Devotion

bible altered

I bought this bible when I was twenty and getting ready to leave for India. I wanted something to carry in my pocket, and for years I did just that. I carried it with me, in my pocket or in my backpack, everywhere I went. That summer I read from it daily in the guest house in East Delhi. There was a cement stairway outside the window of the room I shared with two other young men. I would slide out the window to sit there and read, watch dawn saturate the strange yellow sky over the city. Later, I would read from it daily in the Canadian backcountry, on the roof of the clinic where I lived in Yucatán, on the porch of the old house in Massachusetts where my wife and I lived when we were first married. All of which explains its current condition: Even the tape that holds the binding together is worn out.

This practice of daily devotional reading and prayer is maybe the signature ritual of Evangelicalism, and for many years I was an avid practitioner. It is personal, intimate, casual—all of what distinguishes Evangelicalism from the older, higher forms of Protestantism that preceded it. I loved waking early to read and pray. I loved it, I benefited greatly from it, and I miss it.

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Almost nothing is underlined or highlighted in my bible. I don’t know why not.

A few passages are, though. Like this, from the book of Hebrews: “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.”

I do love that passage. It contains the whole of the Christian life.

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For most of my adult life, I have read the Bible every morning before I did anything else. These days I do not, mostly for mundane reasons. I am father to three little girls under the age of five. I sleep far less than would be healthy, and the first thing I do upon waking is make coffee. Often, the second thing I do is play Playmobil with my early-rising two-year-old. Eventually, most days I go to work. I grade papers, teach classes, write when I can. If I get to read my bible or pray before I collapse at day’s end, that’s wonderful.

Inside Evangelicalism, daily devotional reading is often regarded as the main litmus test for spiritual health. I have been asked by pastors who cared about me how my devotional habits were holding up, and I have asked others the same question. I have been advised since I was young by many people I respect to discipline myself to read the Scriptures daily, and I have given that advice to others. It is good advice. I love reading the Bible; it is a source of real hope, real light.

I began this habit in earnest one summer in high school when I took a trip with my youth group to Mexico City. For whatever reason, that was when the habit stuck, and it became the fabric of each day for years. Often, I would wake in the dark and read aloud from the Psalms, make them my morning prayer. I remember doing this in a tiny apartment north of Boston where I lived alone. I would rise and, without turning on the lights, carry my bible to the big front windows and read by the light that came through them. I would read the ancient songs to the waning dark, the first words in my mouth each day the very words of God. I do cherish the memory of those mornings.

Certainly, I could return to this habit. I could wake earlier; I could make time somehow. Many mornings I do, but it does not carry the weight or rigor of ritual anymore. The day does not feel unmoored without it as it once would have. I have finally stopped feeling guilty about that fact, and I have stopped feeling like I have lost some part of myself, and I have begun to believe that this initiation into a life-less-ordered is itself a grace.

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I spent part of today driving around with two sleeping children in the backseat, one of whom is sick, neither of whom I wanted to wake. We had just been to the doctor, and I was waiting for a prescription to be filled when they both fell asleep. Neither my wife nor I slept much last night because the sick one was up, crying—screaming really, inconsolable, snot-bubbly sobs. So I drove, and they slept, and there was a kind of sweet silence to it. I found myself driving in an area south of the city called Hangman Valley. It’s lovely, bucolic. Fields and pine forest on the edge of the long, rolling hills of the Palouse.

It’s the kind of place I imagine I’d like to live someday. In an old farmhouse on a little bit of land. I imagine my children growing up in a place like that, a place where they could really be outside, where they could encounter the glorious wildness of the made world. In that imaginary life I have lots of time to write, and I mostly wear flannel and ballcaps (because apparently I no longer need a job). I drink coffee for enjoyment not for caffeine. And every morning I spend the grey hours deep in prayer, deep in my bible.

Of course, that is not a life I will ever live. And it is a mercy because the author of Hebrews is right. The life of faith is a life of sojourning. It is a life of looking beyond this life to the brighter hope of the new city. The rigorous devotional habits of my youth were fine, even good. Certainly they drew me into a rich encounter with these texts that I hold sacred, but there was a risk of self-satisfaction in them. There was a risk of arrival. When I stood from sleep and spoke the ancient words of God back to God in the dark, I felt that I was bringing something to God. I felt that I had made something whole of my life, something solemn, and lovely, and complete, and now I could offer it. I forgot that fundamental truth embedded in the very words I was speaking: I am not yet home. I come to God always empty-handed. The whole of my life is pilgrimage toward a country that I have never seen and that I can scarcely understand—but that I love and long for. So my habits of devotion are the habits of a pilgrim: provisional, imperfect, and full of surprising light. God has prepared the city, and the best of my devotion is to rise each day and walk toward it.

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