Like most pastors I have engaged the perennial struggle to find a workable balance between matters of the mind and spirit. The pendulum has swung wildly from the green pastures of deep study, passionate prayer, and leisurely reflection to the working fields of extreme busyness, urgent sermon preparation, and truncated devotions. More often than not, I have felt confined to the working fields of ministry with fond longings for soul nourishing meadows. But how does one find the appropriate balance between the tyranny of responsibility and the liberty of an unfettered spiritual life?
Many years ago, I was drawn to Regent College's graduate program by its unique emphasis on spiritual formation. Their faculty mix reflected my own inner dichotomy. On the one hand there were teachers in spirituality like Eugene Peterson and James Houston. Other faculty members like J. I. Packer and Gordon Fee represented my comfort zone with their focus on theology and exegesis of Scripture.
Even though I felt more at home on the theological side of the aisle, I felt attracted by studies on the contemplative life. When I saw a posting on campus for a spiritual retreat hosted by Eugene Peterson, I signed up.
As I drove to the retreat I had mixed emotions. This would be a silent retreat.
What is a silent retreat? How can you learn anything if it's silent!
The location stretched my comfort zone as well. I had never been to an abbey. We gathered in a simple room and Dr. Peterson started the meeting with a smile as total silence settled over the room. His opening words confirmed my worst fears. "This weekend is purposeless," he calmly stated.
Purposeless? What a worthless word! My mind began to spin with all of the important things I could be doing back home. While mulling over my situation, I began to notice the serene looks on everyone else's faces. Apparently they were used to purposelessness. I was not.
Peterson then instructed us to go off individually to contemplate, cautioning us to avoid any form of busyness. This was a time to listen, reflect, and get in touch with our inner selves. I trudged back to my room, determined to be purposeless.
I sat on the floor with my Bible on my lap and waited silently. Nothing happened. Finally, I strolled through the gardens and sat cross-legged in the shade of a great tree while the birds sang to each other overhead. Their carefree twittering seemed to taunt me. I felt like a lonely discordant note within the symphony of God's creation. It took the better part of a day to slow down my mental metabolism.
After a while though, I began to feel like I was in a huge spiritual decompression chamber. The pace of the life that I lived on a daily basis had seemed normal. But I was beginning to see my world with new eyes. My priorities were upside down. So much of everything I did was about my need for a sense of importance. I had allowed myself to be driven by it. I felt exposed and overly consumed with self.
I sat broken and ashamed amid birdsong. I reflected and repented over the manner in which I had conducted my life. After a while, I began to experience a growing awareness of God's compassion and love. Exuberance and freedom emerged from the ashes of my painful self-revelation.
My "active listening" skills were severely underdeveloped. I discovered that "being still," meant far more than closing one's mouth for a few minutes. It takes time and perfect purposelessness to nurture a quieted soul.
As I headed home I drove slowly through the beautiful countryside heading back towards what I hoped would be a simpler life. But the familiar voices of responsibility got louder the farther I drove. A tyrannical list of urgent "must dos" clamored for my attention. I quickly began to overfill a mental bucket list.