Listening Beyond the Silence

"Be still and know that I am God…"
Psalm 46:10

The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.     
1 Kings 19:11-13

These Bible verses are familiar to me, but I confess that I’ve never fully understood them. In particular, here are three questions that I’ve pondered:

1) Why does the Psalmist have to be “still” in order to know God?
2) Why does Elijah hear the voice of God not in a mighty way, but as a “gentle whisper”?
3) Is this advice specific to these individuals, or does it also apply to me?

I’m starting…just starting…to understand. Yes, these verses do apply to me. Through these verses, God is offering me timeless wisdom about how I can know Him better. And I now see the key, critical, vital, life-changing point: God whispers so that I will choose to slow down! He wants me to embrace silence and stillness so that I can hear His voice clearly and without distractions.

In all my years of following Jesus, I’ve never approached God in this way. 

As I reflect on my relationship with the Lord, I recognize that I’ve often struggled to discern His will. His “voice” usually has seemed muffled. But this should not be a surprise, because I’ve never taken the time to truly listen. My life is filled with busyness and activity; my mind is constantly abuzz with thoughts and plans and dreams and fantasies and hopes and fears and worries and anxieties….

I have created a wall of almost impenetrable clutter; it’s no wonder that God’s voice is indistinct to my ears.

So I have embarked on a journey into stillness before the Lord. This journey began last September in the eastern Sierras when Julie and I enjoyed our retreat. We spent several afternoons paddling our kayak on the beautiful, and nearly empty, alpine lakes. We would paddle and drift, and simply listen. I would listen to the wind in the aspens. Listen to the birds. Listen to the water lapping against the rocks along the lakeshore. The more I listened, the more I heard. And sometimes I actually could “hear” the silence. As I learned to listen to God’s creation, I started to learn more about how to listen for His voice. And “hearing the silence” seems to be a key component of learning to hear God.

I enjoy military history, and years ago I read about a sonar operator on a U.S. submarine. He was describing his job, and one comment stood out: “To be effective at this job, you must learn to listen until you hear the silence. And then you can listen through the silence and start to hear the subtle sounds of the deep.”

This description fits with the way I am striving to listen to God. I am learning…slowly…to quiet my mind. To sit before Him in stillness. To read Scripture and simply let my mind soak in His truth. As I do these things, I am starting to hear the silence. And beyond the silence, I know that I will hear – far more clearly – the gentle whisper of my loving Heavenly Father.

-  Bruce

The Parable of the Nose-Less Bicycle Seat

Once upon a time, a man decided to replace the seat on his mountain bike. This man rode his bicycle hard, so the seat took a lot of abuse. It was old and badly worn, the fabric was torn in places, and the padding was virtually gone. This was a traditional seat: the kind with limited support for his rear, while most of his weight actually rested on the nose of the seat that extended between his legs. This style of seat is called a “saddle”, because the rider actually sits astride it. 

The man’s saddle-seat had a proven track record of success. It allowed for great control on the dirt trails where he rode, because he could grip the saddle between his thighs. But the saddle also was uncomfortable, causing soreness – and even numbness – in his groin, thighs, and lower back. In fact, the man’s physician said that some riders suffer permanent nerve damage from saddle seats.

So the man began his quest for a replacement, and he discovered that a new style of seat had been developed: the nose-less bicycle seat. The nose-less style was not a proven technology, but it promised to solve the problem of pain and numbness. So the man took a risk and decided to try the new seat.

Instead of a saddle, this seat actually is a “platform”.  Since there is no nose to straddle, the man sits on two small, firm pads that support his rear. There is no pressure on the nerves, so there is no pain or soreness or numbness.

The first time the man rode on his new seat, he could not believe how comfortable it felt. But he quickly learned that this new seat also produced some new challenges. Without a saddle to grip between his legs, balancing the bicycle was trickier. Particularly when riding on rough terrain, or navigating steep and rutted downhill trails, maintaining control was difficult. He had to experiment with different seat heights and seat angles. He had to adopt a whole new riding posture. And when he changed his riding posture, it created aches and pains in his wrists! This required him to raise the handlebars to a new position. As each set of changes produced new problems, he began to wonder if he had made a wise decision in purchasing this new and unproven style of seat.

But after several rides, the man figured out the proper seat height and angle. He had properly adjusted the handlebars. He had mastered the new riding technique. And he now realized that the nose-less bicycle seat would enable him to enjoy his riding so much more – without pain, without discomfort, and with no possibility of long-term nerve damage. Getting the full benefits of the seat had required patience, and some trial and error…but all of the changes ultimately paid off.

My adventure with the new bike seat seems to be an appropriate metaphor for the changes that are taking place in my life. God is continually giving me insights into myself, and drawing me into new ways of understanding Him. This is exciting, but I find that each change – no matter how wonderful – produces its own set of new challenges (just as changing the seat affected my wrists and my riding posture). All of the change in my life has been worth it, but it is requiring patience.  A lot of patience.  Because it’s taking time for me to learn how to “ride” comfortably as my relationship with God moves into new territory.

- Bruce

The Journey

During the last week of January, Bruce drove me to a retreat center outside Idyllwild (in the mountains above Palm Springs) to participate in the first session of my Spiritual Formation/Leadership Development program. I was meeting with about 20 other church leaders who – like me – were starting a new spiritual and educational journey.

I was excited, nervous, and hopeful. After researching a variety of such programs, I had decided on this one – simply called “The Journey” – sponsored by The Leadership Institute []. The purpose of The Journey is to help Christian leaders more effectively connect their “inward journey” with their “outward journey.” In personal terms, this means deepening my own relationship with Jesus, in order to increase my effectiveness as a spiritual leader...because the best way for me to feed others is by allowing ministry to pour out of the overflow of my relationship with Christ.

Over the next two years, I will join these same people six different times at the retreat center. In between, I will have projects to work on, books to read, and extended quiet times with God. I also will meet regularly with a spiritual mentor who will help me process what I am learning.

It’s hard to describe my experience up on that mountain three weeks ago, because it was less about “learning” (like most seminars or retreats) and much more about “relationship” – my relationship with God and with others. My week was filled with communal and individual prayer, times of communion and laughter, moments of solitude, tears over sin and regret…and tears of joy. We were taught by wise brothers and sisters, we ministered to one another, we learned to listen more closely to God, and we experienced God’s peace and presence in a powerful way.

Our group will gather again in April, and I can hardly wait to reunite with my new friends. In the meantime, I will be listening…reading…and learning. Learning how to better care for my soul, so I can – in turn – better care for God’s people.

- Julie

Starting A New Season

It’s hard for me to believe that we left Eastside over six months ago.

I expected to face a great deal of quiet time...and maybe even some boredom...but that has not been the case. Instead of a lack of things to do, I’ve had more of the sense of a relaxed pace to accomplish what needs to be done. I feel like there are actually pauses in my days; times when I can live in the moment and rest in God’s presence. This has given me a great sense of peace in my soul.

I now feel as if we have come through one season and entered another one. The fall was a season of loss, followed by healing and restoration: no jobs, moving our two daughters, spending time with family in Minnesota, two weeks at the pastoral retreat center, and beginning to de-clutter our lives from living at a break-neck speed. And in the midst of these various activities, I had to help Karina begin to plan her wedding, and then organize her wedding shower in December.

With all of this now behind us, I feel as if we have turned a corner in the past few weeks. This new season is one of deeper transformation and preparation. We’re adding some new "spiritual practices" to our lives (contemplative & reflective prayer) and developing a sense of clarity about our future direction, while God is continually testing our trust in Him and the values by which we live.

This new season fills me with an itch to move ahead in our journey. We’re looking forward to Karina’s wedding in June, the development of Rachel’s future plans, and Matthew’s college graduation in December. And as Bruce is now sending out resumes, our hearts are filled with anticipation…and yes, some trepidation…about the future ministry to which God will call us. I have a growing sense that an adventure is waiting just around the corner, and I feel excited…and hopeful… and ready (almost).

This change of season is good. It’s refreshing. And I’m continually reminded that a sabbatical like this has its own special pace, as God graciously refreshes our souls and re-orders our future.

- Julie

The Freedom of Accountability

Personal accountability usually feels constraining; limiting. I don’t like accountability because it seems like it might keep me from doing what I want to do. And yet…I’m learning that healthy accountability actually is tremendously freeing.

Julie and I meet with an Accountability Group once a month. This group consists of 3 other couples who have made a commitment to listen to us, to pray with us and for us, and to ask us hard questions as a way to help us make good decisions. We’ve made a commitment to be open with them at a very deep level.

And rather than feel vulnerable or threatened, I feel a deep sense of freedom. It is a wonderful gift to have others walk by your side, in an intimate way, in the life of faith. It is empowering to realize we do not have to hide our struggles and doubts and questions. It is life-giving to ask for, and receive, godly advice from godly men and women.

And particularly in this season – as life unfolds in ways that are totally new to us – there is power in having others affirm and confirm God’s direction in our lives.

So to these dear friends, we give a heartfelt “thanks”. We bless the time, the effort, and the prayers they invest on our behalf. And we rejoice in the tremendous freedom we experience as a direct result of this ongoing relationship of godly accountability.

- Bruce