to trim off pieces of his clothing. Jesus did not want people reacting to him the way people today react to the arrival of a rock star.

Jesus also knew that miracles like this have a way of stopping time in someone’s life. Since the story makes it clear that she had been sick for a long time, most of the people in the crowd probably knew about her illness. If she suddenly became well, and it was all due to touching Jesus’ fringe, she herself might become a junior celebrity, introduced as the woman who was magically cured by Jesus’ fringe. She could become like a forty-year-old man I once knew who had nothing to talk about except a speech contest he won his junior year in high school. Jesus came to make people’s lives rich and fulfilled, and he did not want her life to stop in that dusty street with her fingertip on his fringes.

Jesus wanted this woman, and everyone else, to know that her healing came through faith in God. Jesus was God in the flesh, not a passing stage show. This healing was a response to faith in God, the God she saw in Jesus. His response to her faith and her act of faith was relationship. Jesus wanted this miracle to be like the miracle of birth. When a baby is born, we all gather round and admire the baby. We are excited by this tiny little creature whose arrival is a new miracle of life. But if the baby never grows at all, it is a tragedy. The new world record for the smallest man in the world is a man who never grew any more after a few months. Jesus did not want this woman to be stunted that way.

Jesus was on his way to important business when a sick woman touched him in the middle of a crowd of people. Even to notice her was an interruption, but for Jesus, the relationship was more important than staying on schedule. He took the time to speak with her and to bless her and to nourish the faith that acted with both fear and determination. Jesus wanted to nourish that relationship. It is a lesson for us all.

The Ministry of Listening

On the night Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest friends, Jesus said that his followers would be identified in the culture at large by the love they showed to each other. We often think that we show love to one another by doing things for one another, and that idea is not wrong. Just today in my church, we blessed and prayed for a small group of people who are preparing to leave for El Salvador where they will help Habitat for Humanity build houses. We are accustomed in churches to use the word “ministry” for the types of activity that show our love for one another. We expect someone who performs a ministry to be actively doing something.

In today’s world, we expect people to be very active all the time, whether in ministry, or in other activities. I hear people apologize constantly for any failure to do something, by saying, “I was just so busy.” In other words, people have way too many activities on their to-do lists to do all the activities on the list. One of the casualties of all that busyness is listening. For example, I have a friend whom I seldom actually see or talk to. She is quite busy. She almost never answers the phone when I call. I leave voice mail. If I really want her attention, I send e-mail. She is more likely to answer her e-mail with a quick sentence or two than to call me back after hearing my voice mail. When we do see each other, it always takes a while to get through her recitation of her busy schedule before we can begin to talk about the things that make us interested in each other. This state of affairs is very common these days. A real conversation is about talking and listening, but way too much of our interaction with people is about saying, or texting, or tweeting, or e-mailing, what we have to say. Not nearly enough is about listening to others.

I am starting to understand in my old age that one of the kindest, most helpful things people can do for each other is to listen. Have you ever felt completely alone in a room full of people? It happens all the time. People with the gift of hosting are attuned to the signal that somebody in the room is isolated. They find that person, engage him or her in conversation, and introduce that person to someone by saying something like, “Ellen, have you met Jody? Just wait till you hear where she went on vacation this year.” Jody, who used to be isolated and lonely, now has a cue to speak up, a topic to talk about, and a listener primed to pay attention. Jody feels a lot better about things already.

In the book, No Future Without Forgiveness, the South African bishop Desmond Tutu describes the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as South Africa moved away from apartheid. He wrote that very often people said that the simple fact that the commission listened as they spoke was in itself healing. They needed to tell their stories, but they also needed attentive, respectful hearers. After the opportunity to speak the truth to someone who listened all the way to the end, they were ready to forgive the people who had done terrible things to them, or to those they loved. Simply speaking the truth to people who listened started the healing process.

It is easy to validate Bishop Tutu’s observations when you realize the value of counselors, psycho-therapists, and psychiatrists. These people provide the great service of listening to troubled people. Then they ask questions and listen again. Articles and books on the subject are full of examples of people who actually solved their own problems as they simply talked and talked and talked to someone who would listen.

It is a principle of relationship-building that people need to listen. If you want to have friends, you must be a friend, and one of the fastest ways to make a friend is to listen. As soon as you stop talking and give your full attention to the other person, that person starts to think better of you. If you are listening so attentively that you only speak to ask questions, you will endear yourself to the person speaking. It will be obvious that you are not scheming to figure out how to stop listening and start talking instead.

Good listeners don’t just sit quietly. They truly pay attention and try to get the whole story. Some of us tell our stories in a disjointed fashion, jumping forward and backward in time, making it hard for the listener to sort out the narrative. Good listeners ask questions, or even say things such as, “I think you said you went to your grandmother’s house before you went to work that day. Is that the way it was?” The dialogue in police stories on television often moves forward with the question, “And what happened next?” A good listener asks such questions and indicates to the speaker that there is plenty of time and plenty of attention for him to finish the story.

Good listeners actually look at the speaker, too. They aren’t checking the time or staring out the window. They make eye contact with the speaker, giving the non-verbal message that they value what the speaker is saying.

A good listener encourages the speaker by remaining silent when the speaker falls silent. Especially when a story is intensely personal, or when the story is about a very painful experience, the speaker may stop talking. He may be gathering his thoughts. He may be unable to speak due to emotion. He may not know how to put his real thoughts into words. A good listener won’t jump in to make comments or draw inappropriate conclusions before the story is ended. The speaker needs time, and good listeners make it seem that there is all the time in the world.

Jesus said that we should serve one another and love one another. One of the finest ways we can serve one another and show our love is to listen. We all go to God with our troubles and we expect that he will listen. If we want to be like him, we will learn how to serve family and friends by listening.