Our elderly neighbor, Helen, squinted up at my wife and me. "I am religious, just like you," she said, shoving white hair to the side of her head with knobby fingers. She rested her broom against the wood-paneled hallway of our old apartment building.
"Actually, Helen," I answered, tucking my mail under my arm, "I think of Christianity more like having a relationship with God, not being religious."
Instantly our conversation changed directions and leapt toward the heart of Christ's gospel: God doesn't call us to follow a list of rules, He calls us to Himself. Helen followed us inside our apartment and we talked more about that over a glass of lemonade.
But suppose Helen were to follow me into my prayer closet instead or read my journal or crawl inside my head during my devotions -- if she joined me in my quiet times, in other words -- would she see proof that I am pursuing a relationship? Or would she just see religion?
During my time with God, Helen might observe me pray, read the Bible, and conclude with journaling. These disciplines usher me into God's presence, for if I am to know more about God, I must be reading His Word and speaking to Him in prayer. Journaling propels me to personal involvement and keeps me from playing the passive observer.
But I cross the line between discipline and religious duty when I forget why I do these things.
Furthermore, I risk perceiving my daily devotions as a fact-gathering time to learn about God, rather than to know Him. In the words of contemporary Christian singing group Out of the Grey, "We take our daily bread and after we've been fed, we take our hearts and turn away."
The fact is -- and my heart sometimes takes longer to grasp the facts -- my heavenly Father cares for me more than I will ever comprehend and He longs to spend time with me.
An Old Testament prophet wrote that God wants to quiet us with His love (Zephaniah 3:17, New International Version).
In the New Testament, the apostle John shows us the kind of relationship God wants to have with us: "There was reclining on Jesus' breast one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved" (John 13:23).
Author Brennan Manning explains the significance of this verse in his book Abba's Child.
"We must not hurry past this scene in search of deeper revelation or we will miss a magnificent insight," writes Brennan. "God allows a young Jew, reclining in the rags of his twenty-odd years, to listen to His heartbeat! . . .Until I lay my head on Jesus' breast, listen to His heartbeat, and personally appropriate the Christ-experience of John's eye-witness, I have only a derivative spirituality."
Prayer, Bible-reading, and journaling are all tools that help place me in the audience before God's heart. In His presence, however, we may not always feel like reclining on His chest. We may cry there, or want to bang our fists against His chest instead.
That's the nature of relationships: Sometimes I can't wait to tell my wife something that happened at work; sometimes I get upset and don't feel like talking at all. But always, I must put my feelings aside at least to the point where we meet and talk, because I love her -- because I'm committed to her.
God desires the same from us.
I begin by sitting down with my feet on the floor in good posture and my hands -- palms down -- in front of me on my legs. I close my eyes and focus on the first things that come to mind, usually things that have been bothering me. I might say, "God, I'm really concerned about my knee. It's not healing and I've got a really big tournament coming up."
Then once I've gone through the stuff that's been heavy on my heart, I turn my palms up. I go through those same things again and give each one to Him. I say, "Lord, even though I am worried about my knee, I know you'll take care of it." When my palms are down I am focusing more on myself. When my palms go up, I focus on God and giving Him everything.
Since I became a mother, the only time I can spend time alone with the Lord is when my daughter is napping. I've learned to be more flexible and not get uptight if I can't do it when I want to. There are times when I put Kelly down for her nap and she starts crying. I can't get angry. I just have to become more open to how God wants to meet me. Sometimes over lunch, when it's just Kelly and me, I'll read the Scriptures out loud to her.
Right now I'm reading through the Gospel of Mark. After I read a chapter, I will journal what I've read: both my response and a paraphrase of what I've read.
I live about 45 minutes away from the city, so I have my quiet time on the train on my commute to work. People coming down the aisle see me reading my Bible, and it's encouraging to see other people reading Bibles too. I've even established an association with a man who is also a believer that way.
First I pray before opening the Bible because I know I need God's direction as I read. Sometimes I don't understand it and I need to get my mind focused, so I open up in prayer. Without knowing God's Word, I don't have a sense of God's direction, and knowing it in my mind and heart helps me when I face decisions.
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