My difficulty with slowing down

I just wrote an article for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview called Sacred Disengagement. It's about our need to step back and reflect on our lives from time to time, with some suggestions for doing so. It was prompted in part by my pondering what it means that God rested on the 7th day of creation, and why he tells us to do the same thing. But there's a personal back story behind why I wrote about this in the first place.

The article was prompted in large part by my personal experience with sacred disengagement, which I didn't have room to get into in the article. Truth is, I find it really hard to do. I don't know why for sure, but I've always found it very difficult to take a few hours away and focus on things like prayer and reflection on my life. I just recently made another attempt: about a week ago I spent 5 days away. The first couple days was just fun, hanging out at my old mechanic buddy's house completely re-wiring the dash in my 1974 Scout and installing all new gauges. Yes, that is fun for me!

Doesn't this look like fun!?!

But the next couple days was my real disengage time. I drove up to Clear Lake, the headwaters of the McKenzie River and one of my favorite places on earth. There I planned to camp by myself and do some fishing, as well as some reflecting. The camping was great, and the fishing was relaxing (gorgeous photos of the lake below).

But as usual I found the reflecting difficult. I parked myself by the lake one afternoon for a couple hours of reading and journaling. After 45 minutes I had made almost no progress. I found it difficult to know where to turn my Bible, or what to concentrate my mind on. A few gallant attempts at concentration ended predictably, with 1,000 busy things crowing in to my consciousness, rushing past every attempt I made to ward them off and keep them out for a while. I was frustrated.

So I packed my things back to the camp site and decided to go for a short hike. As I walked I decided that one way to tame the cacophony of urgent voices in my head was to name them. Perhaps if I gave voice to the thoughts I'd be able to identify them more clearly, lay them at God's feet in prayer, and let them go for a few days. So I began... and the words poured out. Sometimes whispering to myself as I walked, and sometimes walking in silence, my mind was a steady stream of ideas and thoughts, one leading to the next.

Gradually most of the concerns on my mind had been named and I felt I was able to step back mentally and look at them. I began to ask myself questions, such as why certain things were current sources of stress, or what I was intending to do about some of what I had named. I asked myself the questions I would have asked someone else had they told me the same things. This series of questions led to a couple interesting conclusions, and some possible actions I should at least explore as the new school year begins. I hiked back to camp and wrote as many things down as I could remember.

When I returned home I talked extensively with Amy about the experience. She has developed a greater ability to slow down and reflect over the years than I have, brought on in part by her physical limitations but mostly by the mature way she has chosen to respond to them. When I described my initial frustrated attempt at sacred disengagement, she questioned some of my assumptions. That was helpful, and made me think about the whole experience differently. I think I learned at least a couple things about actually doing what I described the article.

First, movement and speaking are good for me. I already knew that the environment we're in is critical for reflection - that's why I chose Clear Lake up high in the mountains, a place I love. But sitting in the warm sunshine while tired and trying to just think does not work for me. It probably works great for some people. But I was struck by the contrast between my total inability to concentrate while sitting by the lake and the clean stream of ideas that flowed naturally while I was hiking briskly, getting my heart rate up some and whispering thoughts and ideas. I'm a verbal processor, and being a guy I find that my brain responds much better to activity than inactivity.

Second, I assumed that all my reflecting had been useful but that it nonetheless wasn't the kind of spiritual reflection I should be after. Amy challenged that assumption, which prompted me to think about the whole Clear Lake experience in different terms. Once I did, the stream of thought that had started while hiking eventually matured a couple days later into some concrete realizations, action plans, and a fresh perspective to start the year. I realized she was right. My idea of what "reflecting" meant was too narrow, a bit contrived and artificial.

That's what led me to think about God "resting" in Genesis 2. It also led me to read and ponder Elijah's experience in 1 Kings 19. And all that thinking and study eventually led to the article I linked above. I believe 100% in the accuracy and usefulness of what I wrote, but it came out of a very personal experience. One that was a challenge in some ways, but was rewarding in the end - just as I believe God intends Sacred Disengagement to be.

Morning lakeside


Fishing from a float tube!


This is one CLEAR lake



The very beginning of the McKenzie River


An ancient lava flow comes right down to the water

5 comments:

Amy Guerino said...

I've always loved your verbal processing....it helps me get inside your head and heart. Thank you for your affirmation on my struggle to slow down and the pursuit of quiet reflection. I have learned some things but am still so far from doing it without the struggle. But, perhaps that is normal and the point is to engage with the struggle to find some solace on the other side. Thanks for being my life partner in this!

Crown of Beauty said...

This is such a precious post, Matt.

Surely there must be a link between what was going inside your heart and the beautiful pictures of the crystal clear waters of the lake.

God was taking you through a clarifying process... what do you think?

And dear Matt and Amy, today as we remember 9 11, let us remember it is hope... for our redemption draws near.

I dedicated my Sept 11 post to my American friends.

Blessings,
Lidj

Matt Guerino said...

I think you're quite right, and I hadn't made that connection. It is amazing what getting away for a couple days and just reflecting can do!

Nhergert said...

Hey Matt! I really love this posting...something I'm getting into with my youth group at college. They're a more expressive group when it comes to prayer and worship, and it's frustrating when the same sort of random worries get in the way of my genuine want to pray! This is partly because youth group and prayer meetings are the only time I actually relax at school, as the rest of the time is spent either in class or working on homework! I'll try to take your advice on a nature walk though...sounds like it could help organize my thoughts in order to enjoy God's presence.

Matt Guerino said...

Thanks for the comment Nolan! It's great to have you on board on the blog, and I hope you'll stop by and add your thoughts often.

I was just in another conversation with Amy last night about my difficulty slowing down. School for you is a great example of something that never really changes: there's always a ton to do, and as a guy it's just easier for me to keep doing it rather than slowing down, blocking some things out, and stepping back to evaluate where I'm at and what God has said. I find the walking/hiking and the nature surroundings help me do that - I hope they do the same for you.

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