Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sounds in silence…

For the past three and a half years, I’ve received an incredible gift. During that time, as you may know, every six months I’ve joined 40ish fellow young adult, Disciples of Christ pastors for a week of spiritual renewal, professional development and mentorship. With new ministers from around the country, I’ve descended on retreat centers in locales east, west, north and south (all on someone else’s dime!). We’ve visited a range of successful, creative ministries, learning new tricks of the trade. But most importantly, we’ve enjoyed each other’s company, shared each other’s stories, laughed together, prayed together, cried together. But now, my time with this group- The Bethany Fellows- has ended.

It’s a bittersweet feeling, knowing that I’m moving on. I’ve grown accustomed to the six-month rhythm of work, retreat, work, retreat. And I’m going to miss being with my friends more than I can describe. Still, I feel ready to move on, having received what the program intended. You see, the reason the Lilly Foundation gave our denomination the funds for this project is because they believe that the beginning of a new minister’s career is critical. Studies show that up to 40% leave ministry within five years, mostly because we often find ourselves isolated and inadequately prepared. But they figured that with a little extra support, the trend could be reversed. And in my case at least, it worked. Because of my Bethany experience, I have colleagues and mentors to call on, people to solve problems with, cherished memories that give me strength. Thus, in my sixth year of professional ministry, I feel prepared to endure for the long haul. Or, as I’ve described to others, “I’m a big boy minister now.” And this gift of work, retreat, work, retreat, has made much of the difference.

But perhaps the most unexpected, though welcome, gift Bethany gave me- and one I’d encourage you to consider for your own spiritual journey- is the gift of silence. Recall that on Wednesday of these weeks, each Fellow commits to not speaking. We might read, pray, write, sleep, take long walks, ‘be spiritual.’ But the only sounds that clutter our brain space are those created by others. Not a typical day, right?! And that’s the whole point. How often in our everyday lives do we shut up and just be with God? In the morning, during church, as we lay ourselves down to sleep? But that’s usually just momentary, a brief respite from the hectic. Or maybe silence clouds your life more than you’d prefer, though not the kind that’s intentionally prayerful. Rather, it’s a silence created by the lack of others to speak with. And the result can be, whatever shape your life takes, that God remains an acquaintance.

During days of Bethany silence, however, I’ve discovered how loud the world can be. Winds rustling falling leaves. Fans circulating conditioned air. But most especially, I’ve heard the inner voice of God’s Spirit whispering words of grace and challenge. “Shane, why don’t you share with me your fears and dreams more often?” “Shane, Jesus loves you, as much as you believed when you sung the song in grade three.” “Shane, do you yearn for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as much as you desire affirmation or respect?” Of course, it’s not like a real, audible voice says this to me! Rather, in my prayerful silence, my spirit seems more attentive, more receptive, more creative. But it takes longer than a brief word of grace before breakfast for that focus to emerge. Often, it’s early evening or later when I’ve found myself ready to receive.

Now, don’t hear my saying that I think you need regular, intentional days of silence to be a good, faithful Christian! But ask yourself whether such an activity might actually prove useful? How long has it been since you’ve taken time for a full, deep, rich conversation with God? You know, the kind you might have with a close, life-long friend? After all, as the old hymn goes, what a friend we have in Jesus! At least, what a friend we can have, if we’d give ourselves the opportunity.

Grace and Peace,

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