Every fall from 7th to 12th grade I would load up in a fifteen-passenger van with my church youth group friends and head to Leakey, Texas. It took about three hours, and around hour number two the sky would get dark and I would gaze out the back window at all of the stars. When we finally arrived at our destination, the H.E.B. Camp, we would descend down a winding dirt road until we came to a shallow river. The van tires splashed into the water and whoever was in the back row of the van would swing open the doors so we could feel the cool air and listen to the bubbling trickle of river beneath our tires. We eventually rolled back onto dry land and parked in line with dozens of other vans.
I climbed out and landed in the middle of Echo Valley. Hundreds of other students milled around and reunited with friends who had been separated for the road trip. The air was crisp as we made our way to the cabins that we would call home for the weekend of Great Fall, our annual youth retreat. We would spend the next 48 hours or so in big group worship, small group Bible study, playing messy rec-games, swimming, huddling around campfires, and eating a ton of food. A special band and speaker traveled with us to lead in worship and our Sunday school teachers and youth workers kept us wrangled all weekend.
The season of fall is sort of elusive in Texas. I love fall clothes and drinks but a lot of the time it really isn’t cool enough to enjoy them. But, out in Leakey, Texas on the banks of the Frio River in late September it always felt like fall should.
When I was a seventh grader-attending Great Fall for the first time I was blown away by the beauty around me. I woke up for morning worship and in the early light was astounded at the reality of the valley. I craned my neck back and looked up to see a huge cliff face on the other side of the river. I turned around and saw a second cliff face covered in trees. No wonder it felt so cool. The sun would take a couple of more hours to rise above the cliffs and the cold river acted as our air conditioner.
At Great Fall—and every other camp I went to as a kid and youth—the day started with a mandatory “quiet time.” In youth group speak, this is a time where you are a given a short devotional and questions to answer alongside a scripture passage. You are supposed to go off by yourself and spend the time alone with God. At Great Fall I always liked to find a tree to lean against where I could look at the river.
Quiet times weren’t supposed to just be a camp thing. They were supposed to happen every day, and I felt immense guilt over the fact that this was not a habit I could maintain. I tried setting aside time at other parts of the day, but I just couldn’t keep up with it consistently. I felt like God was disappointed in me and that made it really hard to believe that God could love me. During my many years of church, it was the only way I remember being explicitly told I could connect with God. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t master the habit.
In Seminary for one hour every week I would gather with a few other students in my cohort and participate in a Covenant Group. This was a time to share about our spiritual journey, process together as we moved through course work, and to learn about and practice spiritual disciplines. In order to prepare for this time, we were assigned a book to read and work through: Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas. Within the first few pages I came upon a description of the quiet time practice I had learned—or not learned—so well. Re-reading now I am struck by the way Thomas makes this point:
“Jesus accepted the worship of Peter’s mother-in-law as she served him, but he refused to force Mary, the sister of Martha, to also worship him in that way. Mary was allowed to express her worship in the silence of adoration, not in the hustle and bustle of active service. Good spiritual directors understand that people have different spiritual temperaments, that what feeds one, doesn’t feed all.” (Sacred Pathways, p.17-18)
Maybe there wasn’t something wrong with me after all. Maybe there was hope that even I, someone who was so bad at quiet times, could get to know God better. Maybe I already was interacting with God in other ways and I just didn’t recognize how important those connection points were.
The book walked through nine different ways people might connect with God:
- Naturalists – Loving God Outdoors
- Sensates – Loving God with the Senses
- Traditionalists – Loving God through Ritual and Symbol
- Ascetics – Loving God in Solitude and Simplicity
- Activists – Loving God through Confrontation
- Caregivers – Loving God by Loving Others
- Enthusiasts – Loving God with Mystery and Celebration
- Contemplatives – Loving God through Adoration
- Intellectuals – Loving God with the Mind
As I read through the book I was struck by how many of these resonated with me. I found myself excited to dig deeper into some of the suggested practices and connect with God in new ways.
One thing that didn’t surprise me though, was that I would connect with the Naturalist label. I just hadn’t ever put together that my love of nature could be an expression of worship. Perhaps I could listen and know God just as well by staring in wonder at cliff face and appreciating a cool morning as I could by reading scripture.
I wonder what I would have learned about God in those early morning moments on the banks of the Frio River if I had simply sat and taken in the beauty of God’s creation rather than trying to force myself through the prescribed study. What might God have revealed?
One of my earliest memories happened when I was around four-years-old (I think). I was sitting in the backseat of my parent’s electric blue Ford Explorer and we were winding our way through the Texas hill country. There was one particular moment when we rode through a street covered by a canopy of trees. I looked out my window and saw the rustling leaves and the sunshine breaking through. I was overwhelmed by a thought: God created these trees and God created and loves me. I was filled with peace and delight.
I grew a lot in my relationship with God while in seminary. Much of that is thanks to my Covenant Group and the time I spent in prayer and spiritual direction with a few of my professors and friends. Originally when I started my seminary journey I was frustrated and angry that there was so much I didn’t learn in church growing up. Over time though I came to realize that I needed the foundations God provided through my teachers and leaders as a child and youth. My time in seminary wasn’t a place to discard all the time God had been meeting and growing me up to that point. Rather, it was a space where I could take that foundation and grow into a more intimate friendship with God as I gained a deeper understanding and a broader perspective.
I’m growing a lot in my relationship with God now. I actually find myself drawn to something that looks suspiciously like a quiet time on some mornings. As I start my day I pick up a copy of the New Testament in The Message translation and journal and spend some time in silence. Some days I feel God’s especially close presence as I journal through something difficult or simply sit and hear the birds singing. I don’t sweat it if I miss a day or two or five because I’m also learning to slow down and notice God while I wander the streets of our town, or take a hike on a nearby trail. I notice God as I chop veggies for dinner and the house fills with good smells. I notice God as my dog hops and plays and bubbles over with excitement and joy at the world around her. I need all of these moments with God because God loves me in the expanse of life, not only in a few moments of focused daily devotion like I once thought.
In October I am going to do a month-long series exploring some different spiritual practices. In the meantime, I’d love for you to consider (and maybe share!) some of the ways you connect with God. Did anything in the list of the nine pathways above resonate with you? Where have you noticed God so far this week?