Running Dry: Cultivating the Garden of One's Soul

Recently, I walked into my spiritual direction appointment was struck by the drought resistant lawn out front. It was beautiful -- in a rustic, naturalist, woodsy sort of way. It was also brown and very dry. The San Francisco Chronicle reports on the California drought now in its fifth year and calls the phenomenon "Running Dry". In attempts to curb the shrinking water supply, rebates are offered to home owners willing to take out their grass lawns and replace them with drought resistant vegetation.

As I walked into the appointment, I dreaded sitting before my spiritual director in the hopes of listening and encountering God. I desired to meet with Him, but my soul felt as dry as the brown dirt, mulch and other kindling out in the "drought resistant" front yard.

During that session, over the course of our silence and our mutual listening, my director asked if I was experiencing what Saint John of the Cross calls the "Dark Night of the Soul." Interestingly, while I had reservations in my preparations for direction, I was not feeling despair, or darkness, or even emptiness when it came to the status of my inner being. We sat in silence for several minutes.

Coming out of the silence, I began to recount significant ways I had experienced God's presence in the past few weeks. Upon reflection, I realized I felt guilty for having missed my daily devotions (on more than one occasion) and didn't want to confess my delinquency to my spiritual director. Yet, despite my lack of formal devotional time, God had been strangely present. It just happened to be that some of my most profound encounters with God weren't in my (fairly) regular morning routine of "quiet times."

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One of the more significant times of tasting the presence of God was after a rigorous hike I took on the Hamama Falls Trail on Oahu, Hawaii. The hike wasn't long -- only about a mile and a half -- but much of it was climbing into the rainforest of the Kaneohe Forest Reserve. God was profoundly present. Upon reaching the top, I spent nearly an hour sitting in the solitude of wilderness listening to the cascading waterfall.

I have known for a long time I experience God's presence in nature. Christian author Gary Thomas identifies creation as one of nine primary Sacred Pathways where one might experience feeling nurtured or ushered into the presence of God. Yet, somehow, even after decades of ministry, I realized I still fight against what Thomas calls "the casualties of 'mechanized religion.'" The idea that unless my encounters with God measure up to some type of predetermined standard, they aren't legitimate.

Often in evangelical circles we are taught that unless I follow the rules -- sitting down in a quiet place to read the Scriptures and praying a certain way -- then my encounters or experiences with God "don't count." We sometimes get stuck with the notion that our individual efforts, performance, or personal attempts to meet with God result in encounters with Him.

One of the most palpable examples is in the correlation between one's body size and one's spiritual intimacy with God. Consider books such as Bod4God: The Four Keys to Weight Loss or Prayfit: Your Guide to a Healthy Body and a Stronger Faith in 28 Days. The inherent lie in these types of resources is that God's grace, mercy, and presence is conditional upon our personal efforts and attempts to meet with him. That's not true. As J. Nicole Morgan explains, our bodies are made in the image of God and no matter one's size, ability, or efforts at an "acceptable body" - a strong faith is possible.

These type of assumptions are entrenched in evangelical thinking and teaching. Other similar sentiments include ideas such as "Because I didn't complete my small group assignment, God didn't meet with me..." If we experience the Creator through a means other than a traditional spiritual discipline (prayer, Scripture reading, quiet times, etc.), then it often doesn't measure up to the evangelical criteria of what intimacy with God should look like. I'm not saying we shouldn't be diligent. I'm not saying we shouldn't follow through on commitments. I am not saying we shouldn't study. But I am saying that we need to shed our legalistic tendencies and ideas that teach us God's intimacy and presence is limited to our own striving and efforts. In the course of my own spiritual direction, I was struck by how deeply entrenched my own sense of legalism can be -- and I didn't even grow up within the context of the church!

Don't get me wrong, I strongly believe that the spiritual disciplines are a valuable component of Christian living and devotion. Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (first written in 1978!) continues to be one of my favorites and one of the most influential resources in my own walk with God. My second book Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action focuses on the integration of spiritual practices and our efforts toward justice and right living.

Spiritual disciplines are critically important. Foster describes the practice of spiritual disciplines as the "door to liberation," an invitation for those who long for God and desire inner transformation. The practice of the disciplines puts us in a position to be vulnerable to the transformational power of the Holy Spirit. Where one might realize that "inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received." No matter what our efforts, attempts, and determinations, God determines the process of our transformation. The Apostle Paul writes of this phenomenon, "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow" (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).

Certainly God desires for us to intentionally engage, to work diligently as if we are doing all things unto the Lord, and to practice the spiritual disciplines (Colossians 3:23). Yet may we also be wonderfully surprised and appreciative when we encounter special moments of God's presence in our day to day lives.

What does it mean to cultivate the garden of our own souls? Perhaps it means entering into the reality that God can meet us in the most ordinary of places -- daily encounters at the grocery store, on the phone with a friend, or in a meeting at work. God meets us -- and desires to walk with us -- on lush mountaintops and in brown, tough, drought-resistant gardens.