photo by Matt Clingan
by Jill Clingan
I wrote this paper in undergrad called “How to Have a Quiet Time.” When my grandparents gave me their piano a couple of years ago, I found a copy of the essay in the piano bench. I know I kept that paper, but I can’t find it tonight, and oh, how I wish I could. It was actually not a bad essay—in fact, the professor wrote that it was the best paper he had read on the topic (insert an appropriately humble spiritual bow here). The essay was organized and nicely written and simple, because in my mind at the time, quiet times were organized, 15-minute, simple affairs with nicely written devotionals to accompany my equally organized and simple prayers, preferably following the ACTS formula (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication).
I would like to insert another humble spiritual bow here and tell you that I was really, really good at quiet times. I mean—really good. I didn’t skip a quiet time. Literally. Ever. If I skipped my quiet time, I had a horrible day. So I had my quiet time. Every day. I may have been half asleep while I read my Bible and devotional book and muttered prayers, but I clung to my quiet time like a magical talisman. It was my amulet that, I thought, would supernaturally bless me with spiritual freedom and friendship with God and a life of devotion.
Truthfully, though, my quiet times brought me neither freedom nor friendship with God nor true devotion. Instead, I was imprisoned within the rules my quiet time. My quiet time was yet another box to check on my OCD-infused to-do list. It wasn’t a time of nudging under the wing of God to settle in and feel comforted. It wasn’t a time of deep reflection and study and thought. It wasn’t a time of raw questioning.
My quiet time was the ultimate spiritual cliché.
And eventually, I quit. I didn’t quit my relationship with God, but I finally decided that I couldn’t hack slick but superficial devotional books anymore. I couldn’t talk to God using a formula. I couldn’t just check God off of my to-do list.
So I quit. And I floundered. I couldn’t read my Bible anymore in the traditional translations. I couldn’t open a devotional book without thinking hostile thoughts. I squirmed through church. I wasn’t sure how to talk to God without my formula. I felt incredibly lost and bewildered.
Finally, after years of frustration and struggle, I re-created my “quiet time” paradigm. It’s taken a long while, but I have settled into a spiritual rhythm that allows plenty of breathing space for my soul. I can no longer follow a formula or a guideline. Honestly, I still can’t really even read a devotional book.
I can, though, read poetry.
I made this startling discovery recently: there is this genre of Christian devotional poetry that isn’t all rhyme-y and cliché-y. It’s beautiful and it’s raw and it’s lyrical and it’s lovely. I happened upon this book a few weeks ago called Poems of Devotion. In the morning I sit out on my porch with a cup of coffee, and as I listen to my ducklings practice their quacking, I open up my book and read T.S. Eliot or Leonard Cohen or William Stafford or e.e. cummings or Thomas Merton. Then I might read a chapter of Isaiah or a Psalm.
Or I might not. I might decide, instead, that I would rather read the morning office from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime.
Or I might just wander down to my pond and listen to the earnest conversation of my ducks.
The only rule I’m following these days is that it’s imperative for me to spend some time within the rhythm of quiet. It’s in the quiet that I find God’s beauty and His creative joy and His love. If I can quiet my manic mind long enough, if I can just be still, I find God.
Earlier this evening, I found God in the garage. He was hanging out with my chickens as they happily chirped and settled down on their chosen roosting spots for the night.
At this very moment, I am sitting on my porch, and God is out here with me now, too. The wind is whipping my hair. Lightning is racing across the sky. Thunder is murmuring its dissent. Frogs are harmonizing. Coyotes are wailing. It’s not quiet out here in the country, but it’s quieting. And I think Jesus might be sitting here beside me, and every once in awhile he whispers a lovely word in my ear that I might want to use, or he sighs when I lament that this essay is the literary equivalent of the chicken dung fertilizing my garage floor.
Here’s the thing: For me, God isn’t boxed in a slick devotional. I find Him in the Bible and through prayer, yes, but I also find Him in animals and the sky and art and my children and in an extraordinary multitude of beautiful and surprising grace-drenched places.
I am wondering, tonight, where God finds you.
Maybe God peeks out at you from behind a painting in an art gallery.
Maybe He pops open a can of beer and sits beside you in your fishing boat.
Maybe He shows up as you bend down to sniff your son’s sweet and sweaty head.
Maybe He surprises you when you read a beautiful sentence.
Maybe He gently guides your paintbrush or your pen.
Maybe He is buried under the dirt of your vegetable garden.
Maybe He roars with laughter with you on the back of your favorite roller coaster ride.
And maybe He meets you within the pages of a slick devotional.
I am no longer “really good” at having my quiet time. Some days, I hit snooze too many times. Some mornings, my son wakes up and interrupts my time alone. But God doesn’t have to fit inside a quiet time paradigm. Wherever you find beauty and meaning and purpose, I bet God is right there, too. In the mess. In the beauty. In the rhythm of His extravagant and lovely grace.