It was the first time that music had made me stop, stare at the speaker and just … listen.
I was 14 years old, it was the year 2000, and I’d just put The Living End’s self-titled debut CD into my Panasonic stereo. There was the familiar whirr as the compact-disc motor began to spin the 120 mm of plastic – and then the opening guitar punch of Prisoner of Society belted forth.
I was transfixed.
Although I was a gangly-limbed, glasses-wearing, rule-abiding, classroom-topping nerd – I loved the aggression and sound of The Living End’s punk masterpieces. And then – came the solo.
Fast licks, grace notes, new modes – this had it all! Chris Cheney, the guitarist and front-man, was jazz-trained – and brought all of this technical ability to the fore.
And I had to follow in his footsteps.
So in 2002, I bought an electric guitar, downloaded tabs and began playing till my fingers bled. Or, at least, slightly ached.
It was hard going – as learning any new skill is. But one day, as I was perusing the Internet for a lesson, I discovered my pathways to guitar greatness.
The Pentatonic Scale.
For those not-in-the-know, the pentatonic scale is a five-note wonder (rather than the seven-note compositions of most scales and modes). Due to the fewer notes – there’s less to get wrong. And – in simple terms – for your standard rock’n’roll song – once you know know the key – you match it up to the pentatonic scale – and away you go! Follow the rules – and whatever you play will sound good.
I memorised it. I practiced it. I learnt licks and tricks within it. I learnt to extend it up and down the guitar neck. I mastered flourishes, bends, vibratos and hammers of the pentatonic variety. I double-stopped, tapped and rocked out. I could play it behind my head, with my eyes closed.
A few years later, I joined a rock’n’roll band. We had fun – playing for a few years, writing songs, growing to an incredibly minor level of infamy, recording tracks. As the non-singing guitarist, I tried to let my fingers do the work for me – and the pentatonic scale was my friend. I could improvise solos with ease, almost intuitively. I had arrived.
One day, my good friend asked me to play guitar in a small jazz ensemble for a Christmas Eve church event. I readily agreed, and turned up to practice – ready to pentatonic-my-way through.
Within seconds, I realised I was wildly out of my depth. My scales didn’t sound good. The chords had symbols next to them I didn’t know. A note would sound sweet for half a bar – and then would jar if I didn’t move on.
I felt like a beginner – my head ached from trying to keep up, and trying to appear competent.
Pentatonic got me so far – but I was not a well-rounded guitarist. I needed to widen my ability – by trying other techniques, going back to basics, and developing a bigger toolbox.
Skipping Leg Day
In the world of fitness – one internet meme has risen to the top.
“Skipped leg day.”
When a guy posts a picture of his ripped biceps, large chest and Peter Andre-esque abs – but accidentally leaves a glimpse of his stick-like legs – the “You skipped leg day!” insults will follow fast behind.
But why do people want to pass on leg day?
Because it’s hard. Deadlifts, squats and lunges are hard. The delayed soreness is real. And people don’t seem to get impressed by legs as much as they do with the upper body.
But we know that true fitness involves training the whole body – strength, cardio, upper and lower.
Every journey to excellence involves more than one component that must be developed.
A great business person must master decision-making, analysis, communication and negotiation.
A great athlete must master fitness, nutrition, co-ordination and mental fortitude.
A great musician must master technique, feel, style and depth.
We know that the world of physical or talent formation is bigger than what meets the eye – requiring a range of pathways to continue the journey.
So why do we tend to assume that the world of spiritual formation is smaller? Why is it that we hope that one pathway – repeated ad nauseam – will deliver a deep journey of pursuing truth?
One of the main reasons the church has pushed a single-focused action – the quiet time – is because of its ease and acceptance within a quick-fix culture. It is simplistic – take 10 minutes at the beginning of the day, open the Bible, read and pray.
Additionally – the quiet time is repeatedly encouraged because it works. It should do – Jesus did it (check out Mark 1:35 or Luke 5:16). But the quiet time is only one component of the pathway to spiritual formation – and will leave us lacking if that is the sum total of our practice.
And this makes sense. In the typical quiet time, you sit down with a coffee, the Bible (often on an app), in the morning. If you’re prepared – you have a Bible plan you follow. If not, you open at random. You read for a few minutes – and hope something sticks out to you. You highlight the good verses. You then stop, pray for your day, for your loved ones – and then go out to begin life.
What will this grow?
First, it will grow the power of habit. This shouldn’t be under-estimated – there’s something very powerful in the act of regularly committing yourself to a spiritual discipline – even when you don’t feel like it. This isn’t a new thing – the writer of the book of Hebrews had to encourage people not to give up the habit of meeting together.
Second, it will grow a familiarity with the nice verses. Let’s be honest – there’s some verses that sound like they were made for Instagram. Reading Jeremiah 29:11 or Philippians 4:13 gives us a buzz – and can get us excited for our day ahead. That’s not a bad thing!
And third, it teaches us to bring our day forward in prayer. This is a fantastic habit – as prayer plays a pivotal role in bringing us into the place where we can be shaped by the truth.
But – what does this approach miss?
How does this teach us that we are mortals, and God knows that we are made of dust – and how dependent we are on Him for each breath – like fasting does?
How does this shape us into people who live out of the abundance of God’s provision – like giving does?
How does this grow us into people who recognise that the earth is soaked with the glory of God – like praise does?
How does this teach us to humility and our need for grace – like the gift of confession does?
Lessons from the Late Night
Having grown up in the church – and not having too much of a rebellious streak – I’ve been a regular quiet-timer since ages ago.
In 2009, however, I went through a period where it felt like my life was being flipped through the ringer. I couldn’t think straight and could barely read a few sentences without losing my concentration.
So, I’d walk. At night – I’d pound the pavements of Cambridge, strolling through fog and crystal-clear-cold darkness – looking up at the stars and praying as I went.
These 30-to-60 minute prayer walks were a life-saver – and they also taught me the art of quietening myself and slowly listening to God. Instead of a quick-espresso-like-shot of morning spirituality – these were a nourishing meal.
At first my mind would wander, but by the end of a few months I could keep a quiet-yet-intimate conversation with God going for minutes.
These walks shaped me in a way that a quiet time never could – and never should. That’s not what a quiet time is designed for.
Each of the spiritual disciplines has a different approach and a different end in mine – all bringing us into the position of being shaped by truth.
Frustration & Guilt
All of which brings us back to the central problem – a quiet-yet-large frustration in the church with the promise of spirituality that seems not to deliver. Almost like an infomercial – preachers can peddle a life-time of growth and intimacy through a 10 minute quiet time.
And when the results don’t come – we get frustrated. Then we get guilty. We re-launch into our quiet-times with renewed vigour. And we end up in the same place.
What is needed is often not more energy – but a bigger tool-box. An understanding that spiritual formation is deeper and wider than we can imagine – and that there are a wealth of pathways described in the Scriptures for bringing us on this journey.
Like anything, they feel weird when you first start. (If you don’t believe me – go and try confessing your sins to someone. It. Is. Weird.) But – also like most things – the first acts of trying lead to rapid growth and encouragement – and a rich, deep journey ahead.
Thankfully, there are a wealth of great thinkers who have blazed the trail ahead of us, and pass on their guidance for us to follow. I’ve found the small investment of buying a book has paid back rich dividends.
So – explore the resources below. Buy. Read. Practice – and begin to experience the delight of the journey of following the Lord closer each day.
Pro-Tips for the Road Ahead
The Celebration of Discipline is the 20th-century popular magnum-opus for spiritual formation. Author Richard Foster – a Quaker and theologian – systematically goes through the main spiritual disciplines, explaining the theology behind them – and providing a huge range of ideas for incorporating them into your life. I’ve re-read this book so many times it’s not funny. A fantastic field guide!
The Spirit of the Disciplines was written by Foster’s friend and general-all-round-legend Dallas Willard. This guy was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California for 42 years – and was devoted in his pursuit of truth. A thoughtful, and challenging read on the significant role of the spiritual disciplines in all Christian’s lives.
If you feel overwhelmed by the challenge of the above – then read Nathan Foster’s The Making of an Ordinary Saint. The son of Richard Foster, Nathan lived a wild-life, and then decided to spend a season pursuing the spiritual disciplines. This is an honest, fun and relatable read – showing the amount of grace required for the journey ahead – and the blessings of the journey that lies ahead.
And, if you’re feeling cheap, try out Frank Laubach’s The Game with Minutes. Frank was a missionary in the Philippines – who devoted his life to caring for the least, sharing the gospel and growing in intimacy with Christ. This free PDF explains his approach to bringing Christ to mind one second, every minute.