Let me guess, you’ve decided to take a break from what you should be doing, and have a browse of this War Cry. Are you feeling slightly guilty that you’re having a read when there’s so much else begging attention, so you’re just going to have a skim through now and come back to it later? Or maybe you’ve reached a stage of life when the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ no longer matter and you can chill out and enjoy a leisurely read. Have you learnt to ignore the persistent ‘should’ and ‘ought’ voices, even when they try to creep in?
Too many of us are driven by the unrelenting masters of the ‘shoulds and ‘oughts’ of life. We may struggle to enter into a place of relaxed enjoyment of the moment to linger there, because false guilt prevents us doing this. Even more serious, this robs us of the abundant life that Christ promised. In the constant pursuit of meeting expectations—however legitimate these expectations may be—we lose our ability to hear another voice that speaks in invitational rather than demanding tones; that is, the voice of Christ saying (as he often did to his disciples), ‘Come aside and rest awhile.’
If you’ve grown up in The Salvation Army or are familiar with evangelical Christianity, you’ll know that developing a daily devotional life is held up as something essential to growing in the Christian experience. What is usually meant by this is ‘to read your Bible and pray every day’. Unfortunately, this can become just another ‘should’ added to the pile of things we feel guilty about when we fail to achieve them. However, for people wired with a strong sense of responsibility, they may make sure they ‘do their devotions’ quite religiously approaching this as another task needing to be completed before bedtime. This is a horrible distortion of what is intended!
Busyness is a given in the age and culture in which we live. Sadly, church life has also taken on this characteristic, adding further fuel to the pile of pressures we face every day. An antidote is needed. I am thinking of a different way of being to counter-balance the incessant demand to be doing. I am suggesting a different approach to life, by adopting practices of observation and reflection that enable us to more fully appreciate the presence of God in all things, so that we notice details and dynamics we’re inclined to overlook if we keep living at the pace demanded of us by our responsibilities.
I refer to developing a prayer life that has less to do with saying prayers, and more to do with being silent and listening to our inner thoughts and longings. Allowing these things to be the substance of what we bring to God.
To develop this kind of devotional life takes intention. It requires deliberate choices in regard to withdrawing to a quiet space and denying time to other, lesser things.
A wealth of age-old prayer practices can assist us to enjoy the riches of this type of quality time with God. For example, the ‘Prayer of Examen’ leads us through a process of noticing the presence and absence of God, as we reflect back over the hours of our day. ‘Lectio Divina’ is sacred reading of a biblical passage, and by reading and re-reading we begin to ‘hear’ its deeper meaning. These and other prayer practices can be found in the book The Army On Its Knees, by Janet Munn and Stephen Court.
It’s not easy to break habits and establish new ones. Especially when what we’re endeavouring to do in terms of developing our spirituality seems to fly in the face of the world around us. Developing our spiritual life takes the same kind of time and intention that is needed for our physical, emotional and intellectual wellbeing.
Hurry-sickness is becoming a recognised and documented disease of our lifestyle. But there is an antidote. Christ’s call to ‘come aside and rest awhile’ was spoken at the end of an extraordinarily long and demanding day. Jesus constantly lifted the yoke of religious compliance from people’s shoulders—with all its ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’—and replaced it, saying, Come to me all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light (Matthew 11:28–30, NLT).
Major Heather Rodwell is Territorial Secretary for Spiritual Life Development for The Salvation Army New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory.