God hunting

Are you dissatisfied with your spiritual life? Do you feel too busy to build a close relationship with God, but frustrated that you can’t? Jo Swinney talks to Caroline Masom about her attempts to seek God

The challenge

Jo Swinney – complete with multiple to-do lists, a feisty pre-schooler, a second baby on the way, a busy Youth Pastor husband and an emotionally needy cat - decided to attempt to weave the six spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, Bible study, solitude, simplicity and worship into the “crazy schedule” of her daily life.

“There can be nothing more important than our relationship with God,” says Jo, “but I can’t expect to feel connected to him unless I invest in it. This is just good common sense. But there’s the tricky issue of time: where is it hiding? Is there any to spare for spiritual growth? The thing is, I make time for the things I consider important: somehow they just fit in. So do I really want to grow in God?

“The challenge I set myself was to trial one spiritual discipline per month until I’d worked my way through six of them. I wanted to know how these disciplines would impact my relationship with God, how they would impact my life and what was easy or hard about putting them into practice. And I was determined to be completely honest about how I got on. I’m no spiritual super-hero – I’m half-hearted, deceitful, proud and lazy when it comes to following God.

Month one

“I chose prayer to start with and each week of the experiment I sampled different approaches to prayer. Two aspects I tried in Week One were simple prayer - telling God my immediate concerns without worrying too much how trite they were - and beholding the Lord, entering God’s presence by faith and keeping focused on him.

“I found that simple prayer fitted well into a busy life. I seemed to pray a lot about potty training and tantrums, and I have to say it was a relief to be able to share my concerns with the Almighty. It was good to feel part of an ongoing conversation – albeit frequently interrupted – throughout the day.

“When I tried consciously beholding the Lord I expected to fail miserably at turning away distractions, but I found it was just a matter of discipline and concentration. I did honestly sense that I was in God’s presence, wordlessly and effortlessly enjoying myself.

“Having discovered this delightful way to pray, you’d think I’d take every opportunity to indulge. Actually I wasted many little windows of time that I could have used to behold the Lord and instead beheld rubbish TV programmes or took sneaky naps, or did half-hearted toy-tidying. I was very frustrated with myself for this.

“Intercession was one of the challenges of the second week. To my mind, intercession equals work and I feel that if it is to be done properly it will probably be exhausting and draining, and because of that I rarely do much.

“I find that praying for people is best done out loud and I expected opportunities to be rare, but little corners of quietness were there when I looked for them. I prayed in the car, I prayed while unloading the dishwasher and I prayed while pushing the buggy through deserted backstreets. If anyone had seen me, they would have assumed I was talking to Alexa, so I wasn’t too worried about appearing crazy.

“Although I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the things I wanted to pray for, I do believe that being able to pray for the needs around us is one of the great blessings of being a Christian. There is something we can do in the face of suffering other than powerlessly wringing our hands. We can take our hopes and anxieties about that situation to Almighty God, knowing our prayers are heard.

“In week three I decided to follow the prayers for morning and evening from the Anglican prayer book. I was slightly concerned about how I’d manage to find time for the morning prayer. I have a long way to go in my journey to holiness before you’ll find me on my knees any earlier than I absolutely have to be out of bed. So morning prayer happened while eating cereal, over the noise of children’s TV, during lunch time naps and sitting on the floor in the middle of a pile of building blocks. Evening prayer was easier to manage, and my routine was to come downstairs from putting Alexa to bed and head straight for the red book with the multicoloured ribbon markers.

“Looking back, the times I said the prayers out loud were far more meaningful than when I read them silently. I felt that the content  - Bible readings interspersed with silence, set prayers and the Lord’s Prayer – was very nourishing and was probably doing me a lot of good, even though it was slightly hard work. But the prayers are geared for corporate use and when I went through them on my own I sometimes struggled to enter into them. When I was able to press-gang my husband or passing house guests to join in, I found that I appreciated the words more deeply.

“Prayer turned out to be the spiritual discipline I enjoyed the most, because it seems that the more you talk to God and listen to him, the more you want to”.

Months two-five

 “I’d done five out of the six disciplines and was about to start the month trialling solitude when I went into threatened early labour and spent three nights in hospital. So now my plan is to tackle solitude for a month in the Spring, with two small children in tow.

“For me, the hardest discipline was fasting. I’m very self indulgent and have lots of full blown addictions that mostly I don’t challenge, so don’t notice. Because of being pregnant, I fasted from the internet, hot drinks, fiction and media rather than food. Although it was difficult, after the experiment ended I did carry on fasting from the internet for one day a week.

“Trialling the disciplines reminded me of how far and deep a relationship with God can go and made me less satisfied with where I am now. I do feel more connected to God in the reality of my daily life, exhausting, chaotic and stressful though it may be. I think the point is that we all have to find God in life as it is, rather than trying to change our lives.

“Lack of time is never the real reason for not having a closer relationship with God. It might be lots of other things – fear of what might change in us as a result, laziness, wanting to continue in a behaviour we know that God will challenge – but if we can deal with that, God wants to be found by us even more than we want to seek him.

* To find out how Jo got on with the other disciplines, check her website www.joswinney.com. Look out for her book God Hunting, by Jo Swinney, due to be published by Scripture Union in January 2011.