Editor’s Note: This is the third in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
I started working with teenagers when I was a senior in college, volunteering with Young Life. When I went to visit my kids at school during their lunch break, sometimes the campus security would bark at me, “Get to class!” at the end of the period, thinking I was a student there. I scurried off on my bike and went back to my college classes, giggling.
Perhaps I was a few years older than the students I worked with, but I was still very young in terms of my development. I had endless energy and could work for days on end without real rest, staying up late to finish papers, waking up early to grab breakfast with a friend before class, and of course going non-stop on the weekends. I was constantly scrambling to cover all my bases, and somehow, everything seemed to get done.
Unfortunately, I kept up this pattern well after college graduation, even as I started working with Young Life vocationally. At the outset I breathlessly told a friend, “I can’t believe I’m getting PAID to do this!” My excitement for the tasks before me seemed to have no bounds. I maintained a constant pace of contact work with students, meetings with leaders, fundraising and administration, with some brief moments with friends squeezed in. My weekends were crammed full with various excursions, high school football games, church, and more meetings.
Regardless of my enthusiasm, this all came down crashing on me three years in. It started one day in the office, when I was alone, and I burst into tears. I could not figure out why I was crying, but I couldn’t stop. I pulled myself together, afraid someone would walk in on me, but that night the same feelings bubbled up in my apartment. A cloud hung over me as I tried to keep galloping through my tireless schedule. In a meeting with my pastor, when I told him what was happening, he ordered me to take a week off, right then and there. His family was heading out of town and he handed me the keys to his house. “Go on vacation for a week. Everyone will be fine without you. Don’t give out the phone number (this was in the days of landlines) and just get some rest.”
I numbly nodded my head and agreed to his prescription. I crawled into bed and slept for two days straight. I was completely overworked and exhausted, and it was purely my fault. As I emerged out of the fog, I realized that I had come to neglect healthy boundaries and self-discipline, all in the name of serving God. I was falling into depression. Something had to change.
Brennan Manning had just come on the scene and someone had given me his book The Lion and the Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. I peeled open the cover in between tears (I was still crying at the drop of a hat at this point) and read these words on the first page: “Religion is not a matter of learning how to think about God, but of actually encountering Him.”
In an instant I immediately knew what was wrong: I had left God in the dust of my unrelenting schedule and lost sight of my purpose. As the psychiatrist Carl Jung once remarked, “Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil.”
I needed a life of Sabbath, rest, reading and prayer, where I wasn’t driven by adrenaline and compulsion, but by a sense of calling and transformation. In a nutshell, I needed to grow up and anchor my life in intimacy with my Lord rather than my own enthusiasm.
Where does one begin? I suggest that it starts with learning the spiritual discipline of meditation. As Richard Foster says in his classic The Celebration of Discipline, this means,
listening to God’s word, reflecting on God’s works, rehearsing God’s deeds, ruminating on God’s law, and more. In each case there is stress upon changed behavior as a result of our encounter with the living God.
While we could spend the rest of our lives mastering this discipline, he saves the kicker for last: “Repentance and obedience are essential features in any biblical understanding of meditation.” Ooof! I am still convicted as I read those words. Meditation is not simply sprinkling a few minutes of reading and prayer onto my already packed schedule. Meditation requires that I come to a grinding halt on a regular basis, listen, pray, listen some more, contemplate, then if needed, repent and change course.
What is most challenging in all of that is cultivating the capacity to truly listen. After all, as we learn from the lyrical story of Elijah’s encounter with God’s “still, small voice” in 1 Kings 19, God usually does not demand our attention like gale-force winds, earthquakes and fires do; rather, he is often the gentle whisper that requires focus, consistent pursuit and ongoing intimacy.
My first practical change as I emerged from that depressing crash all those years back was to commit to taking a Sabbath. I set aside Saturdays for rest and reflection. If I knew I had to be out of town for a camp or event, I adjusted my schedule accordingly, and scheduled another day that week. Previously, I waited until I hit the complete exhaustion stage before taking a day off. Now I realized I needed to consistently stop for rest and reflection, regardless of how many “shoulds” were competing for my attention.
Then I committed to consistent devotional reading, which then took me into reflection and prayer. As Foster says, “In meditation we are growing into what Thomas a Kempis calls ‘a familiar friendship with Jesus.'” Even better, he adds, “The perpetual presence of the Lord (omnipresence, as we say) moves from a theological dogma into a radiant reality.” Who can turn that invitation down?!
Make no mistake, I’m not saying we should try to develop some buddy-buddy, toss-a-softball-around relationship with Jesus. This is more like what Peter, James and John encountered in Mark 9 in the Transfiguration. When we contemplate the awe and power of who Jesus is in its fullness, coupled with our access to such intimacy, we will be forever changed.
Here is the goal, again according to Richard Foster:
What happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart.
Unlike eastern meditation, which seeks detachment from the world and its worries, we seek detachment and attachment–to Christ.
Since you only learn to meditate by meditating, start by committing to its practice. I recommend setting up a routine, which is needed to develop any other personal discipline like exercise, playing an instrument, or creating art. I was an English major in college and still occasionally aspire to being a writer. In order to do so, I have followed the advice of the writer Anne Lamott in her brilliant book on writing called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
“But how?” my students ask. “How do you actually do it?”
You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day…you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voice of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt…
Somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story…But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started.
It is really no different in meditation. Start by being quiet before God, emptying your mind and heart of all the busyness. Do not be in a rush. You are seeking to enter the living presence of God. Like any other relationship, you cannot do that all at once; instead, it takes the cumulative effort of multiple memories and time logged. From there, I usually spend time on a psalm. I recommend regularly reading through psalms and using them as a template for your time of prayer.
Again, I cannot recommend Foster’s book enough, especially when it comes to the chapter on meditation. Seek out wise mentors in your life to find out how they spend time in Christian meditation, and learn from them. I finish with this wise counsel from Richard Foster:
You must not be discouraged if in the beginning your meditations have little meaning to you. There is a progression in the spiritual life, and it is wise to have some experience with lesser peaks before trying to tackle the Mt. Everest of the soul. So be patient with yourself. Besides, you are learning a discipline for which you have received no training. Nor does our culture encourage you to develop these skills. You will be going against the tide, but take heart; your task is of immense worth.
I should have crashed and burned that sad summer day in 1987. But I am happy to say that in 2012 I am still steadily, joyfully pursuing youth ministry, and I attribute that longevity in large part to having learned the spiritual disciplines of rest, reflection, Sabbath and prayer. May your meditations be rich.
Use the links below to read all of the articles in the series, or visit Kelly’s CYMT contributor page:
Kelly Soifer is currently the Director of Recruiting and Leadership Development for the Free Methodist Church in Southern California, providing strategic planning, pastoral recruiting and training for over 40 Free Methodist churches from Santa Barbara to San Diego. She is greatly energized by the Free Methodist Church’s deep commitment to “walking their talk,” where they serve in multiple ways throughout their communities, reaching diverse populations.
Kelly was a youth pastor for 15 years, and before that served as a Regional Director with Young Life. She has also taught both at a local Christian high school (teaching Bible and doctrine) and at Westmont College, where she trains students in church and parachurch internships.
In keeping with other crazy Californians, Kelly is a devoted bicycle commuter, delighted owner of an Italian scooter, and enthusiastic fan of organic produce and cooking. She has also become quite the blogger, Facebooker, Google Plusser and Twitterer! However, she cannot surf.