“You may not know how badly you needed silence and solitude until you get to know them.” Quiet time has been among the most important keys to my health in ministry thus far. I begin my day either first thing in the morning, or first thing in the office, with bible reading, reflection, journaling and prayer. I use the SOAP method I wrote about it here.
I am always looking to adjust my spiritual disciplines to the current needs of my family and my church. Habits of Grace by David Mathis came to my attention via Challies.com and a review that was very upbeat. I sent the review to the library committee here at St. Andrew’s Duncan and they promptly ordered the book and put it on my desk so I would be the first to read it.
What is admirable about the book isn’t just all the practical advice (and there is plenty of that if you are trying to figure how to pray, to be alone, to read the bible, to journal, to fast etc.) but the tone of the book. It is a hope-filled discussion about spiritual practices, no guilt-based arguments here. Instead, Mathis is focused on how certain practices permit us to flourish as God intended us to.
Mathis offers good advice on spiritual disciplines and their role in our lives: When all is said and done, our hope is not to be a skilled bible reader, practiced pray-er, and faithful churchman, but to be one who “understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth,” (Jer. 9:23-24). It is this sort of graceful and Hope-Based-In-God’s-Promises that makes this book so readable and useful to the Christian today.
The premise is that most of us could benefit from intentionality in our spiritual lives and that practicing certain things until they are a habit may prove to be of vital importance. Mathis points out, more than 99 percent of our daily decisions about this and that happen without any immediate reflection. We just act. Our lives flow from the kind of person we are—the kind of person we have become—rather than some succession of time-outs for reflection. The notion is to purposefully work with God to build ourselves up so that our gut-level reactions and decisions are more godly than they otherwise would be.
The good news is that we don’t have to invent methods of doing so, plenty already exist. God has his regular channels—the means of grace—those well-worn pathways along which he is often pleased to pass and pour out his goodness on those waiting expectantly says Mathis, which is wonderful because while it is up to us to work to make a habit of creating spaces to encounter God, it isn’t up to us to make God show up.
I especially enjoyed the section on solitude and silence (practices I feel deeply within me to be important and thus worthy of greater attention in my particular case) and the section on the “art” of bible reading. Mathis focuses us on the need for both bible breadth (reading lots) and bible depth (reading some parts slow). He points out that daily bible reading isn’t a law and in most places today and in history daily reading was impossible. Of course he knows that Psalms talks of those who mediate day and night…which just means that daily readers today aren’t legalistically following some rule but instead are joyously taking advantage of an access to scripture and commentaries that few in history would ever have thought possible but many would have dreamed of. When we get alone with the Bible, we are not alone. God has not left us to ourselves to understand his words and feed our own souls. No matter how thin your training, no matter how spotty your routine, the Helper stands ready. Take up the text in confidence that God is primed to bless your being with his very breathe. Again, it’s not all about us and it’s not all up to us. We approach the spiritual disciplines expectant that God will encounter us in them.
This is a book worth reading if you are new to the faith, if you are trying to jump-start a spiritual life, if you have grown a bit tired of your current practices, or need to find some new ones. A person’s relationship to Jesus is the most important one in their live (even if for times other relationships take priority) so a little time thinking about how best to relate to Him is time well spent. (If you read this blog regularly I realize the irony of posting this after the recent one on too many Christian books but as Walt Whitman once said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”