The Spiritual Practice of Plagiarism
A few years ago, a friend told me about a spiritual practice he tried. Every day, he would write out a chapter from the book of Psalms. There are 150 chapters in the book, so this was an endeavor that took about 5 months to complete. I remember he told me that he got to Psalm 119 while he was on vacation, and woke up two hours early so that he could get through it before everybody else woke up. Psalm 119 has 176 verses; it is far and away the longest chapter in the entire Bible.
I thought this was an interesting challenge, and decided to take it on myself.
And We’re Off!
As with any new challenge we face, it started off rather easy. Every day, I would wake up and I would write out a chapter in my Moleskin. Psalm 1, one of my favorites, is only 6 verses; 5–10 minutes later, all finished, easy-peasy. The next day, Psalm 2: 12 verses, it took a little longer, but it wasn’t too bad. Psalms 4–5, each 8 verses. This was going to be a breeze!
Then it started getting more difficult. Psalm 7, the longest yet at 17 verses. Psalm 9, 20 verses. TWENTY! Ok, this was starting to get out of hand. My enthusiasm started to wane. It started to seem more like drudgery than a joy, and I was only a few chapters in. How am I going to get through the other 141 chapters?! What was I to do?
There are times in life that the hardest thing to do is to keep going, but that’s exactly what needs to be done. I gave myself a pep talk, and got back on track. I needed some kind of spiritual pattern, and this seemed to be doing all right for me.
Dealing With the Rough Patch
I don’t remember exactly when it was, but I started to have a hard time with this practice. I was able to push through by sheer force of will early on, but there came a point where the chapters were getting longer, and my time was getting shorter. So, I had to make some adjustments.
The first adjustment I made had to do with regularity. I found that I was best able to do this practice when I started my day at the office. Now, being a pastor, nobody takes a second look when they see me hunched over my desk with an open Bible and a notebook — nor should they. If you want your pastor to be a spiritual guide, you had better give him/her time to dig deep into Scripture.
The second adjustment I made was to not force myself to write out the entire chapter if it was particularly long. This really came to a head when I hit Psalm 18. It’s 50 verses long. I took two days to do it, and I realized that my life wasn’t destroyed. Imagine that: I adjusted my spiritual practice to fit my schedule and attention span, and I didn’t get stressed out about it.
When It All Fell Apart
I was able to maintain this practice for a long time after I started, but then something significant took place in my life: my wife told me she was pregnant again.
I won’t go into detail in this post, but this was a shock. After ten years of trying and four miscarriages, we had our first child. She was born at 25 weeks, and spent 117 days in the NICU before we could bring her home. And all of this was before I started this practice of writing out Scripture. We started talking about trying for another one after our first had her first birthday. And just a few weeks after her birthday, my wife asked me to come home from the office and told me that we were expecting again.
Because of our previous experiences, we were very careful with this pregnancy. There were doctor appointments and ultrasounds every other week. There was a lot of traveling back and forth, and other things that made it a very busy and stressful time.
During all of this, my practice of writing out the Psalms became more scattered. Our second child was born on New Year’s Day. Three months later, I found out I would be moving to a different church, and three months after that, we moved to a new house, and a new church, in a new town, two hours away from family (who provided childcare for us).
For a long time, I didn’t pick up my notebook. Now, this isn’t to say that I completely abandoned any kind of spiritual practice whatsoever, but writing out the Psalms wasn’t on my radar for nearly two years.
Spiritual Practices in the Long Term
The thing about our spiritual practices is that there will always be something that has the potential of getting in the way. We need to be able to adjust when necessary, and we need to be able to change up the routine from time to time.
The key in all of this: don’t hold yourself to impossible standards that you can’t reasonably maintain, and then feel guilty when you can no longer maintain them.
I hit myself with the guilt of not being able to maintain this practice for a long time. It was something I felt like I should do, but I avoided it for whatever reason. Maybe because I didn’t want to fail at it again. Maybe because I didn’t want to let myself down. And that guilt prevented me from picking it back up. Until a couple months ago…
Hitting a Milestone
I finally decided to ignore my guilt and get back into the practice. Is it something I do every day? No, it’s not. In fact, I only do it about 4 times each week. I’ve made the practice part of my office morning routine. Before I try to get any work done, I sit down and write out a psalm, or a part of a psalm.
I recently got to Psalm 78, which has 72 verses. I pushed myself a little more than I have before and took two days to write it out. I could have done it over the course of three days, and I would have been okay with it. And, as I came to the final day on Psalm 78, I realized I was about to do something I thought I would never do.
This morning, I hit a major milestone. After I completed Psalm 79, I ran out of pages in my Moleskin. It has taken me nearly four years, but I have now filled an entire notebook with psalms. 79 down, 71 to go.
So, what have I learned from this practice so far?
- Find a practice; make it your own. While this practice is an idea inspired by my friend, I had to be able to do it my way, not his. I tried to do it the same way he did, and it didn’t go very well. Now that I’m trying it my way, things are different.
- Push yourself, but not too hard. We all need to face some challenges from time to time. In fact, that’s the idea behind exercise, isn’t it? Push your limits, and watch them expand. But don’t do too much too fast or you will hurt yourself.
- Give yourself some grace. Why do we let guilt run our lives when grace is so much better?
This is a practice that has worked for me. It may not work for you. Try it. Ignore it. Take it. Leave it. Doesn’t matter to me what you do. What I want to encourage you to do, however, is to try something. Find some kind of spiritual practice in your life that can help ground you in something bigger than yourself. That’s why spiritual practices exist in the first place — to help expand our world to more than what we see. Try something. Anything. And I promise you will begin to see some growth in your life.