Reading Time

It’s easy to default to playing with your phone, checking out YouTube videos, podcasts, whenever you have a spare minute or free time. It can become a habit. More, for some it can be addictive. Our screens can suck away our time like a Shop-Vac sucks up dust and dirt.

But for the last few evenings, our family has had what we refer to as reading time. We gather in the living room, we each grab a book, and sit and read by candlelight. Usually we do it for about an hour or so. The kids snuggle on the couch with one or both of our dogs. I sit in our rocking chair and my wife enjoys “her” chair.

Now, lest I give the impression that this is always an idyllic time, sometimes one kid deliberately annoys another. There’s occasional bickering. During reading time, not everyone is always on the same page, pardon the pun.

Gravitating towards our digital devices is a common impulse in our age of distraction. But these days my habit has too often been checking out news on this or that app or website. Often a discouraging prospect, there’s nothing quite like news about politics or COVID to help me wind down for a good night’s rest. Unsurprisingly, all that does is cause my mind to whir for considerably longer.

Recently, I’ve taken to reading in the evening (and sometimes in the morning) from A.W. Tozer’s 2 volume set, The Attributes of God: Deeper into the Father’s Heart. The chapters are short, accessible, and devotional. It focuses my heart and mind on the character and being of God. It fixes my attention on what’s most important. Tozer doesn’t tell me much of anything about current events or politics, but he does help to orient my heart and mind for when I do read about those things.

I don’t know if reading will become a lifelong habit for our kids, but at least they are learning how much we value it and why. Having a reading time certainly makes an evening more relaxing than it might otherwise be. When life is busy and full of distractions, perhaps even this is enough.

Books from the Library

I got a call yesterday from our local library letting me know that a book I ordered had arrived. To be honest, I couldn’t remember what book I had ordered! Something one of my sons had requested, perhaps? Much to my joy, I discovered it was the one volume edition of Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy. I had ordered it several weeks ago and had forgotten. What a great surprise! I don’t read a lot of fiction, but having read Asimov’s prequel to this series last year—Prelude to Foundation—I am excited to crack the spine on this book!

You see, at the start of the summer, we cancelled our subscription to Netflix to lessen the screen time of our kids. However well that strategy worked (or not), we also took our sons to the library every week or two to get books to read. Usually they came home with quite a stack.

For my part, thanks to our local library I’ve read Jordan Peterson‘s two books, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos and Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. While I found the first especially thought provoking and moving at times, both are very much worth reading.

I’ve also just started another book that I’ve heard about on various podcasts, Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Still very much getting into this one, but it’s fascinating so far. As someone in a “caring” profession, it provides a lot of insight about how people deal with and are affected by traumatic experiences.

So while I still have a large list of books waiting on my Amazon wish list for me to order someday, I’m grateful for my local library. I get to read some interesting books without spending money or having to make yet more room on one of our crowded bookshelves.

What books, if any, are you reading right now? Do you make use of your local library?

Lenten TV Fast Update Part 2

On recent Saturday mornings, my son Eli and I have been watching The Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon on Netflix. Most recently we watched a bunch of episodes of the Marvel show WandaVision on Disney+. After that I would sometimes watch an episode or two of Law & Order.

But now I won’t be doing any of that until after Easter.

Now, I confess that I know exactly what it’s like to spend a few—maybe even several?—hours watching TV, and then afterwards having this feeling of, well, waste.

More specifically, it’s the feeling that my time spent passively enjoying a show didn’t really add anything to my life. I might very well have enjoyed it, but I don’t take anything away of value. At least most of the time.

But when I use that same time to read or perhaps work on a blog post, my mind and my heart are more actively engaged. I get something from it. It adds something to my life, to my day, to my imagination, to my sense of accomplishment. It has value beyond the time spent doing it.

Don’t get me wrong. I probably will return to watching superhero cartoons with Eli once Lent is over. Indeed, I love doing that with him. I will probably also watch other kinds of TV again.

At the same time, I hope and pray that my experience of Lent—and of fasting from TV—will change my attitude and my habits.

In the meantime, I will take full advantage of not watching TV to do other things that are both enjoyable and life-giving.

Reading to Slow Yourself Down Part 2: Reading as a Way of Listening

“He who runs from God in the morning will scarcely find Him the rest of the day.”

John Bunyan

“It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.”

C.S. Lewis

So this morning when I first woke up it was somewhere between 6:00am and 6:30am, and immediately my mind turned to making breakfast for our twin sons (who can’t always be trusted to make healthy choices) and getting the laundry out of the dryer (because I needed clean socks, of course). Then, thankfully, instead of leaping into whatever tasks lay before me, I did my morning prayers from the Daily Office, trying to slowly pay attention to the words rather than rush through them like another chore to check off my list.

The Daily Office this morning included Scripture (John 14), prayers (including the Lord’s Prayer), and the Apostles’ Creed. Reading these ancient Christian texts regularly immerses me in a narrative, a worldview, through which I can then approach life and see the world around me. Such liturgical practices orient me so that the other voices competing for my attention and allegiance (media, consumerism, politics, etc.) are gradually stripped of their influence. They also help quiet the internal voices of misguided desire, insecurity, anxiety, and expectations. It’s a way of allowing another, more foundational Voice to have greater power over me and in me. Like Lewis says above, it means “listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.”

Such listening can’t happen in a vacuum. In other words, it’s not simply about sitting quiet and still and waiting for a voice–a sense, an impression, a feeling–to descend upon on our hearts and minds, bringing calm and focus. Though, truthfully, most of us could stand to spend much more time being still and quiet. As French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” No, what I mean is that reading Scripture, paying attention to liturgical texts such as the Apostles’ Creed, making use of traditional prayers like those in the Daily Office, is a form of listening. One that followers of Jesus, I think, are obligated–invited?–to use as spiritual resources in their apprenticeship to him. This is especially and primarily true of Scripture.

We are always being formed. We are always following a narrative. The question is: Which narrative? What is shaping our attitudes, the posture of our hearts? What is forming us? At the risk of pulling a Bible verse out of context, listen to what Paul says in Romans 8:29 should be happening to each believer in Christ: “For those he [God the Father] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” Conformed to the image of his Son. To conform means “to give the same shape, outline, or contour to, “to be similar or identical,” “to act in accordance or harmony.” In other words, we are called to become more and more Christlike. Not just in terms of what he did, but how he did it. Notice that Jesus was never in a hurry. He was never pressed for time. He was always acting and living out of his intimate communion with the Father. But here’s the thing: being conformed to Christ doesn’t–won’t–happen by osmosis or accident.

One of the ways it does happen is when we willingly take the time to listen to and to root ourselves in the story of Jesus, in redemption history, in the story of what God in Christ has done, is doing, and will do. It means allowing this narrative to take precedence. It means, honestly, fighting for it’s primary place in our lives. Because there is so much else that is attempting to fill that space. It’s often easier to make excuses and let spiritual disciplines fall to the wayside. There is, after all, too much else to do and think (worry? obsess?) about. Yet we need to pause, take a step, count to ten, to breathe.

Now, lest you think I’m coming at this from some ivory tower or idealistic-pastor-in-his-study point of view, let me assure you that my life is also busy (oh, how I hate that word). I am a full-time pastor. I’m married to a French and Music teacher who is very nearly full-time. We have a 16 year old daughter who does school online from home. We have twin sons who turn 12 next week. As I type this, there is church stuff to work on, laundry to do, rooms to clean, and a multitude of other tasks and responsibilities before me. I know perfectly well what it is like to feel overwhelmed by responsibilities. I know what it’s like to want to rush past prayer and Scripture because there’s too much else to do.

But I have also learned what I am like as a person when I do rush past prayer and Scripture. I am less attentive, less patient, less reflective, less prayerful, and less in the moment; and I am more easily tossed about by winds of anxiety, more prone to irritability, and, frankly, more likely not to love others well. I might even become more likely to use more, as our family calls them, “sweary words.” So, yeah, it means not exactly being conformed to the image of Jesus, the God-man who came, who died, and who was raised on my behalf so I could actually experience life as a new human being, freed from slavery to sin and my own selfish proclivity to think of myself first. So, I don’t know about you, but while it isn’t always easy or convenient to make time to “read” God into my life, to listen to him, I know that I wouldn’t have much of a life if I didn’t.

Reading to Slow Yourself Down (Or Why Spending Time in Middle-Earth is a Spiritual Discipline)

For the last few weeks I’ve been re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’m about halfway of the way through book 2, The Two Towers. Since I don’t read a lot of fiction, I’m enjoying the refreshing change from the books on theology and pastoral ministry that I usually read.

Still, there are two aspects of Tolkien’s writing in particular that I find challenging to get through without skimming. First, there are several places where a character in the narrative breaks into a poem or song. For example:

“Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.”

J.R.R, Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

That’s one of many stanzas. I confess, I’m not a big poetry reader.

The other aspect of Tolkien’s style that I’m often tempted to skim are his descriptions of landscapes and locations. For example, from The Fellowship of the Ring, there’s this passage:

“To the east the outflung arm of the mountains marched to a sudden end, and far lands could be descried beyond them, wide and vague. To the south the Misty Mountains receded endlessly as far as sight could reach. Less than a mile away, and a little below them, for they still stood high up on the west side of the dale, there lay a mere. It was long and oval, shaped like a great spear-head thrust deep into the northern glen; but its southern end was beyond the shadows under the sunlit sky. Yet its waters were dark: a deep blue like clear evening sky seen from a lamp-lit room. Its face was still and unruffled. About it lay a smooth sward, shelving down on all sides to its bare unbroken rim.”

J.R.R Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Both of these elements of his storytelling feature all through The Lord of the Rings.

That I am tempted to skim these bits is not a criticism of Tolkien. What it shows, rather, is my impatience. And perhaps my lack of imagination. I want to get to the action, to the more interesting and exciting parts of the tale. I’m anxious for the story to get going. This is a sign of a mind far too influenced by visual media, more likely to watch Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy than to read Tolkien’s novels. This is not necessarily a good thing.

For this reason, it occurs to me that taking the time to read Tolkien’s poetry and vivid prose means forcing myself to slow down. Deliberately paying attention to the words I would rather skim might have value beyond enjoying the book in my hands. So even if I never come to appreciate Tolkien’s poems (much less love them) as others do, actually allowing my eyes and my mind (and perhaps my heart?) to flow leisurely over them means entering a process that anchors me in the moment.

You see, my thoughts—my internal world of reflection—can be subject to anxiety and impatience. Anxiety and impatience, in turn, are not about the present. Being impatient or anxious means dragging our feelings of what might or what will happen into the present. Therefore, in the present a part of me is experiencing my desires for or the pressures of the future rather than being in the moment.

Imagine reading, say, the Bible this way. Indeed, there is a lot of poetry in the Scriptures of the Old Testament especially. Psalms, prophets, and wisdom books are largely poetic. Do I skip these books? Do I merely skim the verses in order to say that I’ve read them? Isn’t impatience of this sort an impatience with God, an unwillingness to slow down and allow his revelatory words to penetrate my consciousness more deeply? Shouldn’t I instead let these words slowly dissolve like a lozenge? Certainly God chose to reveal his truth through poems as well as prose.

Speaking of reading the Bible, the late pastor, professor, and author Eugene Peterson says this about reading and writing in his book Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading: “All serious and good writing anticipates precisely this kind of reading–ruminative and leisurely, a dalliance with words in contrast to wolfing down information.”

Sadly, there are times when I’m tempted to wolf down a book, even the Bible, as if it’s a cheeseburger and I haven’t eaten all day.

Even writing this blog post is an act of intentional and patient reflection, forcing me to slow down. I didn’t write this quickly and easily. It’s taken several days to figure out what I’ve wanted to say, of allowing the quiet, gentle yet insistent whispers at the back of my mind to work their way into the foreground of fully formed sentences and paragraphs.

You see, I think the very act of reading patiently and leisurely forms us. This is also why reading a book, an article, or a blog post that stretches my patience with the act of reading itself is valuable. Maybe because what I’m reading is hard to understand. Perhaps because it forces me to consider another point of view–at least to understand if not agree to it. It gets my brain working in ways it wouldn’t otherwise. Just as lifting weights challenges physical muscles by stretching them, so too our imaginations and our thinking require the challenge of being stretched in order to be healthy and strong.

By and large we live in an impatient world, one strewn with quickly spoken words and lacking in extended reflection. Sound bites, obviously, are not at all congruent with nuanced, careful thinking of the sort cultivated in part by the willingness to slow ourselves down to consider the words right in front of us. Slowing down to read requires attention, removing myself from distraction, sidestepping the immediate dopamine hit of seeing likes on my social media posts.

Applying this to our Bible reading means allowing the very words of God to have their way with us. It means, in one sense, reading the Bible like any other book. Now, before you cite me for heresy, let me explain. Often the chapter and verse divisions, while helpful in their own way, actually prevent us from reading the Bible well. We chop up the prose and poetry into bite-sized pieces, effectively disconnecting them from their larger context and treating them as pieces or advice or promises written directly to us. The Scriptures become a reference manual for doctrine and moral principles, not a grand story spanning all of creation and history with Christ ultimately at the centre of it all.

One interesting development in recent years that addresses this head-on are all of the reader’s edition Bibles out there now. Almost every major translation publishes a version of the Bible without headings and chapter and verse divisions. Read the narratives as narratives. Read the Psalms and prophets as poetry. Read the apocalyptic literature as . . . well, you get the picture.

Heck, you can still read the Bible a few verses at a time, but do it slowly, deliberately, prayerfully. Read it patiently. Let the psalmists capture your imagination. Let Jesus’ parables penetrate your heart. Let Paul’s exposition expand your thinking. Don’t worry about getting something out of it. If you’re a preacher, don’t worry about finding a three point sermon.

If we can learn to read the Bible with patience and prayer, without being anxious to find what we need, and feeling guilty if we don’t “feel” something or “get” something, we might just become more and more able to hear God himself speaking through his word. More than anything our reading of Scripture is about forming and directing us to the God who reveals himself in the mess and beauty of everyday life, about having our thinking so steeped in the words of the prophets and apostles that we eventually begin to experience life biblically. The Scriptures become like coloured lenses in a pair of glasses; they colour everything we see.

And as it happens, through this process we also become more patient, deliberate people all around. Reading to slow ourselves removes us from the hurried, busyness for its own sake, nature of our surrounding culture, with its constant and often unnecessary and unreasonable demands on our time and attention. Reading to slow ourselves down helps to free us from the tyranny of the urgent. Charles Hummel, in his book Tyranny of the Urgent makes this comment: “There is an insidious tendency to neglect important tasks that do not have to be done today—or even this week.” Among these important tasks, Hummel includes waiting on God: “When we fail to wait prayerfully for God’s guidance and strength, we are saying with our actions, if not with our words, that we do not need him. How much of our service is actually a “going it alone”?”

Reading to slow ourselves down ultimately means learning to wait on and listen to God through his word in a posture of prayer in dependence on the Spirit. It means learning to live a life that is not subject to the whims and worries of the moment, but instead rests in the presence of the God who has never himself been in a hurry.