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The Sacred in Today

BY RUTH HALEY BARTON FAITH / GOD / ISSUE 58 June 13, 2012

Years ago, I sat in a staff meeting at my church to talk about how we could attract more people. At one point, someone counted the requirements for church membership and made the startling discovery there were somewhere between five and nine time commitments per week required of church members.

Outwardly, I tried to be supportive of the purpose for the meeting, but on the inside I was thinking, “Who would want to sign up for this?” I was already becoming aware of Christian fatigue syndrome in my own life and couldn’t imagine willingly inflicting it on someone else.
My sudden clarity in that moment forced me to be honest about what my own Christian life had become. While I was trying harder and doing more, there was an emptiness underneath it all that no amount of activity, Christian or otherwise, could fill. It made no difference at all that I had been a Christian all my life, that I had been in Christian ministry since early adulthood or that I was busy responding to God-given opportunities in many worthy causes. The more I refused to acknowledge a longing for more, the deeper and wider the emptiness became, until it threatened to swallow me up. In the midst of such barrenness, it was hard to even imagine what Jesus might have meant when He said, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, ESV). The Christian life just didn’t feel that way to me.
My first response was to try tweaking my schedule, learning how to say no more decisively, adopting new time management tools. But there comes a time in life when the desire is so deep that mere tweaking is not enough. Finally, I made the choice to reorder my life around what my heart most deeply wanted. These longings led me to search out spiritual practices and establish life rhythms that promised something more.

The first rhythm I explored was solitude and silence—introducing them into a life that had been consumed with the constant stimulation of noise, human interaction and busyness. As countercultural as it was to regularly and intentionally withdraw from my life in the company of others and give my undivided attention to God, this practice led me to acknowledge a level of exhaustion and overstimulation that I had come to associate with normal Christian living. As I faced these realities without censoring myself or trying to convince myself they were not true, I could feel the weight of Christian expectations I had been carrying without even being aware of it.

There were the expectations of being a godly spouse and a good parent and how to balance those with the demands of my professional life; of being a good neighbor, a good Christian, a good … everything.

These had worn me down so much, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion at the simplest gift: the freedom to sit in silent receptivity with God. Nothing to do. Nothing to say. No social interaction to try and figure out.

How, I wondered, had my life in Christ got- ten reduced to so much busyness, so many words, such weighty expectations? How had I gotten this far in the spiritual life without any- one ever telling me it was OK to stop and just be in God’s presence? What was I to do with the pent-up longing and frustration?

Through the simple rhythm of taking a few moments in solitude and silence daily—at first, 10 minutes was all I could muster!—I eventually noticed that the chaos and noise that characterized my inner life was starting to settle. I was no longer as driven by outer distractions and my own inner compulsions to perform and achieve. I began to have a greater sense of my life hidden with Christ in God, rather than being so completely identified with what was going on in the external world. I experienced the presence of God as my ultimate orienting reality, which brought the peace for which my soul had been longing. Rhythms of solitude and silence were the key practices that rescued me and created space for God in my life.

Eventually, I added other rhythms—breath prayer, which enabled me to pray with the rhythm of my breathing; lectio divina, an approach to Scripture that incorporates the rhythm of silence and word; and rhythms of daily self-examination, weekly Sabbath- keeping and discerning and doing the will of God. I do not practice these because I have to; I practice them because I want to—because they provide a way to make choices that are congruent with my heart’s deepest desires, day after day after day.

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