soul care, pt. 5 - environmental practices

I can’t take it, I’ve gotta leave, I need to leave the country - disconnect completely - no cell phone, email, internet.  Nothing that is even slightly familiar to my life here...I want to be in nature...I want to be insignificant, I needed some time to just be...”  These were the words that kicked off our summer.  

I felt like I had hit a wall.  Every thing was making me anxious, angry, sad, or numb.  My levels of cynicism and paranoia were through the roof.  My workouts were no longer a stress reliever, but rather a stresser on my body.  It seemed my mind was a wasteland with scatterings of disconnected thoughts, incomplete ideas, and lies.  If I heard the phrase “change the world” or “doing the next big thing in the church world” or anything remotely close to those two ideas, I was ready to write off my relationship with that person, go insane and hurt someone, or with a sinister smile, slowly tear apart every dream that someone thought they had to “change the world”.  I was pretty sure I had reached burnout.  I was staring blankly at a computer screen, ready to put my head through it, when I made a more mature decision - I need to leave. 

I was scheduled to be a guest speaker at another church up north, but I had to call it off, I couldn’t do it.   So, three weeks before our family’s trek up to Peoria, I asked Sarah, “where do you want go, let’s leave the kids with your family, and let’s just go.”

On my last post I said, "in order for real soul care to happen,  we need practices and rhythms that can function as means of grace, so that we end up being shaped into a people who are oriented both human-ward and God-ward, rather than burnt out shadows of the real thing."  I followed that up and said, "these practices and rhythms could be narrowed down into the following four categories:

In this post, I will attempt to write about environmental practices in three points: (1) what I mean when I say 'environmental practices' (2) why I believe we need them and (3) practically speaking, what they may look like.

First, what do I mean when I say, environmental practices? Environmental practice is the discipline of intentionally placing yourself, your whole self, (or your family) into particular environments for a specific reason with a particular result in mind.  For example, if I am experiencing burn-out, and have allowed myself to fall too deep into this pit, and can't simply change my day to day practices due to the demands put on me, then I need to intentionally remove myself from one environment and place myself into another with intended result of a mental, spiritual, and maybe even physical reset.  Often times we call this "vacation" - but the reason I am not using this word, is because as one of my friends has so eloquently put it, "often times vacations are nothing more than transferred chaos".  In other words, we bring the very environment that has been an incubator for our problems with us.

Second, why do we need environmental practices?  Simply stated, it makes us better and we often times can't see the forest through the trees.  We get so lost, comfortable, and/or stuck on a particular conveyor belt of life, that all we know to do is keep going no matter what our bodies, friends, mentors, or emotions are telling us.  Jesus himself  put environmental practices into play for various reasons, let's look at two of those:

  •  Silence and Solitude - We live in an "on-the-go" culture. We never stop dreaming, thinking planning, or controlling.  In fact, often times we justify our lack of drawing away to spend time in prayer, mediation, and contemplation due to our need to "do".  We now do "on-the-go-prayer" which isn't bad in-and-of it self, but if we do it at the expense of "drawing away", we are neglecting a practice that Jesus himself deemed necessary. These are often the places of hearing, revelation, conviction, centering, and when we neglect these all together for a loud and fast-paced world we often miss the still small voice spoken only in the places of silence and solitude that we so eagerly run from in the name of accomplishment.  In other words we neglect the "good portion" which will inevitably compromise our "pure religion"
  • Growth and Discipleship - We have really dumbed this one down, growth and discipleship that is.  All are for the world of academia, but as a practitioner, have you ever set in a classroom or forum where words are being tossed around quicker than you can look them up on your smart phone dictionary?  Have heard theories tossed around and accepted in such away that you feel stupid for not agreeing, because the only counter argument you have is, "yeah, I hear you, but how does that work in the real world".  It's easy to learn, pontificate, and theorize in a the safe setting of a classroom, it's another thing to take those theories to the street.  I'm not saying it can't be done, but what I am saying is that the world of an academic and a practitioner often seem to be on different planets - key word, OFTEN, I did not use the word 'always'.  We see this all the time in the arena of parenting and children, but let's not open that can of worms yet.  Let's take this to the church world - personal growth and discipleship.  When these two are brought up we often think of more study, class room settings, original languages, etc, etc.  All that stuff is great and necessary, but for the most part, the way Jesus discipled was through environmental practices.  He would take his disciples into environments so that they could no longer hide behind the false piety which is easy to do in a classroom.  He would take them into environments that revealed the dark dispositions of their heart and he used that to help them grow.  He took them into environments that made them feel uncomfortable, that challenged their true beliefs, and that showed their lack of trust in Jesus.  When the disciples were placed in these environments it caused the hidden parts of their heart to be revealed, which allowed Jesus to speak the truth of himself into those places and this caused true transformation.  It's one thing to have all kinds of ideas on how to care for the poor, it's a whole different ball game to actually do it.  As pastors, maybe we should learn a lesson from Jesus' book of discipleship.  As people who desire to grow, maybe we need to initiate this and willingly put ourselves into environments that are uncomfortable, and watch for what rises to the top - you may not like it but at least you'll know you are on the path to change.  

Third, what might it look like to practically apply environmental practices to our lives as rhythms and disciplines.  Before I list these, understand this is coming from an introvert with several other dispositions, so in practice it may look different for you, whatever you do, don't let someone who is different from you project their need for more or less onto you:

Silence and Solitude: How do we practically apply the environmental practice of silence and solitude.  I like to think of this in the way of annual patterns - the daily, monthly, quarterly, and annually. 

  •  Daily - Through the life of Jesus, my own personal life, and the lives of many of the saints that have gone before us, I think it is very important to find time everyday to pull away to an environment where it is just you, God, and nature - your phone, laptop, ipad, or whatever else might fight for your attention, is not allowed in this environment - it's just you, God and the scriptures.  It is an environment cut out for centering, hearing, and clearing.  I recommend, especially if you are a parent, to do this before anyone else in the family wakes up - maybe in your office, living room, or a walk around the neighborhood.  I outline this in part 4 of this blog series, you can read it by clicking HERE.  This is not just about prayer and scripture.  I also highly recommend a time during every day, where your work is shut off - you're done, no more email, no more thinking about the most "pressing item of the agenda", you are finished until the next day.  Find other times throughout the day (or a few times during the week), to engage in environments that completely clear your mind of all that normally clutters it - that may be taking up the hobby of running, music, or whatever may put you in a place of clarity
  • Weekly - I had a spiritual guide recommend to me, that I need to take time every week to invest mental energy into books that will in no way directly "add value" to my current job, except that it takes me away from my job.  In fact, he recommended that I just get on a weekly diet of Dostoevsky, I have, and it has been wonderful.   The running and music application would apply here as well.
  • Monthly - Find time every 4-6 weeks (we're still trying to figure this out) where you take a couple days to unplug completely - no phone, computer, television, and if you can afford it, get out of your house with your family - rent a cabin, hotel, house-set, whatever it takes - to empty yourself out for a few days.   
  • Quarterly/Annually - We try to find time a minimum of twice a year to simply fall off the grid.  That may mean an escape to a different country (like we took to Nicaragua), it may mean staying with some family from out of state during the holidays, it may mean, intentionally finding places that you can't, even if you are tempted, plug back in to the chaos that is your life.  Usually, not always, usually, this is getting away to places where you feel extremely small and insignificant, and that is very healthy.

Growth and Discipleship: If you are a Christian, you want to grow, you should be growing, you should actually work at growing, and that's all there is to it.  You need to intentionally put yourself into environments where you grow, where your norm is disrupted and challenged, and the many high-places you have found safety in, become shaken.  Intentionally go to places where your norm is called into question.

  •  Personally - You have to look for opportunities to put yourself into environments that go against the normal you.  Start a hobby that takes you out of your comfort zone.  Surround yourself with people who are not impressed with you and don't think you are a big deal.  Take an annual pilgrimage.  If it is normal for you to be the leader place yourself in environments where you aren't, you are a cog.  Volunteer with a non-profit that causes you to interact with a population that makes you feel uncomfortable - don't try to save them - serve them!  Make friends, yes, the real thing, real friendships with people that are completely other than you. 
  • Community/Family - Maybe move your family to a part of town that isn't ideal nor makes room for your preconceived notions of reality (this is what we did when we moved from the suburbs to downtown Austin) - or it may be the opposite for you, maybe you need to move from a large city to a small town.  Invite your whole community to go serve causes and/or populations that seems to be aloof or maybe even hostile to your belief systems and current life.  Take one month at a time and study different religions and visit their places of worship to learn more about them, the media is a bad place to learn about other faith.  SIDE BAR: it is unfortunate that the extent of most Christian's knowledge of Islam comes from Fox News. Back on track -Take your family on a pilgrimage so that your normal American conveniences can't be relied upon - I did this with my 11 year old daughter, when I took her to Haiti, it was worth it. 

The list could go on, and we could talk about more than just solitude, silence, growth, and discipleship.  One area where the conversation needs to become louder is in the arena of environmental practices in the way of community creation, but I don't have the time here.  In fact, I have already taken way too much space.  Until next month.