Click

I am extremely envious of my wife, who is able to achieve a moderately high level of productiveness, constantly, all day long.  She gets up at seven and works steadily all day, and then crashes precipitously exactly twelve hours later, leaving me at my own recognizances for putting children quietly to bed. The next day, same results.  My own productivity runs more like those Halloween costume stores you see in October.  No one knows where they came from, but they do a bang up job for an extremely short period of time before disappearing into the night.

I have to wait for the click.

Tennessee Williams’ play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a surprisingly useful piece of literature for reflection.  In it, Brick Pollitt spends the majority of the play drinking, in pursuit of “the click,” a certain peaceful state of mind.  Fortunately, alcohol has nothing like that effect on me, but I find I am only really productive after a similar click, where I enter in to a flow where I become insanely productive for several hours.

What gets me there is quiet meditation, so it’s something like a Zen state.  Only thinking about nothing is not a valid kind of meditation.  Prayer works, and singing.  But mostly for me it’s reading.  Especially when I’m stressed, I wake up and it hurts.  Nothing physical, but my mind is out of joint.  Mentally, I’m thirsty.  I need to read.

Reading scripture is best; it leads to praise and prayer, but I usually start with popcorn text: Facebook, Twitter. Thoughtful articles on various blogs.  Long-form investigative reporting. Then scripture.  Then Bible commentary.  Slowly inching up, widening my aperture for thought.  Then: click.  I can think.  Widely, broadly, productively.  Occasionally, practically.

Under stress, from a hard start, it’s a process that can take 3-4 hours.  I don’t usually get 3-4 hours. But I get what I can with the time that I have, hiding in a makeshift study somewhere, building up reserves until I’m interrupted by some event, called upon to react.

I don’t like being reactive; much better to wait for the click; ten times the productivity.  But so hard to get together the necessary blocks of time.

Caffeine helps, of course.  It kind of jump starts the entire process.  With a sufficiently large dose of caffeine, I can skip straight past meditation into 2-3 hours of reactive productivity.  Very useful in my line of work.  But there are diminishing returns.  Too much caffeine and the mind is dizzy the next morning.  Always better to wait for the click.

Sometimes I think that I might get similar results from a few hours of intimate conversation, but it’s been a very long while since I could test it.  So many conversations are… reactive instead of meditative.

So there it is.  Is this introversion?  I’m not really hiding from people.  The need to be kind draws me out.  But I’m thirsty for the flow state, always waiting for the click.

Worship Paradox

Start with this: I categorically deny that worship is doing whatever you do all day long. I’m not saying that it can’t be, or that it shouldn’t be, but I am saying that Martha-ing is not the same thing as Mary-ing. There is one thing needful, and it isn’t summed up or subsumed in our other daily activities.

Worship is worth-ship. It is the mental and emotional act of ascribing the proper weight to that item which is of supreme value. Any physical act is essentially symbolic, specifically because worship is primarily a mental and emotional act. It is only because physical acts of worship are symbolic that someone can make a ham sandwich as an act of worship.

But we must keep in mind that the symbolism is still the drive train of everyday worship. The further removed from the mental and emotional evaluation of the one for whom all service is due, the less like an act of worship it really is. You can totally run a cash register as an act of worship. But singing is still a better kind of worship, because the physical is more closely tied with the mental and emotional act that makes up true worship. If you must run a cash register, why not rather run the register and sing?

I say this because leading worship is a strange task. And it is not the task of equipping people to wash dishes with a better attitude. By all means, wash with a better attitude, and may your washing be qualified by worship. But worship is more like prayer and less like labor, so leading worship is more like leading people into better prayer.  You prepare, musically, emotionally, administratively – Individually – so that the congregation may worship immediately. You work at worship so that the congregation may worship more effectively without the same  labor.

Judy Renfrow doesn’t sing in the choir. She isn’t on the worship team. She doesn’t play, and not to put too fine a point on it, she can barely sing. Well, music isn’t everything, despite its blessed usefulness in getting our hearts where they need to be. But let’s be honest: she’s not all that great at privat prayer and personal devotions. She loves Jesus, but the fires of her devotion are a little dusty ember. She needs corporate worship to pull her through the next week. When she joins in a congregation that worships well, her heart is lifted, the veil is torn, and she remembers what it is to be human,

A little dusty ember does a better job of burning on a bed of hot coals. It’s the worship leader’s job to make the job of burning brightly as convenient as possible, not by engaging in displays of impossible pyrotechnics, musical and emotional displays of what their worship could be if only the congregation could collectively quit their day job, but by providing songs that engage the heart and mind to the proper glorification of God with as much ease as possible.

It’s a bit like the pattern of excellence in practice my mother taught me when I was a kid: You work hard in private so that you can perform easily in public. Only the worship leader works hard by himself and in a small group so that the congregation as a whole can perform easily in public.  And it has lasting ramifications:  The  worship that is easy in the congregation leads to better and more frequent worship in the prayer closet, and every congregant who worships well in the closet becomes a little worship leader, with the world as her congregation.

Leading worship well is not as easy as it looks, but oh! what work is there that is more like prayer and less like labor?!  How can you practice leading worship, except by worshiping?  And how can you study to worship well without pursuing clarity on what true worship consists of?

Singing is prayer

Here’s my conviction:  singing is prayer.  That’s the spiritual discipline that it is most like.  And in the church, music’s primary purpose is to connect right feeling with right prayers.  So, when you’re selecting songs to sing, the question you want to ask is if you want to pray a prayer of the people, or a prayer for the people.  Occasionally, it’s good to pray on behalf of the people, but most of the time, you want the people to pray.  So: you want the people to sing, and to do that, you need songs that can be sung by the congregation: not too complicated, or too far out of most people’s range.

How like speaking in tongues is a good worship song that nobody can sing:  Is it doctrinal, rich, thick, beautiful?  Good!  But if the people cannot sing it, where is the amen?

In this manner, therefore, pray:

I stole this outline for prayer from Larry Lea, who didn’t seem to be currently using it. This is the basic format we followed at morning prayer meetings when I was in high school. It’s an easy method for covering all the categories of things you need to pray for, and if you use it in a group setting, it makes it pretty easy to keep the meeting at about an hour.

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Matthew 6 Pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Adoration and singing
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
  • Families,
  • Church leadership
  • Spiritual growth of members,
  • Local and long-distance missions
  • Political leadership
Give us this day
Our daily bread.
  • Personal finances of members
  • Wise financial management of the church
  • Private prayer and study
  • Effective preparation and delivery of sermons
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
  • Awareness of our sin
  • hearts given to continual repentance
  • Spirit of forgiveness, ability to bless those that curse us
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
  • Wisdom to fight against sinful tendencies
  • Love for God more than ourselves
  • Fear for God more than men
  • Ephesians 6:10-18
  • Psalm 91
For Yours is the kingdom
and the power and the glory forever.
Adoration and singing
Amen.

Against Daily Bible Reading

OK. This sort of thing annoys me. It’s not Dan Phillips’ fault. His just happens to be the most recent salvo that I’ve heard, and I’m really feeling like I’m the odd man out. I don’t think people need a Bible reading plan. I don’t think your spiritual life can be evaluated by the sheer volume of scripture you consume.

Ok. Step back. Caveats: I’m sure nobody said that, did they? Nobody said that people who know stuff are de facto more spiritual.

But why, oh why don’t the people who tell us in these superlative ways about the importance of Scripture actually do what it says? We pass on the doctrine that scripture teaches everything that pertains to life and godliness,* and then fail to see what scripture actually says about itself. It never ceases to amaze me how often, or how thoroughly people are able to devalue the actual text in favor of a doctrine about the text.

I’m afraid I don’t have the time to write a balanced dissertation that carefully navigates all the rocks of misunderstanding that come from forcefully disagreeing with what everybody thinks. But here’s a challenge for you: Take up your Bible and find the reading plan actually outlined in scripture. No? Ok. Find me a model in scripture for regular Bible reading exampled by some of the giants of faith: David, Daniel, Jesus, Paul – Somebody like that. No? Maybe we’d better go back to the Bible and see how people actually used the Bible. What I see are instances of public teaching, public debate, and intense study when confronted with a question. Never once does a disciple come to Jesus and say, “Lord teach us to read our Bibles.” Instead, in the middle of a confrontation, Jesus says, “Have you never read?” Maybe knowing and following the scriptures is something else again from reading a little each morning like a daily vitamin.

Now, just for kicks, let’s take the same approach to see what the Bible says about prayer. Let’s see: “Seven times a day.” “I will awaken the dawn.” “About the time of the evening sacrifice.” “Early in the morning, he went up…” “Lord, teach us to…”

Yeah, that one’s there.

Now, that said, I do have a Bible reading plan, and I submit it for your consideration: For starters, I read a lot. A lotter than that. Sometimes I read with an agenda, and sometimes I don’t follow that agenda very well. I tend to prefer fiction (and I can read more of it without getting tired), so I have to make a bit of extra effort to include some non-fiction in my diet. Occasionally, the non-fiction book that I read is a book of the Bible. When that Bible book comes up, I read it with the same level of intensity that I read everything else. I take notes if something interesting or insightful stands out to me (which is a lot oftener than with, say “The Lexus and the Olive Tree“. Generally speaking, after reading the Bible all day for a week or so, I’m pretty much burnt out on the Bible for a while, the same as the day after a PT test, or the day after Thanksgiving. It may be a while before I can do something like that again.


* As it turns out, 2 Peter 1:3 doesn’t even mention the scriptures, or Bible reading, or anything like that, so why do people use it that way?