Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Quiet Times

When I was growing up in church, the youth group I attended for junior high and high school had a peculiar practice. They sought to encourage regular Bible reading and prayer for the teens who attended (also called "having your 'quiet time'"). "Quiet times" were a staple of youth group in those days. It was perceived that a lot could be fixed about the teen years if we could only get them having regular "quiet times." To this end, the youth leaders awarded prizes for those teen who had "quiet times" on the most regular basis. Teens who had done theirs for 30 straight days were awarded a hat. Those who had done it for 6 straight months got a jacket. The hat and the jacket had the youth group's logo on it (the youth ministry was called "The Flock"; exceedingly unoriginal for a baptist church).

One of the unintended consequences (perhaps "intended" would be accurate but I'm not yet cynical enough to assume so) was that those teens who earned a hat, or especially a jacket, wore them to youth events. This created a sense of status. The more "spiritual" teens were easy to spot in the crowd due to their apparel. You really could judge a book by its cover. A sense of counter-coolness had developed specifically for church. "The Flock" jacket became the church equivalent of a letterman's jacket in a high school. If a guy was so spiritual as to earn a jacket, his girlfriend might be found wearing it sometimes in the cold. Good Christian boys and girls had "flock" apparel. Marginal ones did not.

What was then the motivation for doing your "quiet time?" A hat? A jacket? Status? Coolness? Peer pressure from friends who had theirs? To have matching apparel with a girlfriend? A boyfriend?

Oh how seductive and enticing legalism is. Watch in awe how it slithers its way into every aspect of Christian practice. Observe with horror as the beautiful acts of reading God's Word and communing with him in prayer are morphed into acts of status. Cringe with disgust was Christian leaders seek to use peer pressure in a "positive" way, ignorant of the fact that they've accomplished little more than to make teens simply more susceptible to peer pressure.

How is our Lord made to feel by such motives? When he asks for the reason why you read his Word and pray simple "now I lay me down to sleep" prayers, is he honored by your reply "to look more cool at church?" Do you suppose the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sin, providing substitutionary atonement for you so that you can be popular in Christian crowd? Is our devotion of Christ so simplify-able as to be reduced to answering the youth leader in the affirmative when asked if "you had your 'quiet time' this week?"

My daughter and I recently had this discussion because she gets asked this question in her youth group at church. "Did you have your quiet time this week?" My first instinct was to tell her to tell them, "that's none of your d*** business!" But she's more respectful than I am, and would not likely say that. She elected instead to tell the truth, whether she had or not, and be content that God is working with her in a pace that seems good to him. But she will not succumb to peer pressure to have "quiet times" just to say she did, or lie and say she did when she had not. I'd rather she tell the people in youth group, "that's a private matter." But I respect her decision.

Nevertheless, she and I talked a lot about motives and why we do the things we do as Christians. Bible reading is not the goal. Knowing God and following closely to him is the goal, and the Bible is the chief means of knowing him. Why do we pray? Not to check that task off on the score card that I'll show to the youth group gestapo. We pray to commune with and relate to our great and gracious God. Motives are so vitally important to Christian disciplines.

I'd much rather my children learn right motive before right practice, for it is right motive that makes right practice right. To hell with "quiet times" if they are ever to be used for that particularly effective practice by the Evil One in stunting the growth of believers into legalistic dwarfs. Give me a youth who reads the Scriptures less frequently, but then truly meditates on what they read (Psalm 119:15,27,48,97,99, 148). Give me a youth who prays less frequently, but truly bares their soul to the Lord in passionate pleas for mercy on them, a sinner (Luke 18:13). Give me a youth who tells me it's none of my business how often they had their "quiet times," but then secretly goes into their private room and prays to their Father in secret (Matt 6:5-6). I have little doubt that The Father will make sure they are rewarded.

Even the language of "quiet times" gives me chills up my spine. It's reminiscent of legalistic days that I'm still recovering from. How might an 90 year old polish Jew still wince at hearing a German accent say "I was merely following orders?" Such is my continued reaction to hearing the language of "quiet times" used in church. I hope we can get away from such language, and figure out a new way to encourage Christian disciplines and depth for our youth. Just like certain words and phrases have come to have such historical baggage that they are no longer welcome in society (I'll not supply them here, but instead trust in your cultural awareness to conjure them yourself), so also should "quiet time" become banned from Christian circles in which grace is a driving mandate. Let us discover other terms and means of encouraging Christian reflection, study and discipline; but "quiet time," as a phrase, has got to go.

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