The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.—Psalm 23:1-3
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made…—Psalm 139:13,14
This week I was with a group of pastors from the Reno area, and we were asked the question: What do you do to stay encouraged? What have you found are the most helpful things to keep you going when ministry gets hard? All of us have been serving in churches long enough to have experienced some difficult seasons, and several of the guys had suggestions for keeping spiritually healthy that I thought were really wise and helpful.
What was especially interesting was how different the answers are. In a room full of men with basically the same jobs, the same training, and the same beliefs, each of has landed on different practices that help us stay sane and close to God. It was a reminder that we serve a creative God who not only makes us different from each other, but has a personal relationship with each of us that isn’t quite like it is with anybody else.
It’s a beautiful thought, isn’t it? God made me unique, and God loves the unique person that I am. And He has a relationship with me that is unique to us, not exactly like His relationship with anybody else. Just as I love each of my children, but have a different connection with each of them because of the who they are, God takes me as I am and loves me for me. This means that He and I will have points of connection with each other—inside jokes, understandings based on past history, things we enjoy doing together—that won’t be the same as they are for anyone else.
Of course, among this group of pastors, there were some basic things that are common to all of us. We all agree that things go sideways when we neglect prayer and Bible reading. We recognize the importance of being reminded of the Gospel on a regular basis. But some of us find our souls refreshed more in corporate worship, while others prefer a quiet sunrise with a cup of coffee and a good book. Some find that getting time outdoors is essential to their sanity, while others would be lost without a few close friends who speak truth and encouragement to them.
Author Gary Thomas has written a book called Sacred Pathways, which describes some of the ways that different personality types connect with God. When I read it a few years ago, I found that it not only helped me identify the way God made me and be at peace with it, but it also gave me a greater appreciation for the fact that not everyone is like me, and not everyone connects with God the way I do. For example: I could worship God in a warehouse on metal folding chairs, but for some people, the beauty of their surroundings is an important part of the worship experience. Creative, visually-oriented people have given us stained-glass windows, drama, movies, and a thousand other wonderful things that the church would miss out on if everyone were like me. People like me, who can sit in a chair and live in their head for hours at a time, are usually the ones who write our books for us. It’s a good thing that I’m not like you and you’re not like me. And it’s important to identify the ways each of us experience God, so we can stay healthy and keep running the race.
I’m turning 47 this week, and I’m happy to say that I’m finally starting to understand myself and be at peace with who I am. Here are a couple of things I have learned about myself and how God wired me to walk with Him through life: I am happier and handle stress better when I get regular exercise, and I’m closer to God and more patient with people when I get regular time by myself. Because I know this, I make sure to make time for those things in my weekly schedule, and occasionally I find opportunities to do them for extended periods of time. Let me describe one experience that might not sound that great to you at all, but was like cool water for my soul:
A couple of weeks ago, I went backpacking in the Warner Mountains up in Modoc County. For the first 36 hours I did not see another human being. It was glorious. It started with a steep, steep climb, 5 miles up to the ridge, first through pine forest, then through aspen groves, then the scrubby brush that grows above timberline. I was carrying a heavy pack, and it was hot even up in the mountains, so I went through a full 2 liters of water during the climb and was covered in sweat by the time I reached the top. As the elevation increased, the air got thinner, so by the end I was moving pretty slowly because of the weight of the pack. I was dirty and starving, with scratches all over my legs. In other words, perfect. When I arrived, I had a beautiful mountain lake all to myself, complete with patches of snow still surviving in the shady spots. I washed the sweat off in the water, which was absolutely freezing, and then watched the sun set while I ate freeze-dried lasagna with a stick because I forgot my fork. I slept on the ground while the bats snatched mosquitos out of the air as the stars came out. So far, so good.
The next day I spent the morning on a short day-hike to explore the area. I took a lot of pictures of wildflowers, and told God over and over again how beautiful He is. Then I had lunch (salami and warm cheese with crackers) back at camp, and entered phase two of the trip: rest. I spent the entire afternoon in my hammock. First I took a nap, then woke up and stared at the incredible surroundings for a while, then read the entire book of Galatians. Then I took another nap and repeated the process with Colossians. Then a third nap to finish things off, then I got up and made dinner. By that time other people began showing up, and I had to share paradise with a few strangers. But the goal had been accomplished. I was refreshed, and the next morning my heart was light as I made the trip back down to the real world. I scared up a sage grouse, and watched hummingbirds feeding in the morning light. Later I saw a bald eagle, and then, to cap it all off, a bear. By then my soul was so full I was starting to feel guilty. God had blessed me abundantly, and it was time to go back and bless my family.
Maybe some of that, or all of it, doesn’t appeal to you. But something does. You have your own version of solitude and mountain lakes and utter physical exhaustion. Maybe it’s fishing, or quilting, or dinner with your friends. Whatever feeds your soul, the question is: Are you making time for it? However God has wired you, you can be sure that He made you for relationship with himself. He wants to connect with you, His precious, unique child. He made you you, on purpose. And none of His other relationships can replace the one He has with you. He wants to meet with you on that porch or that mountaintop, or in that coffee shop or living room. He wants to lead you beside quiet waters and restore your soul. This week, I pray you find time for whatever will make you aware of His presence and His love, even if it’s not something everyone else can relate to.