Taking a Moment to Reflect – My Experience With the Retreat in Daily Life Part 1 of a 3 Part Series

indexThe inevitable happened. After 6 years of theological training I gave up reading my Bible. I put it on the shelf, refused to pick it up unless I was reading for a class or preparing for a sermon, and no longer felt inspired by the words of my favourite passages. My life continued on as if the Bible was just one compartment among many. Now before you get the wrong impression, I had not given up my faith in God. On the contrary, my spirituality was taking me to new dimensions I had rarely, if ever, explored before. My prayer life began to become special and meaningful to me, and yet, I could not understand this disconnect in my life between why reading the Bible for devotional purposes was so draining and yet why spending the day at the park praying and journaling for hours was so rejuvenating and left me feeling refreshed.   This left me confused, torn, and frustrated. How could I be teaching the youth I mentor to read the Bible when I myself was not doing it? How could I even teach my Sunday school class when I had not read the chapter I was teaching about until the week I was assigned to teach it?

Thankfully, God saw through this struggle and provided me with an experience that helped clarify why prayer and Bible reading had swapped in their level of interest to me. You see, for a long time, prayer has been the hardest discipline for me to take part in and Bible reading came easily to me…but all of a sudden this switched.

This past semester, Tyndale offered a special opportunity called the “Retreat in Daily Life”. Over a six week period, interested participants were matched with a spiritual director who we met with weekly to explore themes of grace, forgiveness, mercy, and hope. During the days when we were not meeting with our director we were assigned various Scripture verses to read and meditate upon.

At first, this was a very difficult experience for me. As an academician, I quickly resorted to the historical and theological roots of what the verses were trying to tell me. I proudly went to my Spiritual director with pages full of Greek and Hebrew exegesis all lined up, only to have her turn them away and tell me, “Deborah, you need to make this more personal. It needs to be about you and God, not about you and the text.” I began to be discouraged. School is such a big part of who I am that I could not understand how it was possibly for me to have a devotional life that didn’t revolve around hermeneutics, yet, at her gentle insistence, I went into a very part of my life I often choose to ignore: my emotions.

As I began to read the Scripture through a more emotional lens, I was immediately surprised at what I found there. I thought I would have felt such profound love and acceptance from the Father that it almost felt as if He were giving me a hug and re-assuring me (and I definitely did experience this at times). However, the Holy Spirit actually had something much different in mind for me. He began to release the very things I dislike about myself, sins I thought had been buried long ago, and struggles I have chosen to ignore for these past six years. One day, the Holy Spirit convicted me that I needed to go before God and confess all sins and struggles in order to experience full healing and wholeness. That week I went into my spiritual director’s office almost in tears. I told her what I terrible week I had just experienced, how everything had gone wrong, and how I was seriously about to call it quits. Yet, when I told her these things a huge smile lit up on her face. She replied “that’s EXACTLY what this retreat is all about! Oftentimes, God uses this time to show us the things we have buried inside our souls because we have been too busy to deal with them.” She asked me to share some good things that had happened that week. I shared about how I had hung out with friends, how I had received a good grade on my exam, and how I had played with adorable babies. As I shared these profound blessings with her, I was able to see that even in the midst of a difficult week, God had indeed filled my life with immeasurable riches.

Throughout these 6 weeks I learned that there were actually two main issues I was having which prevented me from reading the Bible. The first reason is that because I am in school, it is easy to view the Bible as just another textbook. Those who have never attended a rigorous seminary program may view this as shameful and even sinful, but those who have started working on their Master’s or doctorate know just how easy it is to become cynical when one is constantly tearing the Scriptures apart. My Spiritual director reassured me that this was a typical response to “Bible burnout”. As a seminarian the last thing I needed was to read the Bible for an hour a day on top of the other 6 hours I had spent tearing it apart for theology class. Knowing this helped explain to me why I was able to listen to the Bible on CD and get something from it, but why I could not pick up a physical copy of the Book without automatically putting my brain in academic gear.

Secondly, I learned that even though it often felt like God had quit talking to me, He actually still was. My spiritual director taught me that part of my struggle resulted from me trying to listen to God in the same way an introvert would, rather than listening to Him as an extrovert. As a hyperactive extrovert silence is painful to me. If I sit in a comfortable position for 5 minutes while intently staring at a candle I will get bored and my mind will wander to other more pressing matters. I will eventually give up due to lack of success and meaninglessness. This is what had been happening to me over the past 4 years. I no longer felt the traditional ways of doing devotions (reading a few chapters of the Bible, a chapter of a devotional book, listening in silence, and praying) to be relevant, so I gave up doing my devotions entirely. When we approach devotions the same way day after day it will simply become a chore to us, another thing to check off our long list of activities.

After the Retreat in Daily Life, I have come to see that the traditional mode of devotions is something that we bring to the text not the other way around. In Scripture we are given certain commands. Jesus requests that we spend time in prayer and fasting, the Psalms remind us to meditate day and night on the Word of God, and Deuteronomy tells us to do some memorization of key texts in order that we can teach our children and so that we can talk about them with others. BUT you will notice that beyond these common injunctions, we are never actually taught HOW to do them. Nowhere in the Bible are we given a specific time frame of an hour or two a day, nowhere are we taught that meditation solely implies silence, and nowhere are we taught to light a candle and gaze intently at an icon. I can now see that devotions can imply anything as long as we are spending time with Christ. Often my deepest times with God are in my car on a long commute home as I let the Christian radio station minister to my aching soul, on a short drive to the grocery store as I listen to just one chapter of the Bible being read aloud, or on a road trip across the city as I pour out to God my own requests and intercede for the needs of the world. My car has become my sanctuary. It has become my devotional setting.

Another place I often go to spend time with God is in nature. I love going to the local park where I observe the ducks and the geese freely playing and swimming in the water. Oftentimes I come with just a notebook in hand and while there am inspired to write poetry and prayers to God. As I listen to the children laughing and playing on the swings, I am reminded that true community and communion with God exists here.

Both my car and the park have become shelters for my soul. They have become soul-food in a way that reading a chapter of Our Daily Bread has not been. God also speaks to me quite often through music, through good conversation with my friends, and even through the act of serving others. That’s just me. God speaks to all of us in many ways. Many Christians are able to find silence to be a profound discipline, but I am not, and after the Retreat in Daily Life I have given myself permission to believe that this may never work for me, so there is no need to force it. The important thing is that we spend time with God every day, not HOW we spend time with Him.

I once had a dear friend ask me how my spiritual walk with Christ was going. At that time I thought it wasn’t going too well because I hadn’t read my Bible in months. I told her I had stopped reading the Bible and that I was just listening to the Bible on CDs now. She told me that wasn’t the same thing as reading it so it didn’t count as a devotional practice. Today, I know that the Bible was first SPOKEN rather than WRITTEN. Today, I know that my practice of listening is just as important to Christ as her practice of reading.

I am so thankful that God provided me with the opportunity to be part of the Retreat in Daily Life. It was a great experience and one that I do not regret taking part in. I hope that you will also find a time in your life to be part of such a movement. A time to rest and enjoy those “sacred pauses”*. A time to enjoy real soul-food.

* Sacred Pauses is a term employed by April Yamasaki (author of: Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal)

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