Growing up, the spiritual practices in my church community centered on the “quiet time,” those daily appointments with God where you were supposed to connect with Him and be fueled by His love. Quiet times, of course, were more suited for the mystics of the church, those who naturally discerned the voice of God through stillness, prayer, or mental worship. For those analytical types, such as myself, who needed tangible things to study and meditate upon, quiet times were often a bother.
But, thankfully, there was an abundance of devotional literature that would help you pray, study the Bible, and discern God’s call for your life. Much of church life revolved around the sharing and recommending of different devotionals (“devos” for short) that helped develop the “personal relationship” you were supposed to have with Jesus.
The most influential devo in my teenage years was “Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God” by Henry Blackaby and Claude King. As the title suggests, the workbook intended to give me an experience of God through which I would come to know and do His will. This was extremely important to me, since I had come to faith through logic and good sense, and not the more visible mystical-based conversion where the experience of God is dramatic and life-changing. Having never experienced God in ways similar to those in my church, I was desperate to feel the will and love of God in my life.
The workbook promises to provide the necessary tools to “hear when God is speaking to you;” “to clearly identify the activity of God in your life;” and “see a direction that He is taking in your life.” None of the tools are particularly innovative — they include the old stand-bys of Bible study, mental praise and worship, and prayer — but there is a heavy emphasis on private, individual meditation and contemplation.
This privatized spirituality had a profound influence on Me, Myself, and I. Here I emphasize the first person pronoun because that was what the devotional study privileged. It was about MY relationship with God, the work of God in MY life, and what he was communicating to ME. The devo was God-centered, but it was centered on the experience of God for me and only me.
Just so we’re clear, this is not going to be a critique of Blackaby and King’s book, nor is it going to be a stereotypically bitter rant about how the church’s teaching abused me when I was young. If there is any blame to portion out for my youthful spiritual confusion, the finger should be pointed at me, for reasons we’ll soon see. I am bringing up my early devotional experience now to provide a contrast to my devotional experience during this season of Lent, when, for the first time ever on my road to Canterbury, I participated in the Daily Office, that ancient practice of saying aloud prayers, collects, and scripture readings developed over time by the numerous poets of the church.
The contrast goes like this: Growing up in the decadent 90s, I was deeply affected by the dominant cultural vice of that era: narcissism. My church culture was amazing (after all, here I am, after all these years, writing about Christian spirituality), but like most everyone during those days, it was affected by the narcissistic compulsion. There are a myriad of examples I could provide to illustrate the spiritual attitudes present in my generation’s culture, but the simplest way to do it is by pointing to this little elementary school song:
I’m special to Jesus,
There’s noone else like me.
I wouldn’t trade places with anyone else,
I’m special, you see.
God has prepared a task
He wants me to do.
I’m special. I’m special to my Lord.
I’m special. I’m special to my Lord.
There’s nothing really wrong with this song; in fact, it’s really rather cute. Especially when young children sing it aloud to their parents. But when paired with thousands of devotionals and a church culture that emphasized a private spirituality focused on the individual experience of God, it was inevitable for a adolescent from the Trophy Kid generation to not become a spiritual narcissist. I became an entitled Christian, believing God had a special plan for me that would make me a spiritual Giant. This attitude was complicated only by the fact that I never really heard his voice during my quiet times — a complication that proved to be fatal by the time I grew up. After all, if I was special, and had a special call on my life, then why couldn’t I hear God whenever I tried to listen to Him?
In time, I learned that God’s absence from my life was likely intentional, to disabuse me of any pretensions or delusions of grandeur I may have had. No, not may have, did have. The final purgation of any remaining narcissism, I trust, occurred during this season of Lent as I participated in the morning prayers of the Daily Office.
Participating in the Daily Office on a regular basis is like getting hit over the head with the hammer of God’s holiness. There is nothing about me in the Daily Office. Well, that’s not true; the prayers and collects do speak about me, but as a hopeless incompetent who must confess that I have sinned against God and neighbor “in thought, word, and deed” every morning and evening before I can enter into the liturgy of worship or scripture reading. Even after I confess, the office asks me to request the Lord to “open my lips” so my “mouth shall proclaim [His] praise.” For someone who often believed worship had to flow from my heart, rather than through God’s help, this was a revelation.
The Office doesn’t think much of me. In fact, it never refers to me, myself, or I. It refers to us, ourselves, we — to all the saints who bend their knees in supplication to the Lord of the world and request his aid. It calls for obedience to the most high God, the creator of all things, the Lord of lords, the King of kings. It forces me to remember that God is God and I am not. Indeed, all glory belongs to “the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever” — a coda to our prayers the Office asks us to recite over and over again. The office provides, I think, the greatest antidote to my generation’s me-centered spirituality and narcissism.
And so, in the past few days, when my feet were washed just before the stripping of the altar, as the cross was dressed in black on Good Friday, and as I listened to the deafening silence of God on Holy Saturday, the gravity of Easter and the Resurrection were especially impressed upon me in ways that superseded me, myself, and I. I don’t need to concern myself so much with experiencing God, or the reasons for His absence. I can just focus on worshipping the Lord, no matter my concerns. I can just say, with the church and all the saints who have gone before me, what the Office asks us to say:
“Alleluia. The Lord is risen indeed: O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.”
If you want to start participating in the Daily Office, click here to read an online Office provided by the Book of Common Prayer.
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