The present crisis has forced many of us into a cloistered life in our homes. For those of us with roommates or families, our residence has become something like a monastery. For those of us who live alone, our residence has become like a monastic cell. The cloistered life exposes our sins and weaknesses. Impatience, selfishness, pride, anger, laziness, indiscipline, anxiety, lust, and many other sins make themselves known when we’re confined to a small space for a long time. As we’ve heard from God’s Word in our recent Lord’s Day worship, the revelation of such sins is a divinely appointed opportunity for repentance and revival.
Reformation is the fruit of repentance. Sin deforms. The Spirit reforms. The Reformation of the church in the 16th century began with Martin Luther’s 95 theses, the first of which argued: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance leads to reformation. The church needed to take a different shape in the 16th century. Our lives need to take a different shape today. If God is calling us to repentance in this season, he is also calling us to reformation, or, better, transformation. This means we need to consider the shape of our lives, both now in the current trial and afterwards. I believe the reformation that happens now will prepare us for life after COVID-19.
I want us to consider the shape of our lives in our current circumstances. The restrictions on social gathering and mobility have created a cloistered existence for most of us. We’re like monks, confined to the monastery. Cloistered life, whether alone or with others, is a daily trial which tests our sanctification. Here’s my thesis: cloistered life is blessed when it’s regulated. We need a rhythm and structure to our day. Life in the monastery follows a daily routine (a rule), which regulates the rhythm of daily life and provides structure and stability. That’s what we need right now. Whether you’re working from home (and tempted to work all the time) or laid off (and not sure how to fill the time), whether you’re on your own or with your family, whether you’re young or old – whatever your situation, your day needs form and structure.
Form and structure are God-ordained and God-blessed. Consider the account of creation in Genesis 1. God gives order and structure to the world as he creates, first making space in the heavens, land, and sea, and then filling that space with life. The work of creation is directed and governed by his word (“And God said . . .”) and oversight (“And God saw . . .”), but his work is also regulated by a structured rhythm of time (“there was evening and there was morning”). Genesis 1 reveals the order and structure of both time and space. God has ordained this order and structure and, upon examination, judged it to be good. Space is defined and within that ordered and structured space, life flourishes. Time is defined and within the daily rhythm of evening and morning and the weekly rhythm of work and Sabbath, life flourishes. As the Apostle Paul has written, “God is not a God of disorder but of shalom” (1 Cor 14:33). Despite the recent disruption to our day-to-day life, we still live in God’s wisely-ordered and -structured world, where we know and abide in his shalom.
God has placed us within his well-ordered and -structured time and space. He has imposed certain restrictions on us. Gravity keeps us on the ground and our need for oxygen keeps us on land. About a third of our time is given to sleep. Within these limitations, however, we’re given freedom to carry out God’s blessed mandate to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion (Gen 1:26-28). In this blessed mandate, we imitate God by giving order and structure to space. We exercise our God-given wisdom in this work and judge whether it’s good. (Nobody designs a house or an apartment so that you enter the bathroom upon entering the front door. Most people touring that space on an open-house would judge it to be, “not good.”) We see the evidence of our God-ordained and God-blessed dominion of space all around us. Our living space is ordered and structured in such a way that life can at least function there, if not flourish.
God has also given us dominion over time. Time also needs to be subdued and given order and structure, so that life can at least function, if not flourish. The present restriction on our dominion of space gives us an opportunity to take dominion of our time. This is the implication of Paul’s exhortation to “redeem the time” (Eph 5:16). If we’re redeeming the time, we’re taking dominion over it. We need to redeem the time now, so that we can at least function in close quarters with others or in isolation; however, my hope is that redeeming the time now will create a rhythm and structure of daily life in which we can not only function, but flourish, both now and in life after COVID-19.
Now, back to the monastery. Monastic life in cloistered community is regulated by a strict routine. The activities of praying, working, reading, eating, and studying are organized by a schedule. The rhythm of that schedule is punctuated by set times of prayer. The rhythm of Benedictine life, for example, is regulated by eight set times of prayer. The schedule is not arbitrary, but follows the pattern of Psalm 119: “At midnight I rise to praise you” (Ps 119:62) and “seven times a day I praise you” (Ps 119:164). Our daily activities may be different and we need to exercise wise and righteous dominion over both what we’re doing and when we’re doing it. Whatever our occupation and stage in life, we can redeem the time by establishing a daily rhythm of regular prayer.
Praying eight times a day is ambitious, so let me suggest four times: morning, midday, evening, and bedtime. A basic structure of regular prayer provides a basic structure and order for the various activities of your day and creates a temporal space for shalom in those activities. The basic activity of our day is work: “Man goes out to his work and to his labour until evening” (Psalm 104:23). Dietrich Bonhoeffer helps us to see the relationship between work and prayer in our daily life:
“Praying and working are two different things. Prayer should not be hindered by work, but neither should work be hindered by prayer. Just as it was God’s will that man should work six days and rest and make holy in His presence the seventh day, so it is also God’s will that every day should be marked for the Christian by both prayer and work. Prayer is entitled to its time. But the bulk of the day belongs to work. And only where each receives its specific due will it become clear that both belong inseparably together.” (Life Together, pp.69-70)
Bonhoeffer goes on to explain the basic unity of work and prayer. Work often puts us in the world of impersonal things and tasks; however, we work in response to the Lord’s calling and command, so that all work is personal, because it’s joined to the personal summons and commission of our Lord. Our work cannot therefore be separated from God’s Word or his presence. All of life is lived before God. When we pray, we acknowledge and embrace this divine reality directly; however, our time at prayer sanctifies our time at work:
“the prayer of the Christian reaches beyond its set time and extends into the heart of his work. It includes the whole day, and in doing so, it does not hinder the work; it promotes it, affirms it, and lends it meaning and joy.” (Life Together, pp.70-71).
In particular, Bonhoeffer encourages us to observe morning prayer:
“The prayer of the morning will determine the day. Wasted time, which we are ashamed of, temptations that beset us, weaknesses and listlessness in our work, disorder and indiscipline in our thinking and our relations with other people very frequently have their cause in neglect of the morning prayer. The organization and distribution of our time will be better for having been rooted in prayer.” (Life Together, p.71)
That last sentence summarizes my concern for our cloistered existence right now. At a time when so much is unsettled and destabilized, our time should be rooted and structured around set times of prayer. This regulated rhythm of daily prayer will create temporal space for shalom, which will help us to live together in close proximity. It will also preserve and promote our communion as believers in this time of separation, because we will be daily united by our intercession for one another.
Practically, what does this look like? There are four set times each day when we pause for prayer: morning, midday, evening, and bedtime. You may do this alone or with others (with roommates or as a family), depending on your particular situation. (Parents, I encourage you to establish this daily rhythm with your kids.) Start by reading a passage of Scripture (it can be short). Prayer is responsive speech, it’s a response to God’s Word (see 2 Samuel 7 and Daniel 9). His Word prompts, directs, and sets the agenda for our prayer. Respond to God’s Word with thanks and praise. Respond to his Word with repentance and humility.
Let God’s Word guide your intercession and petitions. These set times of prayer don’t have to be long, but you should be attentive and intentional. (You can join your brothers and sisters via Zoom for morning prayer at 8:00 AM, Monday to Saturday. Look for details in the e-newsletter.)
We can redeem the time by following a regular rhythm of daily prayer. “God is not a God of disorder but of shalom” (1 Cor 14:33). Our dominion over time creates temporal space for shalom. As we abide in the peace of God, we are being formed in Christ, standing firm in him and walking as children of light (Eph 5:8). Thus, we will be equipped for Gospel work and witness in a time of instability and uncertainty. We need to redeem the time, “because the days are evil” (Eph 5:16). And, if we redeem the time now, we will establish a daily rhythm and structure that will sustain and promote shalom in the time after COVID-19.