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Finding His Presence

_8.10.20 blog post

So, time for some confession. I barely give God the time of day. Yes, I know what you’re thinking right now: “What? How? That’s impossible. Your literal job is Christian ministry.” Yeah, I would’ve thought the same thing before God put me on this path of vocational ministry. And yet, somehow, it’s not that hard for the hours that I spend working on sermons, worship music sets, and house church curriculum to become completely disconnected from God Himself. I rarely think to seek Him out or savor His very presence while I work. I don’t spend nearly enough time in prayer seeking out His will & heart for my work. I don’t read God’s Word or pray most days, at least not for personal reasons. Instead, I try to get a job done “well.” I try to make things as clear, organized, and effective as possible. That’s the way I’m wired and the way I’ve always approached a task. But that way – my way – doesn’t have me trusting in God for strength or wisdom or direction. My way has me trusting me.

I’m tired of my way. I’m like, VERY tired of it. I won’t make it doing life my way. My way has brought me to the end of myself. I haven’t been depressed like this in years. The cycles until complete burnout have become shorter and shorter. COVID, along with Ahmaud, George, and Breonna’s deaths (and the hatred around them) have put me over the edge with emotional burdens too heavy to carry on my own, exacerbating & exposing the impotence of my way.

 So a month ago, I did one of the hardest, scariest things I’ve ever attempted: I chose solitude & silence. To be more specific, I left town and holed up in a cabin out in a very quiet area of hill country for four days, with no travel companions, no precedent, and no plan. Even though I’m an introvert who loves my alone time, all the times in the past when I’d thought about traveling solo, the biggest thing that stopped me was the thought of not having someone by my side, someone who had my back. Loneliness can be terrifying, especially in a strange place far from people I know & trust.

Silence is even harder for me. I love music and podcasts and movies and YouTube. I often spend hours every day consuming some combination of those four things. It’s hard to do any church work, household chore, or errand without also having one of those things playing in the background. It’s hard to not fill gaps in between those tasks, wasting time with trivial auditory/visual stimulation. Living in silence is… well, boring. Boring is difficult. Silence is difficult. I know someone can relate.

But I had finally come to a point of such depression, exhaustion, and disconnectedness from God that I knew I could no longer allow myself to keep up the routine I’d been in. I needed a reset. I needed a complete reorientation. I needed to remove myself from the noise & distraction that I’d let flood my everyday life, and give God as much space as possible to show me a different way. I’ve become someone who constantly fills the silence & space in my life mostly with meaningless noise & distraction. It’s so much easier to do literally anything other than just spend ten minutes still & silent, alone with my thoughts & God.

Enter the twin spiritual disciplines, silence & solitude. Over the last year, I’ve unintentionally read & heard a lot about solo spiritual retreats (i.e. God has been trying to tell me something I really needed to hear). Two of the books our church staff read this past year have been about personal spiritual health (with sizable sections devoted to the value/need for silence & solitude) and another has been about restoration that can only come from God’s presence. God made it inescapably clear to me that I need to spend time alone with Him, away from the noise of life. Only His presence would provide the rest and strength and joy that I unconsciously yet vainly look for in my typical distractions.   

So I took the plunge. Those four days were quietly powerful (no pun intended). Once I got to that cabin in hill country, I spent hours of each day reading the Bible & spiritual literature; praying; singing worship songs; journaling; and literally sitting still in silence. Yes, you read that right. I actually scheduled time where I did literally nothing but sit. Now I won’t lie and say that I experienced profound revelations from on high. But it surprised me how slowing down and distancing myself from every distraction (who would’ve thought that NOT having wi-fi could be a blessing) not only afforded me precious, much-needed rest, but also gave me greater sensitivity to God’s presence. It allowed me to actually recognize why I’ve been so disconnected and tired.

Now, my pride wishes I could tell you that I’ve become a new person with perfectly healthy spiritual habits after my retreat. But I haven’t. I think I’ve been making excuses to some degree. Life happened. Three days after I came back from my retreat, my grandfather passed away suddenly, and I went to be with family for a whole week. Then I came back to work while simultaneously doing the virtual iteration of the kids camp that I serve every summer. Then finals. Life happened. But life will always happen.

No, I didn’t have the sort of time & space I wanted to begin to slowly ramp up to some sort of spiritual metamorphosis. But it’s not impossible to carve out time each day where, in some way, we let God tend to our souls and love us as His children. Aside from the much-needed rest that I definitely did get from spending four days in solitude & silence, the biggest thing that I walked away with was a nagging hunger & thirst for God’s presence. Despite life getting in the way, my thoughts have been daily wandering to the truth that I need God’s presence every day & moment: peaceful, patient, understanding, healing, restful. Given that most of the recent TBM blog posts have mentioned depression, anxiety, and exhaustion, I’m guessing most of us could use more of God’s presence.

Of course it’s not possible to have every day of our lives be as unhurried & unoccupied as a days-long spiritual retreat. But I have to believe that it is possible for any Jesus follower to spend some amount of time (literally any amount of time) every day, savoring God’s presence, letting the Good Shepherd lead us to quiet waters and restore our souls (Psalm 23). Jesus did it. Why can’t we?

If you’re looking for a practical takeaway, here’s this: I would HIGHLY encourage every Jesus follower to reserve a few vacation days every year for a spiritual retreat. I cannot more highly recommend it. Repeat: I CANNOT MORE HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT. It will be ten times more restful & restorative than any island getaway, backpacking trip, or even a month of therapy (don’t get me wrong, I LOVE therapy, and always enjoy a good vacation). In case a retreat like mine sounds impossibly spiritual, know this: I broke all that stuff up with other restful, recreational activities like running, jigsaw puzzles, skipping rocks, and practicing my frisbee throws (yes, alone – I threw at the trees). I am physically incapable of spending consecutive hours praying or reading the Bible. Don’t put that standard on yourself. But I was surprised at how easy it was to read the Bible or pray, which normally feel like pulling teeth. Give it a try. Please. I’m more than willing to talk more about it one-on-one if you’re curious.

Two Books I Mentioned (also my two favorite reads in a while):

Andy Dong is the Director of Gathered Life at The Bridge and leader of the Southside House Church. 

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