“The Way of the Heart”: Reflections on My Spiritual Retreat

Last week I took a spiritual retreat with Jesus.  Some people might consider spending two days in a retreat center a waste of time.  But not at all!  In fact, at this point in my year, having experienced a very busy fall of ministry, and anticipating the Season of Advent, this was a timely reprieve.  So what happened at my retreat?  As I said to one of my elders, “You can get a lot done when you do nothing!”  Now, of course I didn’t sit and do nothing.  But I did slow things down considerably.  I spent hours reading God’s Word and responding in prayer.  I fasted for a time.  I also sought guidance from a spiritual director.  And I also read some devotional literature.  One book in particular: Henri J. M. Nouwen’s, The Way of the Heart (HarperSanFrancisco, 1981), was especially significant to me.  Now this isn’t the first time I’ve read this book, but perhaps it’s the first time that I really got it.  Nouwen considers three basic spiritual disciplines to be essential for the minister: solitude, silence and prayer.  As he writes in the Epilogue:

Solitude shows us the way to let our behavior be shaped not by the compulsions of the world by our new mind, the mind of Christ.  Silence prevents us from being suffocated by our wordy world and teaches us to speak the Word of God.  Finally, unceasing prayer gives solitude and silence their real meaning. . . . These disciplines will teach us to stand firm, to speak the words of salvation, and to approach the new millenium with hope, courage and confidence.  (pp. 91-92, 94)

What a wonderful two days with my Lord!  To be sure, I was glad to return to my family and community, but I felt a peace and joy on retreat that’s hard to leave behind.  But happily I’ve found that when you spend considerable time with Jesus, you not only feel closer to him on the “mountain” (spiritual retreat) but also on the “plains” (daily life).  As a result, I feel more rested.  I’m less anxious.  My heart is quieter.  And I’m increasingly convinced of the need to practice the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life on a daily basis.  But I’m also convinced of the need to go on an annual retreat.  Care to join me?


New Blog Post: The Second Sunday of Advent: Peace

This Sunday we continue our Advent journey with Ruth and Naomi.  By now, they have just arrived in Bethlehem, and are getting settled into their new life.  As the creators of this worship series, Dianne (Rop) Elders and Dale Fopma, write in Reformed Worship 101 (p. 12):

In faith, Ruth goes out to the fields to glean, trusting that God will provide for her and Naomi.  She “happens” to find herself in a field owned by Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz—one more indication that God was leading.  Boaz prays that Ruth will be richly blessed by the God under whose wings she has come to take refuge.  God provides food for Ruth and someone to redeem her from an uncertain future, just as God provides food for our souls and a Redeemer who is the only source of peace.  We receive the bread of life at the table of the Lord. 


New Blog Post: 5 Lessons, 5 Years of Ordained Ministry

I recently celebrated five years of ordained pastoral ministry.  Not a big deal, I know, but significant for me.  So what have I learned in my first five years?  Obviously many things, but a few particular lessons come to mind:

  1. Pastoral ministry is a calling.  It’s more like parenting or farming.  You’re always on call, always on duty.  This can take a while to get used to, as there’s always more to do–the work is never finished.  But I’m learning to embrace my calling as a pastor, and not just do the work of a pastor.
  2. Spiritual formation is important.  In fact, it’s my first job as pastor.  How can I help my people grow spiritually if I don’t seek to be spiritually formed?  So it’s crucial for pastors to immerse themselves in God’s Word and practice various spiritual disciplines of the Christian life (including taking Sabbath).
  3. God loves worship!  Time and time again the Lord blesses those who enter the sanctuary to worship him.  This isn’t an excuse to slack off in worship preparation (including preaching), but it’s comforting to know that the Lord will bless his people when they gather to worship Him–despite our broken words.
  4. I will not please everyone.  This is an important lesson to learn.  Some people treat pastors as hired hands, that she is to do whatever is asked of her.  But the pastor is called to serve the Lord first and foremost.  So when she does this well, many people will be pleased, but certainly not everyone.
  5. Mentoring is beneficial.  In my opinion, pastoral ministry is too complex and demanding to go it alone.  Pastors need peers to walk with and mentors to guide them.  I always learn from others and gain perspective when I hear and tell stories.  I’m thankful for my personal mentor and my mentors in writing, who guide me spiritually and coach me in pastoral ministry.

This is only skimming the surface.  I’ve learned so much in my first five years of ministry.  But these are a few significant lessons I’ve learned a long the way.  I look forward to learning many more.  One thing’s for sure: pastoral ministry is a great place for spiritual and professional growth.  I thank the Lord for calling me to be a pastor of a local church.

New Blog Post: The First Sunday of Advent: Hope

This week we’ll begin an Advent sermon series based on the Old Testament book of Ruth.  I know we’re a bit early, but a few circumstances have led us to begin our Advent preparations this Sunday.  So let the journey begin!  The series we will follow is called “Under the Bethlehem Star,” and was created by Dianne (Rop) Elders and Dale Fopma, and was published in Refomed Worship 101.  Elders and Fopma include a helpful summary for each week, which I plan on passing on to you for your benefit.  So here are their comments on Ruth 1.

The book of Ruth describes the change that comes about in Naomi.  Naomi’s husband and two sons have died; she feels hopeless.  But there are glimmers of hope: the barley harvest is beginning, and it seems that the people of Bethlehem don’t blame Naomi for her problems.  Her daughter-in-law Ruth walks beside her in her grief–an example of what Christ himself would do (vv. 16-17).  Even the names in this chapter offer glimmers of hope for a Savior: Bethlehem (house of bread), Ephrathah (out of you will come–Micah 5:2), Elimelech (my God is King), Orpah (raindrop or abundance), Ruth (friendship).  God is providing hope, a Savior, a relationship, someone who will walk beside us at all times.

New Blog Post: Remembering my Grandfather on Remembrance Day

My deceased grandfather, Howard Johnston, served the Royal Canadian
Navy during World War II.  He didn’t talk much about the war.  He told me it
wasn’t fun at all.  Happily he never saw any action.  But the war still took a
toll on him.  Actually, even before the war he had experienced his share of
heartaches.  Grandpa’s father died when he was young, and his stepfather never accepted him.  So what a joy it was for him to realize in his
thirties that God his heavenly Father loved him.  His life was changed!  Indeed,
he struggled with feelings of unworthiness all his life, but when he responded
to Jesus’ call to discipleship, there was no turning back.  I’m thankful for his
quiet legacy of faith and farming, which has greatly influenced me.  So who has
helped you to grow spiritually?  Who is your hero of the faith?  Whomever it is,
you’re invited to thank the Lord for that person(s), and thank your hero–if
he/she is still alive.  And then you’re invited to be a spiritual hero (a
mentor) for someone else–through Jesus Christ our Lord.

New Blog Post: Drinking Deeply from the Well of Living Water

I’m currently listening to a teaching series called “Overflow: Spiritual Rhythms” (2012 Regent College Pastor’s Conference).  I sometimes listen to one of these sessions on Monday, when I take Sabbath, as a way resting in God’s presence.  In session 4, which I just heard, Pastor Darryl Johnson encourages us to drink deeply from the Well, to live in Jesus Christ, so that we live out of his fullness.  In fact, he says this is the main job of pastors (and I would extend that to all followers of Christ).  Our second job is to make sure the first job is done well.  And the third job is to get rid of all barriers that keep us from going to the well and block the Living Water (John 4) from getting to us.  This all sounds very good, doesn’t it, so then why are we so often spiritual thirsty (empty)?  Johnson suggests it’s because we simply don’t drink enough, mostly, he suggests, due to busyness, but also because of unconfessed sin and unresolved relational tension, which are two common “blocks” that keep us from receiving the Living Water.  He is haunted by Jeremiah 2:13, which reads: “My people have done two evil things: They have abandoned me–the fountain of living water.  And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all!” (NLT)   We too often look to other people and things to quench our spiritual thirst, instead of to the Living Water.  So, what cracked cistern are you drinking from these days?  Whatever it is, you’re invited to join me in drinking deeply of the Living Water–to slow down our lives, to leisurely take in what Johnson calls the “Gospel affirmations” the countless reminders that we are loved, forgiven, redeemed, etc.–all by the blood of Christ.  “For in Christ,” says Paul, “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness” (Colossians 2:9-10a NIV).  Thanks be to God!

New Blog Post: “The Great Cloud of Witnesses”

With Halloween behind us, my thoughts turn to All Saints’ Day, which is celebrated by some on November 1.  This is a day to give thanks for all those who have gone before us.  Indeed, there is a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) who have taught and mentored us.  So who are some of those people?  A few come to mind for me (past and present):

Grandma Muriel: She’s my spiritual mother, the one who has mentored me from the cradle.  I don’t know where I’d be spiritually speaking, if my Grandma hadn’t invested in my life and prayed for me regularly.

Lorne & Norma Hunter: They were the youth leaders during my teenage years.  They accepted me, called me to leadership, and listened to me countless times.

Pastor Bill: He modelled a humble, faithful and hands-on pastoral ministry for me at just the right time, when I was discerning my call.  He helped me realize that with God’s help and some training, a farm boy could be an effective pastor.

Eugene H. Peterson: Although a mentor in writing only, he has modeled a contemplative pastoral ministry that I seek to emulate.  He has guided me many times as a pastor and is teaching me how to be a faithful and effective pastor in this generation.

Dallas Willard: Again, another mentor in writing, one who has opened my eyes to the truth of the Gospel, the beauty of life in God’s Kingdom, which begins now.  I am so indebted to this man, who has become my “spiritual director in writing.”

Pastor Walt: My current mentor and spiritual director.  I thank the Lord for this man, who meets with me monthly to listen, to help me work through pastoral issues, and to form me into a godly leader.

These are only a few of the saints (past and present) whom the Lord has used to mentor me.  So what about you?  Who has helped you grow spiritually?  I invite you to reflect on that question today, to thank the Lord for these people, and perhaps even thank one of these individuals who make up the “great cloud of witnesses.”