How to use the advent devotional

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Each day of prayer contains a number of different elements—an invitation into God’s presence, times of quiet, Scripture, free prayer, a set prayer, and a closing blessing. All of this is meant to be experienced as prayer. We may not be used to this way of praying, but think of it as an extended conversation with God—God invites you to be with him; you quietly enjoy his presence, listen to his Word, and respond to him with the reality of your life; and God sends you with his blessing.

Of course, there is freedom within this form. Centuries ago English cleric William Law captured the right balance between our need of a form for prayer and yet the freedom we can enjoy in prayer to follow promptings from the Holy Spirit. His helpful direction is that most “Christians ought to use forms of prayer at all the regular times of prayer. It seems right for every one to begin with a form of prayer. If, in the midst of his devotions, he finds his heart ready to break forth into new and higher strains of devotions, he should leave his form for a while and follow those fervors of his heart, till it again wants the assistance of his usual petitions.”*

I’ve attempted to make daily prayer simple. That doesn’t mean easy, just uncomplicated. I’ve often been frustrated with more complex and liturgical prayer books that require flipping pages, finding the right dates, and hunting down portions of Scripture. The mechanics of such over-involved praying became a barrier to actual prayer for me. I’ve tried to avoid that in this book and have everything you need for one day’s prayer on one page.

I’m assuming that most of us don’t have the luxury of stopping several times a day for fixed prayer. Instead, I’ve tried to create a simple office that can be prayed in one session. The time you take can vary, but I hope that you’ll leisurely enjoy God’s presence; don’t race through it, but linger with God. I’d suggest you start by carving out twenty minutes for each day. But see how you might expand that time, enjoying the quiet, dwelling in God’s Word. And do think about setting up a regular time to pray. Pick out the time of day when you are most alert and available to God.

I imagine you will do this privately, on your own. Find a quiet and comfortable place where you won’t be distracted. But consider this hopeful thought—there may be many others who will be praying with you. If we all pray this daily office together, we may do so privately and yet be connected as a wide community of prayer. Perhaps it might be good to find a local group of people to form a small community centered on praying this office together. You can pray it on your own and yet know that each person is also praying the same prayers and meditating on the same Scriptures—that might help shape coffee conversations or online chats you have throughout the week.

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Invitation: we begin our prayers invited into God’s presence, welcomed into all the reality of the kingdom, of which we are so often unaware. The invitation is a way to open ourselves to the greater gospel reality, to become mindful of God’s presence.

Quiet: there are two specific places where you’re encouraged to quiet your heart and mind, to enjoy stillness before God. We hardly know what to do with silence in our wired world, with constant communications intruding into our lives. For us to hear God’s voice, we must regularly practice silence. Cultivating a stilled, attentive heart before God and quieting down actual noise and internal noise is a vital step in preparing to hear God’s voice. You can start with a brief period of silence, but experiment and challenge yourself with longer times of quiet.

Bible Song: each day there will be a psalm to pray. The Psalms have always been the prayer book of God’s people—the “school of prayer,” as Augustine called them, teaching us to respond to God. We’ll be praying a different psalm each day, working our way through the 150 psalms twice in one year. During some seasons, however, we’ll focus on a few specific psalms for the season.

Allow the psalm to speak for you or expand your worship of God. There will be times when a psalm does not match or connect with your immediate experience—you may hit a psalm of praise during a difficult time, a lament on a spring day bursting with life. Allow the psalm to move you beyond your immediate reality and experience, deeper into God’s reality. And remember you are praying with a wide community of Christians—a specific day’s psalm may not fit your circumstance, but it is expressing someone else’s experience. Perhaps someone in your church or neighborhood is going through what the psalm is expressing. And it’s likely something you’ll go through one day, so go to school now and learn how to respond to God with a full range of emotion.

Bible Reading: every day has a further reading from the Bible, a word from God. The Bible readings will follow the particular sea- son, allowing us to read through the story of God’s salvation. This is not a time to exegete the text or to read it for information, but to listen for God’s voice for you, to allow God’s Word to address your life.

Dwelling: this part of the prayer time may be a new way for you to encounter God’s Word and listen for his voice. It’s rooted in the ancient Christian tradition called lectio divina, which is simply a way to read the Bible, slowly, contemplatively, and leisurely, not seeking information but to hear the personal address of God. Lectio divina assumes that prayer is a two-way conversation and enables us to dialogue with Jesus by hearing and responding to the Word of God.

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We’re used to studying the Bible, analyzing it for truths to understand or mining it for lessons to live out, but we are mostly unschooled in listening to it. The goal of lectio divina is to grow in companionship with God, to be a personal participant in the story of God, lovingly listening for God’s Word, allowing the text to get into us and read our lives.

How does that happen? Each day there are a series of brief instructions to lead you through this way of listening to Scripture. But let me offer a quick overview.

First, quiet yourself so that you can hear God. Then simply read the Scripture, preferably aloud and slowly. As you do this, listen for the word that addresses you—a word, thought, phrase, or image that grabs your attention, that jumps off the page for you. Don’t analyze it or study it, but simply receive this word. (Turn aside any doubts about whether this is God or your imagination; trust that God desires to be in conversation with you and is addressing you.) Then read through the same passage again and listen for the way this word connects with your life. Reflect on how God is address- ing your life. Next, enter into conversation with God. Honestly of- fer to him any feelings this text has surfaced in you, any resistance you feel, any comfort you sense. Ask Jesus, “Why did you give me this word today?” And then, finally, let this word sink deep into your life. Yield yourself to God’s direction and leading; rest in his presence.

Free Prayer: as a part of the prayer time, there’s opportunity for you to speak your heart to God in a time of free prayer, bringing to God the needs and concerns of your life, family, work, and church. It may seem like an oxymoron, but I’ve added a few suggested prayer items for the free prayer, in case you are stuck or would like to pray for something in addition to your personal needs.**

The suggested free prayer items are focused in a weekly flow of seven daily groupings—Sunday: the resurrection of Jesus and our experience of the risen Jesus; Monday: the created world and our stewardship of it; Tuesday: the incarnation of Jesus and our living out the faith; Wednesday: the world and our local communities; Thursday: the Holy Spirit and spiritual renewal; Friday: the cross of Christ and those who suffer; and Saturday: the Church and our local church family. Each week (usually Sunday) we’ll also pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Prayer: following the free prayer is a set prayer. Each of these prayers is rooted in a Reformed confession of faith.*** The Reformed confessions are a full and rich theological foundation for the Christian life—thoughtful and soul-nourishing. This is God-reality named clearly. They remain a convincing testimony, deep wisdom to be cherished and absorbed.

But for many people I’ve met in my pastoral work, both Christians and non-Christians, these confessions seem to have a diminished capacity to connect. The theology remains as relevant as ever, but whether it’s the catechetical format, the historical distance, or the language, the confessions seem removed from people’s experience and daily lives.

So why not take the living theology that feels remote and bring it close by folding it into the most basic Christian activity of prayer? In these prayers, the content of faith is turned God-ward; it is Christian theology in a kneeling posture. Like honest prayer, some- times the confessions question or lament, and other times they confess and praise, bringing all of our lives before the face of God.

These historical confessions have provided Christians with a place to stand firm, but they also give us a place to humbly kneel. In fact, those two postures are deeply connected; our personal creed, what we believe, is found and formed in what and how we pray (the Latin motto lex orandi, lex credendi). If we can begin to weave these core Christian beliefs into our prayers, most likely we’ll find them trickling into our minds, embedded in our hearts, and lived out in our lives.

For some of us, this form of set prayer may be foreign and feel a little stiff. Accept those feelings and yet try to stick with it, allowing the prayers to give a larger voice to your spirit and to grow a fuller prayer life.
Blessing: The time of prayer closes with a final blessing, reminding us of God’s good intentions for our lives, sending us out knowing we live in the context of grace.

Enough talk about prayer; now go and seek God’s face in prayer. Commune with Father, Son, and Spirit, and give my greetings to God.
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* William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1948), p. 91.
** I’m indebted to David Adam’s The Rhythm of Life. (Harrisburg, Penn.: Morehouse Publishing, 1996) for the idea, and to The Worship Sourcebook (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2004) for some of the prayer requests.
***The set prayers flow out of the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, Heidelberg Catechism, Westminster Confession, or Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Some are word for word renditions, others a prayerful paraphrase, and still others a riff on a phrase or thought from the confessions.

This has been taken from Seeking God’s Face, a year-long devotional written by Philip Reinders and available from Faith Alive Christian Resources. Reprinted with permission. © Faith Alive Christian Resources