When I was 14 I gave up swearing for Lent. And I actually broke the habit entirely for a few months. But that summer I got a job working in a hot, humid greenhouse with a bunch of crabby old ladies who smoked and swore all day long. I’m glad to report that the smoking didn’t rub off on me. I tried giving up swearing again for Lent the next year, but after a few days I decided that it didn’t really count as giving something up if you just kept doing it anyways. So I switched to chocolate. Which is just as well. I happen to love swearing and consider it a valuable life skill. (Recently I left a comment on a blog explaining why I have no problem being a swearing Christian and the first person who responded told me that I should take a logic class before deigning to speak again. He signed his name with his degrees behind it. It was quite amusing all around.)
So anyways, I no longer give things up for Lent, but I do often try to pick up a specific Christian discipline for the season. Now, I know that some of you come from church backgrounds where Christian discipline involves spiritual abuse and lots of meetings with the pastor. Rest assured, that’s not the sort of Christian discipline I’m talking about. Rather, Christian disciplines are simply specific practices which one engages in with the intent of deepening your faith life. It could be fasting, praying the Jesus prayer, engaging a spiritual director, using the book of common prayer, meditation or walking a prayer labyrinth to name just a few examples.
This year I’m going to be doing morning and evening offices through the season of lent – and I’d like to invite you to join me. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Daily offices or Divine hours as they are also known come out of monastic communities which structure their day around prayer services which take place at set hours each day. The practice is said to date back to the Apostles and comes out of the Jewish practice of saying prayers at set times. (For example, in the Book of Acts, Peter and John visit the temple for afternoon prayers. – Acts 3:1) Aside from monastic communities, the practice of “keeping the hours” as it’s sometimes called, is often associated with high church Episcopalians. But any Christian can use/do them. In case you were wondering.
Basically an office is a prayer service which includes prayers, readings from the psalms, scripture, maybe a meditation and a hymn. Some communities use the same prayers each day while changing the scripture readings each day. Others use different prayers or cycle through a set of prayers over the course of a week or month. If this all sounds confusing – it’s not. Unless you’re the poor soul charged with actually putting these services together. For those of us who are simply showing up to join in, it’s very easy. So easy, in fact, that you don’t even have to leave your house. Hell, you don’t even have to get off the computer! There are a variety of places which put up the day’s readings and prayers online. You can just read along at your own pace in your own time. Some even include audio files if you would like to listen or recite them out loud along with a prayer leader.
Of course, this may all sound a wee bit high churchy for some folks. And perhaps you’re wondering why you ought to do such a thing. Well, let me give you three reasons:
First of all, like with anything you want to get good at, spirituality takes work. It does. You’re not going to accidentally find yourself with a great, dynamic relationship with God without putting in some time, developing some discipline and being intentional about it. Lent lasts for 6 weeks. Six weeks of spiritual discipline will make a real difference in your faith life.
Secondly, scripture. There’s a tendency among Protestants to read scripture solely to glean some understanding or insight from it. Which is fine. But Jesus compared the word of God to seeds. And frankly, the seeds that sprout up immediately don’t always grow into mature plants. If you do the daily office, you’re going to be bombarded with a lot of scripture. And it’s going to be a bit disjointed – something from here, something from there, none of it obviously connected. That is seed being scattered. Sometimes something will speak to you immediately. Sometimes you’ll read it and forget it. Sometimes it will come back later when you need it. But the more you are exposed to scripture, the more it gets imprinted on your heart. It feeds your soul even if you don’t realize it at the time.
Third, prayers. Another tendency among Protestants is to eschew recited prayers in favor of spontaneous and even conversational prayers to God. And really, I can’t even imagine having a real faith life without spontaneous, conversational prayers to God. But a recited prayer is a lot like a poem or a card from the store. We may not have written the words ourselves, but that poem or card may be able to say just what we mean in a way we could never put together ourselves. Recited prayers are also excellent instructors. In the memoir portion of my first book, I share the story of a prayer which I said daily at my Catholic high school. Although at the time I was unaware of it, the words of that prayer shaped my whole approach to life and relationship with God. It instructed me in how to think. These prayers have often been handed down through generations by those who knew from experience and devotion what we believers need and how we ought to think. They can instruct more powerfully in a few seconds than the best teachers can in a month of Sunday sermons.
So, even if you’ve never done such a thing before and aren’t really sure if it’s your thing, I hope you’ll at least give it a try. I’ve found a site which I will be using throughout lent to do the morning and evening office. It’s a bit more involved than others that I have used, but I think I’m in a more is more period. One of the things to keep in mind about spiritual disciplines is that they aren’t requirements – you aren’t supposed to be serving the activity. The activity is practiced to serve and help you. If morning and evening office are too much for you, you can do either or. Or you can pick several days each week that you will do one. Like anything else, the more you put into it the more you will get out of it. But it’s also like going to the gym – if you force yourself to go from sitting on the couch to doing combat training overnight, you’re just going to wind up sitting on the couch eating hagaan das and feeling like crap within a few days. And some days you’re just not going to be able to get into it. Rushing through the readings and prayers in a few minutes may be all you’re up for. That’s fine. Just do what you can and are comfortable with. If you find yourself dreading them, you probably need to pull back a little. If you don’t do them for a day or two or seven – that’s fine. Just jump back in as soon as you remember.
So, all that being said, if you would like to join me, I will be putting up a links on facebook for each day’s morning and evening office that you can use. I should be getting the morning link up between 6:30 and 8 am and the evening link will go up between 5:30 and 7:00 or so. I will be putting up one or two selections from each office, so you can do “offices lite” if you’re not ready to go whole hog on the whole thing. If you haven’t already, just head on over and “Like” The Upside Down World on facebook. It would be pretty awesome if people who do each morning and evening’s office left a comment or like that day’s link so we can see that there’s a little crowd of Upside Down World-ers who are praying together. I’ll be starting Wednesday morning. I hope to see you there!