In a few hours my directed silent retreat officially closes. At dinner tonight we break silence and process the week together (the photo above is from The Avenue of Oaks on the campus where I’m staying).
I’m deeply grateful to have had this opportunity. My wife Kendra not only had to continue her full time accounting work but had to pick up my share of housework–all the greater since out-of-town family arrives tomorrow. My children Jordan and Jacob observed Father’s Day without me being present for the observation. My new coworker Eric Gentry had to preach in my absence just 6 days into his new ministry with us. Many made sacrifices for my time here. I’m very thankful.
The single word which comes to mind to describe the experience and its fruit in my life is “re-centered.” For 5 uninterrupted days I’ve been able to just point the compass needle back to North. The pull and tug of everything else was diminished and the needle was able to hover as close to “N” as possible.
It’s been a very personal recentering. Honestly, it’s quite difficult today to write about it. There are feelings and emotions that I cannot put a word to. It’s like trying to describe what it was like to taste Kendra’s peanut butter/chocolate crepes for the first time. ”Good!” and “Great!” and even “Outstanding!” don’t quite fit. The same is true for these 5 days.
For me, it’s been akin to those days when I first came to faith as a sixteen year old. Belief in and connection to God feel fresh and new today. God is so real today. Christ is so present today. The Spirit is so alive today. And, for the past two days I’ve sensed God saying, “It’s been so good to be with you, Chris. Oh how I love you Chris. You mean so much to me.” The feelings are mutual.
It’s not that God’s been absent to me or that I’ve been absent to him prior to this point. I am immersed daily in sacred things and the Sacred One by the very nature of my calling. But my relationship with Him lately has been focused mostly on doing together. This week has been solely about being together.
On Night 1 when I prayerfully asked, “Why am I here?” I was immediately moved to conclude something like “To re-engage my heart.” As I confessed in an earlier post, I excel in loving God with my mind. I’m not so good with heart. And today especially, I feel like the Tin Man at the end of Wizard of Oz. I’ve got a heart! Though it feels a little silly to admit, I’ve had to stop a few times while writing this brief blog to wipe tears from my eyes. Not tears of sadness, but tears of gladness. What a blessing it is to know and be loved by God!
I am re-convicted about the necessity of silence. Richard Foster’s book Sanctuary of the Soul has been just the coach I’ve needed for this rediscovery. Foster (whose parents had a background in Churches of Christ) begins with the reminder that Scripture portrays God as one who is always “speaking, teaching and acting” (16). This is especially clear in Jesus’ ministry and Jesus’ insistence that he could only do what he saw his Father doing and say what he heard his Father saying (17-18). Silence (which Foster calls “meditative prayer”) is one of the central ways of hearing what the Father is speaking, receiving what the Father is teaching and witnessing how the Father is acting. It is needed because “Distraction is the primary spiritual problem in our day” (104). There are so many voices vying for our attention that we rarely hear the one voice that truly matters.
Christian meditation (or silence) is distinct from other forms of meditation, Foster argues, in its goal of “hearing and obeying” (20). We enter into silence with the hope of hearing God and then acting upon what we have heard.
Three elements make up fruitful times of silence. First, being present. As we enter into a time of silence, we “let go of all competing distractions until we have become truly present where we are” (60). Focusing on a short Scripture or an attribute of God can help. We attempt to surrender our cares and worries, admit our sins and shortcomings and think of nothing else besides God’s presence (63-68).
Second, beholding the Lord. Now that we’ve let go of all distractions, the goal is to gaze upon God. We seek to keep our heart and mind focused only on Him (69-77).
Third, an inward attentiveness. Here, we are seeking in the silence to hear from God. There is no formula or five-step method for this. It is something we get better at with experience (80). Still, Foster states that three factors will help us distinguish God’s voice in the silence from other voices: its quality–it carries a word of authority and weight; its spirit–it comes with loving intentions; and its content–it is consistent with truths found in Scripture (81-82). What we hear, Foster finds, will probably be in one of two categories. We will hear things that are ordinary (e.g., a prompting to call a friend). And we will hear things that are unusual (e.g., something we’ve never considered before) (83-84). For those with specific questions about practicing silence, Foster fills the end of the book with practical tips and advice.
What does Foster believe happens through silence? His list includes the following (148):
- “Our hearts’ desires begin to be formed in a new direction”
- “Our lives are penetrated throughout by love.”
- “We feel a seed of hope growing within us, a hope that is able to carry us through the most difficult of circumstances.”
- “A new power is generated deep within, power to overcome evil and to do what is right.”
- “Guile becomes less and less a pattern of our daily life.”
- “A new compassion rises up within us for the bruised and the broken and the dispossessed.”
These, and many more, have been the fruits of my week.