Into the Clearing

Years ago, before I dropped out of Bible College, there was a retreat one of the professors would lead at the beginning of each new semester. They would drive a group of college students out to a wooded retreat center. A morning devotional would be read, and then for the next several hours you were given free time to explore the grounds and seek God. The one caveat? After the devotion, we were all instructed to remain silent.

My sophomore year, Leah and I had only been dating for a few months. I asked her if she wanted to go, and she agreed. We went with a group of others, all of us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and positive that we were going to hear something remarkable from God. Once we were released, we all went our separate ways. I’m sure Leah could tell the story better than I can…

I’m not really what you might call “athletic.” Actually, I can count on one hand the number of tennis shoes I’ve owned… ever. A day spent hiking in silence is safely the LAST thing one might imagine me doing. But, as Paul said, my eyes were bright and my tail was bushy (I also might have wanted to impress my new boyfriend by appearing to be deep and spiritual), so off we went. I spent some time praying and then headed off on my merry way. I couldn’t find anything particularly interesting to look at/do so I started up a wooded hill in hopes of finding a clearing to hunker down and journal in.

But then, the hill got steep. I kept climbing though, a little voice inside me pushing me along. As the climb grew more difficult I found myself determined to see it through. I fell. a lot. Clutching tree limbs with every step I became convinced that this was a journey I was meant to take. Endure it. Get through it. Reap the reward.

When I finally reached the top of the hill I thanked God for giving me the strength. For seeing me through it. Then I looked around…

There was no clearing. More trees. More hills. A forest so dense I couldn’t see more than a few feet around me.

I wept. “What was the point?” I scribbled into a journal far too pretty for so much anger. My solitude and silence mocking me, I saw nothing beautiful. Eventually I climbed down, having not really learned much at all. I logged that afternoon away as a waste for a long time.

But then, I did a few more hard things in my life. Hard things do not always [often?] produce the immediate rewards we’re hoping for. Often in the midst of these endless climbs I’ve found myself being changed. I was different that day after our hike than I was when I started; and I’m different now. These journeys have molded me, the hard things have stretched me. Maybe that’s the point? Growth. The kind of growth that only comes from pain and tears. It’s an ugly kind of growth that tears you to pieces while you desperately try to sew yourself back together.

Fast forward several years, and I’m in the midst of Spritual Direction. As part of that, I’m reading “Spiritual Rhythms” by Ruth Barton. So far it’s been a really interesting and insightful look at various spiritual practices. This week I was asked to read chapter two, “Solitude”. In it, the author details some thoughts and tips to keep in mind when we practice deliberate solitude in order to hear from God.

I read the chapter this week, and found myself eager to find some time to shut out the world and spend some time with God. This afternoon, the opportunity presented itself. It’s been beautiful the last few days here, so I ventured into our backyard to make use of our neglected hammock. After I got situated and felt reasonably assured that the hammock wasn’t going to rebel and toss me to the ground, I tried to quiet my mind.

The sky was deep blue. The leaves of the tree above were still green and swaying softly in the breeze. It was cool out, but the sun was warm. Eventually, once my brain saw that I was truly ignoring its constant stream of random thoughts and gibberish, it began to give up. Time slowed, I became one with my surroundings, God would show up any moment…

I awoke, about thirty minutes later.

Sadly, I find my attempts at solitude typically result in naps far more often than they result in meeting with God. And that’s, like, kind of a bummer. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen Christians off-handedly mention how great their quiet time is, how refreshed they feel, or how God dropped an epiphany in their lap because they happen to posses the kind of insanity that causes them to wake up hours before they have to. It’s like these people have made it to God’s personal day calendar. Most days I feel like I can’t even get through to his secretary to setup an appointment.

I’ve spent a lot of my spiritual life trying to find God based on what other people have told me works… and I think it’s fair to say that the majority of those methods haven’t panned out for me. I’ve said before that maybe God treats us differently based on who we are and what we need… Maybe God knows that I’m more of a “just drop by” kind of guy and opts to meet me randomly instead of at a predetermined time?

How much closer to God would we be if instead of climbing a hill because someone told us to, we chose to find our clearing by following the trail God has already laid on our hearts?

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