Friday, March 24, 2017

40 Days - Where Have You Been?

"What do You want from me?"

Is that a prayer?

If so, is asking God such a direct question impertinence? Yet, an answer came, "Go into the desert."


"As Christ went into the desert for forty days, so I want you to do likewise."

Go into the desert? Are you kidding me? That's not even practical. I have a family and a job and responsibilities. I don't even like camping. I can't do that. And certainly not for forty days.

As my mind posed oppositions and questions to this answer, which was not the answer I wanted, God began to direct me into what He meant by the desert or wilderness His Holy Spirit was leading me to. He began with Lamentations 3:25-26, "The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord."

But what would that entail exactly?

The first part was that I would go on a social media Sabbath. This should not have surprised me since things like my blog, Twitter and Facebook has taken up so much of my time as I try to get this blog noticed and read by more followers.

The forty days was going to be a time for me to refocus my life and to become more intentional in what I am doing and really stopping to ask myself why I am doing what I'm doing. Is it really to glorify God or, more selfishly, to draw focus to myself?

It's funny, but the longer I stayed off social media, the more questions I got from people. From the curious, "Did you give it up for Lent?" No, actually, I started prior to the Lenten season. To the concerned, "Is there something wrong?" To the just plain baffled, "Why would you want to do that?" I never gave detailed reasons other than a "Sabbath" or simply "taking a break." Even among those who call themselves followers of Christ there are those who look at you askance if you say, "God told me to." Even before I began the forty days, I tended to get strange looks and the occasional question of, "Where are you coming from?" At first I found it puzzling and I would point out that I tried to live my life as close to the Sermon on the Mount as I can, but then I got responses like, "I don't think you're supposed to take all of that literally." And this comment was made by people who claimed to take the Bible literally and as inerrant.

Along with removing myself from social media, I would also limit the amount of time of all other media, such as television viewing. It also meant that I would use the time I would normally listen to my music or NPR, especially while I am driving in my car, to be in silence to pray or simply try to hear the voice of God that can so often be drowned out by all of the noise, even if it is worship music. Psalm 62:1 reminded me, "For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation." By removing so much of the distractions (social media, TV, radio, iPod) I would have more time to be attuned to the Spirit through praying (including centering prayer), studying scripture (particularly the gospels accounts of Christ in the wilderness) and meditating upon it, and reading theology or books of the faith by an ecumenical group of Christian authors (from Jean-Pierre De Caussade to Viktor E. Frankl to Henri Nouwen to Richard J. Foster).

That time that I had previously wasted on the computer or binge-watching shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime (such as Man in the High Castle), I could now stop and "Be still" and know that He is God. It provided me opportunity to be still and silent to listen to His voice through contemplative prayer for at least 20 minutes twice a day. Phileena Heuertz wrote in her book Pilgrimage of a Soul:

"In our modern world, it is much too easy to overextend our limits toward activity and productivity. Stillness, solitude and silence are not valued today like they may have been for our ancestors whose days were filled with these qualities simply by the nature of their life's labor and limitations, We tend to see restrictions to activity and engagement as something to be avoided. But limitations and restrictions can be grace for us. Within the context of our limitations, God do for us what what we cannot . . . Remember, we cannot make ourselves grow; but we can choose to submit or resist the process. And though much growth takes place in our active lives, all elements of creation are subject to contemplative stillness as an integral part of our growth and transformation . . ."

This would be a time of such stillness and contemplation.

It was my being aware to the world around me in the very creation of God. To see the miraculous in the mundane, the uncommonness of the common. It was being outside and taking walks and having conversations and asking myself continually, not "What can I get out of life?" but "What can I give in my life?" The world is filled with His glory and to just be open to that: through flowers and birds and streams and each person I cam across.

It also became a time to simplify my life and look at all that I own and ask myself: Do I really need all of this or can I give any of it away? So I began that process and used it as an opportunity to clean out my library of books that I knew I would never read again and to put them into the small libraries our town has in local parks.  It meant giving away clothes and extra coats to the local homeless shelter. As I gave things away, it also made me ask myself on what were the best uses of our finances going forward and to more closely consider what I bought and why I bought it. I was not created by God to be a consumer but to be a worshiper and a co-creator in this world. This has begun a process towards holy simplicity. I pray every day, "Give me the focus of simplicity."

This also impacted my eating habits and really asking me, "Why am I eating when I am eating? Am I really hungry or am I just bored? Is eating filling another void?" It meant that I didn't eat processed foods or junk food. I went without sugar or coffee. I drank primarily water. Even going without food forced me to focus on prayer, to let God meet that need and to fill that void.

I found myself asking: Where does my food come from? Where do my clothes come from? And the technology I own? It was investigating and asking myself if how I spent my money glorified God if I was buying items that came from exploitation or slave labor.

The forty days became a time of my forming holy habits that become the spiritual disciplines in my daily life so that I am not at the mercy of my compulsions, so I could focus on getting to the root of why I do or do not do things in my life. It was looking just beyond my personal spending to does this take advantage of the poor of the world.

My favorite prophet, Jeremiah, wrote, "For I know that plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart" (29:11-13).

It was with that verse that I began my forty days and journaled each day about what I was experiencing or struggling with or how the Spirit spoke to me and the opportunities God provided in my path each day to be a witness to His love for the world around me.

Charles Spurgeon said, "I must take care above all that I cultivate communion with Christ, for though that can never be the basis of my peace - mark that - yet it will be the channel of it."

This experience was far from easy (especially when I did serious self-reflection and analyzed my motivations) and I found how truly hard "dying to self'" really was and how to live this out in the midst of being a husband, father, neighbor, employee, coworker, member of a congregation, and, ultimately, a follower of Christ. It was a time of contemplation, reflection, meditation, study and healing through silence, solitude and stillness. It was a time of surrendering my body and my soul to the spirit of God. It was about being present and aware. Each day was a way to allow God to transform me and, to the degree that I was transformed, the world could be transformed.

Even though the forty days have ended, I feel like a new path, a new journey has just begun.

And now I will go have some coffee. . .

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Elliott. I have never taken this kind of "fast" but I think it's a good idea, especially that basic question of, Why am I doing what I'm doing in my life? We have so many habits and routines that just become part of our daily rhythm, and unless we step back and examine them we might never question them or wonder whether they might need to change.

    Yeah, dying to self is not easy. I was thinking recently about some of my favourite novels by George Eliot (Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch, specifically) - the main characters have this idealistic view that serving and sacrificing will be this great lofty experience, but in fact it can be really humbling and painful. But then that's how the change and growth come, through these humbling times. Thanks again for your post.