A vine-covered trellis was my landing spot for a day of retreat. I sat in the cool morning shade of its leafy canopy. The obvious-to-me characteristic was that the vines were closely wrapped around the structure. Beginning at the base, circling the posts, then splaying out to form the roof.
From the very beginning, someone saw to it that the growing vines had something to wrap around, to hold on to. Without the structure, the surrounding bricked patio would have been flooded by a jungle of vines.
I have spent most of my life loathing the thought of structure. Don’t fence me in. Give me space and options and room to explore other possibilities.
But without structure I become a wild jungle. If left to grow without any guidance, I do little more than tangle the feet of those trying to make their way through life. I need something sturdy and strong to wrap my mind around. I’m at my best when planted alongside something that points up and then out.
The structures that I most often cling to are Spiritual Disciplines and physical exercise. The Spiritual Disciplines that most frequently lead me up and out are journaling and some form of meditative Scripture reading. During this season of Lent I have also engaged in “Fixed-hour Prayer.”
The psalmist says, “Seven times a day I praise you…” (Ps. 119:64). Peter and John “were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.” (Acts 3:1) Both of these accounts refer to a form of Fixed-hour prayer — a set time of prayer and singing and Scripture — deeply rooted in Judeo Christianity. The First Century Christians in particular submitted to a rhythm of prayer scheduled according to Roman business life. A bell sounded at 6am that began the work day, and sounded again for a mid-morning break at 9am. During these set times, Christians paused for prayer and Scripture. Their next three prayer times for the day took place at the noon meal, the 3pm return to work, and the closing of the work day at 6pm. Eventually prayers were added in the evening for bedtime.
Although our work schedules differ today (a 3-hour lunch break, can you imagine?!), I’m finding it extremely helpful to “press pause” at set times in order to reset my focus and water my soul. Early morning before work, midday, evening, and when headed to bed for the night. Those four pauses of each day provide a freedom that would not be possible without structure. Freedom is found in life-giving structure.
For Fixed-hour prayers, I utilize a book laid out specifically for those four times of the day and night. Varying Scriptures and prayers for each new day and time of day, all set to the rhythm of the Christian calendar year. One of the more tangible benefits of following the printed schedule of prayers and Scripture is that I don’t spin my wheels wondering where I should read next. When instructed to read from the Old Testament prophets at noon, for example, I read that passage. In addition to taking the guesswork out of my reading plan, I’m no longer straining to say “just the right words” in prayer. I allow the Holy Spirit to use the psalms and ancient prayers to give voice to the cry of my heart.
Like posts of the trellis, God’s Word forms a solid place for me to plant myself at the beginning of each new day. I reach out to Jesus in morning prayer, and continue to wrap my thoughts around Him during the day. Ancient prayers regularly put into words the thoughts and concerns I didn’t know how to express. I’m always pleasantly amazed how centuries-old prayers resonate with me in the present tense. Workdays or weekends, as the day progresses, my soul is pulled upwards towards God. Graciously, vertically directed thoughts are redirected outward to form a canopy and shade to the weary and weak the Lord brings into my life. As stated earlier, with this upward and outward focus, I’m less likely to entangle or trip the people who walk in and out of my day.
In case you think I’m “extra Spiritual” for pausing to read and pray four times a day, I want to set the record straight: I engage in Fixed-hour prayer because I am NOT spiritually minded or focused. Without some sort of structure, my life would produce very little (if any) fruit. My mind would continue to wander, thought-tendrils snaking out depraved paths of least resistance. My greatest personal efforts would fall powerless, incapable of getting off the ground without a Holy Structure to guide me.
For the first couple weeks of this Lenten season, I find myself struggling with consistency. And on the days when I do stick to the schedule, my mind occasionally wanders while I read, or my heart is slow to engage in the process. Yet in the same way that a lackluster day at the gym is better than not going to the gym at all, I discover God graciously and patiently honors effort.
Fixed-hour prayer is, in this season, my trellis — my God-given structure by which I can grow up.
How about you? What is the framework — the trellis — that gives your soul something to cling to? What Spiritual schedule could provide a sturdy structure that actually frees you to grow up and out? How can you utilize the already-there pauses and natural rhythms of your day? Pauses such as your morning and evening commute. A midday break. The closing minutes before going to bed.
One final thought…the trellis I sat beneath was probably assembled in one day. But I’ve wondered how many seasons and how much ongoing attention were required for the vines to grow in the direction they did.
Whatever Spiritual trellis is best for you, begin assembling it today. And then graciously give yourself time to adapt and wind your way around this new framework. It will take time, but expect people to enter your life for rest and shade. And within your newly restructured life, expect to experience freedom.