I recently wrote an essay on the pioneering poet Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672). She was America’s first published poet and one of the first professional female poets in English literature. Read about this amazing poet and pilgrim on The Imaginative Conservative. Check it out!
Our present age of obnoxious selfies and kitschy self-promotion campaigns have made it difficult for Christian artists, musicians, and writers to promote their work without coming across as glory-seekers clamouring for the spotlight. What is the right course of action? Should Christian creators seek out public platforms for their work? In this recent article on TGC Canada, I tackle these questions! Click here.
Monasteries were known for their scheduled prayers throughout the day. Regular times of praying and meditating on the Word are spiritually nourishing. Under normal circumstances, we are packing lunches, rushing out the door, negotiating the commute to work, responding to emails... the list goes on. The opportunity to retreat to a holy huddle can be very enticing during the craziness of life! Indeed, there are benefits to retreating from the world for a time and learning again how to "be still and know" that he is God (Psalm 46:10). Although Christians shouldn’t return to the cloistered lifestyles of monasticism, we have been “forced” into monk-like living (for a time) with our current COVID-19 pandemic lock-down.
Since we have more time and more flexibility with our time, Christians ought to be capitalizing on the opportunities we have for prayer throughout the day. In a previous post, I mentioned following some of the prayer times used by monasteries for your own times of prayer and reflection.
In this post, I want to begin examining ways to keep our prayers fresh and focused.
Ways to pray
1) Reading Prayers
The Bible doesn’t provide an explicit blueprint on how we should pray. There are guides on what to pray, such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, or the recorded prayers of so many Bible characters, especially the Apostle Paul. Such portions of Scripture are an essential and very helpful guide to praying. I hope to write more on this in my next Monk’s Guide post.
In this post, I want to reflect on ways we can pray throughout the day while working from home in lockdown. Besides scheduling times for prayer, we can also use tools to help us stay alert and engaged. One tool I use to start my day with an attitude of supplication is reading written prayers from church history. I use a book of collected prayers (see image below). While I am waiting for the kettle to boil for my morning cup of Joe, I pop open this book to the Morning Prayer of the day and prayerfully read the short poem. I often read the evening prayer before I go to bed at night. The written prayers help to focus my thoughts on crying out to God. Especially during my morning of pre-coffee grogginess.
I should note that there has been some controversy in the history of the church about “reading” prayers versus speaking “extemporaneous” prayers. The truth is I believe we can benefit from both sorts of praying. Both ways to pray can be Spirit-led and authentic or they can be dead, repetitive doggerel. I have heard “extemporaneous” prayers that really consist of several stock phrases memorized through repetition and strung together as though it's an off-the-cuff prayer. I have also heard very liberal congregations recite rich and theologically profound liturgical prayers and not mean a single word.
Evangelicals often balk at written prayers, yet they would also balk at extemporaneous preaching. Although congregations don't want their preacher to read his notes, they are thankful that he has prepared his message in advance. We also sing pre-written hymns in worship, so why wouldn't we be open to pre-written prayers?Whatever the case, I have been tremendously blessed by inspiring times of extemporanoues prayer and from times of prayerfully reading well-crafted prayers-of-old. In your own private mediations (as well as public worship), I believe there is a place for using both written prayers and extemporaneous prayers. I find that reading a prayer teaches me how to pray. These prayers often apply biblical and theological truths to real living. Reading and speaking aloud these prayers have a way of softening my heart and humbling my spirit before the Lord. During my personal devotions, I have also read from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Such prayers have helped train my heart and mind for extemporaneous praying. It is way of “priming the pump” of my own personal praise, pleas, and confessions before the Lord. These pre-written prayers have also taught me how to pray the Bible more effectively. In the next post, I will examine the best source of what to pray, and that is praying the Bible itself. Nevertheless, reading the written prayers of saints like Spurgeon, Calvin, and Luther are helpful aids in showing you how to speak to God in your daily circumstances.
2) The Posture of Prayer
Another helpful tool to praying is to remember your body. In his excellent book on prayer, Letters of Malcolm, C.S. Lewis writes, “the body ought to pray as well as the soul. Body and soul are both better for it.” I don’t always pray on my knees, but I do find that the taking on a posture of prayer has often helped in times of particular weariness or distraction. Praying on your knees doesn’t make my prayers more holy or more acceptable to God. Only Jesus makes our prayers acceptable and pleasing to God. What this posture does is use our bodies to help our spirits pray. Pride is one of the great obstacles to prayer, and kneeling helps foster humility. We sometimes forget that we have bodies as well as souls. We need to be spiritually minded in our physical activities as much as being physically minded in our spiritual activities. In short, variety of postures can help us keep engaged, focused, and in the right frame of mind during times of daily prayers. Joe Rigney helpfully summarizes Lewis’s advice:
It should be no surprise that communing with our Creator requires the commitment of heart, mind, and soul. Such is the commandment given to us in both the Old and New Testment (see Matthew 22:37). Paul also speaks of offering our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). We know in practice that our physical weariness or appetities can have a tremendous impact on our spiritual experiences, so it should mean that how we use our bodies (eating well, sleeping well, exercising, etc) as well as our physical posture can also have positive impacts on our spiritual lives as well. Likewise, meditating and praying have a positive impact on our physical bodies. According to several studies done in “Blue Zones” (areas around the world with unusually long-living inhabitants), a key ingredient to health and longevity is regular times of prayer and meditation. Reading—another habit of monks—also prolongs life! Maybe those monks were on to something!
3) Praying on the Move: prayer walks
Another helpful aid to praying is going on a prayer walk. We are stuck in our homes, but that doesn't mean we can't go for a stroll in the neighbourhood and lift up our hearts and thoughts to God in prayer as we do so. Pastor and author Mike Wilkins writes that he developed a helpful habit of walking and praying early in his ministry. As he walked a neighbourhood block, he devoted each side of the rectangle to different topics of prayer. He notes, “A very significant thing about my ‘walking in prayer’ has always been that, for the entire event, I remained mentally alert.” Sitting in prayer, he writes, often leads to “drowsing in prayer.”
Make the most of your lock-down and carve out some times to pray throughout the day!
Next Monk's Guide post: What to pray... Praying God's words back to God!
 C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (New York: Harper Collins, 2017), 21
 Rigney, Joe. “C.S. Lewis and the Role of the Physical Body in Prayer.” Crossway, April 23, 2018. https://www.crossway.org/articles/cs-lewis-and-the-role-of-the-physical-body-in-prayer/.
 Bavishi, A., Slade, M. D., & Levy, B. R. (2016). A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity. Social science & medicine (1982), 164, 44–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.07.014
 Mike Wilkins, Four Forty-Four (London: Tellwell, 2018), 9.
Now that so many of us are working from home, the line between “work-work” and “home-work” is getting blurred. We find ourselves spending our days doing several domestic tasks amid our other responsibilities for our jobs. Work-at-home moms and dads are busy writing reports, responding to emails, and taking conference calls while making PB&J sandwiches, repairing the broken doorknobs, and fixing leaky taps. When does the workday end? Is there time for leisure and recreation? Unless you are a regular stay-at-home parent or homeschooling mom, this is all new territory.
In Brother Lawrence’s book, The Practice of the Presence of God, the 17th-century monk encourages us both to glorify God and know his presence while doing the most menial of tasks like mopping the floor or peeling potatoes!
Medieval monks spent a lot of their time labouring and serving, often at lowly and humble chores. Based on the monks’ talents and aptitudes, they were assigned jobs like washing, food preparation, cleaning, farming, scribing, carpentry, masonry, tending to the sick, etc. We can learn from our medieval brothers how to manage our responsibilities and how to glorify God in the small tasks of day-to-day living. In Brother Lawrence’s book, The Practice of the Presence of God, the 17th-century monk encourages us both to glorify God and know his presence while doing the most menial of tasks like mopping the floor or peeling potatoes!
One of the ways monks made the most of their time was augmenting their daily chores with the honing and development of other valuable skills. Since the collapse of Roman civilization, monks preserved and mastered expertise in a variety of areas. For example, monks practiced reading and writing, singing, book-binding, brewing beers, wine-making, medicine and herbology, gardening, engineering, carpentry, teaching, and a host of other activities. Although many monastic orders left little time for leisure, some of the jobs assigned to monks might be considered hobbies by today’s standards.
So what do hobbies have to do with the Christian faith? Recently during an online Q&A session for 2020 Together For the Gospel conference, Al Mohler spoke about needing a “theology of leisure” and how Christians can “glorify God with our hobbies.” Mohler’s statements may have shocked some Christians, especially dyed-in-the-wool evangelicals. How can hobbies advance the Kingdom of God? Why waste time on hobbies when we should be evangelizing? We need to be careful about how we “redeem the time” God has given to us (Ephesians 5:16). The Bible reminds us often how fleeting our lives are (see, for example, Psalm 90:12; 144:4; James 4:13-17; 1 Peter 1:24). But evangelism is not our primary function as Christians: glorifying God is. The classic catechism question—what is the chief end of man—is answered with “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Part of glorifying God—making his greatness known—is telling others about Jesus and the Good News. During this time of COVID-19 lockdown, there are new and exciting ways to share the gospel and evangelize (see, for example, the TGC article “10 Simple Ways to Evangelize During a Pandemic”) We also have more time with family, which means more opportunities to disciple your kids in Christ and lead your family in home worship.
But we also have more time for hobbies.
Activities like gardening, photography, poetry, playing an instrument, learning a second language, sewing, wood-working, painting, drawing, blogging, composing, and cooking (just to name a few). How can our hobbies glorify God?
To help answer that question, I turn to young David on the run from King Saul. I have often wondered what David did in the Cave of Adullam or in the wilderness. What did he do with the extra time he had while in forced “isolation” and “social distancing” as King Saul relentlessly hunted him? One thing is for sure: he wrote poems. We wouldn’t usually call the psalms of David a product of mere “hobby,” but that is what they were. The lyrics that appear in the Book of Psalms are uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit, but the skill of writing poems is perhaps talent that David honed while passing the time as a shepherd to his father’s sheep. Like playing the harp, poetry was one of the ways David used his gifts. Often the Lord uses our gifts and abilities not only for our enjoyment but also as a means to bless and minister to others. For example, the guitar or piano hobbyist ends up accompanying worship music; the poet hobbyist becomes a hymn writer; the hobby baker ends up blessing others with hospitality; the dabbler in languages becomes a missionary or translator… These sorts of applications aren’t needed to justify hobbies, but who knows what the Lord will do with the gifts, talents, and skills honed while practicing a hobby?
Devaluing seemingly “unspiritual work” often leads us to the wrong idea that there is a separation between “church life” and “everyday life.” In truth, there’s just life. We live every moment “coram Deo,” that is, before the face of God.
Even in more focused ways, the Lord using our hobbies to teach us to be patient, or more loving, or humble, or sacrificial. He may use our hobbies to draw us closer to him, as Brother Lawrence writes: “God has many ways of drawing us to Himself.”
Perhaps most importantly, using our gifts and abilities well glorifies the One who made you. You are not a cosmic fluke, but a carefully designed person made in the image of God. God created you with unique and individual gifts and abilities. He did not bless you with artistic skills, for example, to not use or hone that skill! Working at your hobbies is really about stewarding the gifts—and now time—that God has given to you.
The point is, don't underestimate hobbies. It’s an unbiblical view that “God’s business” is limited to evangelism, Sunday school, and sermons. As essential as these activities are, our God is much bigger than that. Devaluing seemingly “unspiritual work” often leads us to the wrong idea that there is a separation between “church life” and “everyday life.” In truth, there’s just life. We live every moment “coram Deo,” that is, before the face of God.
I recently heard this quotation from Charles Simeon, who writes that “there are but two lessons for Christians to learn: the one is, to enjoy God in everything; the other is, to enjoy everything in God.” Take some time, fellows monks, and develop an enjoyable skill and talent that has been collecting dust on the shelves of your minds and hearts. Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.
 The Shorter Catechism: A Baptist Version (New Jersey: Simpson Publishing, 1991), 1.
 Paul Worcester writes, “The gospel can’t be quarantined”—see article link here.
 See my previous blog post, “The Art of Worship at Home” (link here)
 Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004), 57
When we think of monasteries, we think of medieval monks cloistered away from society and living in silence amidst a formidable fortress of solitude. Historically, that certainly was true in many cases. In an effort to live holy and pure lives, many monastic orders retreat from the world, and even from each other. In a Benedictine monastery, for example, monks were not permitted to speak, even at the dinner table… and not even to ask someone to pass the butter! “Monks should cultivate silence at all times,” writes St. Benedict. There’s a belief that wrong behaviour can be easily addressed by limiting our behaviour. Although we could probably learn to say fewer words (and so get into less trouble), such external restrictions lead to legalism and deny the powerful work of the Spirit in a believer’s life.
In fact, the Spirit often uses our interactions with others to teach us how to be more like Jesus. For example, you never realize how proud you are until someone offends you! You never realize how little patience you have until someone exasperates you! We not only need those offensive and trying people but we ought to thank God for them!
"The temptation to avoid others so that you can live a perfect and holy life is what makes monastic living so appealing to so many."
The temptation to avoid others so that you can live a perfect and holy life is what makes monastic living so appealing to so many. Human beings are always striving for an ideal world—a heaven on earth—and unfortunately, Christians are no exception. Just like medieval monks, modern Christians tend to retreat from the challenging demands of staying connected with fellow believers, especially those “difficult to love” saints in their local church. The current crisis has certainly exasperated this tendency toward isolation. The writer of Hebrews reminds us, however, to not neglect meeting “together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).
We are tempted to turn to our favourite online preachers or authors, and campout in social media echo-chambers. We may even focus on our own spiritual growth—which is valuable and essential; however, God has not only called us to be devoted to him but also to love our neighbours.
During this COVID-19 crisis, as many Christians are unable to meet with their congregations or even interact with their family or neighbours, be sure that you are still connecting with the saints. Pick up the phone, chat via texting, send an email, use one of the many online video chats (Google Hangouts, Skype, Google Duo, Zoom, Webex, just to name a few free applications). You need to body of Christ to help you be more like Christ, and the body needs you to help them become more like Christ too.
So fellow COVID-19 monks, don’t be a recluse! Be sure to “break the silence” from time to time, and reach out (virtually) to fellow saints, friends, family, missionaries, pastors, neighbours… especially those who are on their own. “As iron sharpens iron,” the Proverb declares, “so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
For more on the importance of staying connected to the body of Christ, here’s a link to a sermon I preached at Rosedale Baptist Church call “Why Your Church Matters” on Ephesians 4:1-16.
 Benedict, and Timothy Fry. The Rule of St. Benedict in English. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018.
4/8/2020 1 Comment
A Monk’s Guide to COVID-19
A Series of Blogs on Surviving and Thriving During Coronavirus Lockdown
Although there are many negative and tragic consequences of the present COVID-19 pandemic, there are also many unexpected benefits. Now that I am working from home, for example, I have opportunities to see my family more during lunch breaks, snack time, and quick trips to the loo. I also have fewer distractions and more time on my hands. There’s no commute to work, no digressive chats by the water cooler, no hunting down staplers or office supplies, no neckties or polished dress shoes. Even after work, we have more time: stadiums, theatres, museums, malls have all been shuttered. What to do with the time given to us?
I’m not saying we need to start chanting in Latin, wearing robes and sandals around the house, shaving the tops of our heads, or remaining silent at the dinner table… Nor am I saying we need to retreat from the world and try to create heaven on earth sanctuary. Such are the dangers and pitfuls of historical monasticism. Instead, like the monks, we can carve out daily times for prayer, meditation, and fasting throughout the day. Like Jesus, who retreated to the wilderness for prayer and fasting, we too have a chance to “retreat” for the refreshment of our souls and we, also, can pray ardently for the greatness of God to be made known to our lost world (Matthew 4:1; Luke 5:16).
A Modern Monk’s Call to Prayer
While working from home, I find it easy to lose track of time and to work, and work, and work. I also find that there is an explosion of good distractions on social media... seminars, articles, blogs, videos, sermons… So we need to schedule times to pray and to take breaks. Taking scheduled breaks, in fact, is essential to be truly productive. To help with this, I have preset alarms on my phone roughly matched to a handful of monastic prayer times. The alerts on my phone are choral voices singing Latin prayers written during the Middle Ages; I also have one alarm set as church bells… but that’s just me! Do what works for you. I set a pre-break alarm to give myself a five-minute window to finish up tasks before taking a 20- or 30-minute break. I also keep a notepad nearby to jot down “to do” tasks that I don’t want to forget when I get back to work after my break for prayer or rest. Also, note by writing things down, this enables you to forget about whatever you’re working on while taking a prayer or rest break. It’s also important to get up and move away from your work area to a different location.
In the next couple of blog posts, I will write about ways to maximize the new monastic lifestyle, I’ll examine aids to prayer, and I will discuss fasting, which John Piper calls “the handmaid of faith.” In the meantime, here are the traditional times of prayer in a monastery. I don’t do Matins (too early), but I do Prime, Terce, Sext, and None. I slightly alter the times to suit my schedule, responsibilities, and commitments.
3/22/2020 0 Comments
The Art of Worshipping at Home
With the restriction on group gatherings, many saints are now worshipping God at home. Although worshipping at home is no substitute for meeting with the local church, under the current circumstances, it has become our “new normal.” The challenge is that many Christians have never planned or led a worship service before. I have been a dad for over twenty years, and during those years, I have led many times of family worship of one kind or another. I have also had the privilege of leading congregational worship. Easing into our present “new normal” of worship-at-home was fairly natural for our family and for me. But it occurred to me that it might be helpful for me to share some tips that we have learned along the way. I hope this will be of some use to you during the COVID-19 lock-down!
What we have been doing during our home services:
Family worship can come in multiple forms. It is less formal than a congregational worship service but more formal than gathering for a game of Monopoly. Find the right balance. Your family should feel at home, but they should also be aware that they are gathering to worship a Holy God. Your service should be delightful but also serious. May the Lord bless you as you seek to honour him in your homes!
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
All ANNE BRADSTREET CHRISTMAS COVID 19 CS LEWIS DOUBT EASTER Family Worship FRANCIS SCHAEFFER GUEST BLOG POST JRR TOLKIEN MENTORING MONK'S GUIDE ON ARCHITECTURE ON DEATH ON EXCELLENCE ON HISTORY ON MUSIC ON OLD BOOKS ON POETRY ON THE ARTS ON WRITING PODCAST POETRY PRAYER THANKSGIVING TOLKIEN