I’m not even here yet, and this is already a disaster.
I’m on my way to a neighborhood I know at least somewhat well – it is down the road from a gym I used to frequent on the rare days when sleep didn’t win the morning battle with my alarm clock.
I’m not sure how the two dots on the navigation app could be any farther apart. And that annoying voice – well, usually it is annoying but now it has reached four-alarm ready to chuck the phone out of the car.
I can feel my blood pressure rising. More concerning is that I am fairly certain that my heart is about to explode through my chest. Breathe, I say, more as the necessity for survival than a practice of serenity.
I am on my way to a spiritual retreat, a day to pray with pastors and church leaders. I am here because in my first year as a lead pastor I have discovered that leading a community called to be a sign of the Kingdom is exhausting. I am here because I am tired. I am here because a day apart to rest and pray seems like a great idea, an idea long overdue, actually.
And I’ve failed before I can get there, wherever there even is. It turns out that there is an event center that really is a guest house located behind another house, which just happens to look like every other house on this street in the middle of nowhere.
I am here, finally – frazzled, haggard and in some seriousness need of extra strong coffee.
As I reflect on the words of the morning Scripture we have been given – Psalm 23, it’s always Psalm 23 – I realize all of my ideas about why I am here have missed the mark.
The annoying voice on my phone was telling me exactly why I am here.
I am here to be rerouted.
I’m Still Here
I came to faith in a serious way for the first time in college. Sure, I dabbled in church growing up, even speaking on Youth Sunday and participating semi-regularly in church – at least until I got a car. But college was where it happened for me.
College is usually either the place you discard faith only to pick it up once you have a family or the place where you begin to enter into faith’s beauty and mystery. The first option is the stuff of coming of age movies. My story comes from the second one.
With this development came a spiritual life unlike any I had experienced before. Sure, the preachers talked about prayer and I even read a book or two on the subject, but in college I reveled in a prayer life that was both uplifting and shockingly reorienting.
I was experiencing a beautiful connection with God – enjoying the hope that comes from speaking and listening to the Author of the universe, receiving direction when I wasn’t sure which way to go, and constantly being reminded that in all the hurdles and challenges of trying to become a full-blown adult, God loved me, even me.
In my Methodist tradition, we make a big deal about assurance – the idea that God’s Spirit speaks and calms our spirit, assuring and reminding us that what we have experienced is true. We can actually count on it – we are beloved and redeemed children of God.
Looking back, it is pretty obvious that this early faith experience was an experience of God’s assurance. I had responded in faith to God’s love and grace, and in my prayer life God was letting me know that this wasn’t a myth. No, this is real.
Like any person who seeks out God and shares their wants and desires, some of those prayers were self-delusions. It probably wasn’t much of a coincidence that the things I heard God say just happened to be the things I wanted to hear. But over time I learned to test the spirits as I grew in maturity as Christ was continuing his work in me.
But then something changed.
I kept trying to do the things that had nurtured my relationship with God, but nothing seemed to work. It turns out you really can’t force God to do anything. I wanted the clarity and the certainty of the Divine-shaped details. But the more I tried, the more I waited for a silence that never broke.
Change is inevitable. The prophets remind us that God is doing a new thing. But what do you do when the new thing disorients you and leaves you searching for the anchor you were certain you had already found?
The Pain-Filled Middle
God was trying to teach me one of the essentials – the content of our faith might be the same today, yesterday and forever. But our experience of it, try as we might, never stays the same.
That’s our very hope – to experience sanctification, to learn to live and love more like Jesus, demands change. And the new thing God is up to, it will happen, regardless of whether you like it or not or whether you ask for it or not.
What was happening in those post-college years was that I was in a middle place, sandwiched between the experience of God I had known and loved and the new place God was preparing me for.
I didn’t like it one bit, because one of the things they don’t tell you about growth with God is that it is always involves plenty of pain.
As I I read books and stared at the walls wondering just what was going on, I couldn’t dodge the suspicion that God has abandoned me. When I turned to those familiar passages of Scripture hoping they would speak life into me one more time, I wanted to know what I had done wrong. When I just couldn’t connect with God any more, I kept wondering why faithfulness felt like an illusion and how connection became the struggle that never seemed to cease.
It was a time of questions without a whole lot of answers, a place of darkness without a whole lot of light, and a life full of seeking without a whole lot of finding.
John of The Cross called it the Dark Night of the Soul. At the rate I was going, one night didn’t seem so bad. As the days and the nights piled up, I kept wondering what name they had come up with for months of darkness.
The Spirit’s Place
Sunday is Pentecost – the day we celebrate the birth of the church and the sending of the Spirit. One of the truths Pentecost teaches us that real life confirms is that the middle – the anxiety producing, doubt-infusing, heartbreaking middle – is also the place where the Spirit lives and does its work.
The middle is the place where God speaks the truth that we will never be left behind, no matter how many times it feels like God might have memory loss when it comes to that particular promise. On Pentecost the Spirit explodes into the middle, not in the comfortable place where they had come from or in the established church to which they will go.
Instead, the Spirit chooses the uncertain and never-wrecking middle as the place of creativity. The middle is the moment where the Spirit shoves us away from the familiar of what has been and into the new and better thing of what will be.
God knows the middle. And no matter how dark and cloudy it may seem, God knows how to bring the light through.
That’s what I was reminded in the back yard of that long-searched for house behind the house. Watching the ripples spread across a sun-soaked pond, I remembered and prayed those words I’ve said so many times before. Usually I say them at the graveside, words of comfort and hope for other people.
But today they are for me.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.
God never promised it would be easy and painless, but God always promises to restore and renew. The same God who promised never to leave me is the same One who now assures me that I will make it through.
In the longing and the waiting, God is present. In the wrestling and the crying, God is right here. In the hoping for something more, God will see this through. In the hunger for life and the thirst for connection, God will fill my soul with the nourishment it longs for.
Even in the middle I can say it – the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The Lord is my portion, I lack nothing.
I walk inside to the final reflection of the day, with a serious case of sunburn. The mark of a day that began with brooding darkness yet somehow is ending covered in light.
I don’t mind it though, I need the reminder. God’s still working on me.
The light leaves it’s mark. God’s not done with me yet.