During COVID, when I still lived in Brooklyn, my niece took me bird-watching in Prospect Park. It was warbler time, the days were lengthening, and the migrants were resting in the Park. We went just before sunset and stayed into the dusk.
Eventually my niece advised me, “Don’t look so hard. Relax your look, use open eyes.” I had to stop investigating, stop inspecting. Passively, I had to let the birds appear to me, instead of me discovering them. And that evening I did add one to my life-list.
I read the Bible every morning like I’m bird-watching. My daily reading is not Bible study. It’s part of my morning prayers. I use the Daily Office, which has three Bible readings. Not right off. First you pray some things, then you work your way through the Psalter (it takes me two months), and then you read the lessons. It is those lessons that I read with passive eyes and an open mind—an almost passive mind. And like birds in the branches, they often reveal themselves to me.
The scriptures follow a two-year Daily Lectionary, which is independent of the more familiar three-year Common Lectionary for the Lord’s Day. The Daily Lectionary has three readings: Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel. Between them I repeat two Canticles. When in the US, I use the Benedictus and the Magnificat. When I’m in Canada I use two songs of Isaiah. (I don’t know why). On Sundays I say the Te Deum and Gloria.
I have been praying the Daily Office for thirty years. I found being a pastor very difficult, and I don’t know how anyone survives in it without some form of daily prayer. It saved my life. First, I tried Protestant forms, like Oswald Chambers, but it took too much thinking and made me feel worse. “My utmost” was too low “for His highest.”
At a conference in Toronto a Ukrainian Orthodox priest advised me to pray with the church, even while alone. So I took up the Daily Office. I don’t like being accused of being a closet-Anglican, so I began with the Roman form, which I learned from some wonderful Carmelites. I did that for a few years, but I tired of the interruptions for the saints and the readings from the Apocrypha. I gave in to the Book of Common Prayer, and I’ve been using it ever since.
So I am praying along with millions of other Christians throughout the world, including at least two of my best friends in the Reformed Church. The same lessons, the same prayers — even by myself, I am not praying alone.
Daily, I am in the Word. Not researching, not studying, not investigating. I do all that later in the day. Not even deeply meditating, not doing Lectio Divina, although that sometimes happens. I’m just letting the Bible speak to me. Sometimes I notice new things, but often I don’t — although I’m always being reminded of essential things. If I don’t see birds that day, well, the leaves and branches are enough. There is no doubt that I have learned many things from reading scripture in this manner, things I would not have learned through a more purposed Bible study. But the more important net effect, after three decades, is to make me belong to the Word, in an attitude of prayer, so that I feel at home in the great conversation between God and the church, and me and God.
I do not at all discount Bible study and investigative reading for the purposes of preaching and teaching. The difference is between driving a car and riding a bus. When you ride a bus someone else is driving. You can observe other passengers. You can watch out the windows. When you drive you have to be in charge and you look forward, even into the mirror, intentionally and even defensively.
Most Protestants prefer cars to buses (yes!), and read the Bible for information and argument. We even like to be in charge of our prayers, suspecting that formal prayers are less of the Holy Spirit. The Daily Office is like riding a bus of daily prayer. I don’t have to think too much. My mind is working differently. I let the page tell me what to pray next. ( I do add my own intercessions at the end).
After riding this bus for a while, you begin to experience the scripture as an open, inviting, and generous home with different voices, often contrasting and even contradictory, but together in an attitude of prayer and hospitality. Riding the bus home.