Tuesday morning, I made my way to NorthRidge Gracious Retirement Living for the first time in over four months. Since the pandemic began, I haven’t been able to visit for our regular Bible Studies, and the Elders and I haven’t been able to bring our once-per-month Sunday Communion.
After I donned my mask, got my temperature checked, and signed myself in (circling “NO” when asked if I’ve experienced any “new and unusual symptoms”), I made my way to the chapel. It was great to see the residents there; thankfully (some might even say miraculously), NorthRidge hasn’t had a single case of COVID-19.
We spent most of our time catching up after so much time apart, discussed a few quick passages from the Bible, and talked briefly about some of the lessons the past four months have taught us. One woman said she’s found herself praying more often. Another woman said she’s learned how to use Facebook for virtual church services (see, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!) Another woman worried that she had gained weight!
The personal lesson I shared with the residents was this: before the pandemic, I leaned FAR too much on my daily routine for my spiritual health.
Here’s what I mean by that:
If you know me well, you’re already aware that I’m a very routine-oriented person (I even prefer words like “pattern”, “practice”, or “rhythm” over “routine”; sometimes “routine” sounds cold and lifeless). I’m dedicated to my routine for running and working out (thought you might not guess it by looking at my waistline). I’m dedicated to my routine of seasonal home maintenance. I’m dedicated to my routine of taking our cars through the car wash (New Years, Memorial Day, and Labor Day, if you’re curious). I frequent many of the same restaurants and coffee shops. I’ve joked before that I’d be an easy target for a hit-man; for better or for worse, I’m a creature of habit.
I really do believe my dedication to routine has done me (and those around me) much more good than harm. Not everyone is wired the same way I am, but I’ve found that I’m a better husband, father, and pastor when my life – like a good song – has a steady, consistent beat. Having a healthy routine allows me to keep first things first; it helps me prioritize and balance my God-given responsibilities rightly. To bolster my pro-routine position, I’d argue that we see God-ordained “routines” in creation itself: the rising and setting of the sun, the changing of the seasons, the in and out movements of the tides. Those routines are all good.
However, the past four months (and especially early in the pandemic, when almost everyone’s old routines got blown to smithereens) taught me that when it came to praying and reading Scripture – two COLOSSAL disciplines of a healthy Christian life – I was far too dependent on my routine. I was so used to doing these things – in a certain order, at a certain time, in a certain place – that it took me several weeks to get my prayer life and study of Scripture back on track after my usual daily rhythm was interrupted. Those several weeks were particularly challenging for me spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. (I don’t think that’s a coincidence.)
So, what did this realization teach me?
Spiritually speaking, it taught me that being such a routine-oriented person means I may be particularly tempted to treat these wonderful gifts of God – praying, and reading his Word – like tasks on a to-do list. On the one hand, it’s a good sign that they’re important enough to make it onto the list to begin with; but on the other hand, I don’t want to treat them as thoughtless habits or mindless exercises. I want to spend time in prayer not just because it’s the next item on the to-do list; I want to pray because I love God, and consider it a privilege to speak to him. I want to spend time in Scripture not just because it’s 7:30 AM, and that’s what I’ve trained myself to do at 7:30 AM; I want to spend time in Scripture because I have a Spirit-driven desire to know God’s character and works better.
If prayer feels like a chore, we’ve failed to understand what we’re actually doing: speaking to the God of the universe as our Father. If reading the Bible feels boring and mundane, we’ve failed to understand what we’re actually doing: reading the Spirit-inspired revelation of what God the Father has done in history for sinners through his Son Jesus Christ. When these practices start to feel “routine” to me, the problem isn’t the practices themselves; the problem is me.
More practically speaking, this realization taught me that I need to be more flexible. I can’t put so much stock in my routine that when interruptions come around – which they inevitably will, even after COVID-19 is a thing of the past – everything falls apart. I need to be more open to change, and more capable of adapting when necessary so that I can hold on to these good habits and practices, rather than neglecting them or losing them.
Maybe you’re the same way, and you’ve learned a similar lesson over the past four months. Or maybe you’re completely different than I am, and can’t relate to this at all! Either way, I’d be curious to hear what lessons the past four months have taught you when it comes to your spiritual health.
Again, I’m still staunchly pro-routine; overall, I believe that having a solid order and pattern to my days, weeks, months, and even years has done me, my family, and my church a lot of good. However, this pandemic has reminded me that I need to be careful that I don’t depend on my routine too much. I never want my Christian faith or practice to be simply…well…routine.