Last week, as part of my seminary education, I attended a spiritual retreat (of sorts) in Springfield, Illinois. Disguised as a class in "Leadership," the professor spent the mornings teaching the spiritual disciplines and recovery of the heart; we spent our afternoons as a huge chunk of downtime to engage in those disciplines; then we spent our evenings talking through sections of our stories with our peers.
And if you had asked me any day last week how things were going, I would have told you, decidedly, "Eh." It's a class. It's happening. God's probably here but who really knows?
Because I really wasn't having any of those aha moments. I wasn't having the kinds of emotional God encounters that I'm used to on these spiritual trips. I had one powerful encounter on some early morning that I can't even remember, except to say that I remember how fleeting it was, and one powerful encounter on Wednesday night. But at the time, I couldn't have told you whether either of those things really mattered. They didn't "inspire" me to go back home and live a different way like Winterfest or Summer Jam or Quest or whatever would have just a decade ago.
That's the difference between starting fires and planting seeds.
As a teen, it seems most of these spiritual events are aimed at starting fires. And they do. You come to have these emotional encounters with God that make you ready. They make you ready, right now, to break things off with life as you knew it and start all over. You go home ready, and willing, to burn the chaff and set the fire for Jesus blazing in you. You can't help it. It's all emotion. It's all passion. It's...alright.
There's nothing wrong with burning a little chaff; we all have plenty to spare. The trouble with starting fires is that they are prone to burn out, and anyone who has been on one of these retreats or weeks or whatever knows this is true. To keep the fire going, you have to keep burning stuff, but for what? At some point, you look around and realize all you've gotten rid of and it's only the emptiness that strikes you. It's not Jesus any more. You realize how empty you've made your life, then you look at the fire and it's just ash. Everything you once had is gone, and you've been feeding the Jesus fire but it's just a fire. Maybe it's warmth, but is warmth enough? Hardly. Maybe it's light, but what's it shining on? Just ash? There's not a lot in fire to get excited about.
And I'm not dissing the fire. It's important. It is. We absolutely must continually start fires and burn chaff; it's an important part of the spiritual process.
But we cannot neglect the seeds.
When I got home from Springfield after spending the week in the disciplines, I slowly began to realize how my thoughts had changed. How the way that I thought about things had changed. How this certain kind of quiet had invaded my spirit and started whispering to me all over again. How near God seems, and how easy it seems to be with Him. I suddenly came to understand how much had sunken into me without my even realizing it, how much those few moments I had experienced in that week were not based on emotion but were fueled by something deeper. I came to see what seeds had been planted.
And here's what's cool about seeds: much like our fires, we have to keep feeding them. But with seeds, it's what we pour into our lives that matters and not so much what we get rid of. We have to surround them with warmth, meaning we must keep considering tenderly what God has planted in us. We must fertilize the soil around it, by getting rid of the things that might be toxic to a sprouting seed and by continuing to contemplate what we're trying to grow. We must water it regularly, and there is only one water: Living Water. When we plant seeds, it's about continuing to pour Jesus into our lives so that what the Spirit is growing in us will thrive. It's more...sustainable.
It's hard to believe, back in my "real" life, that I felt like I missed whatever God was doing last week, that I would have had the audacity to say, "Eh. It was okay." There wasn't a lot of emotion, not the kind of emotion that starts fires anyway. But there was an incredible tenderness to the week, and seeds have been planted.
I have some growing to do.