One typical problem with Scripture reading is that a thorough reading of the whole counsel of God is found to be too difficult, so many resort to turning randomly to various passages for a quiet time. The problem with this is two-fold: first, they often turn to the same limited set of Scriptures over and over and thereby, second, fail to grasp God's entire message to His people.
Typical problems in prayer include both too much structure and too little structure. Those who have too much structure in the prayer (only praying pre-written prayers) tend to not engage their own hearts honestly before the Lord, but fall into rote or impersonal forms of praying. Those who have too little structure in their prayers tend to fall into another kind of rote prayer, only praying what comes to their minds at the time. By nature, our minds gravitate back to the same themes over and over again. Structure in prayer has the benefit of forcing us into areas of prayer where we might not venture on our own. The right balance of form and freedom in prayer can be both empowering and liberating.
I want to share with you some resources that have helped me maintain that balance of form and freedom, and have also given me much fodder my thinking and praying.
1. A Bible reading plan. Mindy and I are currently reading the Bible together using Robert Murray M'Cheyne's famous plan. A Scottish Presbyterian minister, he died at the age of only 29, but many come to faith in Christ through his powerful preaching ministry. With the M'Cheyne plan, you read through the OT once and the NT and Psalms twice in a year. It comes out to about four chapters a day, two in the morning and two in the evening. If this will be your first time to read through the Bible cover to cover, it is probably a good idea to use a good study Bible, so that you can keep the big picture in mind. If you are brand new to reading the Bible, you might find it helpful even to read Catherine Vos' Child's Story Bible - a wonderful overview of the whole Scriptures that is for older children and is chock full of great Christ-centered theology. A simply Bible reading plan is to read 1 chapter in both the OT and NT each day, plus one psalm. You can also obtain a one-year Bible with your readings laid out for you in a simple, straightforward way. Even an audio Bible on audio CD or MP3 is much better than nothing at all. Discipleship Journal also has a good Bible reading plan, as well as our church.
2. Valley of Vision. Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers is one book that every Christian should have in his/her library. A longtime friend of mine is now President of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. But when he was pastoring a large church in the metro D.C. area, he came to see me when I was a student at WTS. I took him to the campus bookstore and told him he needed to get this. He bought it and immediately fell in love with it. He told his congregation that every one of them needed to buy it and use it, no questions asked. His church bookstore subsequently sold about 800 copies. And he was right on target. In fact my friend went on to write his own book on prayer, Interludes, which is quite good and worth every penny. In Valley of Vision, you will find written prayers that are intensely personal, make much of sin and even more of Christ and His grace. These prayers will help sensitize you to the exceeding sinfulness of sin. They will also help stir your affections for God. Most often, I read one or two lines of a prayer, put the book down, and express those thoughts to the Lord in my own words. If you only have one devotional resource, make it this one!
3. The Trinity Hymnal. Most people think of their hymnal as something that belongs in the pew at church. But I believe that every household should have a good hymnal. Even if you are not musical, the words of the hymns are richly suggestive for your prayer life. The Trinity Hymnal has a very large section of hymns based on the Psalms. At TPC, we have been learning hymn no. 620, "O Lord, I Love You, My Shield, My Tower." The text is written by my late friend/acquaintance Ed Clowney and is based on Psalm 18. The music was adapted from a Saint-Saens symphony by Larry Rolf. It is a song beautiful in both text and music. There are many such hidden treasures in the Trinity Hymnal.
At the bottom of every page you will find some notations. In the lower right hand corner, you will find the name of the melody, such as Saint-Saens, Leominster, Jerusalem (Parry), or St. Anne. St. Anne is the melody for "O God, Our Help in Ages Past". In the back of the hymnal on page 893 you will find a list of hymns that use that particular melody. For example, no. 713, "Great King of Nations, Hear Our Prayer" also uses St. Anne. You will also find in the lower right hand corner the meter of the song. Some are common meter (C.M.), a few are short meter (S.M.), and many are long meter (L.M.). Others follow a more unique meter such as 22.214.171.124.. If you look on page 897 at the Meters Index, you will find a list of all the songs that can be used to sing that text. So if you find a hymn that you like, but are not familiar with the melody, then turn to the meter index and you may find another melody that you do know and that will fit the text. For example, hymn no. 134 is "God Will Take Care of You." I like the text, but I'm not familiar with the music. But if I look in the meter index, I find that C.M. ref. can also be song to "Shout On", which is the music for no. 281, "I Know That My Redeemer Lives - Glory, Hallelujah!" Since I do know that melody, I can then sing that melody to the text of "God Will Take Care of You." None of this is really necessary at all to use the hymnal for your own devotions, but I find that most people do not know how to fully utilize their hymnals. At a minimum, I think every pastor should be familiar with these resources. Of course, on the bottom left of every page, you will find the author of the text of the hymn.
Use the Trinity Hymnal in your devotions and in your family worship. Right now our children are learning "Praise to the Lord, The Almighty." It will continue to be our opening song for family worship each night for about another week, or until the kids really know it by heart. This equips them to participate fully in our worship at a younger age, as well as to know the rich theology expresses in these hymns.
Ok, we're going to take the kids to the park to play now. I'll post part 2 sometime soon.