This last week, Todd Agnew taught on Personal Holiness & Spiritual Disciplines. At the end of his (incredible) teaching, we were assigned with the task of putting at least three of the disciplines he discussed into practice, and then writing a short responsive essay about one of them. Here is my response:
Prior to this past Tuesday night, I can’t tell you the last time I intentionally sat in silence. In fact, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve done so in all my adult life. I’ve spent plenty of time in solitude, but rarely, if ever, was that time spent in silence. And if it was, it definitely wasn’t on purpose. In fact, I don’t even sleep in silence. I sleep every night with noise-cancelling in-ear headphones in, cranking a mix of low frequency hums and white noise into my brain at top volume. Ridiculous, I know, but it’s the only way I can get to sleep. I have music on anytime I’m not in the middle of a conversation, and in those instances I usually just turn the music down, rather than off. If there’s no music handy, then I’m singing to myself or drumming on the nearest surface or listening to whatever noise is happening around me. I like sound. I may even NEED sound to feel okay. So, I knew as soon as the assignment had been issued that silence was the discipline I most-needed to try out this week. I also knew it was the first one I would have the opportunity to try out.
It takes just under three hours to get home after class every Tuesday night. My plan was, so long as I could stay awake, to try and remain in silence for the entire drive home last week. In fact, I was pretty sure I’d get back to Houston and be so overwhelmed by the sheer awesomeness of the experience I’d just had that I’d have to stay up and write this response before I could even sleep. I’d have so many new insights, so many new visions, so much new wisdom to share, I wouldn’t be able to contain it till morning. It was going to be life-changing. The world was going to be a better place because of my (almost) three hours of silence…I was sure of it.
Okay, I didn’t expect quite that much. But, I DID expect to have a fairly profound experience with God. I genuinely believed the moment I created some space for God, He’d come and inhabit that space in a tangible, noticeable, if not predictable way. I knew I’d learn SOMETHING.
But, I didn’t. Not immediately anyway. The drive home was pretty tough in fact. I was awake enough (most of the time), and I DID successfully remain in silence for the whole drive. It just wasn’t a terribly spiritual experience. I had to really focus at times to reel my brain in. I thought about Scripture some, I prayed some, I meditated on the lyrics of a few spiritually edifying songs, etc. But I also thought about the price of gas. I thought about whether or not I should follow the recommendation of a songwriter I love and watch the Katy Perry documentary. I thought about what song I should lead this week in class and what would happen if several of us picked and led the same song…My mind wandered. I never heard the clear voice of God. I never felt His presence. I gained no new insights, visions or wisdom. I didn’t encounter God in any remotely tangible, noticeable or predictable way whatsoever. It wasn’t a bad experience by any means. Like I said, it just wasn’t terribly spiritual.
That discouraged me at first. I felt like maybe I’d done it wrong. Perhaps there was some OTHER way of turning off the noise around and within me in which I WOULD have had the encounter with God I had expected. I’ve gained a little perspective over the course of this week though. I’ve seen the way that seemingly wasted time has taken some shape in my life. It turns out I’ve learned a lesson or two after all. Here’s what I’ve learned:
“Disciplines” are not the same as “formulas.” Spiritual disciplines are not meant to be cures for the common spiritual cold. They are not meant to be procedures by which we invoke the presence of God or make ourselves “right” spiritually. They are not mathematical equations in which adding “A” to “B” always and immediately equals “C.” They are processes in which we invite God to slowly and surely shape who we are and how we think. They are roads which we walk, not for the sake of reaching a specific destination, but rather for the experience of having walked them. They are exercises for the betterment of our non-physical selves. They require time. The require repetition. They require consistency. They require endurance. They require effort. They require utter submission to the will of God. Their fruit is entirely contingent on these things.
I started this exercise with unreasonable, unrealistic, even ridiculous expectations. I tried to sprint the first leg of a proverbial marathon, as though the race would be won at the starting line. So while I didn’t gain any insight as to what God has planned for humanity, for the city of Houston, for the church where I’m employed, or even for my own household or self, I’m thankful for the simple lesson I received this week: results require discipline; discipline requires time and consistent effort. I can not force God’s hand. He’ll inhabit the spaces He chooses to inhabit in my life. I am not responsible for determining when, how or to what end He inhabits those spaces. I’m simply responsible for consistently, faithfully and humbly making sure those spaces exist.
Also, Todd Agnew is my new hero.