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These are just a few of my musings about faith, formation, culture, and life.

 

Filtering by Category: Spiritual Disciplines

On Reading the Bible

Jen Michel

I didn't know the habit would become a lifetime's work. But I'm grateful..jpg

I was sixteen when I started to read the Bible daily. I can remember visiting the Christian bookstore after summer camp and choosing The Quiet Time Companion from the shelves, a systematic reading guide with interpretive helps, questions, and applications. I was a new Christian and had been encouraged to read the Bible every day for the next six months in hopes that the habit would stick. And though I was committed to the task, I also felt as every new reader of the Bible feels: daunted by the immensity of this ancient book.

I’ve been reading the Bible regularly now for more than twenty years. This isn’t to say that I haven’t missed days and weeks, sometimes even months, but it is to say that this book, more than any other, is responsible for forming me. In fact, it keeps delighting and surprising me—even confounding me (as I talk about it my next book, Surprised by Paradox). The Bible has become, as Jesus said it would, food on which I have come to daily depend. Which is why, as often as I have opportunity to say it, I try saying this: reading the Bible regularly is my most important spiritual habit. I don’t believe that we can know God, ourselves, or the nature of the kingdom coming without regular intake of this book. 

But what does the regular habit of intake look like?

I’ve thought to share with you what it looks like for me to read the Bible and actually take it in. I don’t believe that my way is the best way or the only way, but it is way. And sometimes you just need a way to get started, just as I did at 16 when I picked up The Quiet Time Companion at my local Christian bookstore. In his book, Hearing God, Dallas Willard wrote that “it is better in one year to have ten good verses transferred into the substance of our lives than to have every verse of the Bible pass before our eyes.” And that’s really the point of this post, to ask you about your habits, not just of reading the Bible, but allowing the words of God to be transferred into the substance of your life. Because Bible reading isn’t about accumulating arcane facts that will help you win at Bible trivia (although I do know the name of Moses’ mother). Rather, it’s a habit that forms us into the desires of God: we begin to love as he loves, even hate as he hates. 

In these final days of October, I am coming to the final pages of my Bible reading journal, which I started April 9, 2017. Tucked into the middle of my Bible (I read the NLT translation of the One Year Bible) is a small post-it note where I’ve scribbled down some reminders of how Martin Luther read the Bible. First, he looked to the Bible for instruction.Then, he looked to the Bible for thanksgiving.Third, he looked to the Bible for confession.And finally, he looked to the Bible for prayer. In other words, he saw the Bible as:

-      “a school text”

-      “a song book”

-      “a penitential book”

-      “a prayer book”

Although I discovered Luther’s ideas long after I had been a regular reader of the Bible (I found this is Tim Keller’s excellent book, Prayer), I realized that I, too, tended to write down similar observations from my Bible reading: what I’m learning about the nature of God, what I’m discovering about my own sin, what I’m learning about the redemptive work of God through history, what I’m learning about my own calling.

A quick glance through the pages of my journal reminds me of all the life we’ve lived in the last year and a half: I released a book, help coordinate major church initiatives, bought a house, started a house renovation, wrote a third book, continued raising five children.

  • Reading my reflections remind me of the angst I’ve had these many years of impermanence in Toronto—and how I found consolation in the fact that the Levites, too, had no permanent land holdings. (Numbers 18:10: “In their land you shall have no estate, and no portion shall you have in their midst.”)

  • As I turned pages, I read prayers for suffering friends—and the promises of God that I’ve claimed on their behalf. (Ps. 56:8: “You have kept count of my tossings, put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?”)

  • As I’ve faced difficult career decisions, I’ve been reminded, again and again, that the true vocation of the Christian is praise. (Ps. 33:1, “Praise befits the upright.”)

  • There have been anxious, worrisome times where I’ve asked to stand guard. (In Robert Alter’s translation of the Psalms, “guard” occurs six times in Ps. 121: “Your guard does not slumber,” v.3; “He does not slumber or sleep, Israel’s guard,” v. 4; “The Lord is your guard,” v. 5; “The Lord guards you from all harm,” v. 7; “He guards your life,” v. 7; “The Lord guards your coming and your going, now and forevermore,” v.8.)

  • Halfway through the journal I switched to writing with the lovely fountain pen, given to me by a friend, the ink itself serving as reminder of God’s goodness.

  • I even occasionally read prayers of resolution—like this one, after we’d purchased our house in Toronto. “This is a gift: this house, these answered prayers, this permanence; this lukewarm shower, this hard-to-regular thermostat, this smaller space, these close quarters, this detached garage.”

The journal is a written record of conversation: God talking to me, me talking back. It’s nothing extraordinarily deep because that’s not the point.

The point is keeping company with God.

Maybe that’s a longing you have, but you’re not sure where to begin. Here are a couple of thoughts for getting started regularly reading the Bible:

1.    Find a plan. There are any numbers of ways of systematically reading the Bible. (You can find some here.) Get yourself a plan, and stick to it. It takes the thinking out of “What should I read?” And trust me, it’s the thinking that’s harder than the actual reading.

 2.   Find a partner. Tell someone that you’re starting a goal of regular Bible reading. The best thing is to enlist them to do it with you! The next best thing is to ask them to check in with you, to see how you’re doing. Accountability is key to meeting goals.

 3.   Find a purpose. Go to Scripture and expect God to speak. Then write down what you discover!

a.    What does he say about himself?

b.    What does he say about humanity?

c.    How does the passage illuminate the gospel?

Jen Wilkin offers a number of excellent questions in her book, Women of the Word.

4.    Find a prayer. Remember that God speaks to us, and faith is the act of response. Talk back to him!

a.    If God shows you his generosity, ask him to provide.

b.    If God shows you his faithfulness, ask him to help you trust.

c.    If God shows you his holiness, ask him to forgive.

d.    If God shows you his mission, ask him to commission and send!

I was sixteen when a pastor at summer camp told those of us who had committed our lives to Christ to commit to some new spiritual habits, including reading the Bible 10 minutes every day. I didn’t know the habit would become a lifetime’s work—but I’m grateful. 

I wonder what God might have for you: if you started giving him 10 minutes of your day’s attention.

Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.


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What does a healthy life online look like?

Jen Michel

Amusing Ourselves to Death.png

I finally read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Deaththis summer. Published in 1985, the book argues the adverse effects of television. Postman, of course, was not alive to witness the advent of the smartphone, but I imagine he’d have even graver warnings for us today than in 30 years ago if he had been.

Truthfully, I read Postman’s book at the cottage this summer, which means I didn’t take copious notes and copy them into Evernote, which tends to be my routine with books I am reading seriously. (Having borrowed the book from the library, neither did I do any underlining.) But that’s ok, because the book principally confirmed for me one of the most dangerous effects of our new media, which is this: as we increase our exposure to things beyond our sphere of influence, we increase our sense of impotence. Or let me say it this way: our capacity to know more comes with the ability to do less. 

In Postman’s day, we could watch the horror of the latest environmental disaster on the nightly news and apart from the check we’d write to the Red Cross, do little to substantially alleviate the suffering. In our day, we can browse Facebook and learn, as I did yesterday, that a young mother of three, diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, lost her husband to a tragic hit and run accident. But apart from praying for this friend-of-a-friend (and I don’t mean to make that an insignificant means of participation), what can I really do to lighten the burden she must now carry? She is a faceless stranger, and my compassion for her, however sincere, cannot reach through the Ethernet and deliver the presencemost needed at times like these.

Media gives me a greater glimpse of this groaning world. But as the world grows more and more broken, I feel less and less able to fix it. 

This is one danger of overexposure to media: it allows this sense of impotence to seep into the areas of my life where I can and should exercise personal responsibility. I may not be able to fix global poverty; I may not be able to physical comfort the woman suffering the sudden loss of her husband; but I can deliver a meal to the neighbor across the street who has just had triple bypass surgery. But will I? Will I think it significant enough? 

I have responsibilities to carry, and media is no reliable guide to what those responsibilities are.

I am, of course, touching on only one of the many liabilities of too much digital engagement. There are certainly others, especially when we speak of social media: that it’s a distraction from deep work; that it’s a breeding ground for comparison and envy; that it’s hostile to charitable conversation. These are dangers, too, and I’m just as vulnerable as anyone else to the kind of addictive social media checking that makes me a passive participant in a world other than my real one.

And yet,as a friend reminded me: good things happen on the internet, too. Interesting, even life-changing ideas are shared; real friendships are formed; awareness beyond our insular worlds is increased. No, I’m not suggesting we abandon all things digital and return to a safer, better world of the past (although I do remember my first summers as a high school teacher and the long stretch of days, without internet, that could be spent quietly reading books without interruption).  What I am suggesting is a mindful approach to media, one that reflects intentionality and the wisdom of God, which seeks the “beneficial” and the “helpful,” not just the “lawful” (cf. 1 Cor. 6:12). 

So, I need your help. Yes, you out there in this big digital world of ours. What are the “rules” or “principles” you follow to cultivate a healthy life online? What digital “restrictions” help you to be present to your embodied, emplaced life? What do you choose to engage online, and what do you choose to avoid? Get practical for me: tell me how you use your smartphone, your desktop, how you create space for the work God’s calling you to do while also engaging online. Tell me what books and articles you’re reading that are helping you think through these important questions. Share online, or share in the comments below.

I’m the student; you’re the teacher. Thanks for your input. I'll be curating responses, praying, and hopefully in the weeks to come, posting a guide to how I intend to more meaningfully engage online.

Lent - and the daily-ness of life with God

Jen Michel

It was a good Easter yesterday. Our table was full following our morning church service, and after our guests left, Audrey and I bundled up for a walk in the ravine. As we walked, we talked about the Enneagram, and I tried convincing her that the one, not the four, is the most tortured type. At first, she wanted to disagree, but then she admitted, “I guess that makes sense—because fours enjoy the torment of their melancholy.” We came back to a quiet house, the boys having left with Ryan to play basketball at our local gym, so I picked up the novel I’ve borrowed from the library and stretched out on the couch to read. An hour later, they came home hungry, and I emptied leftovers from the refrigerator for a piecemeal dinner. We played a round of Clue before the twins’ bedtime, and when the day finally drew to a close, I opened my laptop to face the tower of emails I’d let grow over the weekend. I also entertained—briefly—the thought of checking social media.

Since the beginning of Lent, I haven’t visited Facebook or Twitter. This abandonment of social media was, admittedly, an abrupt decision made on the morning of Ash Wednesday after I re-read a small portion of Michelle Van Loon’s book, Moments and DaysShe suggested choosing a fast for Lent with a spiritual goal in mind. “Rather than simply giving up, say chocolate, because you feel you should fast from something at Lent, it might be more helpful to think in terms of an area in your spiritual life that is not flourishing, and focus your Lenten discipline in that area.” Because I’d given up sugar in the New Year for a month, I decided that my Lenten fast wouldn’t be food-related. And even though I didn’t think I had pathological addiction to social media, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give it up.

In truth, there was nothing magical about withdrawing from social media for the last six weeks. And maybe that’s one of the lessons I might have gained. The spiritual life is less like wiggling your nose and blinking your eyes into sainthood, even if you do it for forty days straight. Because on the forty-first day, the same choices will lie in front of you. Who are you becoming?

I confess to wanting a once-and-done kind of spiritual life. During Lent, I wanted to fast from social media and be cured of distractibility. In the New Year, I wanted to fast from sugar and be cured of gluttony. But once-and-done doesn’t seem to fit the nature of the project. There’s a lot of plodding with God, a kind of daily-ness that won’t be cheated. The spiritual life is more incremental that we want it to be. God’s grace comes to us like manna. You and I will eat today, but we will wake up hungry tomorrow. We will never be rid of our dependence.

My fast from social media has worked like a cleanse—but now I see that there is yet work on the other side of the deprivation. How might I best engage social media now? What new habits can I form? That question reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Shannan Martin’s Falling Free:“I have so much more for you than your tired, stubborn ways, Shannan.” I think that’s a beautiful way of characterizing the gift of repentance. Repentance is a turning from and a turning toward. We turn from our tired, stubborn ways which are familiar to us and yet decidedly broken in order to then turn toward God. We put off in order to put on. We lay down in order to take up. And while I think Lent has helped me turn from—from the reflex of boredom, from the habits of distraction, from the need for other people’s approval—honestly, I’m not sure what I’m turning toward yet. What does it look like to have a healthier relationship with social media? That’s probably a question I still need to turn over this week, a question I need to have answered, at least partially, before returning to social media.

Because maybe the real reward is in the forty-first day.